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.
Most pundits decide that the 2006 NBA Draft does not have a surefire superstar. The Toronto Raptors disagree, and their use of the No. 1 overall pick on Texas forward LaMarcus Aldridge leads to a series of events that change the NBA forever.
The Raptors win 51 games in the 2006-07 season, slowly realizing the advantages of playing Aldridge and Chris Bosh at the same time. Both big men have range on their shots, and when paired with marksmen like Anthony Parker and Jose Calderon the floor is spaced so well that drives and post ups become markedly easier. They may lose their second round series to Cleveland, but with their new style of shooting big men have discovered a method of team-building largely ignored throughout the rest of the league.
Portland, the other team in the draft most interested in Aldridge, settles for Italian forward Andrea Bargnani and stumbles to only 29 wins. Had they won only three games more, the lottery balls might have earned them one of the draft’s two top prizes, Ohio State’s Greg Oden or Texas’ Kevin Durant. Instead, Atlanta and Minnesota leap up to the top spots forcing the Blazers to settle for the No. 3 pick and lesser prospect Al Horford. Atlanta eagerly scoops up Oden, while Durant goes to Minnesota to learn from Kevin Garnett.
The addition of such a talented rookie completely rejuvenates KG. The Timberwolves storm to 50 wins and their first playoff berth since 2005, and though they lose to the Hornets, Garnett feels confident enough in Durant’s future that he assures the franchise that he will stay in Minnesota for the rest of his career.
Things in the east are far muddier. The 60-win Pistons grasp the No. 1 seed fairly easily, but Boston (with newly added Ray Allen and Pau Gasol), Cleveland, Orlando and Toronto spend the entire season fighting for position behind them. The Raptors end up in fifth, losing the Celtics in the first round but in an encouraging enough way to extend the contract of head coach Sam Mitchell for three more years. The Pistons and Spurs meet in a rematch of the 2005 Finals, and the result is the same. The Spurs win the series in six games to capture their fifth championship.
After missing out on Aldridge and Durant in back-to-back years, the draft gods finally grant Portland the break they need. The Blazers, with the eighth-worst record in the NBA behind the solid play of Horford and not much else, shock the NBA and win the lottery. They grab Memphis point guard Derrick Rose with the first pick and suddenly appear to be one of the more promising teams in the league.
That draft produces several meaningful players. The league’s worst team, the future Oklahoma City Thunder, use the second pick on Michael Beasley to give their new city a face for the franchise. Miami, picking third, settles for UCLA’s Russell Westbrook. Memphis takes O.J. Mayo fourth, clearing the way for the New York Knicks to grab UCLA’s other top prospect: Kevin Love.
A later pick of note belongs to the Raptors. Knowing their stature as a playoff team affords them the patience to draft an international player, Toronto grabs yet another shooting big man, Serge Ibaka from the Republic of Congo. The way they figure, he’ll be a useful backup for a few years and serve as eventual Bosh insurance should he choose to leave as a free agent in 2010.
That worry grows into the eventual reality. Though Aldridge grows into a legitimate star, the Raptors can’t break past Orlando in the East. The Magic win the conference in both 2009 and 2010 and earn the NBA championship in ’09. They simply don’t have an answer for Dwight Howard’s raw strength. Bosh goes into free agency determined to find a team that can get him past Orlando.
Luckily for him, Cleveland’s LeBron James has the same problem. The two secretly decide to pair up, and though they attempt to recruit Miami’s Dwyane Wade with them, the exciting development of his new backcourt partner Westbrook makes both he and the organization hesitant to commit to such a risky strategy. Instead, the pair look to one of their former Olympic coaches, New York’s Mike D’antoni. His Knicks are on the rise thanks to the emerging Love, and that entices two of the biggest free agents in league history enough to jump to the Big Apple.
Of course, the star-studded Knicks aren’t completed until a year later. After their shocking loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, New York dangles Love to the Hornets for the point guard D’antoni has always craved: Chris Paul. Eventually, a deal is consummated and the trio of Paul, James and Bosh prepare to bring New York its first championship in almost 40 years. Of course, to do so, they’ll have to get past Aldridge, Ibaka and the ascendent Raptors.