Recently, I found myself watching Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse on Netflix for the very first time. Heck of a movie, super trippy, I highly recommend it. Anyways, fast-forward a few hours and I’m sitting in my bed at four in the morning, reading up on the intricacies of multiverse theory.
Just so you can avoid the painstaking process of FBI-level research and not sleeping, I can sum it up for you as such: multiverse theory is the belief in alternate universes with slight variations in decisions or historical events that have shocking outcomes. For example, in an alternate universe maybe I decided to apply myself in school and now I’m not a floundering sports writer who lives with his mother.
It’s gotten me thinking though, what could’ve happened with certain tweaks in the historical timeline of professional sports. What if Mickey Mantle hadn’t crashed head on into Joe DiMaggio, ending the latter’s career almost instantly? What if the Lakers never traded for Kobe, allowing him to remain with the Michael Jordan owned Hornets? What if Tony Romo had been traded to the Saints in 2006?
So without further ado, here is my first installment of a new series I like to call Into the Multiverse!
You can utter the name “Lebron James” to damn near anyone on earth and they can tell you they know who he is. Whether they know him as the NBA superstar, occasional supporting actor, philanthropist, social advocate, or because their grandson wants a pair of his grossly overpriced shoes for Christmas; people know Lebron and they know him well. For most people though, including many of you I assume, the name Dajuan Wagner doesn’t ring nearly as many bells. I consider myself quite the sports history buff, but even with that, the name alluded me for most of my life. That was until ESPN released a 30 for 30 film highlighting John Calipari and his vilified “One & Done” system in college basketball. So after watching that, and doing a bit of independent research, I give to you what you need to know about a rising-star forgotten by time:
Raised on the rough and rugged streets of Camden, New Jersey, Wagner always had basketball in his heart. The son of former NBA Player, Milt Wagner, Dajuan was bred for the game and his talents for putting the ball in the bucket were prevalent for as long as most people can remember. Dajuan became (and remains) the all-time leading scorer in New Jersey High School basketball history, and many consider him to be the greatest High School player ever in the Garden State. Mind you, this is a state that also produced NBA greats Kyrie Irving, Dennis Rodman, Rick Barry, and Shaquille O’Neal. He played a single season of college basketball under John Calipari at the University of Memphis where he was an instant offensive success. Upon seeing his potential and the impending dollar signs that awaited Dajuan, Coach Cal negated his scholarship forcing Wagner to seize his opportunity and achieve his NBA dreams. Wagner was taken 6th overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2002 NBA Draft and started his career averaging 20 points per game through his first 11 appearances. However, previously un-diagnosed colitis ravaged his insides and caused his play to drop off immensely both in quality and quantity (he only played in 47 games his rookie year and his scoring sank to 13 a game). Throw in some debilitating knee cartilage damage, and Wagner was out of the league altogether by the time he was just 21.
Wagner’s story is especially tragic when you consider what might’ve happened had he not suffered from an uncontrollable condition. In 2003 the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted the King himself with the 1st overall pick and he proceeded to become the greatest player of the 21st Century. James has frequently been deemed “the most selfless superstar” because of his willingness to pass the ball and find teammates instead of forcing his own shots. Now imagine him serving up those dimes to one of the brightest young scorers the NBA had seen in a while, and begin to salivate.
If we re-imagine the Cavs with a healthy Wagner the timeline might look a little something like this:
So the idea here is that we’re just removing the stomach problem that crippled him, not doing anything about the fairly routine knee issues that have plagued many but have been frequently overcome. So Wagner still only plays in 47 games (the knee problem ended his season early) but he starts in all of them and doesn’t take a hit to his playing time because of the pain and fatigue stemming from his ongoing battle with colitis. Perhaps he doesn’t sustain that initial 20 point per game production that took the league by storm, but his cooling off drops him to a still respectable 17 or 18 points per game accompanied by 4 assists and 3 rebounds.
