Recall the Golden State Warriors as they once were. Before they became a dynastic monument to team-building genius—a cruel, competition-squashing symbol of what happens when all the best breaks meet up with top talent at the intersection of perfect culture and cutting-edge style.
In 2011, Chris Paul made it clear to that version of the Warriors that they weren't good enough for him. Which was fair, because they weren't.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski mentioned on his podcast that Paul told Golden State he wouldn't re-sign there, effectively squashing the Dubs' interest in trading for CP3 before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
It's hard to imagine that getting Paul, which at the time would have seemed like the greatest thing in modern Warriors history, might have been a disaster. But had Paul wound up with the Warriors, it might have disrupted any number of the delicate steps in Golden State's construction.
Coming off his second season, which featured averages of 18.6 points and 5.8 assists per game, a 23-year-old Stephen Curry would almost certainly have been the centerpiece of a Paul trade. Taking him out of the equation for the next six seasons wildly alters Golden State's outlook. Having Paul means the point guard position is still providing elite production, but do the Warriors follow the same path without their two-time MVP?
Because even if Paul plays almost as well as Curry from 2011-12 to 2016-17, we have to note his hypothetical agreement to re-sign in Golden State would have included a max deal like the five-year, $107 million pact he inked with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013. Curry's four-year, $44 million extension (signed before the 2012-13 season) was the source of Golden State's unfair financial flexibility. Risky at the time because of Curry's chronic ankle issues, that contract enabled everything that came next.
So even if CP3 might have given the Warriors much of what Curry did, we must assume his contract demands (fully justified, by the way) would have sapped the Dubs' spending options.
If, somehow, the Warriors got re-signing assurances from Paul and managed to land him without sending away Curry, it's still difficult to imagine the two-time MVP's career would've developed along the same track. With Paul around, Curry would have been used off the ball more. He might never have morphed into the deadliest pull-up sniper and pick-and-roll gunner the league has ever seen.
Klay's Still OK
Klay Thompson's role with the team would have been much the same. If anything, Paul might have done a better job of setting up one of the best catch-and-shoot weapons in the league. Just imagine Thompson in JJ Redick's role—only bigger (Thompson's got three inches on Redick), stronger and better defensively—and it's not hard to argue Thompson's numbers might have even been superior with Paul to what they were with Curry.
And if we're assuming Curry is gone as part of the trade to get CP3, who knows how gaudy Thompson's production might have been?
One problem: In our hypothetical, Paul is making the max, which might mean Thompson's four-year, $70 million extension never happens in 2014. Already a below-market offer, Thompson's contract would have had to be even smaller with Paul making twice as much money as Curry. It's even possible Thompson would have left in free agency after the 2014-15 season if the Warriors didn't want to dive deep into the tax to match restricted free-agent offer sheets.
Still, compared to Curry, Thompson's spot and role on the Warriors look similar in the Paul-to-Golden State scenario. At least through 2015.
The same goes for Andrew Bogut, for whom the Warriors traded at the end of the 2011-12 season. It remains easy to imagine the deal that sent Monta Ellis for the injury-prone big man, especially with Thompson's profile as a perfect backcourt sidekick for Paul.
Bye Bye, Harry B.
Harrison Barnes' fate is wildly different.
Often marginalized among the Warriors' key figures, Barnes started and played a vital role on the Dubs' 2014-15 championship team. Though the Warriors' grander plans meant they weren't sorry to lose him to the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, Barnes was still an integral part of a title-winner and a 73-win juggernaut.
If Paul had joined the Warriors in 2011, Barnes would never have made it onto the roster. Period.
Thanks to one of the more blatant late-season tank jobs in memory—Golden State started three rookies, sat Curry and Bogut and eventually benched David Lee with a suspect hip and groin injuries down the stretch of the 2011-12 season—the Warriors sneaked into a coin flip with the Toronto Raptors for the rights to the seventh-best lottery odds. Had they lost the toss, the Warriors would have forfeited their selection.
They won, which resulted in the Barnes selection at No. 7.
Is there any scenario in which Paul would have stood for such tanking? And even if an unlikely scenario arose in which CP3—a maniacally competitive monster—sanctioned a mail-in job like the Warriors perpetrated in 2012, it's still important to remember they probably would have been too good to consider it in the first place.
Curry's ankles first started betraying him that season, limiting him to 26 games. In this scenario, Curry is either already off the team as part of the Paul trade or far less important to the organization. Regardless, Paul would have been good enough to keep Golden State from getting within striking distance of that No. 7 spot.
No tank means no Barnes.
No Dray, No Way
If the Warriors had finished with a better record in the 2011-12 season than their 23-43 mark, their second-round pick would have come later than No. 35 in the 2012 draft. Is Draymond Green still there if they're selecting 40th?
Retroactively, just about every team in the league, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, swears they were considering Green. The Dallas Mavericks passed on him four times. The Chicago Bulls (and especially assistant coach Ron Adams, who later joined the Warriors) wanted him. The Detroit Pistons had the No. 39 selection and would have taken the Michigan State product.
If the Warriors picked just a few spots later, Green might never have landed on the roster. And say what you want about Paul's being a fine stand-in for Curry, or Thompson's development going similarly: If Golden State doesn't have Green, it doesn't win rings.
The List Goes On
Does Andre Iguodala back-channel communicate his affinity for the Warriors during the first-round series his Nuggets played against them in 2013 if Curry's not there? Does he wait around for general manager Bob Myers to swing a last-minute deal with the Utah Jazz that lands him in Golden State?
Does Steve Kerr wind up leading the Warriors, transforming their culture and unleashing a system dependent on egalitarian principles and incessant ball and player movement if Paul is in charge instead of Curry? Does he instead look at CP3's ball-dominant leanings and conclude his preferred style of play won't fit?
And, finally, we can stop trafficking in uncertainties when it comes to Kevin Durant.
With Paul instead of Curry, Kerr and everyone else who eventually formed Golden State's core, there's no way Durant signs on in 2016. Not only because the makeup of the team and its culture would have been different, but also because the perfect storm of salary-cap luck and contract wizardry that created room for him never would've happened. Curry's below-market contract was the first domino, and then Green and Thompson stayed for less than the max, and then the cap spiked, and then...look, it just never happens.
If Paul is a Warrior, Durant never is.
Which means he's out there somewhere else like Curry, Thompson and/or Green and making some other contender more dangerous—standing in the way of whatever title path Paul and the alternate-universe Warriors are trying to walk.
Infinite Possibilities, One Certainty
A Paul-Warriors marriage could have yielded any number of outcomes. Maybe, through different means and with another set of personnel, championships would have materialized anyway. Or maybe Paul would have pushed for a trade. Or maybe Curry would have led the Charlotte Hornets to several rings, thwarting Paul and the Warriors in the Finals.
The only certainty is that this reality, the current one we all live in, never comes to fruition. This one, in which the Warriors play prettier ball than we've ever seen, in which historical, landscape-altering greatness tips the axis of the NBA and influences the plans of 29 other desperate teams, in which little kids on playgrounds wear No. 30 jerseys and heave shots from half court.
All that becomes fiction, and something else—something inevitably less profound and beautiful and perfect—takes its place.
The NBA is a choose-your-own-adventure book in which the least plausible twists become reality. Not getting the best point guard in the league six years ago turned out to be the most positive event in Warriors history.