This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at some famous NBA What Ifs, and portraying them in NBA Live 10.
What Ifs can be fun to ponder, whether they concern the NBA or video games. There are trades and signings that, if they’d happened, would’ve changed the course of NBA history. Likewise, we can point to game-changing moments in the history of the virtual hardwood. Indeed, NBA Live 10 is an example of such a turning point. If EA Sports had elected to continue building on the base it established rather than trying to reboot the series with the ill-fated NBA Elite 11, the basketball gaming landscape would undoubtedly be very different today.
As far as NBA What Ifs are concerned though, they’re something that we can play out in video games. It’s a great concept for a roster, and while that’s not what I’m doing today, I’ve decided to mix a couple of ideas together by reflecting on some of the biggest NBA What Ifs and portraying them using NBA Live 10; a game that has an air of What If about it. Obviously there are some other historical NBA What Ifs that I won’t be touching on here because the players aren’t in NBA Live 10, but feel free to discuss those in the comments as well. Let’s wonder what might have been as we take a look back…way back…
Tim Duncan’s Two Big NBA What Ifs
Tim Duncan is now in the Hall of Fame, and it’s difficult to envision a timeline in which that wouldn’t have happened. Even if he’d only ever won that first title with the Spurs, his individual brilliance no doubt would’ve punched his ticket to Springfield. Nevertheless, one of the most intriguing What Ifs in NBA history concerns his free agency in 2000. As the story goes, he was ready to sign with the Magic to team up with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, but team policy forbidding partners to fly on the team plane changed his mind. While it likely was a factor, as Doc Rivers later noted, not signing him before he could talk to Gregg Popovich again was the bigger mistake.
Needless to say, if Tim Duncan had headed East in 2000, it would’ve resulted in a very different NBA over the past couple of decades. Even with Hill being sidelined in 2001, there’s a good chance that the Magic would stand in the way of the Philadelphia 76ers’ Finals run. The Spurs certainly don’t make much noise unless they luck into another generational talent. It’s possible that the Lakers make a fourth straight Finals trip in 2003, though who knows how things would’ve gone with a strong Magic team as a perennial rival, not unlike the Warriors and Cavaliers in the past decade. Chances are the Lakers and Magic would’ve met for the championship much sooner than 2009.
Of course, if we go back a little further, Tim Duncan could’ve been a Celtic had the ping pong balls bounced the right way. It likely means no Spurs titles, nor would Pops become one of the league’s most successful coaches. Boston’s chances of getting Paul Pierce in 1998 would’ve been slim, but perhaps they could’ve traded Walker in order to move up in the Draft. With Walker and Pierce, the Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002. With Duncan and Pierce, or perhaps all three if they could have found a way to make it happen, the Celtics may have been perennial contenders for several years, with a younger core than the one they had from 2007 through 2013.
Kevin Garnett to the Lakers or Suns in 2007
Speaking of NBA What Ifs concerning the Boston Celtics, they ended up trading for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007. Those moves took them from the lottery to a renewed rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers, and NBA Championship number 17. However, the Lakers themselves had pushed hard to acquire KG during the offseason in an effort to pacify a disgruntled Kobe Bryant. Had they pulled off such a deal, the Lakers probably would’ve been champions again in 2008 rather than 2009. Another team was also making a strong push for KG: the Phoenix Suns. In fact, in late June 2007, it was being reported that the Suns would win the KG sweepstakes.
If KG had gone to the Suns in 2007, there’s a good chance they would’ve been in the Finals and ultimately crowned champions by the end of the season. The Lakers may still trade Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol, while the Celtics could have traded Paul Pierce in the near future. That brings us to…LeBron James. If the Celtics had never become a powerhouse in the East, Cleveland arguably makes a couple more NBA Finals, perhaps including a matchup with the Lakers. If that happens, and LeBron wins a championship sometime between 2008 and 2010, he may not see the need to take his talents to South Beach. That obviously changes history for the Miami Heat.
This is the really interesting part of diving into NBA What Ifs. It’s obvious that KG going to the Lakers or the Suns instead of the Celtics would affect the fortunes of those three teams, but there’s a domino effect on the rest of the timeline. Now, it’s been reported that LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh discussed teaming up as early as 2008, so maybe nothing would change in that regard. We’ll never know, and that’s the tantalising part. There’s at least a possibility that “The Decision” goes down differently and Cleveland breaks its championship drought earlier if Kevin Garnett went to the Lakers or Suns instead. Then again, if the Cavs couldn’t defeat them…
What If Jalen Rose Was Right?
