The NBA has had some of the best what-if scenarios in all of sports. From different draft selections to potential trades, there are a lot of alternate situations that would’ve shaken up the basketball world as we know it.
Many team’s and player’s futures could’ve been totally different had things gone slightly different. There is no doubt that a lot of things are born out of luck or just good timing. Many examples exist in NBA history, as shown in the ones I selected for this list.
Without further due, let’s take delve into 10 of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history:
10. The Pistons Draft Carmelo Instead of Darko
The NBA Draft can determine your future of your franchise: one selection can either propel you to glory or set you up for failure.
The 2003 Detroit Pistons found themselves in a great position with the second overall pick in one of the best draft classes in NBA history. With future all-stars like Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the board, Detroit could’ve set their risevin the East. In 2003, they lost in Conference Finals to the New Jersey Nets. Going into this draft, they had a chance to add another bluechip player to a core of Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and Richard Hamilton.
However, the Pistons shocked the NBA by taking Serbian big man Darko Miličić. The international prospect wasn’t on many team’s radar, and Carmelo, an NCAA champion as a one-and-done freshman, was still available. The Denver Nuggets lucked out, as they took Anthony third in a steal of a pick.
Nonetheless, Detroit shocked the NBA once again, but this time they did so in a defiant manner. Despite having barely any contribution from Miličić, the superstar-less Pistons won the NBA Finals over the heavily-favored Los Angeles Lakers. Yet, imagine if Detroit did have a superstar? Especially once as a rookie like Melo?
There are a few questions and what-ifs that arise in this new scenario. Would Carmelo by good for the Pistons? Would they have won multiple championships, possibly creating a dynasty with him? Or would Anthony’s play prove detrimental to Detroit’s foundation?
It is uncertain to know how Anthony would have impacted Detroit for sure, as young players like him could’ve either molded or folded in that situation. What is sad though is that we never got the chance to see it play out. Instead, we got one of the worst busts in NBA history on a team that ended up being great in spite of him.
9. The Rose Injury Never Happens
Very few players had the meteoric rise to superstardom like Derrick Rose. At only 22 years old, Rose became the youngest player in history to win the MVP award. He beat out perennial favorite Lebron by averaging 25 points and 7.7 assists in only his third year. He had all the talent in the world and immense potential to be the new face of the NBA.
Then, just a year later in the first round of the playoffs, Rose tore his ACL. He sat there, holding his achilles, writhing in pain, as the NBA world mourned what they were witnessing. The fact that the game was already in wraps at the point of the injury made it all the more heartbreaking. At age 23, Derrick went from a future Hall-of-Famer to just another recovering basketball player.
His fall from the top was very sad and any true NBA fan wishes he never got hurt. But what if he didn’t? What if Rose stayed healthy and he didn’t suffer injury after injury that derailed his career?
I believe that if Rose didn’t get hurt that the Chicago Bulls would’ve had the chance to make the Finals and possibly win one. Remember that before Rose got hurt, the Bulls were one of the only teams in the East that put up a fight against the Miami Heat in the playoffs. With a core of a developing Rose, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, they would’ve been a disruptive force and championship contenders.
8. Curry Gets Drafted by the Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2009 draft debacle is anthoer example of how a draft selection (or the lack of one), can change your franchise forever. This one may be the worst to stomach, espcially considering the situation. With back-to-back picks at 5 and 6, the Wolves were in a great position.
However, general manager David Kahn infamously selected two point guards: Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn. Who was picked next and was also a point guard that was available this entire time? Steph Curry.
While there were some concerns over Curry’s ankles even before he entered the league, his shooting and scoring prowess was undeniable. To take two point guards over him was a slight on Curry and probably helped motivate him early on in his career.
But imagine if the Timberwolves didn’t royally mess up and took Curry with one of those picks? For starters, there would definitely not be a Golden State Warriors dynasty currently reigning over the league. Curry is an integral part to that machine, so there would be no ‘Splash Brothers’ or a Warriors title run. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, could’ve had themselves set up for the next decade with the greatest shooter of all-time.
Also, Curry would probably have been like Kevin Garnett or Kevin Love — great Timberwolves players that eventually want out. His legacy would be completely different, as many see him as the golden boy of the NBA. That wouldn’t be the case if he were putting up empty stats on bad Timberwolves teams, and he probably wouldn’t win more than one MVP award.
