What if? A visit to the NBA multiverse

Not trying to give a Physics lesson, but let’s start today’s lecture with Infinite Universes, shall we?

Paraphrasing (a better word than cheating!) from the Wikipedia page a little: The Infinite Universe – or multiverse – theory imagines a hypothetical set of multiple (infinite) possible universes that together comprise of everything that can possibly ever exist across space and time.

In non-geek terms, this is what it means: imagine that everything that could ever happen did happen, except that it didn’t happen in our universe but the ‘happening’ instead existed in a very similar but different universe. So in this universe, you decided to read through to the end of this article and get the full experience of what I’ve been trying to convey with my words. But in another universe, you got bored by the third paragraph and went back to checking your Facebook Wall again. In yet another universe, you were so moved by all this that you decided to drop whatever you’re doing with your life and become a Cosmologist. And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

So what am I harping on about? I write this article trying to imagine some of the multiverses of the NBA. In the NBA universe that we currently experience, Miami Heat are the Champions, LeBron James is the MVP, Derrick Rose is injured, Ron Artest is called Metta World Peace, Dwight Howard can’t shoot free throws, and the Wizards are awful.

The NBA has a long and impressive history, but take a closer look and you’ll see that there have been some important moments littered through recent time that have determined the NBA that we experience and enjoy today. But what if certain important events in the NBA had happened differently? What if certain things had happened differently, or not happened at all?

Here, in no particular order, is my list of ten favourite NBA ‘What ifs’: Moments that shaped NBA history, and moments that could’ve landed us into a significantly different NBA universe. Read and judge for yourself…

1. What if the 1980s’ Rockets – with Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson – reached their potential?

My words will be inadequate to describe the potential greatness of the Rockets in the 1980s, who were built around two young 7 footers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Read this excellent article by Jonathan Abrahms on Grantland (The Greatest Team That Never Was) to understand the story behind this unfortunate team. In just their second year together, Olajuwon and Sampson led the Rockets to a surprise win over Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference Finals only to face the superpower Celtics in the Finals. Sampson got in a fight in the Finals and missed a game. The Celtics won that series. But it wasn’t a heartbreaking loss, because this young team believed they had the pieces to keep getting back there for multiple championships year after year.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. A horde of different curses hit the squad, including injuries, drug abuse, suspension, and finally, Sampson’s trade away to the Warriors that broke up the nucleus and set the team back several years. The duo of Olajuwon and Sampson averaged 42.4 ppg and 22.6 rpg together in 1986, and they were backed up by excellent support players in the form of John Lucas, Rodney McCray, and Lewis Lloyd. But Lucas lost major chunks of his career to drug abuse. Llyod and Michael Wiggins also received drug-related suspensions. Sampson got injured a season after the Finals visit and fell out of favour with the coach. He was soon traded to Golden State. He played only six years of above average basketball in his career.

In today’s world, with smarter athletes who are more concerned about their health, maybe the Rockets would not have imploded and taken advantage of the aging Lakers and Celtics to come back to the Finals many more times. Jordan and the Bulls hadn’t yet become contenders, and only the late 80s Pistons would’ve been their toughest challengers. Instead, the Rockets had to wait till the mid-90s – after Jordan’s first retirement – when Hakeem won them back to back NBA Championships. There could have been many more.

2. What if the Blazers weren’t so damn unlucky?

This is a Portland Trailblazers special edition question, for a team with so many ‘what-ifs’ that I’m forced to put them all together under one heading. What if Bill Walton had stayed healthy and built on the 1976 championship? What if the Trailblazers had picked Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie? What if Sabonis wasn’t struggling with injuries? What if the Lakers didn’t make an amazing, unlikely comeback in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals? What if the Jailblazers era had the talent but not the craziness? What if Greg Oden wasn’t injury-prone? What if Portland picked Kevin Durant instead of Greg Oden? What if Brandon Roy didn’t get hurt?

In one such multiverse, the Trailblazers exist as probably the greatest team in NBA history.

3. What if the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers hadn’t been vetoed?

This is recent, and the full repercussions of the ‘what-if’ situation may not be up for proper discussion till many years from now. But do you see what Chris Paul has done for the Clippers? He has made them one of the best in the league, changing the fortunes of a legendarily cursed franchise. But his arrival in the white-and-red part of LA was unconventional. In December of 2011, just as the lockout ended, Paul was sent to the Lakers in a trade that sent Pau Gasol to the Rockets and Lamar Odom and Luis Scola to the Hornets. But just as Laker Nation celebrated, there was a twist in the tale. Paul’s trade was surprisingly vetoed by David Stern and the NBA office, who owned the Hornets. He remained in New Orleans for a few more days until he was sent back to LA, but this time, it was to the Clippers in exchange for Eric Gordon and more. An annoyed Odom wanted to leave the Lakers soon after and he ended up playing badly for the Mavericks before joining the Clippers himself. Gasol never seems to have recovered from the emotional damage of this near-trade. The Lakers waited one more season and got a different point guard – Steve Nash – as well as getting Dwight Howard in a trade for Andrew Bynum. Meanwhile, the Clippers saw Paul gel well with Blake Griffin to become contenders. The Hornets lost Gordon to injury, succumbed to an awful record, and were awarded the first pick in the draft, which they turned into Anthony Davis.