The Cavaliers don’t really do much better because they still lose Wagner half way through the season to the bum knee and as a result they still have the number one pick in the NBA Draft in 2003. Which of course leads to…
With Lebron James assuming the reigns of the franchise upon his arrival, a young and healthy score-first point guard assumes the role of his sidekick. Sound familiar? That’s because this is literally what we would see 11 years later in the Lebron James -Kyrie Irving tandem that won a championship in 2016 for the Cavs. In our alternate timeline though, we get to see Lebron and Dajuan grow together as a tandem, learning to play off of one another without any pre-existing superstar reputations.
So Lebron James’ points per game average takes a slight hit here with the sophomore Wagner definitely eclipsing him in shot attempts. On the flip side though his assists and rebound totals take a slight uptick to better resemble the player we see today. I’m thinking a stat line of around 17 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds.
Wagner’s scoring production gets back up over 20 a game and with limited exception due to some lingering knee concerns, he stays on the court for at least 70 of the Cavs’ games (exclusively as a starter). He also improves slightly as a distributor with Lebron catching his passes, and his stat line looks akin to 22 points per game and 5 assists.
The rest of the Cavaliers roster is also pretty exciting. It features a 22 year old Carlos Boozer who’s averaging 15 points & 11 boards, Cavs-legend Zydrunas Ilgauskas acting as a glass cleaner and interior defender, and 22 games of Ricky Davis shooting the piss out of the ball before they trade him to the Celtics in a package deal that saw their top return being Tony Battie. I’d love to see what becomes of this team if Ricky Davis stays on the roster as a knockdown shooter (35% was considered a high mark from deep in 2003, and he still had loads of time to improve) with Lebron and Dajuan continuously finding him when the defense collapses on their numerous drives to the basket. But I can’t rewrite everything here, so Ricky is gone.
The Cavs’ boosted offense from a healthy Dajuan Wagner adds a few extra wins to their record this year and they find themselves finishing 40-42, which in an even-then abysmal Eastern Conference, qualifies them for the 7th seed in the playoffs. They draw the Nets in the first round and despite potentially strong showings from the offensive tandem, don’t manage to totally rewrite history against the team who would advance to the NBA Finals. Because the Cavs make the playoffs though, and his stats look a little closer to a then-rare triple-double caliber season, Lebron easily walks away with 2004 Rookie of the Year honors and the “Melo deserved it” debate gains a little less traction.
Here’s where things begin to take a pretty drastic swing. Seeing how quickly things were beginning to turn the corner for the franchise, then-Cleveland Cavaliers GM Jim Paxson never makes the now infamous “Hand-Shake Agreement” to decline Boozer’s team option and re-sign him at a more player friendly deal. He knows that if he does this for Boozer he also has to do it for Wagner, and the still small-market team doesn’t have a desire to pay both guys this early knowing that James’ deal will follow shortly after. So Boozer doesn’t get the chance to re-neg on his promise to Paxson and sign the 6-year $68 Million deal with the Utah Jazz that he did in our timeline. This means that the Cavs never make the trade with the Orlando Magic that brings them Drew Gooden and future impact-player/D-Wade’s bitch: Anderson Varejao.
Also, because of their playoff team status, the Cavs fall out of the Draft Lottery and don’t pick Luke Jackson (bust) at the number 9 slot. Instead, they get locked in at #16. And looking to find the ideal backcourt-mate for Lebron & Dajuan they draft a certain hot-headed offensively-minded high-flyer named Earl Joseph Smith III…better known as J.R. Smith.
Lebron snaps in year two, and similar to our timeline garners a stat line of around 27 points per game, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. A now completely healthy (no more knee troubles) Dajuan Wagner finally plays a full season to the tune of another 20 point per game season (now settling in as option two to the emerging King). Boozer keeps his talents in Cleveland, still gets injured for consistency sake, but plays 51 games of more double-double basketball. Ilgauskas continues his run of post-proficiency on both sides of the ball. JR Smith kicks in another 12 points a game splitting time between the starting lineup and the sixth-man spot.
This drastically better Cavs team that features more athleticism and scoring potential, becomes a faster-paced offense that their young-guns thrive in, and they accumulate a 49-38 record. This pushes them into the playoffs for a second consecutive season and sees them climb as high as a third seed. Even if they manage to get passed the Indiana Pacers in round one, the inevitable NBA Champion Detroit Pistons would’ve ravaged the still young and easily rattled core.
