Ever take a minute to think about how the course of history for your favorite NBA team might've been altered had something about its past unfolded differently?
Would changing that moment culminate in a title not won? An alternative era never seen? Forge or preserve a dynasty that was otherwise nonexistent or came undone?
Could your team still be feeling the ripple effects today from a distant opportunity missed or bad luck run amuck? Or would revising that singular moment, transaction, injury, decision, whatever impact only a singular window of basketball, if not fail to materially change much of anything?
These are the questions, the what-if scenarios, this exercise seeks to identify and unpack for every NBA squad. And rather than churn out my own 10,000-foot view on the matter, I'm turning to the experts—smart people who follow and cover each individual team.
Carte blanche was given to everyone who participated. They were free (read: encouraged) to ignore my own choices and interpret and explain their selections however they wanted.
Armed with only their words, some of mine and nostalgic heft, let us now wade into the "What If?!?" trenches.
Atlanta Hawks: The 2005 Draft
Recency bias might call for yet another Luka Doncic vs. Trae Young debate. But Trae is transcendent enough himself to avoid having his fate (so far) inexorably tied to Luka.
The Atlanta Hawks' 2005 draft-day decision on the other hand? That bears rehashing. From Adam Fromal of Sportscasting and NBA Math:
"Only one moment in recent Atlanta Hawks history left a dent in my wall from a television remote thrown across the room out of frustration, so that has to be the choice here.
"Once Andrew Bogut came off the board with the No. 1 pick of the 2005 NBA draft, why did then-general manager Billy Knight opt to use the second overall selection on Marvin Williams? Even at the time, it was a questionable decision since Williams—high two-way potential and everything taken into account—had started a grand total of zero games for a championship-winning North Carolina squad.
"But beyond that, Deron Williams and Chris Paul came off the board directly behind the longtime role player, and we all know how that turned out.
"If you need a reminder: not too well for the Hawks.
"The truly baffling part, though, was that Atlanta actually needed help at point guard. A 27-year-old Tyronn Lue drew the majority of starts at the 1 in 2004-05 after arriving via a midseason trade with the Houston Rockets, and the franchise didn’t seem to have any long-term plans. Sure enough, Royal Ivey, taken in the second round of the 2004 draft, ended up starting for most of Williams' rookie year.
"Just imagine how the franchise's trajectory could have been forever altered had Paul been calling the shots for a Hawks roster that struggled to climb out of the Eastern Conference basement during the early portion of the Joe Johnson/Josh Smith era."
Alternative selections beyond this and Trae vs. Luka are hard to find. I still wonder what would've happened if Atlanta traded Al Horford and Paul Millsap rather than let them walk in consecutive summers, but that's admittedly much lower stakes.
Boston Celtics: Anthony Davis Trade That Wasn't
Legacy franchises are always inundated with what-if moments, if only because they've been around so long that they have to accumulate them. The Boston Celtics, though, are teeming with what-might-have-beens and roads not taken in the not-so-distant past.
What if they never traded down in the 2017 draft? Would they really still have taken Jayson Tatum at No. 1? What happens if Isaiah Thomas never suffered a career-altering hip injury? Or, hell, what if they never traded for Thomas in the first place? What if Gordon Hayward never suffered his dislocated ankle and fractured leg? Or Kyrie Irving—gulp—never left? What if they had been the team that traded for Paul George? Or for Kawhi Leonard?
The list of options over the past seven or so years is, like, endless. But because I am a monster, I forced Hoop Island's Alex Kungu to narrow it down. He chose the Anthony Davis transaction that never was.
"At the time of AD's trade request, the Celtics were toeing the line between two timelines. On one side, they had Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, who were a versatile trio that with the acquisition of Davis would give them the necessary star talent to compete for a title. On the other side, they had Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a young, talented group with a proven ability to play winning basketball but still a few years away from being relied on to compete for a title.
"Though nothing was ever official, there was an understanding that all or at least Tatum plus one of the two would be involved in any Davis trade [when Boston was legally allowed to make one]. Fast forward three years, and Kyrie has left but struggled with staying on the court. Hayward has been similarly plagued with injuries. And Davis, though he won a ring in his first year with L.A., has endured durability issues as well.
"For a second, imagine a world where Boston would have to watch Smart develop into a floor general DPOY-caliber point guard, Jaylen turn into an All-Star and Tatum a top-10 player, all while they hitched their wagons to injury-riddled veterans who either couldn't stay on the court or were already plotting their way out of town.
"God Bless Rich Paul and the Klutch Sports organization."
I'm still LOLing at the last line. I hope you are too.
Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant's Big Feet
Many will gravitate to the Brooklyn Nets trading their entire future for an aging Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. But this organization has delivered bulletin-board material in droves over the past few years alone.
Most of it isn't good. Getting Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in 2019 was seen as a coup. It has instead fomented an avalanche of missed possibilities.
What if the organization didn't capitulate to its stars so thoroughly it forced coach Kenny Atkinson out the door? What if it didn't trade for James Harden? What if Kyrie had taken the COVID-19 vaccine? Would Harden still be in Brooklyn? Would Durant's trade request never happen? What if the Nets simply didn't acquiesce to Harden's own trade request this past season?
None of these options won out for the Daily News' Kristian Winfield, who rightfully chose KD's could-have-been-a-three from Game 7 of the 2021 semifinals:
"Talk about a franchise-altering shot that ends up taking the game into overtime instead of sending the Milwaukee Bucks packing. If KD's foot wasn't on the line, the Nets would easily dispose of the Hawks in the conference finals and then get to the NBA Finals against a well-oiled but not nearly as talented Phoenix Suns team. They also—as I reported—would have gotten a (somewhat) healthy Spencer Dinwiddie back in the NBA Finals.
"If KD's toe hadn't been on the line, we're looking at the Nets as NBA champions. We're looking at James Harden maybe deciding to stay and sign long term. We're looking at validation of the decision to bring KD and Kyrie to Brooklyn in the first place instead of now perpetually fielding questions as to whether it was the right move given the Nets have come up short in three straight seasons.
"And if KD's foot wasn't on the line, we're looking at the Nets giving New York City its first NBA championship since the 1970s. We're looking at the Nets as basketball immortality instead of watching them devolve into mere mortals in a first-round sweep by the Celtics this season."
For what it's worth: We're also probably looking at a Milwaukee Bucks team coached by someone other than Mike Budenholzer. But yeah, this beats out anything else. The prospect of a championship always does.
Charlotte Hornets: 2012 Draft Moments
Who ordered yet another "What If?!?" moment headlined by Anthony Davis? Because CBS Sports' Konata Edwards has it for you.
"The easy answer is what if the then-Charlotte Bobcats won the 2012 draft lottery and selected Anthony Davis instead of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist," he wrote. "The core changes dramatically considering that Kemba Walker blossoms sooner. Then add that to the last vestiges of Al Jefferson. They would've accomplished something that hadn't been done since the franchise left Charlotte in 2002: back-to-back playoff appearances"
For advocates of optionality, this doesn't even have to be exclusively about Davis or about the then-Bobcats dropping to No. 2 in the 2012 lottery despite farting out the worst winning percentage in league history.
Yes, landing AD would have altered, well, everything. But they didn't just miss out on him. They selected the wrong player, in MKG, after not getting AD.
