The following is a team of players who could have, should have, would have, might have, and almost have succeeded at the level of the greatest to ever play the game.
Every player on this list was thought to give their team every hope for their future, but through one means or another, be it through injury or circumstance, never amounted to fulfill their personal legend.
What if PG Earvin "Magic" Johnson had never contracted the H.I.V. virus?
Yes, he accomplished more than most players could ever dream of. His status as one of the top three players to ever play the game is undeniable. He is third all-time in assists, scored more than 17,000 points, won multiple MVPs, had fourteen All-Star appearances, and won the most dominant gold medal in Olympic history and five NBA championships.
He could play every position on the court, and dominate.
So why is his name here? He did all of this despite missing four years in his prime because he contracted the H.I.V. virus. He played one more season in the mid-nineties, and looked like he had gained 40 pounds since his playing days.
Had he remained healthy, Magic might have approached John Stockton's total assist numbers, cracked 10,000 rebounds, 25,000 points, and 2,500 steals. He might have ended up squeezing one more championship out of his Lakers. He might cemented his name—not Jordan's—as the greatest, most complete basketball player to ever grace the courts. He was that good.
What if SG Len Bias never took a cruise down Montana Avenue on June 18, 1986?
You want to talk about the next Jordan? How about pre-Jordan? How about a player that scouts were using as a model when they drafted Jordan?
Len Bias was all of that and more.
Want to know why the Boston Celtics were mired in mediocrity for all those years? Len Bias' cocaine overdose at 2 AM on the 19th of June, 22 years ago.
Tragic as it surely was for the family to lose a loved one, I'm positive Len looks down on us every day, and wonders about which conversation he would have been mentioned in had he stayed out of trouble. Likely the one about championships and legacy, and not the one about the lessons we can learn from too much success at an early age.
Len Bias would have changed the way we think of basketball. Fortunately in many ways, his influence has been much greater than just this. Nevertheless, there was a time when Len Bias was mentioned with the kind of "can't miss" awe only reserved for the LeBron Jameses, Shaquille O'Neals and Tim Duncans of the world.
What if SF "Pistol" Pete Maravich were appreciated?
There has never been a player of Pete Maravich's scoring ability. His averages tell only part of the story. He retains college's all-time high scoring average, putting up more than 41 points a game.
Simply put, he was the ultimate ball handler and consummate showman. Unfortunately, his game was often so esoteric that he tended to play by himself, and not within a team structure.
After he tore up his knee in his early thirties—medicine not being what it is today—Pete was never the same player. The years playing for mediocre teams began to wear on him, and he never won a championship despite a deep run with the Celtics in his final year.
He later fought alcoholism and depression and he died doing what he loved best, playing basketball.
It seems he was always on borrowed time, as his heart turned out to have an irregular beat—but some say after he couldn't play the game the way he wanted to, his heart became broken.
In any event, every playground trick you've ever seen on any mix tape, on any court indoor or out, Pistol Pete had already done before. He should have played today.
What if PF Dennis Rodman took himself seriously?
At 6'7" and slighter than most small forwards, Rodman made up for his lack of height and bulk with heart, grit, and sheer determination. He was an intelligent defender, and one of the most gifted rebounders the league has ever seen.
He led the league in boards a record seven consecutive seasons in the mid-'90s, with averages never falling below 14.9 rebounds per game, and spiking as high as 18 rebounds per game. Given that he played in an era during which the likes of Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, Karl Malone, and Shaquille O'Neal were all in their primes, his accomplishment seems all the more impressive.
He was a key part of two championship teams in both Detroit and Chicago, and won Defensive Player of the Year awards on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, the Rodman sideshow began to take precedence over his game.
Refusing to work on his fundamentals, Rodman's offensive ability became something of a joke, even if his timing for boards never left him entirely. His flair for the flamboyant and dramatic, both on and off the court, proved to shorten a career that could have been not just brilliant, but revered.
What if C Arvidas Sabonis played the prime of his career in the NBA?
If you saw "Sabas" play later on in his life when he appeared as though he was running in cement blocks, and had the mobility of Frankenstein on his way to averaging six points per contest, you saw the shadow of a man who was as gifted as any center who ever played the game.
In his younger years, he was made of granite. He was a veritable statue, who at 7'3" and 285 pounds resembled a giant Lithuanian Arnold Schwarzenegger. Probably one of the smartest players to play any position, and a natural leader, Sabonis is one of the most decorated Olympic and international athletes, winning a gold medal under the U.S.S.R. banner and a bronze with Lithuania, when he was already past his prime.
He averaged 12 points, seven rebounds, and two assists per game for his career, but when you consider that his NBA career did not begin until he was 31 years of age, that's tremendous. Add to this the fact that the Blazers made the playoffs every year he was healthy and playing, and you have the center with the biggest "what-if" question mark to ever play the game.