The Cleveland Cavaliers now have a year to go before they have to start paying their young stars, so they want to keep the improvements coming without spending too much too soon. So most of the free agent signings remain the same, including new starting shooting guard Larry Hughes (relegating JR Smith to the sixth-man). Also, a change in draft order pushes the Cavs’ 2nd round pick back a ways and they roll the dice on another High School kid (because of their continued success with the matter), named Amir Johnson.
Lebron James still goes off for 30 points a game this year, solidifying him as one of the games elite stars in just year 3. His assists numbers rise to 8 a game to accommodate for an uptick in Dajuan Wagner’s scoring (playing for a contract). Boozer is still hurt and only touches the floor in about 30 games but has decent numbers when he is out there. Larry Hughes has his standard 13 points. Ilgauskas does his usual numbers (a slight down turn in the blocked shots department because he’s getting older). JR Smith gets hurt just like in real life (again we’re keeping things consistent people) and isn’t able to contribute much because of inconsistent minutes. Amir Johnson stays buried on the bench (even in real life he was a project with the Pistons).
Despite improvements from Lebron and Dajuan, the Cavs don’t see any real tangible strides in the standings because of injuries. They go 50-32 (just like in real life) and get bounced in the playoffs by the Pistons yet again in round two.
The Cavaliers had to dish out a lot of dough in the summer of ’06. Dajuan Wagner and Carlos Boozer both saw their rookie deals expire, and they preemptively extended Lebron James. Even if Wagner would’ve signed an offer sheet with another team there’s no way the Cavs were going to let their top-flight scorer walk away when they’re getting so close to a Finals run. And with a pair of injury plagued seasons highlighting his resume, the Cavs could retain Boozer for a fraction of what they had to pay their other stars. All in all, acquisitions were fairly limited as the Cavs opt to keep their core in tact and leave room for their young stars to grow. In the draft, they still end up selecting Shannon Brown at #25 and Daniel Gibson at #42.
In the next season, Lebron continues on his path to greatness. Posting another near triple double effort of 27/8/7. Dajuan adds to his offensive game and this leads to an exciting 25+ points per game. For those of you who aren’t buying this, his closest player comparison was Allen Iverson before he fell ill, 25 is basically selling him short at age 23 considering that with Lebron on his team his only job is to score the basketball. Boozer has his bounce-back injury-free year (and probably regrets taking the small contract) to the tune of 16 points & 13 boards. Ilgauskas pitches in 8 & 7. JR & Hughes each add 13.
The Cavs wind up becoming one of the NBA’s best offensive units averaging more points per game than anyone in the East. They ride this success to their first NBA Finals appearance (just like in real life) and go toe-to-toe with the Spurs. The history books have this series ending in a straight sweep by San Antonio. But with the potent offensive punch the Cavs youngsters provide along with now having several years worth of playoff experience they force the series to 6 games but eventually do succumb to the superior team.
Having sold off most of their draft choices in unsavory moves, the Cavs are forced to rely on additions through free agency and trades. They don’t add much in the summer, but are huge presence at the deadline:
Because of Boozer’s presence and the steady emergence as Amir Johnson as a then-rare 3&D big man, the Cavs maintain their roster through the trade deadline, never making the trade with divisional rival, Detroit, for “KG-stopper” Ben Wallace. They still inexplicably add Wally Szczerbiak at the deadline and Lebron’s step-dad (Delonte West) to further pad a wing rotation that was already tops in the league in scoring.
Lebron has another 30/7/7 campaign en route to the scoring title. Dajuan Wagner adds a smooth 25. Boozer has a career-year (just like in Utah) as a 20 & 10 guy. JR pitches in 13 again. Ilgauskas tails off and becomes something of a place-holder in his later years, but Amir Johnson gets more playing time as a result and is able to start molding himself into that hustle rebounder/defender/stretch-four that he wouldn’t get the chance to tap into in our timeline for another 3 years because of limited minutes.