What if they had taken Bradley Beal (No. 3)? Or Damian Lillard (No. 6)? The latter wasn't a consensus top prospect at the time, but Beal for sure made the cut. The Hornets just so happened to already have Kemba.
Charlotte's first-round loss to the Miami Heat in 2016 looms as the secondary choice. If that team had won Game 7, it wouldn't have gone on to bag a title, but it likely would've doubled down harder on the core that offseason rather than "just" ponying up for Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams.
That begs an interesting question: Knowing what happened after the Hornets almost beat the Heat (six straight lottery appearances amid questionable self-evaluation), would actually making it out of the first round have been even worse for the team's long-term thinking?
Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler Trade
What if Michael Jordan never retired the first time? What if Derrick Rose never tore his ACL during the 2012 playoffs? What if we were all spared from The Three Alphas era? What if the organization had (mercifully) moved on from the Gar Forman and John Paxson front-office regime, unaffectionately known as GarPax, much sooner?
These were among the first flashbulb moments that went off inside my mindhole when brainstorming for the Chicago Bulls. But Morten Stig Jensen from TV 2 Play and The NBA Podcast disagreed:
"I’d like to go back to the 2017 NBA draft when the Bulls decided to trade Jimmy Butler after inexplicably pairing him with Rajon Rondo and an aging Dwyane Wade the season before, because every time you set up your star player to fail, you’ve *GOT* to do it, right, GarPax?
"In the trade, the Bulls—also inexplicably—forked over the 16th pick in the draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Given that the former Bulls front-office regime consisted of horrible negotiators, let's use our 'What If?' card on that and ask: 'What if the Bulls got the 2017 NBA draft right?'
"Assuming they wouldn’t have given up No. 16, the Bulls, who would have then acquired Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Minnesota's seventh overall pick for Butler, would have been armed with the seventh and 16th selections. Instead of going for Lauri Markkanen at No. 7, the organization could have gone all-in on Bam Adebayo, who would have given them a proper two-way big man, instead of the one-dimensional Markkanen, who provided nothing but frustration to the Bulls fanbase for four seasons.
"While the general public was surprised to see Adebayo's full game in the NBA compared to the limited version they saw at Kentucky, most NBA scouts had seen him during practices and knew there was more to him. Proper scouting from the side of the Bulls could have unearthed that.
"And with the 16th pick, the Bulls could have swung a trade with Denver, who dealt the 13th pick to Utah for Trey Lyles and the 24th selection. Relinquishing the 16th pick in that trade, as well as Denzel Valentine (who still had hope in 2017), would have been a far more attractive package and allowed the Bulls to pick Donovan Mitchell for themselves. If Denver wanted Bobby Portis or Nikola Mirotic instead, so be it.
"If you're keeping score at home, the 'What If?' Bulls now have a new core of LaVine, Adebayo and Mitchell."
Well, when you put it this way...
Jensen also noted the Bulls cash considerations'd their way out of No. 38 in this draft, a pick that could have technically been used on Dillon Brooks, Isaiah Hartenstein, Monte Morris or even Thomas Bryant. This is a complicated set of transactions that no team probably hits on in full. But it's a worthwhile vortex to journey down knowing the Bulls extracted plenty of championship equity from MJ and that pre-injury D-Rose always would've ran into the Big Three-era Heat.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving's Injury in 2015 Finals
Thinking about the sheer number of what-if moments for the Cleveland Cavaliers since LeBron James entered the league can get overwhelming.
What if he never left the first time? What if he never came back? What if the Golden State Warriors never added Kevin Durant in 2016? How many titles would LeBron's second go-round in Cleveland feature? Would Kyrie Irving never request a trade? Would LeBron never be incentivized to join the Los Angeles Lakers?
My head hurts. Justin Rowan of The Chase Down Podcast felt a similar way when I posed this question to him.
"This is a ridiculously tough one, as there are so many what-ifs, right down to if the Cavs trade for LaMarcus Aldridge instead of Kevin Love in 2014," he wrote. "Do the Warriors get to execute their Plan A and trade some combination of Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson for Love?"
In the end, Rowan settled on the mega what-if that is the 2015 Finals, when Kyrie suffered a fractured left kneecap after Love was already sidelined with a shoulder injury, and the Cavs fell to the not-yet-dynastic Warriors.
"So many of the issues between Kyrie and LeBron blossomed from that moment, with LeBron questioning whether Kyrie was hurt throughout the playoffs and feeling like he'd play through it," Rowan said. "A lot of the reporting even at the time suggested that when Kyrie went down, it created a significant fissure in their relationship. There's the immediate question of whether they would win in 2015 if Kyrie was healthy. But the long-term implications are fascinating as well."
This feels like the right call, though I still can't shake the KD element of everything. His 2016 free-agency decision—made possible by an unprecedented salary-cap spike—didn't directly involve the Cavs. But it sure as hell impacted them more than any other title contender at the time.
Dallas Mavericks: Post-2011 Title Direction
Initially, I approached the Dallas Mavericks' part of this shindig determined not to go the "What if they drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013?!?" route. He was considered a stab-in-the-dark reach by the Milwaukee Bucks at No. 15. We can't harp too much on the teams that went different directions. (Although, to be fair, Dallas playing the he-was-on-its-radar card doesn't help.)
Steve Nash's departure in 2004 was my pick. His exit almost assuredly cost the Mavs another title during the Dirk Nowitzki era. At the very least, the organization would have more Finals appearances under its belt.
That tempted Lauren Gunn, a credentialed NBA media member and co-host of The Gunn Shot Podcast. But she ultimately went a different direction.
"This is an incredibly fascinating question because the correct answer is absolutely what happens if Nash stays, but my mind can't help but go to the post 2011-Dirk years," she wrote. "After letting the team go after bringing home the trophy, they were in a position the following year to bring in the top free agent of that class, Deron Williams. In fact, the Mavs had the first meeting with Williams, and years later he said that he was going to sign with Dallas but was turned off by the fact that Mark Cuban neglected to show up to their meeting."
"Pairing him with Dirk while they were both in their primes would’ve likely put Dallas back toward the top of the Western Conference. Unfortunately, the Mavericks didn't land him that year, and the slow transition into a rebuild commenced."
I very much dig this view. Extending actual title windows are more bankable what-ifs than carving out theoretical ones around Giannis. And let's be real: We were all flabbergasted, if not offended, the Mavs opted to move so thoroughly away from their title-winning core. D-Will's prime ended up not lasting nearly as long as most expected, but the next two to three years of Dallas basketball would've unfurled at a much higher level had he joined the party in 2012.
Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray's ACL Injury
Jamal Murray's torn left ACL in April 2021 was my immediate—and, truthfully, only—pick when looking at the Denver Nuggets' franchise trajectory. And it turns out Adam Mares, the VP of Creative Production at DNVR Sports, agreed.
"Murray’s injury in 2021 is No. 1 because he was playing the best and most consistent basketball of his career in the months leading up to it," he wrote. "Aaron Gordon appeared to solidify the starting lineup, and we all know the heights Nikola Jokic was reaching.
"Equally important: The run since Murray's injury has been especially wide-open in the NBA. The Bucks and Warriors are both great teams but not quite the same juggernaut as the 2017 Warriors.
