The 1 Jersey That Haunts Every NBA Fanbase

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2018

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The Los Angeles Lakers are commanding attention for all the right reasons with the release of their new uniforms. Their latest jerseys blend a classic feel with contemporary sleekness for a top-shelf design that is bound to make Dwight Howard regret ever leaving Hollywood.

These three-figure sleeveless tees also serve as a reminder to the initial news that, yes, LeBron James has joined the Lakers:

Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers

The new #LakeShow lineup. 👀: https://t.co/DH4D2dlKgK https://t.co/xqd1BXlk5A

Amid this bihourly LeBron-is-really-a-Laker freakout, we started to think: What's the one jersey that, for whatever reason, spooks every NBA fanbase? Is it from an archrival? A player their team passed on during the draft? A career run astray? Someone their favorite franchise traded away or just missed out on? 

The people are demanding answers, even if they don't know it yet. Here they come.


Atlanta Hawks: Marvin Williams, No. 24

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Consider the all-time ranks in NBA Math's total points added for the following 2005 draftees:

  • Marvin Williams, No. 2 pick (Atlanta): 2,804th (minus-160.71)
  • Deron Williams, No. 3 pick (Utah): 213th (836.69)
  • Chris Paul, No. 4 pick (New Orleans): 15th (5,055.15)

You might say the Atlanta Hawks choose poorly in the second spot. That's because they did. Marvin Williams turned into a solid player—make him a stretch 5 indefinitely, Charlotte Hornets, please and thank you—but Paul is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and D-Will's peak saw him jostle for the Best Point Guard Alive crown. 

Plus, it doesn't help that many of Marv's top seasons have come in Charlotte. Atlanta didn't even get to enjoy the apex of its draft-day miss, which only intensifies the pangs of what could have been.


Boston Celtics: Magic Johnson, Lakers No. 32

LOS ANGELES, CA - 1984:  Magic Johnson #32 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the Boston Celtics during the 1984 NBA Finals circa June 1984 at The Boston Garden in Boston Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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The Boston Celtics won three titles during the 1980s. That's more than enough for any team across whatever decade. But Magic Johnson's Lakers did two better, collecting five championships—two of which came at the Celtics' expense.

Remove even one of those losses from the ledger, and Boston would be working from a much stronger position when debating which franchise is the more important symbol for the era. It has a case, but a 5-3 title deficit and an 8-5 Finals-appearance hole makes for an uphill battle.


Brooklyn Nets: Deron Williams, No. 8

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 30:  Deron Williams #8 of the New Jersey Nets reacts in the final seconds of their 105-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 30, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
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Brooklyn Nets fans are most distressed by the memory of former general manager Billy King, but alas, he wasn't awarded a jersey number. That leaves Deron Williams. 

Oh, sure, many Brooklyn diehards may be more haunted by Damian Lillard or one of the Celtics' studs. But Williams' arrival was the driving force behind the franchise's reckless impulsion.

Do the Nets give up the 2012 draft pick that became Lillard in exchange for Gerald Wallace if they don't have the veteran floor general? Do they take on the final four years and $89.3 million of Joe Johnson's albatross contract in the summer of 2012 if they're not hell-bent on re-signing D-Will?

If they didn't make any of the other moves, would the Nets have forked over the ransom for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry that has since helped the Celtics land Jaylen Brown, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum?

And the coup de grace: Williams is still on the books for another two seasons following his buyout. Brooklyn will pay him more this year ($5,474,787) than the Golden State Warriors are shelling out for DeMarcus Cousins ($5,337,000).


Charlotte Hornets: Anthony Davis, Pelicans No. 23

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 13:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans stands on the court with Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets during the first half of a NBA game at the Smoothie King Center on March 13, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE
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Go ahead and focus on the Kobe Bryant drafty-day trade if you like. We'll allow it. But Kobe was pretty clearly trying to control his own destiny at the time.

Hornets fans can forgive the organization for parlaying him into Vlade Divac if they believe No. 8/No. 24 was never going to play for them. That Charlotte helped the Lakers clear cap space and consequently sign Shaquille O'Neal is its greater folly.

Anthony Davis' career stings more. The 2011-12 seven-win, 59-loss Charlotte Bobcats are the second-worst team in NBA history, according to Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS), which weights performance by point differential and strength of schedule. That squad entered the draft lottery with the best odds of landing the No. 1 pick and securing the right to select the one-eyebrowed wonder, one of the surest-thing prospects in recent memory.