What if the trade hadn’t been vetoed? The Lakers would’ve starred with Paul, Kobe, Metta, and Bynum last season and may have still been able to add the services of Howard this season. The Hornets would’ve been an okay-but-not-great team with Scola, Odom, and Martin but would’ve probably been too good for a first pick. Anthony Davis would’ve been wearing a different jersey. The Clippers would’ve continued being entertaining thanks to Griffin, but he alone wouldn’t have been able to make them successful.

4. What if the Kings weren’t dealt the unfair hand in the 2002 Conference Finals?

The Lakers were coming off back-to-back championships, but in the 2002 Conference Finals, they were facing their toughest threat in years: a strong Sacramento Kings side fuelled by Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojacovic, Doug Christie, Brad Miller, Bobby Jackson and more.

Unfortunately, the Kings got dealt the bad hand. First, with a chance to go 3-1 in Game 4, a miraculous shot by Robert Horry for the Lakers tied the series 2-2. Then, after taking a 3-2 lead in the series, ‘other forces’ struck to screw the Kings off their place in history. There were some truly questionable calls in Game 6 favouring the Lakers. Years later, it was alleged that this game may have been fixed by NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who made improper bets on NBA games. The Kings lost the game and lost the next one. The Lakers went on to meet the lowly Nets in the Finals and swept them 4-0 to win their third-consecutive championship. Although they remained elite in the West for a few more seasons, the Kings never had a better shot at the championship and their superstar Chris Webber never won a ring. The Lakers remained contenders around Kobe Bryant for the majority of the next decade, winning two more championships in 2009 and 2010. The Kings went from bad to worse, and are now regularly one of the NBA’s bottom-dwellers.

What if the refereeing had been legit? The Kings would’ve closed the Lakers off in six games and surely taken care of the Nets in the Finals to win a championship. They would have returned with more confidence the following seasons and instilled a culture of winning. They would surely not be talking about relocating right now. Meanwhile, Shaq and Kobe would’ve each had one lesser ring, and maybe their combustible relationship would’ve been shortened a little more.

5. What if LeBron James didn’t decide to take his talents to South Beach?

The Summer of 2010 was a pivotal one for a certain Mr. LeBron James, and a pivotal one for the future of the NBA as a whole. LeBron was a free agent and there were many teams which had the ambition and the cap space to sign him. He finally made a primetime Decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. His old team – Cleveland – went from being one of the league’s best to one of the league’s worst and ended up with the first pick the following season, which turned into Kyrie Irving. His new team – Miami – went from being 4th/5th in the East to making two consecutive Finals apperances, including one championship (so far). But what if LeBron chose differently? Here are my thoughts on the various scenarios, amongst the teams who were in strongest contention for his services back then:

If he had gone to Chicago: The Bulls could’ve teamed up James with Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and perhaps still signed Carlos Boozer on a cheaper deal (although that’s pushing it). Rose wouldn’t have developed into an MVP with James on his side. Although this team would’ve been as good as LeBron’s Cleveland teams in the regular season, Rose and James’ similar style and clashing personality sounds like an odd fit. They would’ve been contenders, but maybe a step away from being champions.

If he had gone to New York: He would’ve become even more popular, even more heavily-scrutinised, and even more hated! The hardcore Knicks fanbase would’ve gone LeBron-crazy, and teamted with Amar’e, he would’ve been able to make them a contender. But they would still be a piece away from being champions.

If he had gone to New Jersey: The Nets were still in Brooklyn and still without Deron Williams. Their roster was in shambles, and only the promise of being the main man in Brooklyn, playing for his buddy Jay-Z, and a lot of money could’ve tempted LeBron. Had he fell for it, he would’ve been looking at a first-round playoff exit.

If he had stayed in Cleveland: He would’ve been hated less, but with year-after-year of being nearly-there, perhaps mocked more. The Cavaliers had good team chemistry but they were never going to win a championship with that roster. Meanwhile, the Heat would’ve been better with a healthy Wade and Bosh, even without LeBron, but perhaps still not championship material. The East would’ve been more balancd and a closer affair between the Heat, Bulls, Celtics, and Cavs.

And maybe LeBron would’ve still been without his first ring.