"Lastly, the hardest part of the Murray injury lies with not knowing what the Nuggets have in their Big Four. As much as I believe it is an incredible mix of talent and fit, we simply don't know how they'd fare in a playoff series against the leagues best, smartest and most versatile teams.
"So, it's an injury that has already cost Denver two playoff runs and could very well cost the Nuggets a third if the team just isn't as good as everyone thought it'd be or if the fit isn't as perfect as it appeared in those six glorious games between the Gordon acquisition and the Murray injury."
No alternative sinks in quite like this one. You could gobble up the low-hanging fruit and roll with, "What if the Nuggets never drafted Jokic at No. 41 in 2014?!?," but some variation of that question can resonate for every team who bags a star. Mares did, however, include George Karl's 2010 cancer diagnosis and David Thompson's drug addiction as notable mentions.
Detroit Pistons: Isiah Thomas Turning His Ankle During 1988 NBA Finals
When I posed this question to Lazarus Jackson of SB's Nation Detroit Bad Boys, I said something to the effect of "It's clearly the Pistons' decision to take Darko Milicic in 2003 over Carmelo Anthony, right?"
"Darko over CHRIS BOSH, not Carmelo Anthony, is up there for sure," Jackson wrote. "And I’ve been on that for a while." He then proceeded to disagree with me even further.
"But I'd like to bring up another one: What if Isiah Thomas didn't turn his ankle in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals? Everyone remembers the 43-point heroics on that turned ankle; the visual of the shortest guy on the court limping up and down the floor, willing his team to stay in the game, is etched into NBA lore. But the Pistons lost Game 6 despite Isiah's best efforts, and he had nothing left in Game 7 (10 points, 4-of-12 shooting, seven assists).
"Still, the Pistons only lost Game 6 and Game 7 by one and three points, respectively. What if Isiah didn't turn the ankle and the Pistons won Game 7 on the road in The Forum? Instead of a mere back-to-back, Detroit would become (at the time) the third NBA franchise to win three consecutive championships and the first to do it since the 1960s. Isiah wins three in a row, something Larry Bird and Magic Johnson never did, and beats both of them in the playoffs to do it while going 2-0 against Magic in the Finals. Is he the greatest point guard of all time with that resume?"
I've personally always viewed the Isiah Thomas injury as typical collateral damage. But the implications it had on how he and that Pistons era is remembered today have seldom, if ever, crossed my mind. The greatest-point-guard debate, in particular, would sound extremely different.
"Detroit's championships are often thought of as interregnums—little blips between the real story of the NBA: The Celtics and the Lakers and Michael Jordan," Jackson added. "The 2004 Pistons are still the asterisk champions; everyone remembers those Finals as one the Lakers lost, as if they didn't get their asses whupped for the entirety of that series. A three-peat in Detroit during the NBA's ascension into the global entity it is today would squarely etch the Pistons into NBA lore in a way I think more accurately represents just how good that team was."
Golden State Warriors: Keeping Steph in Andrew Bogut Trade
Good luck winnowing down the Warriors' what-if options.
What if they didn't collapse in the 2016 Finals? Would Kevin Durant still board the bandwagon that summer? Or what if they didn't overcome a 3-1 deficit of their own against the Oklahoma City Thunder that same postseason?
What if the Warriors never swap out Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr? Or what if a David Lee injury didn't create the original runway for Draymond Green to take on a more prominent role? What if they traded Klay Thompson for Kevin Love?
What if the Warriors select LaMelo Ball at No. 2 in 2020 over James Wiseman? What if Chris Cohan never sold the team to Joe Lacob and Peter Guber?
Naturally, I was more than happy to shift the onus of this decision onto my cherished colleague, Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.
"If we accept that Stephen Curry is the person most responsible for transforming the Warriors from laughingstock to a glamor-market powerhouse (which we should, because it’s true), then we have to choose the moment that would have removed him from the organization entirely," he wrote. "It could have been him, and not Monta Ellis, who went to the Bucks in a package for Andrew Bogut in 2012.
"Judging by the fan response at the time, most might even have preferred that Curry had been the one to go. The home crowd relentlessly booed governor Joe Lacob in the aftermath of the trade. If only they’d known then that the next seven years would include three titles and five Finals trips—a remarkable run of success driven by Curry, who’d win a pair of NBA MVPs in the process.
"Basically every other sliding-doors moment in the relevant portion of Warriors history hinges on that one transaction. Remove Curry from the equation via that trade, and the Dubs would have been led by Ellis, who never averaged over 20.0 points per game following the trade and, if we’re being honest, was always a glorified sixth man masquerading as a starter.
"In that alternate reality, there are no Splash Brothers, Draymond Green wouldn't have had an all-time shooter and off-ball mover to minimize his weaknesses and play to his strengths, the 73-win season surely would've never happened and KD wouldn't arrive (or depart). The whole course of Warriors history would have gone in another, indisputably worse, direction.
"Curry saved the franchise that nearly traded him."
Houston Rockets: Chris Paul's Hamstring Injury During 2018 Playoffs
It's nice when the what-if decision at hand boasts a glaringly obvious consensus. And as Salman Ali of Red Nation Hoops outlined, that's just what we have for the Houston Rockets.
"There were a lot of contenders here, but the No. 1 spot is a no-brainer: What if Chris Paul never suffers a hamstring injury in the 2018 Western Conference Finals? There’s just no other scenario that directly could’ve led to an additional banner for the Rockets."
Context is, of course, king. In this instance, it might be painful.
"The Rockets were on the brink of taking a 3-2 lead over the Warriors and had all the momentum of the series in their favor. Home-court advantage was theirs, and it seemed like they had figured the Warriors out on both ends," Ali wrote. "Defensively, the Rockets perfected a switch-everything scheme they crafted that summer—specifically for the Warriors. Paul was an integral point-of-attack defender for Houston.
"On offense, James Harden led a master class against the Warriors for the first three-and-a-half frames. Paul, one of the greatest crunch-time performers in NBA history, was their closer in the fourth quarter. The audacity of my media colleagues to equate an injury to Andre Iguodala, Golden State’s fifth-most important player at the time, to an injury to one of the greatest point guards of all time in his prime was laughable in the moment and even more ludicrous in hindsight."
Granted, the Warriors still could've beaten the Rockets even if Paul never had gotten injured. At the same time, the end result leaves open the possibility that Ali is right.
Houston lost Game 7 by single digits without CP3. And if we believe the Rockets get past the dynastic Warriors, we might as well go ahead and believe that their 65-win core also would've dispatched the 2018 Cavaliers in the Finals.
"That Rockets team should go down as one of the greatest teams in NBA history to never win a championship," Ali said. "But their collective unpopularity may prevent them from being remembered as such."
Indiana Pacers: Game 5 in the 1st Round of 2018 Postseason
The most powerful what-ifs are those that evoke emotions not just for the particular moment and its implications, but many of its predecessors. What doesn't happen can sometimes be a culmination—the apex or conclusion in a long line of nagging memories that combine a sense of what could have been and business unfinished to gnaw at your fandom.
Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper found this what-if moment for the Indiana Pacers.
