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NBA What Ifs: Part 2

31 Jan

The National Basketball Association has numerous stories of glorious playoff performances by its biggest and brightest stars, however there are just as many cases of potential unfulfilled by promising, young players in its history. Whether that promise goes unfulfilled because of random bad injuries that happen as a result of years of wear and tear on the basketball court or because of poor trades made by management teams, talented players in the NBA sometimes fail to become the basketball players that they were expected to be. But, what if those injuries and managerial missteps were erased?

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What If Stephon Marbury Never Left the Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves drafted the pick of a lifetime when they took Kevin Garnett straight from high school in the 1995 draft. And almost immediately, he looked like the type of player who could dominate in the NBA despite being the first guy in nearly twenty years to make the leap from prep school to professional league. The following year, the Timberwolves drafted Stephon Marbury, an explosive point guard from Georgia Tech and it seemed their future was bright. Marbury was the perfect complement to Garnett - an electric scoring point with good vision and a skilled, hyper-athletic post. Together they formed a hyper-fueled version of Stockton and Malone’s incredibly efficient pick-and-roll. Marbury could score from anywhere on the court with or without the pick, and Garnett was just as likely to flare out for a jump shot after setting a screen as he was to dive to the rim and dunk on the opposing team’s big man. Marbury averaged 15.8, 17.7 and 17.7 points per game in his first three years with 7.8, 8.6, and 9.3 assists per game. And, the Timberwolves made the playoffs in 1997 and ’98. But, there was discord in Minnesota. Marbury felt he was not being properly compensated for his talents once Kevin Garnett signed a contract for $126M. Garnett made $20M per year, Marbury made $9M. In 1999, Marbury forced a trade that landed him in New Jersey. But, what if Marbury stayed with Minnesota?

Stephon Marbury is one of the most wildly underrated players of the last 15 years. At the top of his game, he was unstoppable. He could get to the rim at will and had soft touch on his pull-up jumper. His first step off the dribble was as quick as anyone short of Allen Iverson (possibly the quickest man in league history with the basketball). And, he had the vision and the desire to set his teammates up for easy baskets while he was penetrating and getting his buckets. Had he stayed in Minnesota, the Timberwolves likely could have drafted differently. In the 1999 draft, the Timberwolves took Wally Szczerbiak, a sharpshooting wing with their first pick. Instead of taking William Avery, an athletic guard from Duke, with their second pick, they might have taken Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace), an extremely athletic small forward from St. John’s University who became an All-Star and a Defensive Player of the Year. With those four players as their nucleus, Minnesota could have competed with the great Lakers’ and Spurs’ teams of the early 2000s. Specifically in 2003, Artest could have checked the young Kobe Bryant, Marbury would have destroyed Derrick Fisher, Szczerbiak and Devean George are basically a wash - Szczerbiak being better on offense and George better on defense - and, Garnett would have overwhelmed Robert Horry. The only advantage that the Lakers would have had definitively was Shaquille O’Neal.

The Wolves matched up well against the 2003 Spurs, the team that they would have met in the Western Conference Finals, and New Jersey Nets, the squad they would face in the NBA Finals. Garnett and Duncan would put up similar statistics in a playoff matchup, but Marbury was a better basketball player than Tony Parker at that point in their careers. He would outplay Parker in the Conference Finals. Artest would bully Bowen and Ginobli on the wing defensively, and the combination of Ron Artest and Wally Szczerbiak would outscore the San Antonio swing players handily. Minnesota would beat the Spurs in 6 games. And, the New Jersey Nets would offer no resistance to this squad. Jason Kidd and Marbury would put up similar statistics with Kidd getting a slight edge. Kenyon Martin is too small for Garnett and would be dominated in the post. And, the trio of Kerry Kittles, Richard Jefferson, and Rodney Rogers would be no match for Szczerbiak and Artest. If Stephon Marbury had stayed with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he would have won a NBA championship in 2003, and his career might have taken some positive turns. And, the team had a shot at repeating in 2004, though the Lakers were a better team the following year. Marbury would have been awarded the accolades that his talent deserved, and with healthy averages in points and assists, he would be considered for a trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

What If Bernard King Never Was Injured

If Bernard King was never injured, he would be in the Hall of Fame. Period. Bernard King is still one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history today, but he made a good portion of his baskets on bad knees. He scored 20 or more points per game in all but 3 of his 14 seasons in the NBA, his turnaround jumper was impossible for defenders to guard, but he relegated to post play for most of his professional career. In the NBA, King was limited by a lack of explosiveness that came as a result of multiple ACL tears. However, when he entered the league, he was a high-flying scorer who attacked above the rim. The only difference between a first ballot Hall of Fame career and a well-decorated career without the celebrations and awards is winning a ring or producing highlights on a nightly basis. Dominique Wilkins made the Hall of Fame because he was talented, but also because he was compelling. He dunked with grace and ferocity. He jump over opponents and scored the basketball like few players in NBA history. But, Wilkins battled great playoff teams during his career and never won. Wilkins never reached the NBA Finals, a benchmark of a great player, however he invigorated crowds with his high-flying act every night of his 16 NBA seasons. And, Bernard King scored the basketball at a similar clip in the NBA. On his career, King only scored three fewer points per game and he lost a full year to injury. In his best year, he scored 32.9 points per game, over 3 points better than Wilkins in his best year. For all intents and purposes, he was a star. However, without the flash and athleticism that he showed at the beginning of his career, King became a journeyman instead of the face of a franchise.

