The Top 5 ‘What If’ Teams Since 1995

Jordan 1998 Game 6 Game Winner

In sports we often lament injuries, blown calls and other circumstances that influence the outcome of games, series and even seasons. After taking you through the Top 5 ‘What If’ players since 1990, whose careers were derailed by either drugs or injuries, I dig into the top 5 ‘What If’ teams. These teams had all of the pieces to win a championship but due to injuries, management or arcane league rules, failed to live up to these expectations.

With no further ado, I take you through the ultimate ‘What If’ teams of the last two decades.

5. 2006-’07 Phoenix Suns

The “7 seconds or less” Suns were finally supposed to get over the hump in 2007. Led by their fearless 2-time MVP point guard, Steve Nash, who was still in the tail end of his prime (age 32/33 season, & frankly could have won the MVP in ’07 over Dirk), the Suns ran through the league, rolling up 61 wins en route to the #2 seed in the Western Conference. The Suns dispatched the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs in 5 games, which featured a monster upset on the other side of the Western bracket, in the #1 versus #8 seed matchup that featured Dallas (#1) and Golden State (#8). Baron Davis’ Warriors led a blistering attack that wore out Dallas in 6 games. I remember watching this game in college at a local bar on campus and thinking to myself, “My God, Baron Davis is absolutely eviscerating the Dallas Mavericks.” Who would have thought that this would be Baron Davis’s last relevant season as a pro (at the age of 28, no less). He showed up to camp overweight the next year and never regained his form. He was out of the league a month after his 33rd birthday after suffering a gruesome knee injury with the Knicks. Anyways, getting back to Phoenix…after round one, Phoenix stood as the favorite to win the West and finally get to the Finals for the first time in Steve Nash’s career due to the Warriors’ mammoth upset of Dallas.

In round 2, the Suns found themselves up against the #3 seed San Antonio Spurs, who had won two titles in the previous four years and were aiming for a third in five years. The Spurs stole Game 1 in Phoenix, 111-106, after which the Suns responded with a resounding 20-point margin of victory in Game 2. The Spurs took Game 3 at home, while the Suns won a must-win Game 4 in San Antonio. As most fans know at this point, that Game 4 victory came with a huge caveat. After storming back from 10 points down in the 4th quarter, the Suns had claimed a 3 point lead with the ball in Nash’s hands with 20 seconds remaining. As Nash was dribbling up to the right side of half court, Robert Horry, otherwise known as “Big Shot Rob,” for his clutch shot making during the 2000’s, delivered a hip check that sent Nash careening into the scorer’s table. The resulting skirmish (moderate by today’s standards) and subsequent suspensions from this mild scuffle would severely cripple the Suns for Game 5. See the incident for yourself and you’ll understand how tame this was compared to brawls in the past (skip to the 0:50 second mark).

Horry was suspended for two games by the league, but the biggest blows for the Suns was in losing star center Amar’e Stoudemire and the versatile Boris Diaw for a game apiece, due to an arcane rule that says that players must not leave “the immediate vicinity of the bench during an altercation.” The Suns would go on to lose Game 5 by three points, after leading by as many as 20 points during the contest. With Amar’e and Diaw back for Game 6 at San Antonio, the Suns put up a valiant effort but fell in the deciding Game by 8 points, 114-106.

What a tragedy, that’s all I could think about 6+ years ago.

When this occurred, I remember thinking to myself how cheated I felt as an NBA fan, that we would not to be able to see both teams compete at full strength due to some arcane rule that the league upheld asininely.

 The Suns ultimately didn’t have enough man power to withstand the blow of losing two of their top 5 players (remember this was Amar’e and Diaw at the peak of their powers, before Diaw gained 40 pounds and became a center a few years later).

In Game 5, the Suns were relegated to giving big time minutes to Leandro Barbosa, James Jones and even Marcus Banks. Let’s hit the rewind button again and say that Amar’e and Diaw are never suspended by Stu Jackson for Game 5. Given the impact that both of those players had on that series, you can reasonably conclude that their offense coupled with their defense would have been the difference between a 3-point loss and say a 10-point win. In the playoffs that year, Amar’e was averaging 25.3 PPG, 12.1 RPG and 3.2 STOCKs per game (Steals + Blocks). Diaw was a key reserve and a do-everything 6’8” small forward, in the mold of a lesser Grant Hill. In the ’07 playoffs, Diaw averaged 6.6 points, 3.2 RPG, 3.0 APG and 0.9 STOCKS in only 23 minutes per game. If the Suns win Game 5 that means they have two cracks at the 4th win, which gives them at least a 50/50 shot to win the series. This becomes especially crucial since Game 7 would have been played back on their home court in Phoenix.