7. Len Bias Doesn’t Overdose and the Celtics’ NBA Dominance Continues
The Len Bias story is the most somber one in this list, but still stands as one of biggest what-ifs in NBA history. In 1986, the Boston Celtics were coming off one of the greatest seasons ever. They won 67 games, Larry Bird nabbed his third-straight MVP and the Celtics won the championship.
In the ’86 draft, they had a chance to solidify their dominance even further. Because of a trade with the Seattle Supersonics, the Celtics found themselves with the second overall pick. With this pick, Boston would take Len Bias, one of the most accomplished NCAA players ever. Bias was a once-in-a-generation-type athlete. Many people compared him and his high-rising ability to Jordan who last draft three years prior.
Yet sadly, two days after being drafting, Bias died of a cocaine overdose. At only 22, his premature death was felt across the NBA, especially in Boston. They felt that they had the chance to extend their power grip over the East with the emergence of Bias. But they also lost out on a great individual who would’ve embraced the city and his role as the next one. It is sad to think about, but the ramifications of his death ended up being huge.
In a world in which Bias didn’t overdose, the Celtics most likely would’ve continue to rule over the NBA. They had just come off one of the greatest seasons ever and won four titles in the ’80s. The ’90s could’ve very easily been theirs as well, with players like Bias and veterans such as Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Bird’s injury problems later in his career ended up being the downfall of the Celtics; perhaps Bias’ career could’ve prevented that and been an NBA great in the process.
6. The Trail Blazers Draft Jordan Instead of Bowie
The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the most unlucky franchises in sports. They’ve had more their fair share of misfortune when it comes to injuries and drafting. I could’ve included another botched Blazers pick on this list, (i.e. Greg Oden over Kevin Durant), but that would be a lot for Portland.
The biggest whiff of them all was when the Trail Blazers had the chance to draft Michael Jordan second overall in the 1984 draft. The feeling was that while Jordan was amazing, the Trail Blazers had just drafted Clyde Drexler the year before. To the Blazers, it would be redundant to draft another guard, so they went with the big man Sam Bowie.
This what-if is particularly fun to think about. What if the Trail Blazers just decided to buck convention and draft Jordan to play alongside Drexler? They would’ve had the best back court in the league, and it would rival the Jordan-Scottie Pippen duo. Add this to a stellar cast including Kiki Vandeweghe and Mychal Thompson and Portland could’ve been the ’90s Chicago dynasty.
Meanwhile, the Bulls would’ve never developed into the dynasty they were. Instead, they’d most likely would’ve taken Charles Barkley since Jordan wouldn’t be available. While Barkley is incredible, and Chicago probably would’ve been a playoff team, they wouldn’t have become the Bulls as we know them today.
5. The NBA Never Vetoes the Chris Paul to the Lakers Trade
Back in 2011, the NBA was on the verge of a mega trade that would’ve tipped the balance of the league heavily towards one team. The Lakers, who were a year off of winning back-to-back championships, agreed to a trade that would’ve sent Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets to Los Angeles.
At the time, Paul was considered one of the best point guards in the league. Adding him to the roster would’ve been a death sentence to the rest of the West. At the last minute though, the trade got vetoed by Commissioner David Stern and Paul was stuck in fledgling New Orleans.
Yet, what if the NBA, who owned the Hornets back then, decided not to interfere? A lot of the modern NBA would’ve been drastically different. As previously stated, the Lakers were a year off of being the champs and still had Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Andrew Bynum. Althogh they would’ve lost Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in the trade, they were gaining a young superstar to pair with Kobe who still had prime years left.
If Paul had gone to the Lakers, perhaps the Dallas Mavericks never make their miracle run that year to face the Heat. We would’ve finally gotten to see the Lebron-Kobe Finals matchup we never got in real life. It would’ve also given Kobe a chance to get the sixth ring he so desperately wanted.
The Hornets would’ve gotten themselves a haul for Paul in the trade. I do think that the Hornets would’ve benefitted from a package of Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and a young Goran Dragic. The trade may have ended up helping both sides and may not have been as lopsided as it once seemed.
4. Robert Horry Never Becomes ‘Big Shot Bob’
A role player for his entire career, Robert Horry is one of the biggest anomalies in sports. With a career stateline of 7 points per game, and having never scored more than 12 points per game in a season, it’s hard to see how someone like him could’ve earned the moniker ‘Big Shot Bob.’
But that’s all that Horry did — hit the big shot when he needed to. He was never ball-dominated or asked for the rock in late-game situations. Nonetheless, the ball always seemed to find him, as he would hit big shots in many playoff series for different franchises. He won seven championships in total, two with Houston, three with Los Angeles then two with San Antonio. Horry was always an integral part of three championship squad, hitting important shots and playing his role perfectly.