"When LeBron James knocked down a three-pointer as time expired to seal Game 5 for the Cavaliers in 2018, it immediately brought back shades of his game-winning layup against the Pacers in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals," she wrote. "Not only because both nail-biting and inexcusably uninhibited displays of the four-time MVP’s greatness came at the heartbreaking expense of the Pacers when they had the chance to take a series lead, but also because each was, in part, the product of the sort of defensive breakdowns which forever leave a maddening trail of unanswerable questions."
"Ignore the missed goaltend that would’ve put the Pacers up 97-95 for a second (LeBron went for three when the game was tied!), and put aside whether Roy Hibbert should’ve been in the game (switching everything better allows for making snap-judgment calls). Just as Thaddeus Young got snagged on a screen, allowing LeBron to shoot more comfortably moving to his left, Paul George made an awful error in overplaying the generational talent, giving him the lane to the basket. Meanwhile, Sam Young lacked the court awareness to slide over quickly enough to take a charge, and Nate McMillan held onto a timeout and a foul to give, with Bojan Bogdanovic loosely contesting the inbounds pass rather than doubling LeBron when Thad already had five fouls.
"In both cases, with the sequel being a bad remake of the original, the Pacers are left to wonder whether they beat themselves or cemented their status as tough outs against all-time greats. They lasted seven games against Jordan’s Bulls, won three straight only to drop Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, and lost on a crucial end-of-game possession by a once-in-a-lifetime player."
Cases can be made for Malice at the Palace to appear here. But aside from being over-discussed, it doesn't typify the Pacers' run as Generational Irritants.
L.A. Clippers: V. Stiviano and Donald Sterling Audio Getting Released
Too many what-ifs are peppered throughout the Lob City era for the Los Angeles Clippers. (The Josh Smith Game, anyone?) But the most important among them happened away from the court, as SB Nation's Sabreena Merchant astutely pointed out.
"What happens if the V. Stiviano audio is never released?" she wrote. "Getting out from under Donald Sterling and under competent—let alone actually good—ownership, is the single biggest reason why the Clippers have been a championship contender and will continue to compete in the years to come."
Chris Paul came to the Clippers even with Sterling in the fold, but it would be a gross oversight to say the former team governor wasn't a detriment to organization's livelihood—or, for that matter, a racist stain on society.
Smaller-market teams were generally more committed to spending on players and franchise personnel than the Sterling-era Clippers. That is a stark contrast to how they're run under current team governor Steve Ballmer and his willingness to bankroll steep luxury-tax payments and soon-to-be record-breaking payrolls.
Attributing the arrival of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to Ballmer goes waaay too far. But would both players be as interested in joining the Clippers if Sterling were in the fold? That's more debatable.
What isn't up for argument is how much more respected and innovative the Clippers are as an organization without Sterling. And for as much credit as the NBA received when it exiled him, the league only made the call after the audio was released of Sterling's racist rant to Stiviano—suggesting that without those recordings, the organization could be much worse for wear today.
Los Angeles Lakers: Vetoed Chris Paul Trade
Those two words alone are enough to send Los Angeles Lakers fans down a rabbit hole of what-could-have-been—of who was stripped from them.
In 2011, as the NBA emerged from a lockout, the Lakers agreed to a three-team trade with the Houston Rockets and then-New Orleans Hornets that would have landed them Chris Paul in exchange for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Then-NBA Commissioner David Stern and the league, which was managing the Pelicans at the time, eventually scuttled the deal. CP3 went to the Clippers, and the Lakers began a long downward spiral that spawned what-if moments galore, many of which are the direct result of or could have been avoided if this storied trade went through. Just ask Jabari Ali Davis of 19 Media Group.
"I’ve heard all of the reasoning and ultra-annoying re-litigation of the events," he wrote. "Only thing I’ll state is regardless of where you stand on the outcome, the series of events that transpired, reportedly, during and after those negotiations was peculiar to say the least. Beyond pairing a prime CP3 with a still really good Kobe Bryant, the Lakers could've conceivably turned around and also brought in a talent like Dwight Howard at that time."
"Now, there is definitely a conversation to be had about just how terrible of a fit Dwight would have been with both Kobe and CP3’s personalities (this ain’t video games). But even if the Lakers wanted to move on and recalibrate, they still would have had a prime Dwight to then deal for parts to solidify the roster around Kobe and Chris.
"And since we’re now in purple-and-gold make-believe land, the Lakers wouldn't have wound up making the catastrophic Nash deal, nor would Kobe have had to play himself into the ground until his actual Achilles exploded just two years later."
This is enough for me. Davis wasn't done.
"Diving even deeper into purple-tinted glasses, Kobe also probably sits atop the scoring list by the end of it, as the duo (plus whatever consortium of talent the Lakers put around them) wins a title or two along the way. It completely changes the conversation surrounding CP3’s career. And it puts an end to the 'greatest Laker' debates."
I'll push back on Kobe bagging the all-time-scoring crown beyond a shadow of a doubt. Father Time comes for everyone. But it's intriguing to think about how differently CP3's legacy would be viewed by lazy hot-takesters had he nabbed a title in this alternate universe.
Memphis Grizzlies: 2015 Western Conference Semifinals
Could the 2014-15 Memphis Grizzlies have derailed the start of the Golden State Warriors dynasty?
Aimee Stiegemeyer of the Flyer Grizz Blog thinks so.
"I will forever maintain that if Mike Conley doesn’t get his face broken by CJ McCollum in the first round in 2015 and Tony Allen’s hamstring issues were resolved, the Grizzlies would have been the 2015 champions," she wrote. "Memphis would have won the series against Golden State and gone on to beat Houston in the Western Conference Finals and, ultimately, Cleveland to win the championship. And we would all be having a very different conversation in the years since."
Phewwwww, this is spicy. I love it. And it's not unfounded. In fact, Mike Conley agrees.
"That series is our ‘what if’ more than anything," he said during a 2021 appearance on The Old Man and The Three podcast. "If we win that series, who knows if the Warriors are the Warriors dynasty that everyone knows?"
The Grizzlies jumped out to a 2-1 lead in that series and, for a while, appeared to be in control. But the Warriors ended up mismatching their way to a seven-game victory, in large part because they had Andrew Bogut "guarding" Allen, an offensive nonentity.
Would Golden State have gotten away with that shift if Allen wasn't harboring a hamstring injury? How much better off would the Grizzlies have been if Conley, playing in a face mask, didn't shoot sub-40 percent on twos and sub-22 percent on threes over the final four games? Who knows.
Leaning toward alternative selections is reasonable. The Grizzlies still would've needed to beat the Rockets, who weren't yet the caps-lock ROCKETS, but also weren't steppingstones. The 2015 Cavs would've been beatable if both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving still got hurt, but they weren't barren of fight.
Even so, this feels like the right call. And if it isn't, it probably needs to be Zach Randolph's Game 7 suspension in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, or the Grizzlies drafting Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 in a 2009 class that saw James Harden (No. 3), Stephen Curry (No. 7) and DeMar DeRozan (No. 9) go after him.
Miami Heat: Chris Bosh’s Career Getting Cut Short by Blood Clots
Perhaps you’re drawn to a development or moment from the Miami Heat’s Big Three era. Trust me, I get it. Because I was.
What if Ray Allen misses? What if LeBron James never leaves? Those were my immediate and extended-thought leanings.
Then Allana Tachauer of Five Reasons Sports reminded me of a better one.
