How Could History Alter The NBA’s Title Race?
There are several stories dominating the NBA this week, most of which involve the Knicks looking stupid, but none of that matters today. It's time to step into an alternate universe. It's time to look back at history and dream about the next few months. A week ago, my friend Tim passed this question along:
If you could add one player at their peak from each franchise's history to this year's teams, how does it change the title race? Could Jimmy Butler be Scottie Pippen? Would Boogie get along with Chris Webber? How insufferable would it to hear people go on and on about Bird and Brad Stevens? Would anything be better than Russell Westbrook and Shawn Kemp?
This is the best NBA question, and a tremendous way to kill a few hours minutes daydreaming. So let's get ridiculous and go down the wormhole. I won't even try to keep this organized, but here are 15 notes to consider for this conversation.
1. This has to start with the Bulls. Keep in mind, we're starting from where the NBA is right now, so each team's record and roster factors into the answers here. The Bulls are currently treading water at seventh place in the East, everyone kind of hates each other, and shockingly, they're only five games out of third place. Now put Michael Jordan on the roster…
Jimmy Butler would have to learn how to play off the ball a lot more, and Wade probably comes off the bench, but it works. Of course it works. Peak Jordan would turn the Bulls into an elite team, and likely the three-seed in the East. He'd be unguardable with current hand-check rules, and it wouldn't even matter that he's just OK from three. Butler could play the role of Pippen just fine. And the product on the court would only be the beginning of the appeal here. Because the only thing better than three alphas…
Wade: "We have three alphas, three strong personalities, three leaders…that's great for coach, great for the team."
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) July 29, 2016
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) February 8, 2017
Rondo and Jordan would either be best friends, or there would be a homicide within a week. We'd also need a video confessional for Fred Hoiberg at the Bulls practice facility.
2. To simplify this, let's say that you can choose any player who played for your franchise, but the “peak version” you're getting is the version of that player as he appeared on that team. For example, Michael Jordan played for the Wizards, but choosing him means getting the 39-year-old version that DC had. Also: you can choose active players. So the Pelicans could choose Young Chris Paul, for example, or the Mavs could choose peak Dirk.
3. Would the addition of 25-year-old Shaq be enough to vault Orlando to the No. 8 seed? The Magic are currently five games back of the Pistons, so it's not out of the question. On the other hand, Orlando still has Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier in the backcourt, and the Magic would have to leapfrog teams like the Bucks, who just rebounded from an injury to Jabari Parker by adding 26-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play with Giannis. (Do you see why this is addictive?)
4. Related to the Shaq question: It's kind of amazing how much of the hierarchy would remain the same in this universe. If everyone is adding something close to a Hall of Famer, it's difficult to make up meaningful ground. For example, the Knicks could add Clyde Frazier or Bernard King or Patrick Ewing, but ultimately, too much damage has already been done this year to reverse their fortunes. I don't think any superstar would be enough to transcend the toxic environment surrounding that team after the past four months. It would end badly for everyone.
Even wild, historical fantasies are depressing under James Dolan. So given the built-in ceiling, the most entertaining Knicks option is probably to make this crazier. Maybe that's Charles Oakley, maybe that's Anthony Mason. Personally, I'd like to see what Phil Jackson would tweet about Latrell Sprewell.
5. The Wizards don't want Wes Unseld playing in the pace-and-space era, so they add 24-year-old Earl Monroe, of the Baltimore Bullets. But since Pearl and John Wall both need the ball to be effective, Ernie Grunfeld trades Monroe. It sounds like blasphemy, I know. But to return to the original question… Chris Webber and DeMarcus Cousins would probably not get along, and they play the exact same position. So Washington sends Earl Monroe to Sacramento for Prime Chris Webber, filling out their roster with a borderline Hall of Famer at the four, and just as important, repenting for one of the most shortsighted trades of the past 30 years.
(Note: The Kings choose Boogie over Webber here because that seems like the kind of mandate that Vivek would deliver. Vlade quits in protest.)
6. The Nets could try to bring back Julius Eriving from his ABA days, but the season's already over in Brooklyn. The most responsible option is to attempt to use this loophole to reanimate their 2017 draft pick. Meanwhile, Dr. J is going to Philadelphia to work with Joel Embiid and TJ McConnel to create the most beloved 12th-place team in history. Elsewhere, the Lakers bring back Magic Johnson, and it turns out, watching him pass to Ivica Zubac and Brandon Ingram isn't nearly as entertaining as it was with Kareem and Worthy.
7. Put 27-year-old Tim Duncan on the floor with Prime Kawhi, and the Spurs are terrifying. Obviously. They'd still have some of the same backcourt questions surrounding an aging Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but the defense is unbeatable with Duncan, and there's a chance they could flip LaMarcus Aldridge for a point guard like Jrue Holiday if they decide Tony Parker's not enough for the playoffs. Either way, Prime Duncan would be enough for them to remain top three in the West.