Having three 20+ points per game scorers means that the Cavs manage to climb the regular season ladder to their highest record yet. They avoid the Boston Celtics, until the Conference Finals and are able to push them to 7-games before missing out on the Finals to the eventual champs.
Because of the Cavs higher-billing in the East and his more gaudy numbers, Lebron actually beats out Kobe Bryant for his first career MVP a year before he does it in our timeline.
Summer of 2008
In the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs undoing was their lack of defense on the interior. Just like in our timeline, their inability to matchup with the likes of Kevin Garnett is what dashes their dreams of consecutive Finals appearances. The difference this time though is that they have a ton more money to spend going into free agency (no Ben Wallace, JR/Hughes/West contracts expiring), so they can use that to find a big man who doesn’t further clog the interior. Knowing that they’ve got money to spend in the free agent market on a certain highly appealing target to slot in down low, they won’t be scanning the draft for that kind of guy. With the 22nd selection they bypass JJ Hickson, for another effective scoring wing who can take the place of the departing Hughes (against better judgement they’ll keep hot-headed JR on a cheaper deal), enter Nicolas Batum (in our universe gets selected at 25 by Houston).
In Free Agency they become the only suitor for RFA, Josh Smith (remember him?). People forget because they worked out their differences and reached an extension, but at the opening of free agency in 2008 the Hawks and their super-athlete were looking to part ways via sign-and-trade, but no market for Smith revealed itself with no team having the necessary cap space to reel him in. But the Cavs definitely do now because they don’t have Wallace.
The Cavaliers and Hawks work a sign-and trade for Smith that leads to a nice upgrade for both. The Cavs get their man in Josh Smith. The Hawks get a return of Szczerbiak, Shannon Brown, Booby Gibson, and the Cavs’ 2009 first round pick.
Also in this summer the Cavs still make a trade to bolster their backcourt, for Mo Williams. This time though, Williams won’t be their starting PG, he’ll be the backup to the red-hot Wagner.
After that incredible offseason haul, the Cavs walk into opening night with a starting rotation of Dajuan Wagner, JR Smith, Lebron James, Josh Smith, & Carlos Boozer. Their second unit: Mo Williams, Delonte West, Nicolas Batum, Amir Johnson, & Zydrunas Ilgauskas. If that isn’t a frightening roster in ’08 then I don’t know what is.
King James doubles down with his second MVP nod in as many seasons to the tune of a near (if not eclipsing) triple-double stat line with a huge spike in assists and rebounds because of the number of off-ball threats on his drives and floor spacing allotted for boards by not having to share court time with two bigger bodies. Wagner lights it up per-usual, JR Smith adds to the highlight reel nightly and takes a huge step forward as a marksman (like he did in our timeline, 40% from deep), Josh Smith is a DPOY candidate and lob-throwers delight (just like he was in Atlanta in our timeline but with more chances because of the better play makers here), Boozer offers his change of pace/back-to-the-basket playmaking and elbow jumpers to the tune of another double-double year. Off the bench Mo Williams is the Sixth-Man of the Year, Batum is the ultimate spot up guy (to the tune of almost 40% from deep a la what he did in Portland in our universe but with more chances), Delonte West shoots the piss out of the ball too (40% in this season), Amir Johnson adds incredible energy and makes for an impossible to guard small-ball lineup when paired with Josh Smith in the paint, and Ilgauskas brings up the tail of the rotation adding key minutes and solid rebounding numbers in his later years.
This team runs through the regular season (literally) and kicks off the NBA’s 3-point era almost a decade before the Warriors would revolutionize the game. They add a few wins to their already impressive mark from our reality (66), and become the NBA’s second-ever 70 win team by hitting that exact mark 70-12. The Cavs sweep the Pistons in round one of the playoffs, then double down by doing the same to the Heat (not the Hawks) in round two. Then they right the wrongs of our universe by beating the Magic handedly in six games to give us the matchup we really wanted. Lebron vs Kobe in the NBA Finals. With options at the ready to guard Kobe more effectively than Orlando could offer and such a drastic change of pace with the run-and-gun style of offense, Cleveland takes LA to seven games (and though it’s a close one) Kobe still prevails for his 4th ring.