6. What if Len Bias hadn’t died of cocaine overdose?

If you don’t know Len Bias, I suggest you find the documentary ‘Without Bias’ and acquaint yourself pronto. In the mid-80s, the 6-foot-8 Bias was considered a force of nature in college, becoming the most hyped young player in America after a certain Michael Jordan. Bias was headed towards absolute greatness, and was surely headed to becoming one of the top five players in the NBA at some point in his career. He was drafted second by the Boston Celtics in 1986, who were coming off a championship and already had a brilliant (but aging) core of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge. But two days after draft night, Bias was found dead due to cocaine overdose. He is considered by many to be the greatest player never to play professionally. The Celtics didn’t win another championship until 2008 with the core of Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and Rondo.

What if Bias hadn’t overdosed on cocaine that night? It was said that he was not a regular user, which makes this scenario especially tragic. Bias would’ve extended the Bird/McHale era in the Celtics and helped them stay relevant for many more years. He would’ve become Jordan’s ultimate rival in the conference.

But most importantly, he would’ve been alive and healthy.

*Not writing a seperate category for him, but a special mention here should also go to Drazen Petrovic, the Croatian legend who was called the ‘European Jordan’ in the late 80s/early 90s. Petrovic was finally coming into his own in the NBA after dominating Europe, before a freak car accident took his life at just 28. Petrovic was playing with the improving Nets when he died, and the Nets crumbled soon after, not to recover properly again until the Jason Kidd years.

7. What if Magic Johnson didn’t test HIV positive?

21 years ago, the NBA’s greatest ever player until that point held a press conference and told the world that he was HIV positive and was retiring from professional basketball. It was a blow to the entire world of basketball lovers, not just Laker fans, who had grown up seeing Magic Johnson win five championships, three MVP awards, and still stand today as perhaps the greatest point guard in basketball. Magic attempted a few comebacks to the NBA after his announcement, but the ‘magic’ was never the same. Being out of shape made him slower and less effective. He went to the NBA Finals an incredible nine times in 12 years before the announcement. Post-announcement, he never got there again.

What if he hadn’t contracted HIV? Although Magic was already out of his peak in 1991 when he made the announcement, he was coming off yet another visit to the Finals, another season of the All NBA First team, another season as an All Star, and just one season away from being MVP. He was 32, going on 33; old but not done. A player with his multi-dimensional talents could change his game as he got older and played as his age and speed demanded. Magic was a consummate winner, and although the 90s were an era when nothing could’ve stopped the force that was Michael Jordan, Magic would’ve continued to be relevant and troubled his competitors for several more years.

8. What if Michael Jordan never retired prematurely?

So you know the kind of year that LeBron James has had? Championship, MVP, Finals MVP, Championship, Gold Medal. Pretty good, wouldn’t you say? Now rewind back time about 19 years and some of you LeBron-crowning young ones will realise why the man who is currently screwing up the Charlotte Bobcats is considered to be the best basketball player of all time. Michael Jordan had that kind of amazing LeBron year pretty much every year he played in the 90s. By the time he finished the 1992-93 season, he had won his third consecutive championship, his third consecutive Finals MVP award, was the holder of 3 MVP awards, had been an All Star all of his previous nine years in the NBA, had been a Defensive Player of the Year, and had been winning the NBA’s scoring championship every season from 1987-1993. Oh yes, he won a gold medal in 1992 too, and his popularity was at fever pitch. He was only 30 and already being considered by many as the greatest ever.

And at just 30 – with many basketball miles to go in his body – he retired from the game he loved and popularised in October 1993. There were many theories for why he did it. Jordan himself said that he had lost a desire to play the game. Many believed that it was because he was mourning for his father, who had been murdered just months ago in the same year. Conspiracy theorists say that the retirement was actually pushed upon him by Commissioner David Stern as Jordan’s gambling problems and controversies were getting out of hand. Whatever the reason, the game’s best player (ever) left the game. Imagine if LeBron wins two more championships as the world’s best player, and imagine if most people in the world didn’t know about basketball before LeBron, and then imagine if LeBron retires at 30. Also, imagine if LeBron was much, much better. That is the kind of impact Jordan’s departure had on the NBA.

He chose to spend his time playing baseball. Meanwhile, the Bulls fell from being a championship team to a solid squad that lost in next season’s playoffs Second Round without Jordan in 1993-94. Jordan returned to basketball and the Bulls towards the end of the 1994-95 season, but even he couldn’t save them from another loss in the Second Round. The Houston Rockets won two championships in Jordan’s absence, and the Knicks and Magic got to win the Eastern Conference for a change.