Now imagine a player who seems like a fringe guy never became the most clutch player in NBA history. Would the aforementioned teams have won all the titles they were in? Horry was essential to the Lakers’ 2002 Finals run, so it is safe to say his impact was needed.
I think that if he never learned to perfect his role and craft, that the Lakers, Spurs and Rockets may be one or two less titles deeper. It is weird to think, but Horry has the most championships outside of any player from the 1960s Celtics. A seemingly inconspicuous player may just be the biggest difference between winning and losing titles for three teams.
3. Jordan Never Retires to Play Baseball
The 1990’s were defined by Michael Jordan. After all, he and the Bulls won two separate three-peats and dominated the NBA during their reign. Yet, it could’ve been much worse for the rest of the league. For two and a half years, in between three-peats, Jordan retired from basketball, citing a loss of love for the game. His retirement sent shockwaves throughout sports. The most dominant player at his absolute peak just decided to call it quits.
Jordan went on to pursue a career in the MLB, something his recently deceased father always wanted him to try. Jordan spent a year in the Chicago White Sox organization, playing for their minor league affiliates. After he got tired of striking out 100 times, he decided to give basketball a run again. Although the Bulls lost to the Orlando Magic in his first year back, the rest is history.
Yet, imagine if Jordan decided not to randomly retire? His career and the NBA’s history may have been much different. I think it’s safe to assume that he could’ve won eight in a row, maybe more. No team in the ’90s even went to a Game 7 with the Bulls in the Finals. Jordan and Bulls could’ve had a Celtics-like run winning year after year. Jordan would’ve cemented his status as the untouchable G.O.A.T., and the NBA would’ve been all for it.
While many other fan bases would’ve suffered, including the Houston Rockets who would’ve had two championships taken from them in ’93 and ’94, the NBA itself would’ve thrived. Jordan might’ve even turned into the most hated man in sports, due to his continual success. Regardless of why you think Jordan retired the first time, there is no doubt that he left a lot on the table in doing so.
2. The Thunder Don’t Trade Harden
The Oklahoma City Thunder had one of the best young rosters in the history of the NBA. With an under-25 roster of young talent featuring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, the future ever-so was bright in OKC. In 2012, they had just made the Finals but lost to Lebron and the Heat. Regardless, most people felt that the Thunder were set for the next decade.
However, the Thunder never made it back to the Finals. Their reckoning came during the summer after their Finals loss, when they decided to trade Harden to the Rockets. The Thunder had to decide who they wanted to pay: Ibaka, the great defender, or Harden, the outstanding sixth man. Oklahoma City chose the latter, and they sealed their fate then.
By choosing Ibaka over Harden, the Thunder lost out on a potential MVP. Although they still had two in Durant and Westbrook, they opted to not pay a man who is now one of the best scorers in the league. If the Thunder had decided the other way and kept Harden, Westbrook and Durant together, they could’ve dominated the West.
Now, it is hard to say whether Harden would’ve developed into the player he is in Oklahoma City. But there is a scenario in which the three superstars could’ve found a way to co-exist on the court. It’s happened for a lot of NBA dynasties before. And Harden, like all great players, would sacrifice some personal stats for the sake of championships. In doing so, he and the Thunder could’ve been the modern NBA dynasty.
1. The Warriors Win the NBA Finals in 2016
This what-if is the most relevant for the league right now and we are still feeling the ramifications of it today. In 2016, the Warriors wen 73-9 and were one win away from winning back-to-back championships.
However, Lebron had something to say about that as the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Warriors and stun the world. This shocking loss led the door open for the Warriors to be players in free agency. They were, as they somehow were able to land Durant, the second-best player in the league. Durant and the Warriors have had complete command over the entire NBA ever since.
But what if the Warriors hadn’t blown that lead and instead they won the championship? The NBA would look entirely different than it does now. Rather than Durant joining the Warriors, he would’ve either stayed with the Thunder or go elsewhere. Wherever Durant landed, it would’ve been fun to watch.
If he opted to stay, Durant and Westbrook would’ve posed a challenge to the Warriors in the West. There wouldn’t be a certainty that Golden State would sweep through like it has been the past three years. Instead, it would be a dog-fight in the West. This might have compelled Lebron to go somewhere other than the Lakers, possibly staying with the Cavs. Therefore, the two best players in the NBA would be in compelling situations and the league wouldn’t ruined by a lack of competition at the top. That sounds like a win-win to me.