Except the Hornets didn't get the top choice. They were leapfrogged by New Orleans, owners of the fourth-best lottery odds. And with Davis off the board, they chose his Kentucky teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, an unspectacular player still searching for an offensive niche.

Bradley Beal (No. 3), Damian Lillard (No. 6) and Andre Drummond (No. 9) might spook Hornets fans. Even ending up with Harrison Barnes (No. 7) would have been nice. Throw Draymond Green (No. 35) in there as well if you're an ultra-revisionist, but he was never in the lottery conversation. It doesn't matter either way.

Davis has spent most of his career on the periphery of the MVP and top-five-player discussion. Missing out on him by one pick, all because of some unfortunate pingpong-ball bounces, is a franchise-altering gut punch.


Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose, No. 1

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls lays on the floor aftrer suffering an injury against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on April 28, 201
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Other options besides Derrick Rose are in play here. Trading LaMarcus Aldridge to the Portland Trail Blazers for a package built around Tyrus Thomas still hurts, and LeBron James proved to be an unbreakable postseason barrier.

Derrick Rose's trajectory is the more jarring memory. He nabbed MVP honors during his age-22 season. He was supposed to be the Bulls' savior—the long-awaited lifeline worthy of the post-Michael Jordan era.

Everything changed after Rose suffered a torn left ACL in Game 1 of Chicago's 2012 first-round sparring with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was never the same. For all their perseverance under head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls weren't, either. 

Injuries have plagued Rose's career since. Maybe the Bulls never beat James if he remains at full capacity. They never forced his teams into a Game 7. Then again, if Rose stays the 2010-11 course, maybe they do. We'll never know.


Cleveland Cavaliers: Michael Jordan, Bulls No. 23

Expecting to see a LeBron James Miami Heat jersey? Or a LeBron Lakers jersey? You're probably not alone. But neither one stands up to the spirit of this debate. 

James returned to Cleveland after a four-year layover in Miami. That softens the blow of his initial departure. His latest exit is cushioned by both the Cavaliers' 2016 title and his joining a Lakers outfit that doesn't immediately profile as a contender.

If James ends up forming a dynasty in Los Angeles during his twilight, feel free to reassess the situation. For now, Michael Jordan's series-winning shot over Craig Ehlo in the first round of the 1989 postseason qualifies as the bigger bugaboo.

Who knows what happens if Jordan misses that jumper. Ehlo's life wouldn't be the same. Maybe the Cavs even go on to beat the New York Knicks and get a crack at the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.


Dallas Mavericks: Dwyane Wade, Heat No. 3

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Well, duh. Dwyane Wade averaged nearly 35 points per game during the 2006 NBA Finals, but his recurring trips to the foul line are all anyone supporting the Dallas Mavericks probably remembers.

After his Heat fell into a 2-0 series hole, he shot 58 free throws over the next four tilts, including a mind-melting 25 in Game 5. Miami went on to win the series, 4-2, as Wade finished with an NBA Finals-record 97 charity-stripe attempts.

Exacting revenge over the Heat in 2011 makes it a little easier for Mavs fans to sleep at night and keep the conspiracy theories at bay—but not really. Owner Mark Cuban was still salty about the entire thing in 2016.

"I think about Jack Nees—I think about Bennett Salvatore," he said, singling out a couple of retired referees after being asked by ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon what he thinks about when seeing Wade. "I think about 97 free throws. It's the only Finals where you had other players asking if it's fixed. But you know I don't hold 10-year grudges."


Denver Nuggets: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz No. 45 

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Plenty of teams passed on Donovan Mitchell during the 2017 draft—a total of 13 if you include the Portland Trail Blazers, who dealt for the Sacramento Kings' No. 10 selection (Zach Collins), and the Denver Nuggets. But the Nuggets, unlike everyone else, traded out of the opportunity to land him. 

Their reward for doing so? Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles.

Yes, yes, yes—props to the Utah Jazz's front office and scouting department and all that. And in the Nuggets' defense, these things happen. Hindsight is not a frill enjoyed in real time. But a backcourt rotation founded around Mitchell and Jamal Murray, with Gary Harris playing more 3, could have been something special.

