Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.
The Golden State Warriors found themselves at something of a crossroads on June 25th, 2009. Though picking seventh following a 29-win season, they’d lost stars Monta Ellis and Corey Maggette to injury for most of the season. The argument in the war room turns to need against talent. Should we take the best player on our board, or fill a hole in the frontcourt and hope that good health can carry them back into the playoffs? In the end they decide to make the safe choice. With the seventh pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Golden State Warriors select Jordan Hill, forward from Arizona. Ecstatic at this gift from the basketball gods, Donnie Walsh eagerly uses the eighth pick on Davidson guard Stephen Curry.
It takes Curry all of three weeks to supplant incumbent point guard Chris Duhon in the starting lineup, and thanks to Mike D’antoni’s fast-paced offense he manages to average 18 points per game and finish second in Rookie of the Year voting. Unfortunately a bottom-five defense keeps New York from seriously sniffing the playoffs, but the Knicks go into the summer’s free agency arms race confident that young players like Curry and Danillo Gallinari can help them lure a superstar to the big apple.
They miss out on the biggest stars, watching LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all choose Miami, but grabbing All-Star forward Amar’e Stoudemire is a decent consolation prize. He leads the Knicks to an impressive 26-18 start before nagging injuries start to take their toll. Fortunately, reinforcements should be on the way. Rumors persist that Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony wants to play for the Knicks, and thanks to years of frugal spending New York would easily have the cap space to sign him as a free agent over the summer.
But Denver plays the situation flawlessly. They dangle Anthony in front of the Nets and Lakers, using his desire for an immediate contract extension amid pessimistic CBA forecasts to try to convince the Knicks that Carmelo might actually agree to a trade elsewhere. Walsh and D’antoni preach patience, but owner James Dolan steps into negotiations personally four days before the trade deadline and, stars in his eyes, agrees to Denver’s greatest demand. On February 22nd, 2011, the New York Knicks trade Wilson Chandler, Eddy Curry, two first round picks and Stephen Curry for Carmelo Anthony.
The Knicks make it to the second round behind Anthony, Stoudemire and Gallinari, but they never advance any further and miss the playoffs altogether in 2014 and 2015. Denver, however, sees their fortunes shift dramatically.
They add Kenneth Faried in the summer’s draft and swap their second young point guard, Ty Lawson, to the suddenly point guard-needy Knicks for their own first round pick, Iman Shumpert. But the real coup comes the following summer when they sneak their way into trade discussions with Orlando, Philadelphia and the Lakers and manage to snag Andre Iguodala for well below market value.
Coach George Karl knows that his five best players are Curry, Shumpert, Chandler, Iguodala and Faried, so rather than force one of them to the bench, he spends the season experimenting with small-ball lineups with all five. After heartbreaking playoff losses to San Antonio in 2013 and 2014, the Denver Nuggets finally manage to break through in 2015 beating LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the Finals en route to winning the organization’s first championship. Fans in New York and Oakland can do nothing but cringe as they watch Curry accept his first of many Finals MVP trophies. Both are left to wonder what might have been.