Bernard King was a victim of his own knees like so many athletes before microfracture surgery. He scored at a pace that only a few men in NBA history could score, but ultimately he could not overcome his physical limitations. If Bernard King had healthy knees, then he would be in the Hall of Fame and be compared to the other NBA greats.

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What If The Atlanta Hawks Drafted Better

The Atlanta Hawks took the perfect prospect with their first pick in the first round of selection in 1982. They signed the super-athletic Dominique Wilkins with that pick and secured the face of their franchise for over a decade. But, Wilkins faced a few different dynasties during his career and never made it to the NBA Finals despite a career where he scored over 25,000 points and pulled down 7,000 rebounds from the small forward position. He faced Bird and the Celtics, the Bad Boys of Detroit with Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference. Each of those stars had Hall of Fame players and solid contributors to help them win their conference and ultimately bring home championships. Bird had McHale and Parrish in the frontcourt with him, Isiah counted on Dumars and Rodman for toughness and defense, and Jordan had Pippen backing him and eventually Rodman too. Dominique never had another star to help him battle against those great basketball teams, and therefore never won the big playoff games. But, what if he did? What if the Atlanta Hawks drafted better players to play with him?

In the 1982 draft, the Hawks picked Keith Edmonson with the tenth pick of round 1 after taking Wilkins third. But, they could have used that pick on Ricky Pierce an efficient mid-range shooter from Rice University. Pierce scored 16 or more points per game in 9 of his 18 seasons in the NBA, and had a 20 point average or more in four of those seasons. He could have provided scoring from the wing and helped backup Wilkins in spots. In 1984, Atlanta took Kevin Willis with their eleventh pick, and he had a good professional career, including an All-Star game in the 1991-92 season. However, they passed on John Stockton, a Hall of Fame point guard who is responsible for the passes that helped lead Karl Malone to a Hall of Fame career. The Hawks drafted Jon Koncak with the fifth pick of the draft the following year, passing on the aforementioned Karl Malone, Joe Dumars, a sharp-shooting, tough defensive guard, Chris Mullin, the purest shooter in the nation, and Charles Oakley, a rugged rebounding power forward. Dumars and Mullin are also Hall of Famers. In 86, the Atlanta Hawks left All-Star Mark Price and Hall of Fame rebounder Dennis Rodman on the board. They could have also drafted Vlade Divac, a serviceable center with career averages of 11.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in the 1989 draft. The starting five for the Atlanta Hawks in 1989 was Doc Rivers, Reggie Theus, Dominique Wilkins, Antoine Carr, and an aging Moses Malone. Hypothetically, it could have been John Stockton at point, Joe Dumars or Chris Mullin at shooting guard, Dominique at small forward, Dennis Rodman playing power forward, and Vlade Divac at center. And, that is only if they could not pull the free agent trade that landed them Moses Malone with all the talent that they drafted.

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What If Michael Jordan Never Left Basketball

After his father was killed in 1993, Michael Jordan retired from basketball to pursue baseball, the game that he loved as a child. He spent nearly two years with the Chicago White Sox organization in AA and AAA baseball without cracking into the majors before he made a return to basketball in the second half of the 1994-95 season. His Bulls lost in the Conference Semifinals that year to the Orlando Magic and in the preceding year to the New York Knicks because of his absence. Most basketball fans assume that Jordan would have won 8 consecutive championships and solidified his legacy as the best player ever had he never left the National Basketball Association. However, Michael Jordan would have faced one of the few players in the league that he legitimately respects in 1994, Hakeem Olajuwon.

Olajuwon was basically the equivalent of Michael Jordan shaped into a center’s body. He was super-coordinated, extremely skilled, and an elite athlete with the heart of an assassin on the basketball court. Like Jordan, he not only dominated his opponents with footwork, he embarrassed them. He could play power basketball in the post bullying opposing centers, he could play finesse basketball by outmaneuvering them on the block, and he set up counters for each move in his arsenal. And, Hakeem Olajuwon was equally as good on the defensive end of the court as he was offensively. Olajuwon is the only non-guard on the all-time steals list and he still holds the NBA record for blocked shots. Olajuwon was unstoppable in the paint. And more importantly, the Houston Rockets were primed to win in it all 1994.

The 93-94 Rockets matched up well against those Bulls. Robert Horry and Vernon Maxwell were two of the better athletes in the league and they could play Jordan and Pippen without getting defensive help. Jordan would get his numbers against any defender, but against Maxwell he had to work. Houston played man-to-man defense with Maxwell guarding him primarily, and Jordan only scored 26 points in both games on 12-27 and 11-23 shooting in the 1992-93 season. Maxwell held him 6.6 points under his average on the year, scored 18 points in the first game, 19 points in the second, and the Rockets won both regular season games handily. And though the 94 Bulls added Toni Kukoc, the Rockets kept Horry who would have outclassed him athletically and Mario Elie, a physical forward who scored when needed. Otis Thorpe, an All-Star, was too strong for Horace Grant under the rim, and there were only a few centers in the league who were in the same class as Olajuwon. Chicago did not have a big man that could compete with the Rockets. He would have scored mercilessly on Bill Cartwright, Bill Wennington, and any other big man they threw at him. The Rockets would have owned the boards with Olajuwon and Thorpe averaging over 10 rebounds per game, with 11.9 and 10.6, respectively. Olajuwon was a safety net defensively, swatting away any shot in his vicinity, and the guards funneled all penetration into the paint with the long arms of him, Horry, and Herrera. The 1993-94 Rockets were primed for a NBA title and the Chicago Bulls would not have changed the course of history. Had Michael Jordan kept playing basketball instead of switching to baseball, he would have lost his first and only series in the NBA Finals.

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