In 2008, Jalen Rose confidently looked into the camera during an ESPN broadcast and told Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors fans to enjoy LeBron James and Chris Bosh while they could, because they’d be teaming up…in New York. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sneer and jeer at Rose and his sources, but it’s highly likely that there was a lot of misinformation being spread at the time. The Knicks were also gearing up to be players in free agency in 2010, and did sign Amar’e Stoudemire, so it made sense that they were in the conversation. History shows that it was Miami and likely always would’ve been, but what if Jalen Rose had been right in his assertion?
On paper, the Knicks could’ve been in position to rule the East for at least a few years. The question is whether Mike D’Antoni’s style would finally yield a championship. If those Knicks faced off against the same Dallas Mavericks team that defeated the Heat, it’s not unthinkable that Dirk Nowitzki and company are still the champs. After that, though? Maybe the Knicks get it done, though we shouldn’t underestimate Dwyane Wade’s contributions on those Heat teams. Maybe the defensive-minded Bulls with a healthy Derrick Rose take them down. Maybe D’Antoni is forced out if his style leads to empty runs. Win or lose, does LeBron James still return to the Cavaliers in 2014?
I’m portraying these What Ifs in NBA Live 10 because it’s become my retro gaming kick as of late, but also because it preceded “The Decision” and the other transactions of the 2010 offseason. Many of us placed LeBron on the teams he was rumoured to be favouring in order to take screenshots, upload them to EA Sports World, and use them in articles discussing the latest whispers. The Knicks were obviously one of the teams in the conversation, but again, whoever was whispering in Jalen Rose’s ear didn’t have the scoop they thought they did. Like these other NBA What Ifs, it’s an interesting scenario to think about, and one that we can always play out on the virtual hardwood.
Michael Redd’s Restricted Free Agency
I’ve talked about this one before, because it also has an interesting history with video games. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Michael Redd was a promising young player for the Milwaukee Bucks, who was coming into his own after barely playing in his rookie season. The Dallas Mavericks were willing to take a chance on him, and signed him to an offer sheet. In those days, teams had 15 days to match an offer extended to a restricted free agent. They usually didn’t take that long, but the Bucks dragged their feet on Redd. They did eventually match, by which point NBA Live 2003 PC had gone gold. As such, Redd is on the Mavericks’ roster in that game.
Let’s say that the Bucks didn’t match, allowing Redd to go to Dallas. The Mavericks were putting together some teams back then that didn’t quite get the job done in real life, but were a lot of fun to play with in video games. Adding Redd to a team that already had Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley could’ve resulted in a title run if Redd continued to develop the way he did. Additionally, perhaps Nash doesn’t return to Phoenix in 2004 if the future is bright in Dallas. We can play out that What If scenario quite easily in NBA Live 2003, but I wanted to see what it was like in NBA Live 10. For the record: quite fun, but it’s easy to get trigger-happy with Redd!
As far as the real NBA is concerned, the Bucks may not be so quick to trade away Ray Allen, which possibly means that Gary Payton retires a Sonic (or at least gets to play his 1000th game for the team, since he was traded to Milwaukee after his 999th regular season contest in Seattle). I’m guessing that the NBA would’ve still eventually shortened the duration teams have to match offer sheets, because 15 days was way too long. Situations like the one where Michael Redd’s future was in limbo while the Bucks took almost two weeks to match probably emphasised the need to change that rule as of the next collective bargaining agreement, and honestly, so much the better.
Kobe Bryant, a Clipper?!? (Or a Bull?!?)
Lakers fans frequently mock Clippers supporters, but if one of the biggest NBA What Ifs had happened, it’d be the Clipper faithful who’d be thumbing their noses at the purple and gold diehards. Following the Lakers’ shocking Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons and in an ongoing feud with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant was very close to signing with the Clippers; reportedly, about as close as Tim Duncan was to joining the Orlando Magic in 2000. Kobe himself backed up the story in 2016, so it wasn’t a case of idle speculation or mistaken sources. We could’ve actually seen Kobe jump to the Clippers, while the Lakers continued to build around an aging Shaquille O’Neal.
One thing’s for certain: it would’ve made the Clippers competitive much sooner, and heated up the rivalry between the denizens of the Staples Center. Whether or not Shaq or Kobe would win further titles would depend on how the dominos fell as far as other roster moves, and whether either of them would see fit to move on themselves. After all, with Kobe gone, the Lakers would clearly belong to Shaq as they did Kobe in real life. If so, he has less reason to want out and go to Miami. Kobe’s chances of winning would depend on the Clippers continuing to make the right moves. Meanwhile, their split would create opportunities for other Western teams; maybe the Suns with KG?
