What if Miami Won the Derrick Rose Lottery?

Derrick Rose Heat

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. 

Miami operates with a firm “best player available” rule. Michael Beasley may be a better fit as a forward next to Dwyane Wade, but through the draft process it becomes clear that Memphis point guard Derrick Rose is the better prospect. So when their No. 1 pick comes up in the 2008 NBA Draft, they don’t hesitate to take Rose and figure out the fit a bit later.

That hastiness doesn’t do Rose or the Heat any favors. He looks good when given the chance to attack the rim as he’d like, but with Wade monopolizing the ball those opportunities are few and far between. The tension is so thick that Rose’s hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, eventually calls Miami to make an offer for Rose. The Heat refuse, and Chicago winds up very thankful that they did. After all, had they acquired Rose they never would have entered the 2009 NBA Draft in position to draft a far better point guard, but coach Vinny Del Negro’s frustrating year and Chicago’s roster without scorers gives them the league’s seventh worst record and a desperate need for playmaking. So they grab Davidson’s Stephen Curry and never look back.

Year 2 of the Rose era is more of the same, and by season’s end the team becomes determined to deal him if their lofty free agency goals are met. So to clear the cap space necessary to sign Chris Bosh and LeBron James to join Dwyane Wade, they trade Rose to Minnesota for a future draft pick.

Minnesota is thrilled with the return on their meager investment. Rose turns his career around playing next to Kevin Love and even competes for an MVP award in Minnesota. It is eventually won by James, who goes on to win a total of five straight, but the Rose-Love combination finally gives the Timberwolves some hope in the post-Kevin Garnett era.

As his five MVPs suggest, LeBron wins quite a bit in Miami. They win the Eastern Conference in his first season with the team and the championship in his next two. But eventually, the Curry-Tom Thibodeau combination overcomes the old and worn down Heat in 2014. They lose to San Antonio in the NBA Finals, but in asserting themselves as the new conference leaders they essentially force LeBron’s hand in leaving Miami for Cleveland.

James, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins on one side, Curry, Jimmy Butler and Thibodeau on the other. No one can imagine a more intriguing Eastern Conference rivalry, especially with the winner likely to take on Rose and Love’s Timberwolves in the NBA Finals.

 

What If the Nets Drafted Gary Payton?

Gary Payton Nets 1

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. 

The rest of the league calls them crazy. How could the Nets possibly pass up a franchise center like Syracuse’s Derrick Coleman? But New Jersey simply fell in love with a person rather than a player. Maybe Gary Payton doesn’t have Coleman’s natural ability, but his tenacity, loyalty and heart make him a far more attractive Net. So with the No. 1 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, the Nets take Payton leaving Coleman for Seattle at No. 2.

Payton has a stellar rookie year, but the team still lacks talent around him. He plays a big chunk of his minutes next to another short point guard, Mookie Blaylock, as the team doesn’t have a suitable shooting guard, and while the pair plays great defense it is too young to make the Nets competitive. A trade is explored with Portland for their young shooting guard, Drazen Petrovic, but ultimately the Nets decide to save their assets to find a big man to pair with Payton down the line.

Their search doesn’t take particularly long. While the rest of the league fawns of high-flyers Larry Johnson and Kenny Anderson in the 1991 NBA Draft, the Nets key in on Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo right from the start and waste no time in grabbing him with the No. 4 pick. With Payton and Mutombo in place, the Nets finally feel as though they have the core of a future champion.

Mutombo Georgetown 1

They’re too young to reach those heights in the early 90’s. The NBA belongs to Michael Jordan’s Bulls through 1993, but a window is pushed open when Jordan retires surprisingly before the 1993-94 season. The Nets take advantage. They win 59 games in the regular season and take down the favored crosstown Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to Mutombo’s lockdown defense on Patrick Ewing. Dikembe is just as effective against Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Nets win arguably the most surprising championship in league history.

They repeat a year later, even with Jordan rejoining the Bulls late in the season. Houston adds Clyde Drexler to prepare for another run to the Finals, but Payton absolutely smothers him when the teams meet in a rematch. The Nets become two-time champions, but never win another title. To many casual fans, they were simply the beneficiaries of Jordan’s absence and their titles deserve something of an asterisk.

But the Payton-Mutombo years reinvigorate New Jersey’s interest in basketball. Fans pack the arena, TV ratings skyrocket, and while some talk surfaces about moving the team to Brooklyn late in Payton’s career fan support is ultimately too strong in New Jersey to make such a move. In fact, many argue that Payton is the greatest player in the history of the New York area, and as the Knicks spend most of the post-Ewing era out of the playoffs the Nets remain and stake their claim as New York’s favorite basketball team.

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.

What if Jay Williams Never Got Hurt?

Jay Williams Bulls

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.

Young athletes do stupid things. It’s a given. Jay Williams is just lucky that the Bulls caught wind of his plans to buy a motorcycle, because once they did they strongly urged him not to do so and reminded him of the clause in his contract reminding him that he isn’t allowed to do so. Williams relents, and the Bulls breathe a sigh of relief. Their young point guard is safe from at least that sort of disastrous off-court injury.