If the Suns get past the Spurs in 6 or 7 games, they had the Utah Jazz waiting in the wings. Yes, I checked and was shocked/erased from my memory the 2007 Western Conference finalists: the Utah Jazz. The Spurs wiped the Jazz away in 5 games in the Western Conference Finals and then absolutely eviscerated the Cavs in 4 games, before LeBron was LeBron and before he had Wade, Bosh, Chalmers and Ray Allen as his side-kicks. In 2007, he was flanked by Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Eric Snow. Yikes! I completely agree with Bill Simmons, when he makes the claim that the ’07 Cavaliers were the worst Finals team in the history of the NBA. They were a one-trick pony, surrounded by journeymen, washed up vets and injury prone big men. No wonder LeBron bolted for greener pastures three summers later.

Bottomline: the Suns likely win Game 5 with Diaw and Amar’e in the fold and with that win, have more than a puncher’s chance of taking the series from the Spurs. If that occurs, the path to the championship becomes a lot more straightforward…and Nash’s legacy is forever altered.

As it turns out, this was the last season before the window slammed shut on the “7 seconds or less” Suns of the mid-2000’s. The following season, Shawn Marion was traded mid-year to Miami for Shaq, which was followed by Mike D’Antoni’s departure in the summer of 2008. Just like that this iconic team became a footnote in NBA history.

4. 2012 –’13 Oklahoma City Thunder

The 2012-’13 Thunder torpedoed their season before the balls had even been rolled out on the court for the first game of the season. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti shipped invaluable 6th man of the year winner James Harden across the state line to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. OKC also shipped center Cole Aldrich and forwards Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston.  All you need to know is that OKC was the most envied team in the league heading into the 2012-’13 season. This status as the most envied team was swiftly ripped to pieces when this trade was consummated. Every GM in the league would have killed to have three young, dynamic stars, in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, all under the age of 25. Sam Presti and the money conscious OKC front-office had other plans after failing to reach a contract extension with Harden prior to the season. They shipped him to the Rockets with the idea that: a.) the production of Martin and Lamb would make up for the loss of Harden and b.) It was better to get something in exchange for Harden a year before his rookie deal expired, as opposed to nothing (which would have occurred the following summer when Harden would have left for a richer contract).

The thing is Presti wasn’t necessarily wrong when looking at the trade at face value (fatal flaw). Take a look at Harden’s 2012 stats versus the combined 2013 numbers of Martin and Lamb:

2012 Harden: 16.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.24 STOCKS (Steals + Rebounds)

2013 Martin + Lamb combination: 17.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.21 STOCKS

The numbers indicate that this is pretty close to a wash, but the reality of the situation is much different. Presti’s line of reasoning was to get a fair and comparable value back for Harden, who they couldn’t keep past 2013 due to cap constraints. In Presti’s eyes, he had two options (as outlined above): a.) stand pat and get one year of Harden, who would have left after year 4 of his rookie deal expired orJames Harden b.) Trade Harden now or during the season for long-term assets and players they could hang on to for more than a year.

However, there was a fatal flaw to Presti’s line of reasoning. Harden had the ability to take over games and allow either (or both) Westbrook and Durant to get a breather, while he served as the point-forward for stretches of the game. Martin and Lamb are respectable shooters and scorers but don’t dominate a game the way Harden does with the ball in his hands. Here’s the real difference in their games: Harden gets to the line…he gets to the line a ton.

Harden converted 84.6% of his 369 free throw attempts in 2012, versus Martin and Lamb who combined to attempt a mere 260 free throws, nearly 30% less attempts than Harden. The Martin/Lamb combination did convert 89.6% of their free throws in 2013, 5% better than Harden, but that’s not the point.

Now this is where Sam Presti gets red in the face and starts blowing steam out of his ears. Below are James Harden’s 2013 splits with the Houston Rockets:

25.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 5.8 APG, 2.3 STOCKS per game, 674 free throws made, 792 free throws attempted, 85.1 FT %

Harden is now widely considered to be a top 5 2-guard in the NBA. The fact that Presti traded one year of title contention with three of the top 20 players in the NBA away speaks volumes about the penny pinching ways of the small market Thunder.