8. Don't sleep on the Pistons! The Pistons are currently holding down the eighth seed in the East. If you throw Isiah Thomas into Reggie Jackson's spot in that lineup and let him run the spread pick-and-roll for three months with Stan Van Gundy—with no handchecks—all bets are off. Isiah would be ruthless. They may not have the talent to win a title, but they leapfrog a handful of teams ahead of them (the Hornets with Alonzo Mourning, the Hawks with Dominique Wilkins, the Pacers with Reggie Miller, the Raptors with Vince Carter), and they would be miserable to deal with in the playoffs.
9. Bird on the Celtics. Let's talk about it. Bird would be amazing in any era. He was not overrated even a little bit, and he'd go nuts playing in today's pace-and-space era. But if the whole league is getting better, the rest of the Celtics roster is still a little underwhelming. Jae Crowder, aging Al Horford, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas… Larry Bird is enough to keep them at the No. 2 seed down the stretch, but I don't know if he's enough to challenge for a title. On the other hand, this sets the stage for the peak of the current Celtics era, which would be Boston fans carpet-bombing the Internet, convinced they can trade Nets picks for Michael Jordan.
10. Choosing a player for Cleveland is tough. I asked a lifelong Cavs fan in his 40s, and he suggested Larry Nance, or John “Hot Rod” Williams, both of whom could be mobile fives to help combat the small-ball Warriors. Or maybe the front office could listen to LeBron and go after a “f***ing playmaker” like Mark Price? Whatever happens, while every other team gets much scarier in this scenario, answering this question for Cleveland is a good reminder that the Cavs had almost nothing before LeBron James.
11. My favorite darkhorse is Houston. Can you even imagine Hakeem Olajuwon running the pick-and-roll with James Harden in Mike D'Antoni's offense? Hakeem dominated the '80s, but a wide-open game would make him even more unfair, and that's before you factor in Harden. That pick-and-roll alone, and that tandem, would be so unstoppable that it puts the Rockets in the conference finals almost by default. Apologies to Karl Malone on the Jazz, Bob McAdoo on the Clippers, and even Duncan and Kawhi. Nobody is touching Hakeem and Harden.
12. Another darkhorse: the Miami Heat, winners of 12 straight games with a rejuvenated Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, and Hassan Whiteside. None of it seems sustainable as of mid-February, but then they add 27-year-old LeBron James. (Granted, choosing Prime LeBron over Prime Wade might do irreparable damage to an already-strained relationship with Wade, but Pat Riley's not afraid to embrace the dark side.)
LeBron's Heat may not leapfrog everyone—they're still relying on Dion Waiters to be D-Wade—but if Jordan can make it work with Chicago's roster, Miami LeBron can make it work with Waiters. They make the playoffs, and once they get there, anything is possible.
13. Here's a potential playoff field in the East: 1) Cavs, 2) Celtics, 3) Bulls, 4) Pistons, 5) Wizards, 6) Heat, 7) Raptors, 8) Pacers. In the West: 1) Warriors, 2) Spurs, 3) Rockets, 4) Jazz, 5) Clippers, 6) Grizzlies, 7) Thunder, 8) Mavs. My conference finals picks are the Warriors over the Rockets in five, and LeBron's Cavs over LeBron's Heat in six games, but only after LeBron's Heat beat Jordan's Bulls in the most spectacular first round series of all time. As for the Finals…
14. Couple notes on Golden State. First of all, Golden State could compete in this universe without changing their roster, and they'd still have a good shot at winning. What's more, they could slide Rick Barry or Chris Mullin into Andre Iguodala's spot in the closing lineup, and they'd be the most unguardable team of all time. Or maybe they go for a Zaza replacement and add Nate Thurmond?
No. The Warriors are the Supervillains. It's not enough to be better. They have to be historically unfair.
So, guess who played in San Francisco:
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and 26-year-old Wilt Chamberlain, averaging 44 points and 24 rebounds per game.
That lineup is the apocalypse. The rest of the NBA can add Jordan, Hakeem, Bird, another version of LeBron, and the Warriors will still be the league's most dominant villains. Everyone else is coming in second.
15. Speaking of Golden State: The Thunder present an interesting question, especially coming into this weekend. What happens to Kevin Durant? Would Russell Westbrook welcome 27-year-old Durant back to Oklahoma City this year? I've seen the Instagrams and heard the clips, and I don't think he would. In any case, the answer is probably irrelevant. This is an alternate universe. We're dreaming today.
And no, nothing in the world would be better than 2017 Russell Westbrook and Peak Shawn Kemp.