By the way, Carmelo Anthony selections are permitted but not for the return on his trade to New York. Denver made out like bandits in that deal. Melo's combined 15-of-40 clip through Games 6 and 7 of the 2009 Western Conference Finals is muuuch tougher to digest.


Detroit Pistons: Darko Milicic, No. 31

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JUNE 27: Darko Milicic, 2nd pick of the 2003 NBA draft, holds his new uniform with Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown at the Palace of Auburn Hills June 27, 2003 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
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The Detroit Pistons' passing on Carmelo Anthony (No. 3), Chris Bosh (No. 4) and Dwyane Wade (No. 5) in 2003 to select Darko Milicic second overall remains one of the most painful draft-day memories ever. 

Winning a title the following season does nothing to assuage regret. Nor does a 2005 Finals cameo. Ditto for conference finals appearances in 2006 and 2007.

If anything, the Pistons' success thereafter exacerbates the anguish. Their window would have been open much longer with Anthony, Bosh or Wade in the fold. They could have another title banner or two. Tayshaun Prince thinks they could have an extra four.

Milicic was painted as the safe(ish) bet at the time, and Wade would have always been considered a no-go with Richard Hamilton in tow. But again, that helps only so much—if at all. Those gritty Pistons may have verged on dynastic had they invested in Bosh or Melo.


Golden State Warriors: Golden Gate Orange Jerseys

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Don't be mad or feel jilted. These jerseys are that ugly.

Besides, it just so happens the use of these puke-orange atrocities, between 2003 and 2010, aligned with some of the Golden State Warriors' darkest hours. They fielded the We Believe crew during that period, in 2006-07, but finished above .500 just twice.

Please, please, pretty please do not use the groin kick felt around the world during the 2016 Finals as inspiration to argue for Draymond Green. He's helped win more titles than he's lost, and no way does Kevin Durant make his free-agency heel turn if the Warriors repeat as champs.


Houston Rockets: Richard Jefferson, Nets No. 24

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 15:  Richard Jefferson #24 of the New Jersey Nets moves the ball during the game against the Houston Rockets on November 15, 2004 at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Rockets won 80-69.  NOTE
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Ignore anyone inclined to use Michael Jordan here. Drafting Hakeem Olajuwon first overall in 1984 worked out just fine for the Houston Rockets. Back-to-back titles cannot be framed as a disappointment, even when pitted against MJ's six.

Sending Richard Jefferson, the No. 13 pick of the 2001 draft, with Brandon Armstrong and Jason Collins to the then-New Jersey Nets for Eddie Griffin, the No. 7 choice that year, didn't work out so well.

While Griffin was a star during his high school years, he battled substance abuse and legal problems in the NBA before dying in a 2007 car crash. Jefferson went on to secure fringe-star status for some good Nets teams. This is not meant to make light of Griffin's life or wellbeing. His story is bigger than basketball.

Outside that vacuum, though, leaving Jefferson on the Rockets is a tantalizing what-if exercise.

As an aside, anyone who slots Chris Paul here because of his hamstring injury this past postseason deserves a round of applause. 


Indiana Pacers: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs No. 2

SAN ANTONIO,TX - MARCH 1: Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers steals the ball from Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs in closing minutes at AT&T Center on March 1, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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In the pantheon of lopsided trades, the Indiana Pacers' Kawhi Leonard-for-George Hill draft-day swap isn't too difficult to stomach. Hill provided a steady hand in the backcourt for a half-decade and played a pivotal part for some gutsy Finals almosts.

However, Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP and consensus top-five player when healthy. Imagine what the Pacers might have become if they had the foresight to pair him with Paul George. Surely at least one of their three playoff bouts versus LeBron James' Miami Heat would have panned out in their favor. And that, in turn, opens the door for a special brand of longing since two of those sparrings came during the Eastern Conference Finals.

"Kawhi Leonard is a system player" truthers—aka Flat-Earth logicians—are free to fear the memory of jerseys for Miami-era LeBron, Ron Artest (Malice at the Palace) or Andrew Bynum.


Los Angeles Clippers: Michael Olowokandi, No. 34

DALLAS - JANUARY 2:  Michael Olowokandi #34 of the Los Angeles Clippers positions to drive around Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks during the NBA game at American Airlines Center on January 2, 2003 in Dallas, Texas.  The Mavericks won 102-92.  NO
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Looking back on the 1998 draft is an unnerving experience for a bunch of teams, but the Los Angeles Clippers' recollection is particularly soul-crushing.