And he develops into a very nice young player. Williams averages 17 points per game as a sophomore and that number hangs out around 20 for the next few years. He even makes an All Star team in 2006 as the Bulls return to playoff form. But Williams never quite becomes the superstar Chicago expected.

Derrick+Rose+Memphis+p1

A point guard who does become a superstar, though, is Derrick Rose. The New Jersey Nets luck into him with the first pick in the 2008 NBA Draft through a gift from the lottery gods: they jumped all the way up from the No. 8 slot to nab the Memphis product No. 1 overall. They immediately start gearing their team towards Rose, trading the veteran Vince Carter and taking Terrance Williams and Paul George in the next two drafts to surround him with the proper wings.

Of course, neither of them stick around for very long. When Carmelo Anthony hits the trade market during the 2010-11 season, the Nets offer both along with a cavalcade of other assets to nab him. Anthony is at first resistant, but the idea of playing with Rose warms him up to waiting for the move to Brooklyn. With a pairing of Rose and Anthony, the Nets feel as though they can compete with anyone in the East, even LeBron James and the Heat.

Of course they don’t get the chance. They lose in back-to-back second rounds to the Tom Thibodeau-Jay Williams pairing in Chicago. It’s hardly a satisfying consolation, as Chicago winds up losing to Miami just as consistently, but hey, there’s no shame in making the Eastern Conference Finals and losing to a better team. At least the Nuggets enjoy their part of the deal. Paul George is looking like the best young Nugget since David Thompson.

What if the NBA Let Spencer Haywood Play in 1969?

1396485261000-c03-spencer-13

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.

Typically the NBA doesn’t allow underclassmen to play in the pro’s, but Spencer Haywood is an exception. As an Olympic gold medalist and college superstar, the league determines that he is ready to join after only his sophomore season. He is declared officially eligible for the 1969 NBA Draft.

He isn’t taken first, but that’s only due to the presence of UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Instead, he’s taken by the perfect team at No. 2: the extremely talented Phoenix Suns. They featured three stars in Dick Van Arsdale, Gail Goodrich and Connie Hawkins along with consummate role player Paul Silas. Haywood would slot right in at center and be their missing piece.

That turns out to be precisely the case. Haywood leads the Suns past the Lakers and Knicks to win the championship in only their second year of existence. He even finishes third in MVP voting behind Willis Reed and second in Rookie of the Year to Milwaukee’s Lew Alcindor. When Alcindor wins the title the following year, pundits proclaim Haywood vs. Lew to be the decade’s answer to Russell vs. Wilt.

mb_120928_640

Unfortunately for both, their teams can’t keep up. Age slows down Connie Hawkins and Dick Van Arsdale enough to turn the Suns into a relatively pedestrian team, and the depreciation of Oscar Robertson does the same to Milwaukee. Neither Haywood nor Alcindor wins a championship in the next several years, and when Alcindor changes his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and is traded to Los Angeles, Haywood forces his way to New York just as quickly.

Ironically enough, the Suns make the NBA Finals the very next season, losing to the Boston Celtics in a classic six-game series. That leaves Phoenix fans somewhat wary of Haywood when discussing his legacy. Yes, he was a legendary talent and yes, he led the team to its only championship, but who knows how far the team could’ve gone had he stuck around. Maybe they would’ve beaten Boston in 1976, and maybe they would’ve won several more in the later part of the decade when Walter Davis joined the team.

But ultimately Haywood is too self destructive a person to be the leader of a dynasty. With time, Suns fans learn to accept him for what he was, an excellent player and a pioneer of the game, even if he wasn’t all that he could’ve been. So they cheer when his number is raised into the rafters in Phoenix, never to be worn by a Sun again, even if he only spent a few brief seasons with the team.

What if Minnesota Drafted Stephen Curry?

Stephen Curry Wolves

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. 

Minnesota general manager David Kahn likes to think outside of the box. Why is it, he wonders, that most NBA teams use only one point guard? Surely you could benefit from having two floor generals on the court together? So he enacts his master plan on draft night, take Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio with the No. 5 pick, and then pair him with another point guard at No. 6. Initially, he plans on Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn, but when he tells Rubio’s agent at the last minute he is informed that Rubio will stay in Spain if Minnesota takes Flynn. The pair settle on a compromise: Kahn will take Davidson’s Stephen Curry and turn him into an off-ball shooting guard.

The plan pays immediate dividends. Curry and Rubio pair together brilliantly, as Rubio’s passing and defense allow Curry to focus on his shooting. The point guard duo along with Kevin Love makes Minnesota the envy of coaching staffs around the league. They pass so willingly, work so well as teammates, that it’s surprising when they don’t create a good shot.

Golden State, meanwhile, settles for Flynn and regrets the pick almost immediately. The Syracuse point guard is a disaster from the get-go, and the Warriors finish with one of the worst records in the league. The one benefit is that it puts them in position to draft promising young center DeMarcus Cousins in 2010. Of course, without a point guard to get him the ball, his rookie season is nothing to write home about.

