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.
The Wizards love rookie Bradley Beal. That’s why they took him No. 3 overall in June’s draft. But opportunities like these are rare. The Oklahoma City Thunder can’t afford to keep über-talented sixth man James Harden, and rather than let him slip through their fingers, Washington eagerly offers Beal along with the contract of injury-prone swingman Trevor Ariza for the NBA’s best beard. OKC accepts, and the Wizards suddenly have the NBA’s most intriguing backcourt duo.
The fit is slow. Harden and John Wall both need the ball in their hands, and Washington’s roster isn’t exactly overflowing with three-and-D role players to fit around them. Their wing depth is laughable, their defense is even worse, and by the time the Wizards are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention on the last night of the season most league pundits are barely even surprised.
Draft night puts Washington in an awkward position. With the No. 12 pick they need someone who can help their defense and fit without taking too many shots, but the best college wings on the board like Shabazz Muhammed and Tim Hardaway Jr. are all chuckers. In the end, they fall in love with a little-known Greek prospect with arms longer than the Mediterranean Sea. It certainly surprises the draft experts, but the Wizards are comfortable with the impact they expect Giannis Antetokuonmpo to have on their defense.
Free agency creates just as many surprises. The market’s top asset, Dwight Howard, visits several teams but falls in love with the idea of playing with perimeter star Stephen Curry. The deal is sealed once Andre Iguodala signs on with the Warriors as well. Howard informs the Lakers that they can either agree to a sign-and-trade with Golden State or watch him leave to Dallas for nothing. Los Angeles swallows their pride and takes the contract of Andrew Bogut along with prospects Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green for Howard.
Things don’t go quite as planned for Washington or Golden State. Internal dissension led by paranoid coach Mark Jackson and fickle star Dwight Howard sees the Warriors knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. And though Washington loves the potential of their young rookie, he does little to solve the chemistry problems between Harden and Wall. When Washington misses the playoffs for a second consecutive season, they resolve to trade Harden and re-commit their franchise to Wall.
Of course, the season has to end before they can do that, and the playoff see the rise of a new dynasty and perhaps an entirely new style of basketball. Everything goes right for the Thunder in the 2013-14 season. Beal stays healthy and thrives as OKC’s three-point marksman, Ariza finally makes it through a full season as well during his contract year, and when Oklahoma City meets Miami in the Finals they unleash perhaps the most dangerous lineup the league has ever seen: Serge Ibaka at center, surrounded by Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Beal and Ariza. The shooting overwhelms even Miami, and only two years removed from trading Harden the Thunder win the first of what promises to be several NBA Championships.
The bidding process for Harden stretches well into the summer. Ultimately the right trading partner becomes the only team with another star to deal: Minnesota. Washington ends up sending Harden to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love, and with a reformatted roster the Wizards feel confident that they’re ready to contend in the Eastern Conference.