But from the 1995-96 onwards, Jordan and the Bulls were back to being as dominant as ever. Even in his mid-30s, Jordan was again the world’s best. The Bulls went 203-43 in the regular season over the next three years, won three more championships, Jordan won two more MVP awards, 3 more Finals MVPs and 3 more scoring titles. Then he retired again only to return for two forgettable years with the Wizards from 2001-2003.

What if Jordan had never retired? The way this man and his team were addicted to winning in the 90s, they could have easily won titles in every single year from 1991-1998 and perhaps even in 1999 because Jordan clearly had one or two more seasons in him after his 1998 retirement (he was 35, but had won MVP, scoring title, and Finals MVP again). If he hadn’t left in 98, maybe Pippen and Phil Jackson wouldn’t have left either. The Bulls could’ve won 8-10 championships instead of ‘just’ 6 and become a dynasty as great as the Bill Russell Celtics.

And hopefully, Jordan wouldn’t have seen the need to return as a Washington Wizard!

9. What if Ron Artest never ‘lost it’ that night in Detroit?

You all know what happened on November 19, 2004. In a tight game between arguably the top two teams in the East – Pacers and Pistons – a scuffle by Ben Wallace on Ron Artest escalated to something much, much worse. A Detroit fan threw a cup of liquid on Artest, and all hell broke loose. Soon, Artest and Stephen Jackson were in the stands fighting fans. Jermaine O’Neal was fighting fans and players on court. Everyone was fighting everyone. In the aftermath of the NBA’s worst-ever brawl, 10 players were suspended in the two teams, including Artest who got 86 regular season and postseason games, the worst-ever non-drug-related suspension.

This is why this moment is important: A season prior to the brawl, the Pacers had the best record in the NBA. They fielded an impressive group of players including MVP candidate Jermaine O’Neal, reigning defensive player of the year Ron Artest, the league’s best shooter and most clutch player Reggie Miller, Stephen Jackson, and Jamaal Tinsley. After the brawl, Artest, Jackson, and O’Neal missed major chunks of the season and the Pacers’ record fell from 61-21 to 44-38. A season later, Artest requested a trade away from the team and was promptly sent to Sacramento. Indiana went on an image-cleaning romp, getting rid of all their best players to take away the negative energy trailing the brawl in Detroit. The legendary Reggie Miller never won a championship. Many years later, Artest did win a ring with the Lakers and now calls him Metta World Peace. Meanwhile, the Pistons, who were reigning champions, remained a top team in the East for several more years with their core players.

If the brawl hadn’t happened? What if Artest hadn’t rushed the stands? Well, the East would’ve been a deadly three-pronged conference of Pistons, Pacers, and the Heat (who had Shaq and Wade), but the Pacers may have had enough for at least one run to the championship. O’Neal would’ve been an MVP candidate instead of floating around the league like he eventually ended up doing. Artest would’ve made Indiana his home, for a while at least (he always seemed destined for LA). And Reggie’s legacy would’ve been cemented.

10. What if Shaq and Kobe didn’t hate each other?

You know what was greater than LeBron and Wade or Durant and Westbrook playing together? Shaq and Kobe playing together. From 1996-2004, the best Center in basketball and one of the best perimeter players in basketball played in the same team, won three championships, and went to four Finals. And yet, you could say that they underperformed. The Lakers of the early 2000s were one of the greatest teams of all time, but they could’ve been greater. Shaq and Kobe hated playing together, and they still won a lot, mostly thanks to the brilliance of Coach Phil Jackson, and thanks to their own respective talents which were good enough to ignore personal rivalries. The relationship reached boiling point several times, and in 2004, the Lakers finally had to decide between one or the other. They chose the younger Kobe. Shaq was sent to Miami, whom he immediately made an elite team in the East and won a championship with in 2006. He bounced around several more teams but never reached the same level as he was in LA again. Kobe became a deadly scorer and the world’s best player without Shaq but didn’t start winning again until he was gifted Pau Gasol from Memphis in 2008.

If the two players had a better understanding amongst each other – like Jordan/Pippen, LeBron/Wade, Magic/Kareem, or Stockton/Malone – then I’m sure they would’ve won two or three more championships. The NBA would’ve had no answer for both Shaq and Kobe in their primes. This team nearly went nearly undefeated in the 2001 playoffs, and back then Kobe was still four or five years away from his best. Shaq would’ve aged better if he had allowed Kobe to smoothly flourish, and Kobe would’ve won more if he had let Shaq age gracefully alongside him, like Magic and Kareem. Wade and the Heat wouldn’t have won a championship in 2006. And who knows, by the time 2008 rolled along and Shaq got older, Kobe would’ve had enough gas in him to go for another championship run with whoever else the Lakers would’ve picked after Shaq. Both of them would’ve collected many, many more rings.

Both of them are already likely to go down in the list of top 10 greatest players of all time. Now imagine that they could’ve been even better!

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