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.
Some teams embrace their history. Others, like the Portland Trail Blazers, make the bold choice to ignore it. After injuries destroyed the careers of Bill Walton, Sam Bowie and Arvydas Sabonis, Portland entered the 2007 NBA Draft with a simple resolution not to let history repeat itself. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t convince themselves that Ohio State center Greg Oden would be healthy enough to lead them to a championship. So with the first pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Portland Trailblazers select Kevin Durant.
The trio of Durant, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge carries the Blazers to within a few wins of the playoffs, and though they’re lottery-bound once more, the league has to acknowledge the revolution brewing in Portland. They enter the 2008 draft hoping to find a center to anchor their defense, and quickly snatch up Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert with the 13th pick. The soon-to-be Oklahoma City Thunder, meanwhile, finish the season with the league’s worst record. Without Oden they’re led by No. 5 overall pick Jeff Green. They may not land the point guard they sought when Derrick Rose goes first, but with the second pick they add to their growing front court by pairing Green and Oden with Kansas State’s Michael Beasley. Pundits around the league can’t stop debating which young core is stronger: Portland’s or Oklahoma City’s.
The question is answered in resounding fashion during the 2008-09 season. Portland steams all the way into the second round of the playoffs while Oklahoma City once again finishes with the league’s worst record AND misses out on hometown hero Blake Griffin in the lottery. They’re forced to settle for Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, hoping the draft’s best passer can coax some offensive growth out of their young bigs.
Portland, meanwhile, finds another keeper when they trade up to grab point guard Darren Collison. With Collison in place the Blazers are convinced they’ve built their starting five of the future. All in their early 20’s, two (Roy and Durant) with All-Star appearances on their resume and seemingly no limit on how far they can go, the young Blazers seem poised to make the leap into true championship contention as early as Durant’s third season.
Injuries, unfortunately, begin to take their toll. Roy misses his first extended stretch as old knee issues rear their ugly head, and without their primary ball-handler the Blazers stumble down the stretch and lose their first-round playoff series to Phoenix. The organization senses how close it is to reaching the next level, but with questions about Roy’s health decide to spend the offseason looking for insurance at the shooting guard position.
They desperately court Boston’s Ray Allen in free agency, hoping their cap space and young talent would be enough to convince him to come off of the bench. When Allen declines, they’re forced to settle for Plan B: a sign-and-trade with Orlando for J.J. Redick.
Redick proves to be Portland’s missing piece. Roy once again misses extended time, and doctors fear that his knees will never be truly healthy again, but Redick’s shooting pushes the Blazer offense to new heights. Not wanting to mess with team chemistry, Roy agrees to come off of the bench upon his return. Though they lose the conference finals to eventual champion Dallas, the Blazers enter the 2011-12 season as clear favorites to meet LeBron James’ Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
It’s not easy. The young duo of James Harden and Kevin Love in Minnesota gives Portland all they can handle in the first round and the ageless Spurs last six games in the Western Conference Finals, but eventually fans everywhere get the matchup they wanted: Durant vs. LeBron.
Durant has his moments. The Blazers take Game 1 on their home floor and nearly go to Miami with a 2-0 lead. But as the seconds tick off of the clock in a Game 5 blowout, coach Nate McMillan pulls his starters and tells them it just wasn’t their year. LeBron got his, but with owner Paul Allen vowing to pay up to keep the team together for a long time, everyone knows it’s just a matter of time until Durant’s Blazers supplant Miami as NBA Champions.