They decide to cut bait with Flynn only two years after drafting him and go into the 2011 draft eager to replace him. They end up with UConn hero Kemba Walker. This devastates the Charlotte Bobcats, who wanted Walker badly. They settle on San Diego State’s Kawhi Leonard. The surprise of the night, though, is when San Antonio trades up to No. 15 to snag Washington State’s Klay Thompson. Rival executives groan. Of course the Spurs grabbed the one player who fell without a good reason. What else is new?

Gordon_Hayward041W_article

Those two drafts prove equally fruitful for Minnesota. In 2010 their pass-happy offense adds yet another selfless stud in Butler’s Gordon Hayward, and a year later they snag Kansas’ Marcus Morris at the bottom of the lottery.

Their defense is laughable, but by the 2012-13 season Minnesota sports the NBA’s best offense. Teams simply can’t stop that combination of shooting, ball movement and Kevin Love’s low-post dominance. Rick Adelman wins NBA Coach of the Year, and Minnesota loses a tough series to San Antonio in the second round en route to their best season since the Kevin Garnett era.

Adelman doesn’t take Minnesota any further. He retires after a first round loss in 2014. Luckily for them, Golden State fires head coach Mark Jackson after his failure to connect with Cousins for two years. Kahn signs him in the hopes that his defense-first attitude will rub off on the team. The Warriors miss out on first choice Steve Kerr, who goes to the Knicks, and are forced to settle for retread George Karl. Sooner or later, they have to find someone who can coach DeMarcus Cousins.

The Jackson hire carries Minnesota over the top. Kahn urges him not to mess with their league-best offense, so he leaves it in the hands of Rubio and Curry so that he can focus solely on defense. Nobody confuses them for stoppers, but they’ll gladly settle for average with the offense they boast. They avoid the Spurs thanks to a Round 1 upset at the hands of the Clippers, and LeBron James’ aging Heat are just too slow to keep up with Minnesota in the Finals.

When Curry stands on the podium to accept his Finals MVP award, coaches from the lowest youth leagues on up smile. Minnesota plays basketball the right way. They can help children do the same. The Timberwolves make passing cool again, and that is their greatest contribution to the game of basketball.

What if the Mavericks Drafted Isiah Thomas?

Isiah Mavs 1

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. 

Sure, DePaul’s Mark Aguirre might be the better prospect. But the Dallas Mavericks are a new franchise, and they need a floor general who can lead the team on the floor and off of it. So they take the point guard, Indiana’s Isiah Thomas, with the No. 1 pick of the 1981 NBA Draft and hope for the best.

The deal doesn’t bear fruit early. The Mavericks struggle through a tough season and Thomas shows serious growing pains along with signs of promise. Things really come together at the 1982 NBA Draft. Knowing that Dominique Wilkins doesn’t want to play for them, the Jazz agree to move down one spot and swap picks with the Mavericks. They take Wilkins and pair him with Thomas. That duo, along with Rolando Blackman and 1984 draft pick Sam Perkins (thanks to a lopsided trade with Cleveland years earlier), forms the basis of a very successful Dallas roster.

They just have to wait for their opportunity. The Lakers win the Western Conference in 1985, ’87, ’88 and ’89. They win the championship in three of those seasons, losing only to Michael Jordan’s surprising young Bulls in 1989. The Mavs finally get their opportunity in 1990, when they overcome the aging Lakers to get their shot at the defending champion Bulls.

And the Bulls beat the crap out of them. Dallas just can’t defend Chicago. Blackman, Wilkins and Perkins are all excellent offensive players, but their defense leaves plenty to be desired. The Bulls beat them again in 1991, winning three championships before Michael Jordan’s 29th birthday. The Mavericks know that they need to improve their defense big time if they want to prevent Jordan from winning a fourth straight.

HOUSTON - 1994: Hakeem Olajuwon #34 of the Houston Rockets grabs a rebound against the Boston Celtics during an NBA game at the Compaq Center circa 1994 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1994 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

They find a partner in their own state. Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwan is sick of losing and wants to contend. The Rockets can’t trade him without getting a franchise player in return. The Mavericks happen to have a spare. So after months of negotiation, the Mavericks send Wilkins and Perkins and to Houston for Hakeem and power forward Larry Smith. For the first time, Dallas goes into their Finals matchup with Chicago prepared to keep Jordan away from the basket.

And they succeed. Olajuwon wins Finals MVP and Thomas finally brings Dallas the ring they’ve so craved. A furious Jordan wants revenge the following spring, but Dallas loses to Phoenix to prevent a fourth-straight duel against the Bulls. Jordan wins the series and retires surprisingly. Four rings is apparently enough.

Thomas surprisingly follows suit a year later after an injury. He has his ring, his money and his legacy. What’s left to play for? Olajuwon sticks around several years longer and eventually finishes his career as a role player in Indiana, but nothing past 1992 matters in the grand scheme of either of their careers. Thomas and Hakeem led the one team that ever beat Michael Jordan. They can take that to their graves.