This isn't just about their passing on Vince Carter (No. 5), Dirk Nowitzki (No. 9) and Paul Pierce (No. 10). They were not alone in that mistake. But everyone else in their boat managed to choose someone who turned into a reputable NBA player.

Michael Olowokandi was never that. And to make matters worse, this whiff came with the first overall pick. Not second, not third, not fourth. But first overall.


Los Angeles Lakers: Chris Paul, Clippers No. 3

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"Basketball reasons."


Memphis Grizzlies: Steve Francis, Rockets No. 3

HOUSTON - APRIL 15:  Steve Francis #3 of the Houston Rockets takes the ball up during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Compaq Center on April 15, 2003 in Houston, Texas. The Rockets defeated the Grizzlies 97-86.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
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Steve Francis didn't want to play in Vancouver, then the home of the Grizzlies, after being drafted second overall in 1999.

"He didn't want to put me in Vancouver and worry about the team being sold," he said following his trade to Houston (via The Score's Andrew Unterberger). "That's why I know I'm God's son." 

The Grizzlies turned out OK, and Stevie Franchise fell short of transcendence. But they passed on guys like Baron Davis (No. 3), Lamar Odom (No. 4) and Shawn Marion (No. 9) to get him and then failed to land a potential cornerstone in return. Memphis needed so much more out of a No. 2 pick/three-time All-Star.

Shout-out to those who would rather see Steven Adams' No. 12 jersey for his role in getting Zach Randolph suspended prior to the Grizzlies' Game 7 clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first round of the 2014 postseason. You are the realest ones.


Miami Heat: Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks No. 41

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Highlighting 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is tempting here. He made life hell on LeBron James. But the Prince of South Beach still slashed 57.1/51.9/79.3 for that series, and the San Antonio Spurs outclassed Miami on a profoundly collective level.

Zeroing in on the 2011 Finals is better. And since Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle's defensive scheme was never assigned a jersey number, Dirk Nowitzki is the pick.

He party-crashed the Big Three's first Finals appearance by averaging 26.0 points and 9.7 rebounds while nailing nearly 98 percent of his free throws. He even had his own Michael Jordan moment in Game 4, battling through sickness to tally 21 points en route to a Mavericks victory. 

James and Dwyane Wade obviously mocked the Flu-Game knockoff. A triple-digit fever isn't something serious like, you know, muscle cramps. Whatever, though. Nowitzki earned the last laugh.


Milwaukee Bucks: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, No. 33

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar delivered a title during his six-year stay with the Milwaukee Bucks, for which the team and its fans should grateful. But he also requested a trade at the height of his powers, in 1975, and derailed what could have been a dominant relationship for the next decade.

"I don't have any family or friends here," Abdul-Jabbar said then, per the Los Angeles Times' Thomas Bonk. He continued:

"The things I relate to don't happen to be in this city to any meaningful degree. Culturally, what I'm about and what Milwaukee is about are two different things. The reason I haven't commented on this before is I don't want to take a knock at Milwaukee or the people here and have them think they're unworthy of me. That's not what it's all about."

The Bucks were coming off a 38-win season, so their future wasn't all rainbows and daisies. But they employed a living legend. They planted their feet back in 50-win territory less than a half-decade after his exit. They would have been golden if he stayed.

Abdul-Jabbar's success with the Lakers only adds salt to the what-if wound. They won five titles together, and he became the NBA's all-time-leading scorer under their care. And to this day, he's more synonymous with Lakers lore than Bucks nostalgia.

Good samaritans who don't live in dominance unexplored have my respect. You all have the go-ahead to use the Dirk Nowitzki trade during the 1998 draft as your anchor for anguish.


Minnesota Timberwolves: Jonny Flynn, No. 10

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Let's revisit this excerpt from Jonathan Abrams' 2013 piece for Grantland:

"Dave Wohl, Minnesota's lead assistant, remembers arriving in Minnesota and [David] Kahn asking him whether [Ricky] Rubio and [Jonny] Flynn could prosper playing together. Wohl described Flynn as a good, ambitious kid. He also said that Rubio and [Stephen] Curry would have made a better pairing. He didn't believe either Flynn or Rubio could perform at shooting guard. 'He said, 'No, no. I want to play Jonny and Rubio. They remind me of [Walt] Frazier and [Earl] Monroe,' Wohl said."

