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.
Trading a 26-year-old All Star is rarely advisable. In this case, though, Mark Cuban is willing to make an exception. In July 2004, his Dallas Mavericks trade Dirk Nowitzki, Eduardo Nájera and two first round draft picks for Shaquille O’Neal and a signed-and-traded Karl Malone. Malone is encouraged to agree to the deal by O’Neal, who had recruited him to the Lakers a year earlier and knew his Mavericks would need a new power forward to replace Nowitzki.
The move is only the beginning for both teams. Dallas later trades Antwan Jamison to Washington for the rights to rookie Devin Harris and Jerry Stackhouse, then deals Antoine Walker to Atlanta for Jason Terry. They had initially hoped to retain point guard Steve Nash as well, but he leaves after the acquisition of Shaq to play in a faster-paced Phoenix offense.
The Lakers, meanwhile, still have another big star to reel in. Of course, this one isn’t on the court. It’s college legend Mike Kryzyewski, who is so smitten with the idea of coaching both Kobe Bryant and Nowitzki that he decides to leave Duke for Los Angeles.
But even with Coach K, the 2004-05 season belongs to Dallas. Don Nelson revamps the entire team around a revenge-motivated Shaq, who leads the Mavericks to a league-best 65-17 record. O’Neal wins league MVP, but the engine that makes the Mavericks really go is their deep bench. Their rotation legitimately runs nine-deep with starting caliber players in O’Neal, Malone, Harris, Stackhouse, Terry, Michael Finley, Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels and trade-deadline acquisition Keith Van Horn. When O’Neal and Malone sit, Nelson keeps opponents off balance by switching to his favored fast-paced system and a five-shooter Harris-Terry-Stackhouse-Howard-Van Horn lineup. That depth keeps the older Mavericks healthy and rested going into the playoffs.
That rest makes quite a difference. Dallas sweeps through the first two rounds (including a matchup with Kobe’s Lakers) and draws a tired Spurs team fresh off of a second round matchup turned track meet with the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. For the first time, Dallas has an answer for Tim Duncan in Shaq. the Mavericks win the west in six games and take the NBA Finals against Detroit in five.
The championship is sweet, but it’s the last O’Neal wins in his career. The Lakers overhaul their supporting cast in the summer of 2005, using their mid-level exception to sign defensive stopper Raja Bell and scoring Jason “White Chocolate” Williams in a trade with Memphis to be their point guard. Surprising rookie Ronny Turiaf completes their starting lineup at center, and with their more complete roster the Lakers spend most of the 2005-06 season competing with the Spurs for the league’s best record. They lose that battle, but win the war on San Antonio’s home turf thanks to a Nowitzki three-point play that sends Game 7 of their playoff series to an overtime the Lakers eventually win. They go on to defeat Phoenix and Detroit to give Kobe Bryant his fourth championship.
Like Dallas, the Lakers fail to win another championship after the trade. San Antonio strikes back to take the 2007 title followed by Boston in 2008. The rest of the decade belongs to the Phil Jackson-coached Cleveland Cavaliers, who ride LeBron James to back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.
That dynasty is ultimately short-lived. Free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, both desperate for championships, team up in Chicago with a young Bulls squad built perfectly to complement the two. They end up sweeping James and the Cavaliers out of the playoffs en route to a title of their own, unceremoniously ending Jackson’s coaching career. Rumors swirl after the series that James might want to join his two 2003-draft mates in Chicago some day, but for now, the city is perfectly satisfied with the championship roster they already have.