NBA's 10 Biggest What Ifs of All Time

Marcel SmithSenior Analyst IOctober 14, 2008

10. What if Len Bias didn't die from a drug overdose and played with the Celtics?

Len Bias was the second-overall pick in the 1986 draft. He was one of the greatest players of all time coming into a draft.  He was built perfectly (6'8", 210 lbs.), and had tremendous basketball skills.

He was considered by many to be the most complete forward ever to come out of college, as he could score, rebound, and pass well. Coach K, the legendary head coach of the Duke Blue Devils, said that the two best players in the history of the ACC were Michael Jordan and Len Bias.

He was drafted by the Celtics after they won their third championship in the decade. He would have been a huge addition to the team, and likely would have extended their dominance.  Bias would have given the Celtics room to rest their big three—in particular Larry Bird, who had back problems—more, which would have allowed them to have a few more healthy seasons.

However, Bias died shortly after being signed, and the Celtics were really never the same—until this past season, when they won their first championship since 1986.


9. What if Bill Walton had a long, healthy career?

Bill Walton was drafted first overall by the Blazers in 1974. He went on to have a couple of great seasons, but he was one of the most injured players in any sport, playing 468 games in his career.

When Walton was healthy, he was the best big man in the league not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was a good scorer, an excellent rebounder, fantastic defensively, and arguably the best-passing big man ever.

In his only relatively healthy season, Walton won the MVP award and led the Blazers to the only championship in their history. However, he had constant knee injuries and ended up having a wasted career for all of his skill.

Had he been healthy for 15 years, the '80s would have been even more competitive, as the Blazers would have been a championship contender in the West along with the Showtime Lakers. Individually, Walton would have likely won a couple more MVPs, and have several more All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive selections.


8. What if Arvydas Sabonis played with the Blazers when he was first drafted?

Sabonis was drafted in the first round in the 1986 draft by the Blazers, but he didn't play with them until the 1995-96 because of political reasons.

During his prime, Sabonis was the best European player in the world. He was considered by many to be the second-best big man in the world besides Kareem. If he would have been with the Blazers from the mid '80s, they probably would have had a dynasty during the '90s, as he would have paired up perfectly with Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter.

In his prime, Sabonis was one of the best-shooting big man ever, an excellent rebounder, one of the best passers for his size, and a fantastic defensive center who was a huge presence in the middle. Even though he came into the league late, he still managed to put up solid numbers in limited minutes, due to knee injuries and his age.

In the 1997-1998 season, he averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line at the age of 33.


7. What if Kevin McHale and Robert Parish weren't traded to the Celtics?

The Celtics had gotten Larry Bird the year before and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first season, but they needed to give him a better, younger supporting cast.

They did exactly that, as they traded Joe Barry Carroll for McHale and Parish, two future Hall of Fame big men who fit perfectly with Bird to form the greatest front court of all time.

The next season after the trade, they won the championship—and ended up winning two more in the decade, as they cemented themselves as one of the greatest teams in NBA history.

Parish ended up with career averages of 14.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.5 blocks, along with a fantastic 53.7 percent from the field and a solid 72.1 percent from the free-throw line. He was also extremely durable, playing in a record 1,611 games.

McHale had career averages of 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.7 blocks, along with an amazing 55.4 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line.

On the other hand, Carroll had good stats—but wasn't close to being the impact player that either Parrish or McHale was, yet alone worth both of them.


6. What if Kobe Bryant wouldn't have been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers?

Kobe was drafted with 13th overall pick in the 1996 Draft by the Charlotte Hornets, but he was immediately traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. During that same offseason, the Lakers added Shaq, and one of the greatest duos was born.

While Divac was a solid starting center, Kobe has become one of the greatest players of all time at both ends of the court. He has become one of the most entertaining and exciting players to have ever played.

Since Kobe arrived in Los Angeles, the Lakers have won three championships (all in a row in the early 2000s with Kobe and Shaq) and made it to the Finals two other times. Kobe has had career averages of 25 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals so far, and has also been selected to numerous All-Star teams, All-NBA teams and All-NBA Defensive teams.

Finally, Kobe has also won an MVP award and is still going strong, as the Lakers have one of the most talented, young teams in the league.


5. What if the San Antonio Spurs had drafted Keith Van Horn No. 1 overall instead of Tim Duncan?

The Spurs had the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft because their star David Robinson was injured for the majority of the season, which resulted in them having one of the league's worst records.

The top two players were Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest and Keith Van Horn out of Utah. Before the draft, there were several draft experts that thought the Spurs should draft Van Horn, comparing him to Larry Bird and expressing doubts as to how effective Duncan would be in the NBA.

