What if Ralph Sampson Entered the 1980 NBA Draft?

Ralph Sampson Celtics

Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.

Red Auerbach can do anything. He’s built champions, he’s coached champions, and this time, he convinces a college freshman to forego his final three years of college to join a future champion. After plenty of cajoling, Virginia’s Ralph Sampson finally agrees that he can’t pass up a chance to play for the best organization in basketball. So he enters the 1980 NBA Draft and gets selected by the Celtics first overall.

The move pays immediate dividends. Boston wins the 1981 championship behind Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell and Sampson helps them do it again by 1983. They take the title in 1985 as well while losing the Finals in 1984 and 1986 to the Lakers. Each team enters the 1987 season with three titles among their core group and an assumption that they’d meet in the Finals to see who’d get ring number four. But Sampson never plays another full season.

His injuries begin in 1987 and simply pile on from there, but Auerbach can’t bring himself to trade such a Celtics legends. So he holds him for too long and Larry Bird wastes the end of his prime playing with subpar talent. He retires out of frustration in 1990.

TopGSWPicks_Parish_760

Things don’t work out quite as quickly for the Golden State Warriors, but behind their front court pairing of Kevin McHale (the No. 3 overall pick in that same 1980 draft) and Robert Parish they turn themselves into a real contender.

Their major mistake was trading perimeter scorer Bernard King for Micheal Ray Richardson, thinking that a star guard would help lift their front court into the Finals. He didn’t, but the principal wasn’t wrong on its face. They steal Terry Porter at the end of the first round in 1985 and have the core of a championship team.

All they need is the opportunity. The Warriors spend most of the 80’s stuck behind the Lakers, but finally got their chance in 1990 when the Lakers are unexpectedly knocked out by the Suns in the second round. Golden State breezes past the Suns into the Finals. They lose the series to Detroit, but just making it that far puts something of a cap on the careers of McHale and Parish. For a brief moment, they had a chance to win basketball’s ultimate prize. Those Golden State teams are remember fondly in the Bay Area, championship or not.

5 thoughts on “What if Ralph Sampson Entered the 1980 NBA Draft?”

  1. That’s a pretty good 80’s NBA “what if” scenario.

    Another one I had: What if the 76ers beat Boston in Game 7 of the 1981 ECF?

    They beat the Rockets, and the Doc-Darryl-Cheeks crew get their first title two years earlier. Then, in 82, Boston completes the comeback against Philly, and they beat the Lakers (they would have had home court, and the Celtic ghosts haunted the Lakers then).

    That sets the stage for 1983. In this new world, the Sixers aren’t as motivated to get over the hump since they already did. So, Moses Malone ends up going to…..The Bucks!

    Suddenly, a team that was close but no cigar in reality turns into the faves, and they win back to back titles in 83 and 84.

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    1. All fair points, but I try to avoid “what if X won Game Y,” because by that logic, literally every game in history is up for grabs.

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  2. I think the Celtics win in ’81, ’82 and ’84 with Sampson. They would’ve convinced Dave Cowens to play 2 more years, the first as a starter at center in ’81, letting Sampson ease himself into the league in what would have just been his soph year of college. Sampson still would’ve gotten 24-28 mins at center and Cowens played some backup PF to Bird. By 1982 Cowens would’ve been in the 6th man role that McHale was in (24-28 mins, 11-13 pts, 7-8 rebounds) as a better rebounder and mid-range shooter with more experience, but not nearly as dangerous a perimeter defender and inside scorer. Sampson would have put up the same numbers as Robert Parish in ’82-’84, been even more useful defending Kareem and even if Cowens retired after ’82 I see the C’s winning at least the ’84 series. In ’83 the team likely still mutinies against Bill Fitch, but since McHale and Parish were two primary Fitch haters, I’m guessing they lose to Philly in like 5 games in the ECF and not in a 2nd rd sweep to the Bucks. By 1985 things would start to go downhill for Boston with Max injured and declining in skills. McHale picked up so much of that slack and even with Sampson being better than Parish (although not by much) the C’s would really need another good young forward to help carry the dynasty into the late 80’s. It is possible that not having to pay two stars and just one in the mid-80’s that the C’s pay Gerald Henderson and not trade him for the ill-fated Len Bias pick. That would probably have resulted in them picking AC Green instead of Sam Vincent in 1985 (it was reportedly between those two players) if they had Henderson, Ainge and DJ all playing big backcourt minutes and needed to replace Max. Maybe Max never gets hurt with Sampson there instead of McHale/Parish and his role being different and they never trade him for Walton, keeping a 1986 1st rd pick they could’ve used on Dennis Rodman or Mark Price. Maybe Sampson never gets hurt in ’87 playing a different role in Boston than on Houston and stays effective until the early 90’s? Who knows. It is a really, REALLY fun ‘what if’. The only things you can be pretty sure about is that if Dave Cowens played 2 more years alongside a 20 and 21 year old Sampson in ’81 and ’82 they would have had just as good a title shot as with a 23 and 24 year old McHale and Robert Parish. After that it gets a lot murkier as the team’s starters are just as good or even slightly better, but the bench is weakened GREATLY.