Good thinking, David.

Taking Rubio remains justifiable. He generated more buzz than the other two at the time. Flynn hasn't played in the NBA since 2011-12. Curry has gone on to win two MVP awards, three titles and mold the identity of the scariest team in league history.

Another underrated part of the 2009 draft for trivia enthusiasts: Kahn selected a third point guard, Ty Lawson, whom he rerouted to Denver.


New Orleans Pelicans: Eric Gordon, No. 10

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Manu Ginobili's detonation during the seven-game second-round romp between the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans received heavy consideration, but Eric Gordon's tenure was too topsy-turvy to leave alone.

After coming over as the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade in 2011, Gordon tried to leave New Orleans as a restricted free agent the next summer by signing a four-year, $58 million offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns and throwing all kinds of side-eyes in the Pelicans' direction.

"Phoenix is just where my heart is now," he said in a statement at the time.

The Pelicans matched anyway. What followed over the years to come was a master class in injury-related setbacks. By the time Gordon became a free agent again in 2016, he had amassed 173 regular-season absences through his half-decade fly-by on the Pelicans—an average of almost 35 no-shows per year. He never eclipsed the 65-game threshold in New Orleans.

Two seasons into an eerily similar four-year, $53 million contract with the Rockets, Gordon has already broken the 65-appearance barrier twice and is kind of Benjamin Buttoning. He won Sixth Man of the Year in 2016-17 and finished second on the ballot for 2017-18. He has also put down 17 dunks in 144 games with Houston; he had just 15 jams in his first four seasons (176 appearances) with New Orleans.

And for good measure, it took Gordon less than a half-season after leaving the Pelicans to call out their instability. 

Frankly, it's incredible that he outlasted every other asset acquired from the CP3 trade in New Orleans.


New York Knicks: Reggie Miller, Pacers No. 31

Eight points in nine seconds is a lot.


Oklahoma City Thunder: James Harden, Rockets No. 13

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No one knew James Harden would be this good. Not even the Rockets. But that doesn't inoculate the Oklahoma City Thunder against what-could-have-been warts.

Harden was more of a known commodity to them than the package that became Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Alex Abrines and Mitch McGary. More than a few people deemed this a fair return at the time, but it doesn't matter. The Thunder were working off an NBA Finals bid. Harden was not nonessential to what they built and were continuing to build.

Harping on the luxury-tax implications carried some semblance of merit then. It doesn't now—not when Oklahoma City has since cannonballed into the tax for clearly inferior products. 

How many championships did the Thunder leave on the table by dealing Harden? Even if we account for Miami's Big Three and assume Kevin Durant still leaves in 2016, one or two feels like reasonable answer.

And who is to say Durant bolts for the Warriors if Harden is around? Maybe he still does. Or maybe the Thunder trade Westbrook. They would have faced uncharted cost concerns when contemplating post-rookie-extension deals for each.

Still, keep Harden a little while longer, swallow the luxury tax a little sooner, and the Thunder of today might look more like the Thunder from before, with a championship or two (or three) to their name.


Orlando Magic: Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers No. 34

ORLANDO, UNITED STATES:  Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal (R) is fouled by Orlando Magic center Don Reid (L) during the second period at the TD Waterhouse Centre 30 January 2002 in Orlando, FL. AFP PHOTO/Tony RANZE (Photo credit should read TONY
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Nick Anderson deserves some consideration here for missing four straight free throws and costing the Orlando Magic Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals. But the Rockets went on to sweep them in that best-of-seven matchup. Winning Game 1 wouldn't have altered the course of the series.

Shaquille O'Neal was the Magic's ticket to more NBA Finals appearances and actual titles. Losing him to the Lakers during 1996's wild free agency thwarted what might have been a championship mainstay. And Shaq's later admission he never should have left Orlando doesn't help matters.


Philadelphia 76ers: Larry Bird, Celtics No. 33

Four Eastern Conference Finals battles and a 1984 skirmish with Julius Erving? Yep, Larry Bird seems like the right pick.

Rookie-year Magic Johnson is also an acceptable answer. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nursing a sprained ankle for Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, he jumped center, played every position and put up 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists to clinch the Lakers' first championship of the Showtime Era.

Andrew Bynum slip-ins are likewise permitted, but his pop-a-shot rehab helped pave the way for Sam Hinkie, his critically acclaimed and crucified installment of The Process and the Joel Embiid-powered Philadelphia 76ers of today.