“I can’t not answer this with ‘What if Chris Bosh never had blood clots?’” she wrote. “To me, that changed the entire course of the organization post-Big Three—and not just on the court, but off it as well.
“Without Bosh falling ill, Miami likely would have never stumbled into its so-called ‘Forgotten Years,’ and as a result, it very well might never have gone after Jimmy Butler. And although the cause and effect of both are easy to see from a purely basketball perspective, the cultural ramifications should not go overlooked.
“From the tandems of ‘Rook 1’ and ‘Rook 2’ (Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow), Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters (‘7-11’) and The Brothers Johnson (James and Tyler), to Dwyane Wade’s return, I firmly believe everything can be traced back to losing Bosh.”
This is wildly unsettling to think about. And it says nothing of what the Heat might’ve looked like with a fully healthy Bosh—who, despite his third-option status during the Heatles era, was a ridiculously good and historically underrated player.
Knowing that team president Pat Riley is addicted to superstar pursuits, I can only imagine a post-Big Three era led by Bosh peaks with the South Beach Godfather landing another marquee name even sooner. Maybe it’s still Butler. (Another fascinating consequence: Are the Heat in position to draft Tyler Herro at No. 13 in 2019?)
Focusing on LeBron’s exit is probably fine. What if Miami doesn’t get trucked by the San Antonio Spurs in 2014? But that Heatles core spent the entire season operating on the brink, and changing scenery every four years has essentially been LeBron’s modus operandi since leaving Cleveland the first time.
Bosh’s health and abruptly shortened career is more impactful. So is Goran Dragic’s left foot injury during the 2020 NBA Finals. (What if he stays healthy? Do the Heat beat the Lakers?)
Milwaukee Bucks: Jabari Parker's ACL Injuries
Shout-out to The Gyro Step podcast’s Ti Windisch for ensuring we didn’t have any shared moments between two franchises. Just as the Warriors’ biggest what-if has to be keeping Stephen Curry in the Andrew Bogut trade, I presumed something like “What if the Bucks had actually acquired Steph?” would be the choice for Milwaukee.
“What if Jabari Parker stayed healthy is my top choice for the Bucks, maybe just because I still feel bad for Jabari based on how his career has played out to this point,” Windisch wrote. “Given what Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into, there was no shot that Jabari would be the MJ to Giannis’ Pippen, which is a pipe dream Bucks fans held in 2014.
"But at that time, the whole hope of the franchise was thrust squarely onto Jabari’s shoulders. There was something truly special about a top prospect wanting to play in Milwaukee—the same magic that swirls around Giannis after he chose to stay. The city was starting to get excited about the Bucks for the first time in a long time when they got the second pick and used it on him.
“Jabari’s rookie year started slow, with some positive signs he could be the alpha-wing scorer he was billed as, until he tore his ACL. He got back in time for most of his sophomore season and continued to score well within the arc, but it wasn’t until his third season when it seemed like he had overcome the injury entirely and was developing into a dominant talent—just as Giannis made his own leap to being an All-Star.
“They both averaged 20-plus points that season, and Jabari finally started knocking down threes, going from around 25 percent in his first two seasons to 36.5 percent, while also adding an assist per game to his tally and scoring better than ever within the arc. Alongside Khris Middleton, Giannis and Jabari seemed poised to be the next big homegrown squad, until disaster struck and Jabari tore the same ACL again.”
Imagining what the Bucks might look like now had Jabari never suffered a second (or initial) ACL tear almost feels impossible. Does he satisfy the requirements for a co-star? Or do the Bucks inevitably move him for someone else? Either is a wild proposition for someone whom the Bucks eventually let walk for nothing.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Joe Smith's Illegal Contract
Congratulations are in order for Minnesota Timberwolves fans. The ever-thoughtful Derek James, formerly of A Wolf Among Wolves and Canis Hoopus, did not go with the franchise’s decision to pass on Stephen Curry (twice!) in 2009.
On the other hand, we still need to acknowledge it, because it’s a pretty big deal.
“Let’s remember that then-Timberwolves general manager David Kahn and then-coach Kurt Rambis were not the nurturing types,” he explained. “Look at how it played out with Jonny Flynn, one of the players whom they selected before Curry. Flynn had a below-average-to-average rookie season and had hip surgery around the beginning of his second season. When he returned, the team did not seem to have the patience for him.
“Given that Curry had a smattering of ankle issues early in his career, the Rambis-Kahn duo likely would have mishandled that situation, too. Remember, many people were unsure what position Curry was in the NBA, and though he was bigger than Flynn, he still wasn’t huge by NBA standards. Curry would have also been playing in Rambis’ triangle offense, a system that often involves a point guard giving the ball up early.”
This…tracks. It would be harder to stomach Steph’s success if it came after he wore a Wolves jersey, as opposed to his never wearing one at all. Anyway, James turned the clock back to the Kevin Garnett era for his pick.
“We know Garnett’s extension changed how teams operated, but it also made building around him difficult,” he wrote. “Talented free agents like Kendall Gill and LaPhonso Ellis came and left, often because the team could no longer afford them. But the problem wasn’t Garnett’s contract; it was the illegal Joe Smith contract in 2000 that cost the team four first-round picks (originally five, but 2003 was restored).
“Sure, these would be mid-to-late firsts, but the teams worth their salt find value later in the draft. Between 2000 and 2005, the Wolves drafted only eight players. Of those, none of them played 300 NBA games. So, maybe the Wolves were unlucky to draft well anyway, but at least they would have had a chance.
“While the passing of Curry is one of the most-discussed what-ifs, the illegal Joe Smith contract and the consequences probably matter more because of how much better the early-2000s teams were than the late-2000s teams. The 2004 Western Conference Finals would have been different if Sam Cassell didn’t hurt his hip in the previous round. And a young, ascending player or two may have buoyed the Garnett era for a few more years and prevented some of the tensions that soured the icon’s relationship with the franchise.”
New Orleans Pelicans: DeMarcus Cousins' Achilles Injury
Spotting what-ifs throughout the New Orleans Pelicans’ history isn’t particularly difficult. There’s the obvious “What if Chris Paul or Anthony Davis never asked out?” angles and a few AD injury moments to boot. And then we always have the “What if the CP3-to-the-Lakers trade was never basketball reason’d into oblivion?”
My personal pick was Game 7 of the 2008 Western Conference Semifinals. What if they beat the Spurs? Would they have been able to punch out the Lakers? And, if so, could they have then upended the eventual-champion Celtics?
For his part, Boot Krewe Media’s Shamit Dua went with what feels like the correct choice.
“The biggest what-if for the Pelicans in recent memory is the DeMarcus Cousins Achilles injury in 2018,” he wrote. “New Orleans was just finding its stride that January when Boogie went down in a win against the then-dominant Rockets. The Pelicans would later go onto trade for Nikola Mirotic and sweep the Portland Trail Blazers that same season, before falling short in five games against the Kevin Durant-era Warriors. They probably don't win a title that season, but Boogie and Davis would have provided the Dubs with a matchup they had never faced before.
“Cousins was also up for a new contract that coming offseason. How does the team build around the twin towers and Jrue Holiday moving forward? Could they have outlasted the Warriors core and been around for the bubble ring? Would Dell Demps and Alvin Gentry still be the lead executives of the franchise? So many questions we'll just never know the answer to.”