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    1. If Gerald Henderson isn’t traded to the Sonics, Seattle probably ends up with Len Bias at #2 overall in the 1986 draft. If he goes to Seattle for a post-draft meeting instead of Boston, maybe he stays there a day or two longer (and snorts less potent blow upon returning to Maryland).

      As a result, Bias leads the Sonics to a 50-win season and a first-round win before losing to the Lakers in six games in Round 2. They have trouble with the Lakers the next few years in spite of Bias (although they still add Shawn Kemp in 1989 in Round 1).

      By 1993-94, though, the Sonics form a potent team with Bias, Kemp, vet Sam Perkins, Kendall Gill, Detlef Schrempf, and rookie PG Nick Van Exel. Bias carries them to the WCF where they lose to the Rockets. They lose to SA in the 95 playoffs, and decide that Kendall Gill is too much of a distraction. They trade him to the Hornets for Hersey Hawkins and David Wingate.

      The next year, they finally get to the Finals for the first time, only to lose to the Bulls in 7. Then, after signing Jim McIlvaine, Shawn Kemp’s career slowly unravels, and they trade him in 1997 for Vin Baker. They do well the next few years, but lose to the Lakers and Blazers in the playoffs.

      Also, here’s a side note: If Gerald isn’t traded to the Sonics, he wouldn’t have been traded to the Knicks in 1986 for a 1987 first-rounder. The player used for that pick: Scottie Pippen.

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  3. I think the Celtics win in ’81, ’82 and ’84 with Sampson. They would’ve convinced Dave Cowens to play 2 more years, the first as a starter at center in ’81, letting Sampson ease himself into the league in what would have just been his soph year of college. Sampson still would’ve gotten 24-28 mins at center and Cowens played some backup PF to Bird. By 1982 Cowens would’ve been in the 6th man role that McHale was in (24-28 mins, 11-13 pts, 7-8 rebounds) as a better rebounder and mid-range shooter with more experience, but not nearly as dangerous a perimeter defender and inside scorer. Sampson would have put up the same numbers as Robert Parish in ’82-’84, been even more useful defending Kareem and even if Cowens retired after ’82 I see the C’s winning at least the ’84 series. In ’83 the team likely still mutinies against Bill Fitch, but since McHale and Parish were two primary Fitch haters, I’m guessing they lose to Philly in like 5 games in the ECF and not in a 2nd rd sweep to the Bucks. By 1985 things would start to go downhill for Boston with Max injured and declining in skills. McHale picked up so much of that slack and even with Sampson being better than Parish (although not by much) the C’s would really need another good young forward to help carry the dynasty into the late 80’s. It is possible that not having to pay two stars and just one in the mid-80’s that the C’s pay Gerald Henderson and not trade him for the ill-fated Len Bias pick. That would probably have resulted in them picking AC Green instead of Sam Vincent in 1985 (it was reportedly between those two players) if they had Henderson, Ainge and DJ all playing big backcourt minutes and needed to replace Max. Maybe Max never gets hurt with Sampson there instead of McHale/Parish and his role being different and they never trade him for Walton, keeping a 1986 1st rd pick they could’ve used on Dennis Rodman or Mark Price. Maybe Sampson never gets hurt in ’87 playing a different role in Boston than on Houston and stays effective until the early 90’s? Who knows. It is a really, REALLY fun ‘what if’. The only things you can be pretty sure about is that if Dave Cowens played 2 more years alongside a 20 and 21 year old Sampson in ’81 and ’82 they would have had just as good a title shot as with a 23 and 24 year old McHale and Robert Parish. After that it gets a lot murkier as the team’s starters are just as good or even slightly better, but the bench is weakened GREATLY.

    Like

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