Even though Kobe remained a Laker, the notion that he’d leave LA wasn’t far-fetched. In addition to considering the Clippers in 2004, the Bulls were also on his radar. That fell through, but when Kobe was demanding a trade in 2007, the Bulls were his top choice. The potential inclusion of Luol Deng was a hurdle that the teams couldn’t overcome. Kobe stayed in LA, the Lakers traded Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol, and the rest is history. Naturally, having Kobe on the Bulls in reality and on the virtual hardwood is an idea I could get behind. Cynically, I can take comfort in the thought that GarPax would’ve still found a way to screw it up. Still, one wonders what if…
Carmelo Anthony Signs With Chicago in 2014
The Bulls’ inability to attract marquee free agents has been one of the most frustrating aspects of being a fan of the team post-90s (but then again, being a Bulls fan during the 90s was a lot of fun!). In 2000, Tim Duncan remained with the Spurs, while Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady went to Orlando. In 2006, the best they could do was Ben Wallace. Carlos Boozer had a couple of good years after they signed him in 2010, but he obviously wasn’t the biggest name on the market that offseason. And then, in 2014, they were really close to landing Carmelo Anthony. Unfortunately, Melo got cold feet after hearing worrying rumours, possibly concerning Tom Thibodeau’s job security.
As a Bulls fan, there are so many What Ifs to consider here, beyond the possibility of picking up Melo while he was still in his prime. What if the front office wasn’t so stubborn, to the point of driving Thibs out of town? What if ownership had realised the toxic atmosphere that GarPax were cultivating, and replaced them much earlier than last year? In hindsight, how much of the Bulls’ inability to attract free agents came down to the organisation’s bad reputation, rather than the notion of “playing in the shadow of Michael Jordan”? And, if Melo had taken the risk and signed on with the team in 2014, would tensions have eased long enough for them to find success?
It’d be a huge stretch to compare that 2014-15 team plus Melo to any of the Jordan-led squads that won championships, but as The Last Dance demonstrated, those 90s Bulls teams dealt with a lot of drama and friction even when they were on top. Winning has a way of smoothing everything over, and after Rose’s injuries derailed a couple of seasons, it could’ve allowed them to re-load for a few good runs. It wasn’t to be, and now we Bulls fans place our trust in Arturas Karnisovas. Ironically, the Bulls did acquire Melo later, albeit in aid of Houston dumping his contract. This made him another example of a player who only suited up for a certain team in a video game.
NBA Draft What Ifs
The thing about NBA What Ifs – and many hypothetical situations in general for that matter – is that hindsight is 20/20, and there’s often more to the story. Players pan out better or worse than expected, and behind the scenes politics and machinations play a role in history turning out the way it does. For example, the Nets passed on Kobe Bryant in the 1996 Draft, but it’s also been reported that they were dissuaded from selecting him. Nevertheless, likelihood arguably doesn’t matter nearly as much as feasibility when it comes to What Ifs. The NBA Draft has presented several teams with the opportunity to acquire players without giving up any of their assets.
I can’t portray the infamous What If of the Portland Trail Blazers drafting Michael Jordan ahead of Sam Bowie using NBA Live 10 – not without a bit of work in Create Player – but we can see Kevin Durant in a Blazers uniform rather than Greg Oden. Durant may have still moved on to greener pastures at some point, and Brandon Roy’s knees were sadly destined to give out, but those teams could’ve been special. Detroit didn’t miss out on a championship by drafting Darko Milicic ahead of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, or Carmelo Anthony, but they might’ve won more than one title if they’d drafted one of them instead. The Bulls could’ve kept LaMarcus Aldridge.
Minnesota notably passed on Stephen Curry twice, while the Phoenix Suns were willing to part with Amar’e Stoudemire to acquire his Draft rights. As noted above, Kobe could’ve been selected by the Nets, though with the benefit of hindsight he most likely would’ve been taken first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. Who’s to say where some of these players would’ve ended up if they’d been drafted elsewhere, as there’s no guarantee they’d stay with those teams. A lot of other pieces would also have to fall into place for them to achieve some of the things they did where they ended up. Still, there are so many What Ifs surrounding teams taking a chance in the NBA Draft.
A Number of What Ifs & The Warriors
These days, the idea of the Warriors parting with Stephen Curry seems ludicrous, unless Steph himself opted out or demanded a trade (both of which seem highly unlikely). That’s why it’s crazy to think that they were willing to include him in the trade that brought Andrew Bogut to Golden State. In fact, it was the Bucks who weren’t keen on Curry’s inclusion, owing to a belief that his ankles wouldn’t hold up. Much like the “Vince Carter is fragile” narrative that persisted even after his two injury-plagued seasons were far behind him, the notion that Curry was damaged goods gained a lot of traction in the early 2010s. Ironically, it benefited the Warriors.
Once upon a time, the luxury tax terrified small market teams, which is why the Thunder decided to part ways with James Harden. Understandable motivation, but then and now, that deal looked terrible. However, it could’ve turned out a lot better if the Thunder had been able to trade Harden to the Warriors for Klay Thompson. The Warriors could’ve benefitted greatly from that as well, though it’s difficult to say if Curry would’ve meshed with Harden as well as he does his Splash Brother Klay. In this case, the Thunder’s desire for picks and not the players that the Warriors were trying to offload meant that the deal was doomed, but it’s an interesting What If.