Another potential implication Dua’s answer had me ruminating over: Does the Twin Towers approach become in vogue sooner if Boogie and AD had stayed together for the long haul?
We’re seeing a quasi-revival of dual-big lineups, not just in Boston (Al Horford and Robert Williams III), Cleveland (Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen) and now Minnesota (Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert), but in places like Memphis (Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams) and Orlando (Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. this past season, with Paolo Banchero entering the mix).
Boogie and AD share specific similarities with the KAT-Gobert pairing we’re about to watch. Maybe this approach would have reignited sooner if the Pelicans had gotten an actual window with their own version of it.
New York Knicks: Bernard King's Exit
Think of an NBA season over the past four decades. Any NBA season. The New York Knicks probably have a what-if moment, transaction, development, whatever from that year.
What if they didn’t negotiate against themselves in the Carmelo Anthony trade? What if they never dealt for Andrea Bargnani during the 2013 offseason? What if Amar’e Stoudemire’s health never implodes? What if they don’t sign STAT in the first place? What if Stephen Curry falls one pick lower? What if Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving join the Knicks rather than the Nets? What if Michael Jordan left Chicago for New York in 1996? What if Patrick Ewing’s knees never implode?
That list goes on and on and on. Kudos to Knicks Film School’s Jonathan Macri—with an assist from KFS’s producer extraordinaire Andrew Claudio—for winnowing it down.
“My No. 1 what-if harkens back to 1987, and New York's decision to part ways with Bernard King,” Macri wrote. “King, for those younger fans who may not be familiar, was for a time perhaps the best player ever to suit up for the Knicks. In the 1983-84 season, he finished second to Larry Bird in MVP voting. And he was just getting started.
“After averaging 26 points per game in 1983-84, King was putting up nearly 33 per night in 1984-85. That's when tragedy struck, and he tore his ACL in March 1985, which would keep him out for two years.”
“By the time he returned, the franchise had received a somewhat significant talent upgrade in the form of Patrick Ewing. Unfortunately, when King returned to play six games at the tail end of the 1986-87 season, Ewing himself was sidelined. Knicks brass never saw them share the same court, but nonetheless decided to move on from King despite him having just turned 30.
“It turned out to be a mistake. King caught on with Washington, steadily building his scoring average back up over the next four seasons, from 17 to 20 to 22 and then all the way up to 28 per game in the 1990-91 season, a feat that resulted in an All-Star berth and selection to the All-NBA third team.
“New York, meanwhile, was wasting the talents of Ewing, who had just finished with consecutive top-five MVP finishes, not to mention Mark Jackson, the 1988 Rookie of the Year who made an All-Star team in his second year, and the newly acquired Charles Oakley. They were good, but not quite good enough, with a glaring need for a scoring wing in place of sub-elite talents like Gerald Wilkins, Johnny Newman and Kiki Vandeweghe.
“King would have been a perfect fit, perhaps even good enough to make the difference against the Bulls in a 1989 second-round defeat that turned out to be Rick Pitino's last games as Knicks head coach.
“Ultimately, this isn't a perfect what-if, because King's return was short-lived thanks to another knee injury in 1991. Still, the greatest question in franchise history will always be what Ewing would have been able to do with a true running mate.
"We nearly had the answer, but unfortunately, Knicks fans will always be left guessing.”
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook's Meniscus Tear in 2013 Postseason
For a franchise that hasn’t even been in its current market for two decades, the Oklahoma City Thunder sure are brimming with what-ifs. (Note: Moments from the Seattle Supersonics were not considered for this exercise.)
Everyone’s favorite (on a national level) remains the same more than a decade later: What if the Thunder never trade James Harden to the Rockets? But that’s merely the tip of the spear.
What if they don’t blow a 3-1 lead against the Warriors in 2016? What if Kevin Durant never left? Does Al Horford go to Oklahoma City (still in his prime)? In a world where KD returns, do the Thunder move Russell Westbrook to shift up the star pairing? What if various injuries didn’t muck up multiple playoff runs following the Thunder’s 2012 Finals appearance?
And yet, even with all of that—and more—up for consideration, the answer feels somewhat obvious.
“There’s a reason why Patrick Beverley is Thunder Public Enemy No. 1,” Daily Thunder’s Brandon Rahbar said. “The Thunder's all-time-best team was in 2013— the year after they made the Finals and traded Harden. They finished 60-22, were the West’s No. 1 seed and had the No. 1 offensive rating, No. 4 defensive rating and one of the all-time best net ratings.
“The Thunder were primed to return to the Finals for a rematch versus the Heat. If OKC wins it all that season, then the Harden trade narrative, KD’s future and Westbrook’s legacy are all flipped and that Thunder team is held in higher regard.”
Generally, I’m not a fan of speaking in absolutes. Did Beverley cost the Thunder a title? We can’t be sure. But Russ’ meniscus injury was the first in a string of ill-timed setbacks. Serge Ibaka’s calf strain loomed over the 2014 postseason. KD missed significant time with a Jones fracture the following year.
Viewed in totality, it seems fair to say that injuries probably cost the Thunder at least one championship—and so much more.
Orlando Magic: The Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady Pairing
Smack-you-in-the-face options are available in abundance for the Orlando Magic. Khobi Price of the Orlando Sentinel selected a (potentially painful) banger.
"What if Grant Hill and the Magic were able to get a better handle on his ankle injuries earlier? The Magic acquired Hill, who started battling with injuries in 2000 while he was on the Detroit Pistons, with the hope that he and Tracy McGrady could revive the franchise after the Shaquille O'Neal-Penny Hardaway era ended," he wrote. "That didn't materialize.
"Hill played only four games in his first season in Orlando, 14 in his second, 29 in his third and none in his fourth. By the time he was healthy, the Magic had traded McGrady to the Rockets and were rebuilding around Dwight Howard.
"What heights would a healthy Hill-McGrady duo have taken the Magic to? Far enough to play the Lakers in the Finals, matching up Shaq against the franchise he left in 1996? Where would we rank Hill-McGrady among all-time duos? Would another (non-Tim Duncan) star have tried to push their way to Orlando to join them? Would Howard's career have been altered because the Magic were too good to draft him in 2004? What would the Rockets have done if McGrady was thriving alongside Hill? NBA history could've been altered significantly."
Hill's entire career is a gigantic what-if. He is already remembered as one of the most unique and versatile players in league history, but he'd go down as one of the most dominant if injuries hadn't wrecked his availability. Peak T-Mac and Peak Hill absolutely would have been championship material—a wing duo unlike any other in the NBA at the time.
Timmy D almost signing with Orlando in 2000 would have been my pick. (Aside: The Magic should be a more popular free-agent destination.) Tilting toward "What if Shaq or Dwight never left?" works, too. And then, of course, we have Nick Anderson's missed free throws from Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals.
Philadelphia 76ers: Markelle Fultz, Period.
Recent history is drowning in Philadelphia 76ers what-ifs. Bleacher Report's own Bryan Toporek went with the one that cast a pall over the organization in real time and after the fact.