The Spurs ended up drafting Duncan, who has already become one of the 10 greatest players of all time after only 11 seasons. He has led the Spurs to four championships (their only four in their franchise history) and has made them the model franchise in professional sports over the last 11 years because of his professionalism.

Individually, Duncan has won three Finals MVPs and two regular-season MVP awards. He has also been one of the most effective big man at both ends of the floor, and is considered by many, including myself, to be the greatest power forward in the history of the league.


4. What if the Portland Trailblazers had drafted Michael Jordan in the 1984 Draft instead of Sam Bowie?

The Blazers had the No. 2 pick in what had ended up arguably the greatest draft in NBA history. They picked Sam Bowie, a center out of Kentucky, ahead of Michael Jordan.

Bowie was a solid NBA player, but injuries derailed what would have been a good career. The eventual success that Jordan had in the '90s only made this pick even worse, as it became clear the Blazers had passed up one of the three greatest players of all time.

The Blazers would have probably been one of the best teams in the league for a long time had they drafted Jordan and Sabonis had played right away for them in 1986. Those two would have formed one of the best duos ever and likely a few championships.

Also, if they had drafted Jordan, the whole NBA in the '90s would have been different.  The Bulls, a big-market team, were dominant—and if Jordan wasn't available they would have probably been just an average team.


3-B. What if the No. 1 pick in the 1979 draft (Magic Johnson) wasn't traded to the Lakers?

Gail Goodrich, the great Laker, signed with the New Orleans Jazz in 1976. Because of league rules, the Lakers were required to receive compensation for losing a veteran player. The two teams agreed that the Lakers would receive the first-round pick of the Jazz in the 1979 draft.

The Jazz ended up having the worst record in the league, which resulted in a coin flip between the Lakers and Bulls for the No. 1 pick. The Lakers won the flip and drafted Magic Johnson, while the Bulls drafted David Greenwood with the second pick.

Magic went on to become one of the greatest players of all time—the greatest, in my opinion—and one of the most entertaining, exciting, and enthusiastic superstars in the history of the league. He had career averages of 19.5 points, 11.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds and two steals along with 52 percent from the field and 84 percent from the free-throw line.

He also led the Lakers to five championships in the '80s (the greatest era in NBA history) and nine Finals appearances.


3-A. What if Magic didn't retire when he found he was HIV-Positive?

Magic was only 31 years old when he found out he was HIV-positive, and retired not wanting to harm any other NBA players. He still would have four great seasons left in him, and the Lakers definitely would have continued being a championship contender in the early '90s. The Lakers easily could've won a couple of more championships.


2. What if Bill Russell wasn't traded to the Boston Celtics after the 1956 draft?

Russell was drafted second overall by the St. Louis Hawks, but Red Auerbach desperately wanted him because of his defensive skills. So he traded six-time All-Star Ed Macauley and rookie Cliff Hagan for Russell shortly after the draft. Russell ended up being the perfect player for the Celtics, as he became the defensive anchor of what had been an average defensive team.

Russell became one of the greatest big man of all time, especially defensively. He had career averages of 15.2 points, 22.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He also probably would've averaged three to four blocks and a couple of steals had they been recorded. He led the Celtics to the greatest dominance in one era in professional sports, as they won 11 championships in 13 seasons—including eight in a row in the 1960s.


1-B. What if the coin would've landed the other way and the Phoenix Suns would've gotten Lew Alcindor instead of the Milwaukee Bucks?

The Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks had the two worst records in the league, and there was a coin flip to determine who would have the number-one pick in the 1969 Draft. The Draft had the most-coveted player coming into a draft ever in Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Jerry Colangelo, the Suns GM, called the wrong side of the coin, and lost out on arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.

The Bucks, on the other hand, were fortunate as they were able to draft the extremely-skilled big man. In his six seasons with the Bucks, Kareem led the Bucks to the only championship in their franchise history, and to another Finals appearance.  He also one several individual awards, including a couple of MVP Awards.


1-A. What if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn't traded to the Lakers in 1975?

While Kareem was dominant, he didn't have a good supporting cast. Despite everything he did on the court, it wasn't enough for the Bucks to be a consistent championship contender.

So the Bucks traded Kareem to the Lakers for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers, and Junior Bridgeman. Kareem went on to become the all-time scoring leader of the Lakers after playing 14 seasons with them.

Kareem went on to win five more championships with the Lakers during the '80s as the big man of the Showtime Lakers teams. He also won a Finals MVP and a couple of regular-season MVP awards with the Lakers. He and Magic formed one of the greatest duos in the history of the league, as they dominated the 80s with nine Finals appearances.

If Kareem wasn't traded to the Lakers, the '80s wouldn't have been close to the same.While the Lakers would've been entertaining with Magic, they wouldn't have been a championship team without the inside presence of Kareem.


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