We’ll never know what the Westbrook/Durant/Harden triumvirate could have accomplished in 2013. Could they have unseated the Heat and left LeBron with an unsightly 1-3 Finals record? I bet yes, especially after the aging Spurs choked away the title in Game 6, in what should have been another Spurs championship. The Heat was vulnerable and both the Spurs and Thunder let this opportunity slip through their fingers…each for a very different reason.

3. 2008-’09 Boston Celtics

The ’08-’09 Celtics began the season as the undisputed alpha dog in the league and backed up this notion through the first two thirds of the season. The Celts burst out of the gates, winning 25 of their first 27 games and immediately staking a legitimate claim to defend their ’08 crown. They had a pair of 10-game winning streaks, along with a 19 game winning streak that set a franchise record. The Celts were well on their way to successfully defending their championship, which would have been the first team to do this since the ’02 Lakers won the third of three straight NBA championships at the beginning of the decade.

After the All-Star break, KG injured his knee on an alley-oop attempt, causing him to miss the final 25 games of the regular season and the entire postseason. The Celts still managed to beat the plucky, upstart Bulls in 7 games in the 1st round of the Eastern Conference Finals, in which four of the seven games went to overtime. This series is widely considered to be the greatest first round playoff series in NBA history. The Celts then went up 3 games to 2 over the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals, before losing the last two games.

If KG doesn’t injure his knee in February, that team beats the Magic in the 2nd round and steamrolls the undermanned Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. As evidenced by their victory over the Lakers in ’08, the Lakers were a beatable squad and with a healthy KG, they would have taken home their second crown in as many years.

2. 2009-10 Boston Celtics

This leads me to another ‘what if’ team. Essentially, the ’09-’10 Celtics were two shots away from winning Game 7 in LA and winning the title that year. What if KG never hurts his knee in February of ’09 and plays 10% better in the 2010 Finals? Even a 5% better KG likely tips the scales in the Celtics favor. At this point KG had just turned 34 in the playoffs and was officially at the end of his prime, which was more rapidly ushered in due to his knee injury the previous season. If he’s healthy for ’09 and ’10, now we’re talking about the Celts’ winning three straight titles, and becoming one of the greatest dynasties of the last 20 years (90’s Bulls, early 2000’s Lakers, late 2000’s Celtics).

Also, don’t forget Kendrick Perkins going down in Game 6, with a torn ACL. That was a series altering injury and a key defensive cog for Boston who was keeping Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in check throughout the series. Gasol dominated in Game 7, tallying 19 points and 18 rebounds (a near 20-20 game), while dishing out 4 assists and blocking 2 shots. Without the 6’10” 270 lb. Perkins, Gasol had his way in the paint that night.

Alas, ’09 and ’10 are instead known as the Kobe era, who was the undisputed alpha dog on the best teams of those two years.

1. 1998-’99 Chicago Bulls

1997-98 Chicago Bulls

No one talks about the 1998-’99 Bulls as the ultimate ‘What If’ team. And it pisses me off. Let’s hit the rewind button and go back 15 years.

The ’98 Bulls won their third straight title and sixth title in 8 years with the Jordan/Pippen/Phil Jackson core, which as the team’s players and coaches knew at the time, would be their last run together. Michael would have considered returning but Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Bulls since 1985, informed the team prior to the season that they would be re-building after the ’98 season (Jerry Krause, the portly, ever-scowling general manager of the Bulls at the time, also played a large role in this decision). In essence, this was Chicago’s “Last Dance” and everyone had the luxury of understanding this prior to the start of the season. Phil Jackson even went so far as to imprint the words “The Last Dance” across the front page of each player’s season playbook when camp opened prior to the ’97-’98 season.

The next spring, the dismantling of the roster was swift and thorough. Within weeks of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy on Utah’s home court, Jordan retired, Rodman was allowed to walk, Phil Jackson left and Pippen was traded to the Rockets (still at the tail-end of his prime, entering his age 33 season). If that team comes back in ’99, not only do they come back as the 3-time defending champs, but they come back to a lock-out shortened 50-game season…tailor made for a team with nearly its entire roster well into its 30’s.

