Over the next week, we are going to turn back the clock and reexamine the Summer of LeBron by attempting to figure out what would have happened had he signed with a different team in 2010. As he met with five teams besides Miami, we are going to look at all five. Today’s Part 1: the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers don’t have a great history with star free agents. In 1979, they signed center Bill Walton from the Blazers, only to watch his career unravel due to injuries. In 2004, they came within inches of stealing Kobe Bryant from their Staples Center co-tenants, only for him to decide to re-sign with the Lakers at the last minute. Just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, Elton Brand shockingly ditched the Clippers and good friend Baron Davis (who had signed with the team specifically to play with him) to play for the Philadelphia 76ers.
But none of that matters anymore. Why? Because the Clippers just signed LeBron. Nobody’s quite sure how it happened. Maybe he really believed in Eric Gordon and Baron Davis. Maybe he knows more about Blake Griffin’s recovery than the rest of us. Maybe Donald Sterling is planning on officially changing the team name to the Los Angeles LeBrons. Regardless, the best player in Los Angeles no longer wears purple and gold.
His buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are devastated. After years of trying to convince LeBron to create a dream team with them, they are forced to settle for David Lee as their third banana. Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer’s arrival in Chicago makes the Bulls the Eastern Conference co-favorites along with Boston. If that weren’t enough, Amar’e Stoudemire and the Knicks loom large with rumors swirling about Carmelo Anthony’s impending arrival.
When it becomes clear that Blake Griffin is an unstoppable force of nature (thanks in no small part to the double teams opponents can no longer throw at him), LeBron embraces his inner Magic and becomes a full-time facilitator. He does the unthinkable—average a triple double (19-13-11) over a full season—as he and Blake lead the Clippers to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.
A first round romp over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the gift of San Antonio losing their first round matchup to Chris Paul and the Hornets, sends the Clippers to the Western Conference Finals to face Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks, fresh off of a stunning sweep over the defending champion Lakers. Unfortunately for LeBron, he is completely flummoxed by Rick Carlisle’s zone defense, Tyson Chandler does just enough to keep Blake Griffin from dominating the paint, and the Mavericks stun the Clippers in six games to meet Derrick Rose and the Bulls in the NBA Finals.
The magic ends there for the Mavericks, as Rose completely abuses the Dallas guard trio of Jason Kidd, JJ Barea and Jason Terry. Rose wins the Finals MVP award as the entire league wonders if he, not LeBron, was the rightful league MVP.
What follows is one of the most eventful few weeks in NBA history. Despite overtures from the Knicks, Dallas manages to retain Tyson Chandler and the rest of their runner-up squad to give Dirk a few final shots at a ring. Despite initially rejecting a trade that would send Chris Paul to the Lakers, commissioner David Stern eventually allows it to be consummated when no other team steps forward with a fair counter offer. Orlando, sensing the danger Los Angeles now presents as a suitor for their superstar, trades Dwight Howard to the Nets for Brook Lopez and a package of picks rather than risk losing him for nothing.
With Howard, Chandler and Paul off of the market, the Knicks turn to a different avenue for improvement. Specifically, San Antonio, and their point guard Tony Parker. The Spurs, realizing the unbeatable threat of LeBron and Paul leading the two Los Angeles teams, decide to rebuild after their first round loss, trading Parker to the Knicks for emerging star Landry Fields, Chauncey Billups’ expiring contract, first round pick Iman Shumpert and two more first rounders that effectively take the Knicks out of the draft for the next decade.
The final piece of the summer puzzle also involves San Antonio, but also the defending champion Bulls as their trading partner. Sensing the need for another scorer to take pressure off of Rose, Chicago dangles not one, but both of their young big men Taj Gibson and Omer Asik for Manu Ginobili. The Spurs gladly take it, accepting their fate as a four-time champ who will no longer be able to compete in today’s superstar arms race.
A more seasoned, experienced group than the one that lost to Dallas, the Clippers race out to a 31-4 start, missing out on a historic regular season only because of a late season injury to Griffin. Not to worry, he would be back in time for the playoffs, though not quickly enough to prevent the Clippers from having to sweat out a six-game first round set with the hungry Jazz. After dispatching the Lakers in round two, the Clippers prepare themselves for a seven-game battle with Kevin Durant and the Thunder.
The series lives up to the hype, as Durant proves he can go shot-for-shot with LeBron when the Thunder split the first four games. After a shocking Game 5 win in Los Angeles as Kevin Durant hits a big three-pointer in the final minute, the world begins to question whether LeBron even has what it takes to win a single championship.
Their questions are answered as LeBron scores 56 points in Game 6 on the road. The Thunder no doubt miss departed free agent Jeff Green, whom they almost traded to Boston at the deadline for Kendrick Perkins last year before the Celtics pulled out with the thinking being they needed Perkins’ size against Chicago. Though OKC loses Game 7 to the Clippers, they immediately sign Serge Ibaka and James Harden to long-term extensions, ensuring many more battles between the two teams in the future.
In the finals, LeBron finally gets his shot against Derrick Rose, who in the regular season stole an MVP award many believed should have gone to King James. LeBron’s defense on Rose in the final minutes of Games 2, 4 and 5 ultimately proves too great for Chicago to overcome, as the Clippers win the first championship in franchise history as the rest of the league begins mentally preparing themselves for the Age of LeBron.
But all is not well in Clipperland. With Eric Gordon’s contract extension already in place along with LeBron’s max deal, Donald Sterling refuses to offer a max extension to Blake Griffin, citing the league’s new punitive luxury tax rules. Griffin, already bitter at his lack of recognition for his part in LA’s championship, begins to privately feud with LeBron over alpha dog status in the Clipper locker room.
Midway through the season, LeBron takes the feud public, claiming Griffin is “more concerned with winning dunk contests than rings.” Despite the best efforts of veteran addition Chauncey Billups, the unthinkable happens in the spring: the Clippers lose the Western Conference Finals to Oklahoma City thanks to a Game 6 barrage by James Harden.
Despite LeBron’s pleas, Griffin accepts a qualifying offer in the offseason rather than a long-term extension, vowing to become a free agent the following summer. Eric Gordon publicly questions Griffin’s commitment to winning, DeAndre Jordan fires back, and the entire Clippers locker room falls into a state of complete chaos. It is so bad that Sterling, sensing the tension that might destroy his finally relevant franchise, fires coach Vinny Del Negro and offers the job to the now-retired Phil Jackson.
After a week of consideration, Jackson turns down the offer, instead filling the vacancy at his old job after Kobe Bryant practically begs him to replace Mike Brown. The Clippers, now desperate to please all of their stars, are turned down by both Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski, eventually settle on Stan Van Gundy.
The hire turns out to be a disaster. LeBron and Blake simply cannot get over their differences, stumbling all the way down to the No. 5 seed in the West. Despite a first round “upset” over Denver, they are swept by the Thunder in the second round, who go on to beat Jackson’s Lakers and Parker’s Knicks to win their second consecutive championship.
At the stroke of midnight on the first day of free agency, Blake Griffin announces that he is taking his talents to Houston to give the Rockets the star they’ve spent years waiting for, citing how wanted they made him feel and his desire to be close to his Oklahoma home.
LeBron takes more time with his second free agency decision. Ultimately he decides he must find a team and organization that values winning as much as he does. Where better than across the hall? Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson openly campaign to bring the King to his rightful Los Angeles destination. Citing Jackson’s history, Paul’s unselfishness, and Bryant’s “unbridled commitment to winning championships,” LeBron begins a new journey with the Lakers as he searches for that elusive second ring.
By: Sam Quinn