Monitor the progress of Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum and next year's Kings pick in the seasons to come. One of them could take Bird's spot depending on how everything shakes out.


Phoenix Suns: Robert Horry, Spurs No. 5

SAN ANTONIO - MAY 14:  Forward Robert Horry #5 of the San Antonio Spurs pushes with Raja Bell #19 after receiving a flagrant foul on Steve Nash in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2007 NBA Playoffs on May 14, 2007 at AT&T Center i
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John Paxson gets a half-nod for his winning three in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals. But a miss only means the Phoenix Suns would have lived to see a Game 7. And no one's picking against Michael Jordan in a Game 7.

Robert Horry's bodycheck to Steve Nash during Game 4 of the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals is arguably the more grating moment. The Suns won, but Boris Diaw and Amar'e Stoudemire were suspended for Game 5 after leaving "the immediate vicinity of the bench." The Spurs capitalized on their punishments with a victory of their own before winning Game 6 and the series.

A second-round loss shouldn't be so emotionally exhausting, but this represented the Mike D'Antoni-coached Suns' best opportunity to win a title. Never mind that they earned conference finals bids in each of the two previous years. The Spurs rolled their way to an 8-1 record over the next two rounds and, as a result, another championship. 

Anything could have happened in Game 5 if Diaw and Stoudemire played. Perhaps the Spurs win anyway. They had the better regular-season net rating. But maybe they lose. The Suns had the NBA's best record and top offense by a mile entering the playoffs. At full capacity, they could have taken Game 5, which they lost by three points, and ripped driver's-seat positioning from San Antonio.

From there, it would have been tough to vote against them beating the Utah Jazz and then the Cavaliers for their first and only title.


Portland Trail Blazers: Greg Oden, No. 52

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 1: (EDITORS NOTE - IMAGE HAS BEEN DIGITALLY ALTERED) Greg Oden #52 of the Portland Trail Blazers poses for a portrait during a Media Day photo shoot on October 1, 2010 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User
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Possibilities abound for the Portland Trail Blazers. 

Brandon Roy what-ifs write themselves. Portland also traded away the pick that became Deron Williams and could have been Chris Paul for what amounted to Martell Webster, Joel Freeland and Jarrett Jack (acquired for Linas Kleiza and Ricky Sanchez).

But it comes down to passing on Michael Jordan for Sam Bowie in the 1984 draft or taking Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant in 2007. This doesn't seem like a competition at first blush. MJ is MJ is MJ is the second-greatest player of all time. But context matters.

Every team was hot for traditional centers in 1984. The Blazers already had a young Clyde Drexler and John Paxson, and it wasn't like Jordan entered the prospect pageant amid can't-miss fanfare. Ending up with Bowie instead of His Airness still cuts to the core, but the swing and miss on Oden incites more "why us?" feels.

The debate between him and Durant leading into draft night was real. Portland could have just as easily held on to Zach Randolph, who was traded to the New York Knicks, and opted out of adding another big man beside LaMarcus Aldridge.

Recency bias counts for something, and Durant is working off consecutive Finals MVPs with the Warriors and trading occasional benign barbs with CJ McCollum:

Kevin Durant @KDTrey5

@CJMcCollum So,I would get into a gang fight, lose, plot on my brother for 2 months in our home and then go get the gang we lost to and beat him up? U think that low of me CJ? I just did your fuckin podcast. Snakes in the grass boy I tell ya 🤣

But what's done is done. It just stinks we will never find out whether playing in Portland would have given Durant the non-mushy will to avoid latching on to Golden State's bandwagon. 


Sacramento Kings: Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers No. 34

SACRAMENTO, CA - MAY 28:  Shaquille O'Neal #34  of the Los Angeles Lakers slam dunks over Vlade Divac #21 of the Sacramento Kings in Game five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2002 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California on May 28,
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This could go a number of ways thanks to the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

Robert Horry's buzzer-beater to steal Game 4 on behalf of the Lakers—after Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal each missed quasi-bunnies, mind you—is a turning-point moment in Sacramento Kings history. And then we have the uber-controversial Game 6, in which Shaq notched 41 points and 17 rebounds while going 13-of-17 at the foul line.