Pippen was the young pup of their top 5 rotation guys, at 33 years old. Here’s the rest of the top 8, if this group of guys had returned intact for the 1998-’99 season:

  • Ron Harper, point guard – age 34/35 season
  • Michael Jordan – age 35/36 season
  • Scottie Pippen – age 33 season
  • Dennis Rodman – age 37 season
  • Luc Longley – age 29/30 season (played like he was 62)
  • Toni Kukoc – age 30 season
  • Steve Kerr – age 33 season
  • Scott Burrell – age 27/28 season

Now that’s an old team, a team with a starting 5 that’s even older than the Brooklyn Nets’ starting 5 for the 2013-’14 season. For the record: I’m calling it now, the Nets will meet the Miami Heat in the 2014 playoffs. This will be the highest rated series in NBA playoff history…mark my words.

Just for kicks, I took the average age of the 5 starters for the ’97-’98 Bulls and compared this to the projected starting 5 for the ’13-’14 Brooklyn Nets (D. Williams, J. Johnson, P. Pierce, K. Garnett, B. Lopez)

’98-’99 Bulls: 33.6 years old

’13-’14 Nets: 31.6 years old

So, how does the hypothetical ’98-’99 season play out? To my above point, the lockout that lasts into early February, benefits the Bulls more so than any other team, due to the advanced age of their top rotation players. When 27-year Scott Burrell is the young pup on your squad and when four of your starters are between the ages of 33 and 37, you need every day off you can get. The Bulls would have received 3+ months worth of days off due to the lock-out, as the season didn’t commence until February 5th. The Bulls would have been afforded this extra time off and the luxury of playing 32 less regular season games. This amounts to a regular season that is nearly 40% shorter in length than the customary 82-game regular season.

That year the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic were the top 3 seeds in the East, in that order (are you kidding me). The Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Voshon Leonard, PJ Brown & Jamal Mashburn Heat don’t scare me at all. This was essentially the same Miami team that lost to the #7 seed Knicks the previous season in the 1st round of the Eastern Conference playoffs….’nuff said about their status as legitimate contenders.

The Pacers were a legitimate contender in the East, having nearly knocked off the Bulls in the previous spring’s Eastern Conference Finals, becoming only the second team to force a Game 7 in the Bulls’ title years. I still think Jordan and company get the better of Reggie in another potential rematch.

And the Magic were a joke. No need to get into how they would have beaten the Bulls in a 7-game series without Shaq and a healthy Penny.

I think the Bulls steamroll through the first two rounds of the playoffs (remember this would normally be their #50 through #60 games of the regular season, so their legs are still fresh). The Pacers could have certainly posed a threat, but as fate would have it, they lost to a severely short-handed Knicks team in the Eastern Finals in 6 games, even without the Bulls around. In the finals, the Bulls beat the ’99 Spurs (who ended up crushing an over-matched Knicks team in 5 games without their best player, Patrick Ewing). The Bulls’ outstanding guard play (Ron Harper, Pippen, Jordan) trumps the Spurs backcourt of Avery Johnson and Marie Elie (34 and 35 years old, respectively and both role players) and the Rodman/Longley combo gives us just enough to get past the 33-year old David Robinson and 23-year old Tim Duncan duo. I say the Bulls outlast the Spurs in 6 games, and Jordan gets to 7 rings before retiring at the age of 36…this time for good, no third act with the Wizards.

What did you think about my Top 5 ‘What If’ teams? What teams did I miss and do you agree with my above selections? I would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to state your case in the Comments section below.

Photo Credits:

Jordan’s Game 6 Game Winner – kicksoncourt.com

James Harden – nba.com

 

About Jim Armstrong

Jim is a life-long sports fan and split his childhood between the ‘burbs of Chicago and central NJ, while throwing in a summer living outside of Boston into the mix. This explains his passion for the 90′s Bulls, late 90′s/early 00′s Knicks and late 00′s Celtics (he will explain in a future post). Jim never played a minute of college basketball or football but did complete a Tough Mudder recently and continues to play in basketball leagues year-round. If this doesn’t make him an expert, then I don’t know what does. Jim crunches numbers for a living and enjoys applying these analytical skills to his sports obsessions. In his free time, Jim enjoys spending time with his family, fishing and writing.

Speak Your Mind

*