And of course, there was the possibility that Steph Curry might’ve been drafted by the Timberwolves, or acquired by the Suns on Draft day. If he’s not a Warrior, they might have continued to plod along for years with a variety of far less successful rebuilding plans. Likewise, if they’d traded Klay Thompson for Kevin Love in 2014, it’s possible that neither they nor the Cleveland Cavaliers would’ve made it to the Finals that year. It just goes to show that the moves teams don’t make are just as important as the ones that they do. To that end, injuries and other teams getting cold feet can be blessings in disguise. Such twists of fate all played a role in the Warriors becoming a powerhouse.
David Stern Doesn’t Veto The Chris Paul Trade
Oh, here’s a controversial one! David Stern’s decision to step in and veto the trade of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers while the league owned and was running the then-New Orleans Hornets, is still a sore point for Lakers fans who felt that Kobe could’ve had a couple more title runs alongside CP3. Stern would explain that Dell Demps didn’t have authorisation to go ahead with that deal, or any other deals without the say-so of the team’s de facto ownership (which Stern himself represented). It’s an explanation that has failed to satisfy angry fans, though I must disagree with any and all assertions that the league has any kind of agenda against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Come to think of it, that may be the more interesting What If when it comes to the vetoed trade. The Clippers remaining, well, the Clippers, and the Lakers being poised to be contenders, are obvious outcomes if the trade goes through. However, I believe that if the trade had been approved, history would instead be filled with conspiracy theories about how Stern handed the Lakers Chris Paul on a plate, instead of claims that he was trying to screw them over as some like to suggest. I certainly don’t agree with every decision that the late David Stern made as NBA Commissioner, but I can appreciate that whichever way he went in that situation, fans would be crying foul.
With all due respect to Lakers fans – who have every right to grumble about what might have been – I do like that we got Lob City, if only briefly. I’m also not sure that the Lakers necessarily would’ve been raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy if the deal went through, either. Remember that Pau Gasol was sent to the Rockets, while Lamar Odom would’ve gone to New Orleans. That’s two major frontcourt players gone, leaving Andrew Bynum and his creaky knees. Bynum did have a breakout year in 2012, but his career was over not long after that. All things considered, while the NBA would’ve been different, the Lakers might not actually have been better off.
Dirk Nowitzki & Steve Nash in Toronto
Let’s wrap up with another potential trade that would’ve shaken up the league in the early 2000s. Back in 2002, the Dallas Mavericks made a pitch to the Toronto Raptors: Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash for Vince Carter and Antonio Davis. Then-Raptors GM Glen Grunwald declined the deal, seeing little reason to trade one of the NBA’s hottest stars and exciting scorers for a couple of players who were newly minted All-Stars, but not yet fully established among the league’s elite. It’s a tremendous blunder in hindsight, but as always, we have to consider the context of the time. Vince was seen as the more valuable and established player, not to mention more marketable.
Furthermore, there was no way of knowing in 2002 that Vince would, in a couple of years, force his way out of Toronto in deal that was far less impressive than a package of Dirk and Nash. Grunwald’s reluctance to give up who appeared to be his franchise player for a couple of less-established names with potentially less loyalty to the team is a mistake in hindsight, but more understandable in 2002. As previously noted, Nash returned to Phoenix when his contract was up, so there’s no guarantee that he and Dirk would’ve been together long enough in Toronto to make a serious title run or two. If Dirk is traded back then, then he doesn’t become the same symbol of mutual loyalty.
Still, with the East being the weaker of the two Conferences, the Raptors would’ve had a great opportunity to make the Finals at least once. With patience, they might’ve outlasted the fall of other elite teams in both Conferences, and won a title. As for the Mavericks, they may not have been as successful, though Carter’s play could’ve at least kept them competitive and exciting to watch. Of course, if he still pushes for a trade a couple of years later, they probably return to being the Mavs of the 1990s. As for the 2006 and 2011 Finals in this reality, I imagine that they’d be quite different! Funnily enough, Vince would later become Dirk’s teammate in Dallas for three years.
NBA What Ifs make for some interesting discussions, but there’s a real novelty in seeing them in video games. While it ultimately doesn’t prove anything as far as what would’ve happened, we can at least get a feel of what those teams that could’ve been would be like to play with. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see players in the jerseys that they would’ve worn (and quicker than uniform edits in Photoshop!). That’s what I’ve aimed to do here today, using players in a game that I’ve been enjoying recently. Again, it’s an idea for a roster mod on PC, but even if you just want to set up these What Ifs for a quick game, it’s a fun way to experience an alternate NBA reality.