"Given the trickle-down effects, I have to go with them trading up to the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 and taking Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum," he wrote, presumably with tears in his eyes. "We don't need to rehash the Fultz saga in Philadelphia, and ironically, it might wind up having a happy ending for the Sixers. They sent him to Orlando for a top-20-protected first-round pick, which they used to select Tyrese Maxey!
"But with Tatum already looking like a top-10 player, it's impossible not to wonder what a core of Tatum and Joel Embiid could have accomplished over the next decade. If the Celtics go on to win a title with Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Sixers will likely regret this decision more than anything else during the Process era."
It is a testament to Maxey's ascent that this no longer feels like the only option. Also: Fultz was almost universally considered the top prospect in the 2017 class. Can we even be sure the Celtics would've taken Tatum at No. 1 if they didn't trade the pick? And where was he on the Sixers' board? Would they have taken him if they stayed at No. 3?
Other potential nominees come at you in spades.
What if Jimmy Butler doesn't leave in 2019 free agency? What if Kawhi Leonard misses? What if Ben Simmons doesn't pass out of The Layup? What if they traded Simmons sooner? What if that Simmons trade takes place while retaining Butler? What if Sam Hinkie never leaves? And what if, as Toporek reminded me, they don't trade Mikal Bridges on draft night in 2018? What if Embiid doesn't miss the first two years of his career? And what if he's not banged up beyond comprehension this past postseason? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Phoenix Suns: Coin Toss for the No. 1 Pick in 1969
Remember that time the Phoenix Suns could've drafted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Sam Cooper from The Timeline Podcast sure does.
"To find the Suns' biggest what-if moment of them all, we must venture all the way back to the very beginning," he explained. "In 1968, the Suns and Bucks entered as the league’s freshest expansion teams. After difficult inaugural seasons for both organizations, they participated in a coin flip to determine the rights to the 1969 draft’s No. 1 pick—a pick that would surely be used on UCLA standout Lew Alcindor.
"As the story goes, the Suns pledged to tie their destiny to the results of a fan poll. As 51.2 percent of Suns fans wished to select heads on the coin flip, that’s precisely what the team did. When the coin came up tails, general manager Jerry Colangelo drove around the city aimlessly for hours, as the gravity of the situation sunk in.
"Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, went on to win three MVPs and one championship in Milwaukee before packing his bags for L.A. Neal Walk, the No. 2 selection in that draft? He carved out a solid career starting at center for several years. But he was never an All-Star, much less an MVP."
The "What if Team X drafted Player Y?" discourse is always fickle—usually revisionist history. This isn't that. Kareem to Phoenix was the hope.
More recent missed opportunities or bad luck might take the cake for others. What if John Paxson doesn't hit a championship-winning shot against Phoenix in 1993? What if Robert Horry doesn't hip check Steve Nash in 2007? What if Metta World Peace, then Ron Artest, didn't bury that Game 5 buzzer-beater in the 2010 Western Conference Finals? What if Jrue Holiday doesn't strip Devin Booker at the end of Game 5 in the 2021 NBA Finals? What if the Suns don't get absolutely gobsmacked in Game 7 of the 2022 semifinals?
Worthy choices abound. And I can't quibble with any of them. But getting Kareem, as hoped, would've altered the entire trajectory of the Suns franchise.
"While simply rostering Kareem brings no guarantee of championship-level success, it’s not difficult to envision this version of the Suns becoming a powerhouse extremely early into their franchise history," Cooper wrote. "That reputation boost very well could have created a ripple effect, allowing the organization to strive for even greater heights in the 1970s and beyond."
Portland Trail Blazers: Greg Oden...Two Times Over
When I approached my esteemed editor, Bryant Knox, about partaking in this project, he answered my question with another one.
"To ask 'What if?' for the Portland Trail Blazers, you have to start with the prerequisite 'Where the hell to begin?'"
He's not kidding. Brandon Roy's career and injury arc. Wesley Matthews' torn Achilles in 2015. Drafting LaRue Martin at No. 1 in 1972 rather than Bob McAdoo (No. 2) or some dude named Julius Erving (No. 12). Losing the coin toss for the right to get Hakeem Olajuwon at No. 1 in 1984 and then taking Sam Bowie at No. 2 ahead of Michael Jordan (No. 3). The list is extensive.
Knox settled on the Blazers selecting Greg Oden over Kevin Durant at No. 1 in 2007.
"Oden’s career swiftly dissolved from fantastically promising to doomed by injury," he said. "One day after the draft, thousands of Blazers fans rallied downtown around him. A few days later, the 20-year-old graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine, ready to win 'like 15' championships. But five years, 82 games and three microfracture surgeries down the road, the experiment ended. On March 15, 2012, the Blazers held a fire sale at the trade deadline, waiving Oden. Three months later, Portland watched Durant lace up in his first NBA Finals."
This isn't purely about Oden not being KD, either. It's about his never getting the chance to fully actualize himself on the court—a what-if via absentia.
"There’s another side to this that asks 'What if Greg had stayed healthy?'" Knox explained. "I think it’s the outcome many Blazers fans would choose even over drafting KD."
Yet with all of that said, the KD element still looms over Portland like an unending eclipse.
"Fifteen years later, when Durant hits the trade market and Lillard hits Photoshop amid another rebuild, KD’s ghost is alive and well in Rip City," Knox wrote. "And he’s among the most prominent of the very expansive, very ghastly bunch."
Sacramento Kings: 2002 Western Conference Finals
Teams with innumerable what-if moments that warp the past, present and future make it difficult to dwindle down the field to a lonely flash point.
In the case of the Sacramento Kings, though, Jillian Adge of SportsEthos believes the answer is clear.
"Losing the 2002 Western Conference Finals," she wrote. "No question this team would have had a title. It might not have stopped the Maloofs from losing their money outside of basketball years later, but I think it puts a different light on the organization as a whole, and maybe they could have sold them earlier without the drama every offseason of 'Will they move to Anaheim, Virginia Beach, Las Vega or Seattle?'"
"I was there for every home game that series and experienced every emotion possible during that span," she continued. "The sad thing is the only high to come close to this since then came off the basketball court—keeping the team in Sacramento."
Others will gravitate toward the decision to select Marvin Bagley III at No. 2 in 2018 over Luka Doncic (No. 3). That's a viable option. So, too, are the team's decision to fire Rick Adelman, the decision to fire Michael Malone, the disasterpiece that was 2015 free agency and a litany of other draft and organizational missteps.
But tangible title chances carry profoundly more emotional tonnage than hypothetical windows contingent upon roads not traveled. That 2001-02 Kings squad was dominant. They finished with a top-six offense and defense while leading the NBA in point differential per 100 possessions.
Falling to the eventual champion Lakers is one thing. It's another to have that loss ensconced in controversy—specifically, claims that Game 6 was fixed. Even if it wasn't, coming within moments of advancing to the NBA Finals knowing L.A. went on to sweep the then-New Jersey Nets stings beyond measure. Because while the Kings core wasn't immediately dismantled, that season represented a pinnacle—heights and opportunity not only never again sniffed by this nucleus, but the entire franchise.
"[The Kings] are in Year 16 of no playoffs and being the punching bag of the NBA," Adge wrote. "It has been a downhill slide since that 2002 series, [both] gradual and steep."
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard's Ankle Injury During 2017 Western Conference Finals
Where would the San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard be if Zaza Pachulia never stepped under his left ankle in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals? And heck, where would Golden State and Toronto be if that moment in time was removed from history?
