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.
Orlando spends the entire draft process wrestling with the decision. Should they take established college star Emeka Okafor No. 1 overall? Or take a gamble on high school sensation Dwight Howard? Ultimately it’s personality that wins out. Howard reminds team owner Rich DeVos too much of a young Shaquille O’Neal, all bluster, desperate for attention, so eager for the spotlight that he’ll eventually outgrow central Florida and take his talents to greener pastures. So he takes the quieter Okafor, leaving Howard to fall to No. 2 and the Charlotte Bobcats.
Okafor shines as a rookie in Orlando. He leads the team to the brink of the playoffs and wins NBA Rookie of the Year. Howard, meanwhile, struggles without NBA caliber teammates. His Bobcats win only 15 games, second-least in the league. Their luck continues to sour on lottery night, when they fall to fourth in the draft.
Thankfully, the first two teams miss badly. Milwaukee and Atlanta take Andrew Bogut and Marvin Williams, respectively, leaving both of the draft’s top point guard prospects, Deron Williams and Chris Paul, on the board at No. 3. Charlotte would be glad to land either, and when Williams goes third the Bobcats waste no time in informing the commissioner that their pick will be Paul.
Paul does wonders for Howard in his second year. Even as No. 13 pick Sean May turns out to be a bust, the Bobcats win 32 games and nearly sneak into the playoffs. Paul wins rookie of the year, Howard turns into a defensive force, and all of a sudden Charlotte has the league’s best young core.
Sensing how close they are to the playoffs, Charlotte spends the 2006 offseason determined to add experienced players to push them over the top. They use their lottery pick on Duke’s J.J. Redick, adding a great young shooter to pair with Paul in their backcourt. They give massive contracts to free agents Al Harrington and Jason Terry. They even make a run at aging superstar Gary Payton as a backup for Paul, though he ultimately decides to return to Miami. Charlotte enters the 2006-07 season as a dark horse pick to win the Eastern Conference. Maybe even the championship.
Things don’t go quite that well. Paul misses some time with various injuries and Howard’s offensive game doesn’t progress as well as hoped. But Charlotte still makes the playoffs. That experience proves highly valuable the very next season, when everyone is healthy and Paul finishes second in MVP voting to Kobe Bryant. The Bobcats lose a fierce seven-game series to the Pistons in the second round, but with the champion Celtics aging, the league realizes it’s just a matter of time before the Bobcats ascend to the top of league.