During the 2018 offseason, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second time in his career. Before announcing his move to Los Angeles, experts speculated for months where James would play next season. In fact, the Houston Rockets were considered frontrunners in the early stages of free agency.
With the core of Chris Paul, James’ close friend, and James Harden, the reigning league MVP, the foundation for a championship run was certainly laid out. So what if LeBron James signed with the Houston Rockets in 2018?
In order to find a plausible answer, the tool Basketball GM was used to replicate this scenario. James’ hypothetical move to Houston would cause a vast butterfly effect throughout the rest of the league, which becomes more evident with each passing year. For this reason, only one season was simulated for this experiment. For those curious, Anthony Davis is still traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, let’s dive into this alternate universe.
With LeBron James sporting a Houston Rockets jersey, he leads a starting lineup of James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon. Houston’s bench includes the likes of PJ Tucker, Danuel House, and Gary Clark. Shockingly, Camelo Anthony is still waived in this timeline.
Throughout the mock season, Harden and James are dominant scoring options, both within the top 10 of the league’s MVP race. This is similar to Harden’s current dynamic with Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets. Paul asserts himself as the Rockets’ ball handler, focused on ball movement and assisting teammates. Additionally, Capela leads the team in rebounds and Gordon adds support as a role player.
With a 57-25 record, the Houston Rockets finish as the second seed in the Western Conference, one win away from tying the Golden State Warriors. Despite a different order of seeding, many of the same teams reach the playoffs. For example, the Utah Jazz clinched the third seed in this mock season.
The Eastern Conference standings are slightly altered, with the Toronto Raptors holding the first seed, the Milwaukee Bucks taking the second seed, and the Philadelphia 76ers not too far behind. With Harden sharing possessions with James, Giannis Antetokounmpo effortlessly secures the league MVP award.
The first two rounds of the NBA playoffs are not stressful for the Rockets. In their first round matchup, Houston dissects Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets in five games. This roots from Denver’s lack of depth and struggle to contain Harden and James. The Rockets then go on to defeat the well-balanced Jazz lineup in five games. Donovan Mitchell excels in this series, but the Jazz struggle to break 100 points.
LeBron James faces his first real challenge of the postseason in a highly anticipated Western Conference Finals matchup against the Golden State Warriors. This is James’ fifth consecutive year facing the Warriors dynasty in the NBA playoffs. The likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green are formidable opponents for Houston’s new Big Three. This rivalry lives up to the hype, competitive to the very last minute. In a nail-biting Game 7, the Rockets win the series by one point.
Houston is now off to their first NBA Finals since 1995. James is in pursuit of his fourth championship, while Paul and Harden are making their NBA Finals debuts. In this timeline, Kawhi Leonard never hits his iconic three-point shot over Joel Embiid. As a result, the Philadelphia 76ers win the Eastern Conference championship.
The media hypes the “Trust the Process” movement, spearheaded by Embiid and supported by Ben Simmons. On the other side of the coin, James, Harden, and Paul are clear favorites to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
In the first two games of this championship series, Houston dominates on their home court. Philadelphia tries to regain momentum, but Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can’t keep up. With Houston leading 2-0, the rest of the games flip back and forth between the 76ers and Rockets. After six games, the Houston Rockets are NBA champions once again.
When the final buzzer sounds off, confetti fills the Wells Fargo Center. Flashes of white and red storm the court. Adam Silver declares the Houston Rockets as the 2019 NBA champions. James Harden hoists the NBA Finals MVP trophy, Chris Paul celebrates the first championship of his lengthy career, and LeBron James continues to secure his legacy. PJ Tucker is so overwhelmed with emotion, he decides to announce his retirement not too long after.
With the conclusion of a successful 2019 season, the Big Three now look to two-peat in 2020. It’s likely Houston signs supporting players in free agency, though the foundation of the team remains the same. Overall, the LeBron James experiment works in this alternate universe.
However, it’s difficult to predict the outlook of the rest of the NBA. Does Kevin Durant still sign with the Brooklyn Nets? If not Houston, to whom is Russell Westbrook traded to? What team drafts Zion Williamson? These questions don’t have concrete answers.
What are your thoughts on this simulation?