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.
It takes them an entire summer. It takes Boston acquiring Ray Allen and Kobe getting antsy in LA. It takes losing to the Spurs… again. It takes months of rumors, back-and-forths, power struggles and organizational uncertainties. But on July 30th, 2007, the Phoenix Suns agree to trade Amar’e Stoudemire to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett.
KG promises to bring Phoenix its first championship, and his presence pays immediate dividends. Free agents James Posey and Eddie House agree to discounted deals to join Garnett, and suddenly the Suns have not only their best defensive team during the Steve Nash era, but also their deepest. The Suns run over the entire league en-route to an astonishing 68-14 regular season record. Garnett and Shawn Marion lead the league’s No. 3 overall defense with KG winning Defensive Player of the year, yet their offense is just as sharp as ever and leads the league in three-pointers. The Suns are so good, in fact, that the rest of the league has to trade desperately just to try to keep up.
Boston strikes first, snagging Pau Gasol in a deal center around Al Jefferson. The Mavericks are next as they acquire Jason Kidd from the Nets in a deal built around Devin Harris. But the most shocking move of all comes on the day of the trade deadline. In a last-ditch effort to appease Kobe Bryant, the Lakers make arguably the most desperate move in franchise history: they trade Lamar Odom, to the Heat for Shaquille O’Neal.
Of course, none of these deals have an immediate impact. The Suns dash through the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-2 record and, after a brief challenge, manage to dispatch the Eastern Conference Champion Detroit Pistons in six games to capture that elusive first championship. Steve Nash is named MVP of the Finals, and on the podium he tearfully thanks Garnett for bringing him the only distinction he ever really wanted: NBA champion.
The offseason kicks off with a bang when the Chicago Bulls jump all the way up from No. 8 to win the draft lottery and the rights to Memphis guard Derrick Rose. The Heat, long smitten with Rose, have to settle for the No. 4 pick after Odom leads a late-season surge that sees them surrender the league’s worst record to the Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics, now moving to Oklahoma City, grab Michael Beasley second, with O.J. Mayo following in third to Memphis and little-known UCLA point guard Russell Westbrook ending up in Miami.
Phoenix begins the season with a torrid 29-2 start, but an injury to Garnett knocks them out of serious title contention by the end of the regular season. With the Suns out of the way, the Denver Nuggets squeak into the NBA Finals only to lose to Dwight Howard’s Magic. Of course, most fans barely even notice. They’re so wrapped up in the free agency drama that looms one year away.
The 2009-10 season, which ends with Phoenix taking down the defending champion Magic in the Finals, is consumed by teams jockeying for salary cap position. Chicago manages to clear out enough cap space to sign two maximum-salary free agents and the Knicks nearly do the same.
Yet it’s the Lakers who manage to strike the most fear into the hearts of NBA fans. After yet another second-round exit, the team decides that it’s ill-fated redux of the Kobe-Shaq pairing simply won’t work. If they want to keep up with Phoenix and Orlando they’ll have to find Kobe some younger help. They use young backup center Andrew Bynum as the sweetener to convince Miami, satisfied to take the slow path with the emergence of Westbrook, to take on all of their wasted money. They enter free agency with only Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest on their roster and dreams for the greatest offseason of all time.
It’s not easy. Chris Bosh seems interested in the glitz of New York or Chicago and LeBron James is torn at the thought of ditching his hometown Cavs, but on July 8th, 2010, both James and Bosh announce that they’re joining Kobe in Los Angeles.
As the league ponders what kinds of records this new super team might break, the defending champion Suns still loom as the NBA’s top dog.