Heartbreaking as it is for Lebron & Co. to come so close to the Larry O’Brien trophy only to be turned away at the very end, GM David Griffin realizes that this team is on the cusp of greatness. So the team runs it back, almost identically in the 09-10 campaign with minor changes because of salary obligations that prohibit major spending. They pick up Danny Green in round two of the NBA Draft, but just like in our universe that doesn’t mean very much because of his limited contributions pre-Spurs.
The history books will forever show the 2009-2010 season as one of the most important in Cleveland Cavaliers history, because the clock was set to reach zero on Lebron James’ contract on July 1st. In this alternate reality, this is even more important because not only are they almost done with Lebron James, but they’re about to lose out on two other pivotal members of their core in Boozer and Wagner. So all of their chips have to be pushed to the center of the table all year long if they want to cash in on this window of championship opportunity.
The stat-lines from all parties involved read almost exactly the same as the year prior in the history books, so we’ll run it back with the Cavaliers reaching nearly the same historic marks as the prior campaign. For the sake of under-selling this roster a bit to add reality we’ll set their record at 66-16. Lebron gets his third consecutive MVP, and a few other members of that roster compete for awards. They still pickup Shaq and Antawn Jamison mid-season to further bolster this roster shipping out franchise icon Ilgauskas and Amir Johnson to do it.
They roll through round one of the playoffs by battering the Bulls. Round two is all about two franchises yearning for another shot at the Lakers, the Celtics want to re-assert dominance over LA, the Cavaliers want revenge for 2009. This is where things change dramatically. With this up-tempo roster they run the Celtics out of the series, getting revenge on the team that bounced them two years prior, and securing a rematch with the Magic in the ECF. Lebron & Co win this one two because once again they’re able to outpace the Magic and give Dwight Howard fits by making him defend out to the perimeter with their spot up bigmen.
Lebron vs. Kobe II. This will go down as one of the most electrifying series of all-time because of all the story and hype surrounding it. And with a far deeper roster, and shooting out the wazoo, the Cleveland Cavaliers become the NBA champions in 2010.
Well there’s a few ways this story could go in the years to follow. With the Cavs winning the title in the year he was set to hit free agency, perhaps Lebron James doesn’t take his talents to South Beach. Maybe they find a way to run it back for a chance to repeat. Maybe Wagner & Boozer bounce and Lebron uses “The Decision” as a way to introduce Wade & Bosh to Cleveland instead, with a more-recent championship resume and a nicely built supporting cast who can go again in 2010-2011.
If he doesn’t jump ship, does anyone? Ever? I mean no Lebron departure might have ripple effects as far as today, with KD never choosing to leave the Thunder, or Kawhi Leonard happily committing to San Antonio.
Maybe Lebron still leaves for Miami to be with his super friends, but because he first brought a title to Cleveland they don’t torch his jersey in the streets and we never get the always delightful “What Should I Do?” Nike commercial. With his departure, maybe Boozer still walks to Chicago that summer and Wagner comes to New York to play with Stoudemire in MSG. The Cavs fall to the floor in the East and still come away with Kyrie in the 2011 draft, allowing them to re-sync with our current timeline, one championship richer.
How crazy is it that if we simply alter the life of one forgotten man in NBA history, the butterfly effect changes everything we know about the NBA. I mean seriously. Take a peak at so many ways that things might be different because of the events that transpired:
- The Cleveland Cavaliers win an NBA title 6 years earlier than they do in our current universe (2010 instead of 2016)
- Lebron vs Kobe happens not just once but twice in the NBA Finals
- Kobe Bryant’s legacy is diminished slightly by losing out on a ring and an MVP award courtesy of Lebron James
- Carlos Boozer never goes to Utah…ever
- Guys like Josh Smith, JR Smith, Nicolas Batum and Amir Johnson all become Cavs in their early years and help power them to a championship.
- Dajuan Wagner becomes a likely multi-time All-Star
- Lebron never becomes the most hated man in NBA history
That’s one heck of a switch up if we step into the multiverse.