This set of questions is equal parts tantalizing and emotionally eviscerating for Spurs fans, which is why Paul Garcia from Project Spurs chose to focus on it.
"Yes, the Warriors were a juggernaut with Kevin Durant and won 67 games that season and eventually the title," he wrote. "But the Spurs were also an elite team, winning 61 games and holding a 21-point lead with 8:28 left in the third quarter of Game 1. What if Leonard didn’t get hurt and the Spurs won Game 1? They would have stolen home-court advantage, and then, who knows? Both teams had top-10 offenses and defenses that season, the element a title contender needs."
"That game was the last time the Spurs were a title contender," Garcia continued. "Leonard played only nine games in 2017-18, and he demanded a trade and ended up in Toronto the following summer. Had the Spurs defeated the Warriors and then won the title in 2016-17, does the Leonard-Spurs relationship not fall apart considering he would now be a two-time NBA champion with the team?"
We needn't even rewrite the outcome of the 2017 Western Conference Finals to ponder an alternate reality in San Antonio. That injury was the beginning of the end for those Spurs, and it was the subsequent quad injury to Leonard that became the source of so much discord and distance between he and the organization.
So many other what-ifs since were borne from that moment in Game 1, including "What if the Spurs accepted a different, more future-focused return in the Kawhi trade?" Does he still injure his right quad? Do the Spurs put up enough of a fight versus the Warriors, if not upset them outright, to keep things hunky-dory a while longer? Would they even have needed to move him?
No other what-if comes close to matching this one. There's a case for Game 6 (or even Game 7) of the 2013 NBA Finals, but losing that series drove the 2014 championship push.
Toronto Raptors: What If Kawhi Leonard Stays?
For a franchise with a fairly significant amount of prominent what-ifs, the Toronto Raptors' selection felt shockingly singular.
"I'd say that the biggest what-if, the most pivotal hypothetical for the Raptors would be Kawhi Leonard remaining on the team," Yasmin Duale of the Dishes & Dimes podcast and The Walrus wrote. "His brief stint culminated in a championship. The framework for the team would've remained relatively strong heading into the following season, and that Raptors team likely would've dominated a bubble postseason run considering the competition in the 2019-2020 season."
"Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have improved tremendously since that run, and some Raptors fans believe that under Leonard's leadership, they might have had the makings of an NBA dynasty."
Although I'm not a Raptors fan, I'm strongly inclined to agree.
Toronto played a role in unmaking—or at least pausing—the Warriors dynasty. The league's title hierarchy has lacked the same inevitability ever since. That Raptors core would've received a fair shake at maintaining the Chief Juggernaut throne, especially given how things have turned out for the supposed-to-be-inevitable Nets.
Plenty of other moments scattered throughout Toronto's history qualify for consideration here as well. What if the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan core ever busted through LeBron James? What if Vince Carter leaves Toronto under better circumstances? Or not at all? What if Chris Bosh never bolts for Miami? Is there an alternate reality where Tracy McGrady stays?
Nominating negatives like "What if the Raptors never traded for Kawhi?" is something I've staunchly avoided throughout this process. Relative to the sentimental value held by DeRozan, though, it's a fair question. Duale also wondered what the complexion of Raptors history would look like had they poached team president Masai Ujiri during the Bosh era.
Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell's Ankle Injury During 2021 Postseason
Despite having an historical track record of what-ifs, the Utah Jazz's choice almost had to skew more recent. How could it not? We just witnessed the unmaking—with more unraveling likely to come—of a core that routinely spent the regular season not merely thriving, but dominating.
Quin Snyder is gone. Rudy Gobert is gone. Royce O'Neale is gone. Donovan Mitchell will likely soon join them. This nucleus was championship material. And it didn't age out so much as grow stale and implosive.
But what if didn't? What if it got over the hump? Or what if it at least cracked the conference finals? Is anything different now? Perhaps. But you first need to identify a moment that could've reinvented the Jazz's fate.
Dan Clayton from Salt City Hoops found one.
"A more recent 'what if' germane to the Jazz’s current situation starts with Edmond Sumner’s leg sweep on April 16, 2021. Utah was on a 62-win pace before Sumner got tangled up with Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz were a force to be reckoned with, a top-four offense and defense.
"If Mitchell doesn’t hurt his ankle that night, maybe he captures All-NBA honors and earns a supermax extension. Maybe Joe Ingles doesn’t overtax himself over the final month of the regular season and has more left in the tank for the eventual Clippers series. Maybe Mitchell’s standoff with medical professionals before Game 1 of the playoffs, a relationship-altering moment for sure, never occurs. Maybe if he plays Game 1, the Jazz don’t need five games to get past Memphis, and Mike Conley Jr. doesn’t tweak his own hammy in Game 5, forcing him to miss nearly all of the Clippers series.
"Most importantly, maybe Mitchell isn’t vulnerable to re-injury in Game 2 vs. L.A. Through Game 2, Mitchell was shooting 55 percent on drives in the playoffs, and the Jazz had the Clippers on the ropes. After the tweak, he shot 30 percent going toward the hoop. He just wasn’t the same. The Jazz also suddenly didn’t have enough guards who could stay in front of the ball defensively. Mitchell couldn’t move laterally. Ingles was exhausted. Conley was hurt.
"Whether you believe those Jazz were true contenders (I do), the version that literally limped out of the playoffs was a different team than the one dominating before Mitchell’s injury. They’ve never been the same since."
Washington Wizards: Jan Vesely at No. 6 in 2011
Something related to the Washington Wizards of the mid-2010s was my original intention within this space. What if John Wall never gets injured in their second-round series against the very-good-but-beatable Hawks in 2015? What if Kelly Olynyk doesn't mutate into Larry Bird 1.5 in Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals?
Quinton Mayo from BetMGM elected to go the draft-night route.
"Selecting Jan Vesely at sixth overall in 2011 when they could’ve drafted Klay Thompson (No. 11) or Kawhi Leonard (No. 15) [is my pick]," he wrote. "While the front office has shown ineptitude across multiple regimes when it comes to giving out good contracts or trading for the right players, the crushing blow has been their inability to draft and develop.
"Vesely is an all-time bust, and that misstep is compounded when you consider Thompson and Leonard were right there. Also, to add insult to injury, Washington worked out Leonard predraft, and reports at the time outline Washington’s decision ultimately coming between Leonard and Vesely. They chose the wrong guy, because of course they did."
Washington likewise considered reaching for Thompson, further cementing the Vesely decision in the "What If?!?" annals. It isn't always good form to ding teams for past decisions that might've been considered a reach, but the 2011 draft class was a borderline free-for-all after Kyrie Irving (No. 1) and Derrick Williams (No. 2).
Defending the Kwame Brown pick at No. 1 in 2001 is actually easier. He was virtually a consensus pick after predraft workouts. Vesely was never that.
Laying an egg in Game 7 against the Celtics in 2017 is probably still my own pick. (It was Mayo's runner-up.) Failing to make the conference finals isn't unforgivable knowing the defending champion Cavaliers awaited, but that 2016-17 Wizards squad was special—the absolute apex of the Bradley Beal- and John Wall-captained era.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to his Hardwood Knocks podcast.
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