Rolling with O'Neal in general feels like the best bet. Horry's shot is one moment in a long line of gutting developments, and the referees for Game 6, Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt and Bob Delaney, didn't share a jersey number. Also, blaming them comes off a little too conspiracy drunk.

O'Neal is the more affecting force when looking at the bigger picture. He averaged 30.3 points, 13.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks for the series. His accuracy at the charity stripe in Games 6 and 7 was uncharacteristic to say the least. He put his freebies down at a 75 percent clip (24-of-32)—no small feat for what was, at the time, a career 50.3 percent postseason foul shooter.

On top of everything, the 2002 Western Conference Finals marked the third consecutive season in which the Lakers bounced the Kings from the playoffs. Shaq was no less dominant on those other occasions. He averaged 29.4 points, 17.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks during their five-game first-round set in 2000 and 33.3 points, 17.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks through Los Angeles' four-game second-round sweep in 2001.


San Antonio Spurs: Ray Allen, Heat No. 34 

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 18:  Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat makes a game-tying three-pointer over Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter during Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 18, 2013 in Miami, Florida.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Derek Fisher's miracle buzzer-beater to close Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals warrants an honorary mention. He put Los Angeles up 3-2 in the series, and San Antonio lost Game 6.

Do the Spurs make it to the conference finals if Fisher's shot doesn't find nylon? Probably. Do they beat the Timberwolves? Definitely. Do they take down the Pistons in the NBA Finals? Maybe. Do they then make their same title trek in 2004-05 and complete a three-peat that bilks naysayers and nitpickers and party-poopers of the chance to invalidate their dynasty? Who knows. That's a lot of hypotheticals.

Ray Allen's corner three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals cost the Spurs a championship. They were up on the Heat, 3-2, and endured comparative crunch time in Game 7. That is next-level torment. Head coach Gregg Popovich is known for downplaying the severity of basketball matters, but he even copped to going through monthslong motions. 

Consider this exchange with the San Antonio Express-News' Buck Harvey from September 2013:

"If strategy doesn't haunt him, everything else does. 'I think about Game 6 every day,' Popovich said. 'Without exception. I think about every play. I can see LeBron's first shot, and the rebound, and the second ...'

"Then he paused and said, 'I've been quite lugubrious.'


"'As sad as you can possibly be.'"

I mean, damn. Overthrowing the Heat in 2014 allays those miserable vibes. Maybe the Spurs aren't as driven to win the following year. Or maybe, just maybe, Tim Duncan retires with six rings instead of five, much to the dismay of any irrational Kobe Bryant stans.


Toronto Raptors: LeBron James, Cavaliers No. 23 

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, think of the possibilities, yada, yada, yada. LeBron James single-handedly turned an annually improving Raptors franchise into a postseason meme during his second go-round with the Cavaliers.

Through 14 playoff games against Cleveland over the past three years, Toronto went 2-12, including two sweeps, while being outscored by more than 16 points per 100 possessions.

DeMar DeRozan should blame LeBron for his relocation to San Antonio first and Raptors president Masai Ujiri second. 


Utah Jazz: Michael Jordan, Bulls No. 23 

If not for Michael Jordan, the ring-less Utah Jazz could have two titles to their franchise index. Heck, had he not pushed off gone full GOAT against Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, they might have a championship credential in spite of him.

What else is there to say?


Washington Wizards: Kwame Brown, No. 5

Stephen J. Boitano/Associated Press

Listen hard enough, and you can here Jan Vesely, the No. 6 pick in 2011, breathe a sigh of relief. 

His selection is more haunting than Kwame Brown's in many ways. Kemba Walker (No. 9), Klay Thompson (No. 11), Kawhi Leonard (No. 15), Tobias Harris (No. 19) and Jimmy Butler (No. 30) all came off the board after him.

Something about whiffing on the first overall pick is just worse. Especially in this case.

The best players after Vesely were guards and wings. Washington was looking for a big. Passing on him might have meant taking Bismack Biyombo, Tristan Thompson or Jonas Valanciunas—superior options who don't alter the franchise's course in a meaningful way.

Selecting Brown at No. 1 in 2001 was a more demonstrative setback. The Wizards did not have a John Wall upon whom to lean. Brown was supposed to be their centerpiece, but he lasted just four seasons before being traded. 

Pau Gasol, meanwhile, was grabbed at No. 3 and will go down as a top-75, perhaps top-50, player on the all-time ladder.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.


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