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.
It’s the end of a Game 1 blowout in Chicago’s first round series against Philadelphia. Coach Tom Thibodeau wants to leave star point guard Derrick Rose in the game to send a message to the Sixers. But Rose, already tired from a long game, thinks better of it and asks to be taken out. The ending is as innocuous as the game itself. The No. 1 seeded Bulls take the first game of what eventually turns into a four-game sweep. They head into Round 2 healthy, rested and ready to compete for a championship.
Unfortunately, they have an all-too-familiar roadblock in LeBron James’ Miami Heat. The teams meet in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year. And Miami wins for the second straight year. And a third. And a fourth. It becomes a running joke come playoff time. Derrick Rose and the Bulls swear “this is our year,” and proceed to get beaten senseless by James and the Heat.
Still, making the Eastern Conference Finals every year is an admirable fate to some. Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, for example, would love to just be assured a playoff spot every year. But as he approaches free agency in the summer of 2014, it has become painfully obvious that he’ll have to leave New York if he ever wants to sniff a championship.
The Bulls immediately jump to the top of his list. None of his other suitors have a former MVP in the prime of his career like Rose. So when the time comes to make a decision, few are surprised when Anthony announces he’ll be joining Rose in Chicago. The news has quite a ripple effect. Close friend LeBron James admits to Anthony behind closed doors that he was seriously considering a return to Cleveland. But with Carmelo in Chicago, the young Cavaliers just don’t have enough talent to win him another championship. So he signs a one-year deal to remain with Miami, setting the stage for a fifth consecutive playoff duel between the two teams.
The addition of Anthony and rise of young star Jimmy Butler gives Chicago home-court advantage, and that becomes critical as the two teams brutalize each other for six incredibly hard fought games. Ultimately it’s Butler’s defense on James and the timely shotmaking of Rose and Anthony that put the Bulls over the top. With James set to hit free agency again and the young Cavs surprising the league by making the playoffs, many wonder if the loss will end LeBron’s tenure in Miami. Of course, even if Miami had snuck past Chicago they were never a match for the 67-win Warriors.
Golden State’s magical season is built on patience. In the offseason they refused to trade star shooting guard Klay Thompson to Minnesota for Kevin Love knowing that no team would be able to offer the Timberwolves a better deal. And it turns out to be true. Though both Boston and Cleveland make overtures Love refuses to sign a contract extension with anyone but the Warriors. The rise of Draymond Green as a tradable asset finally pushes Minnesota into making a deal. Green, Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush, David Lee and draft picks to Minnesota. Love and Kevin Martin to the Warriors.
The deal makes Golden State’s offense unstoppable. Down the stretch, they even use a so-called “death lineup” with Love at center surrounded by Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Thompson and Martin. The shooting is impossible to guard, and the Warriors trounce the Western Conference en route to the NBA Finals.
Chicago represents their toughest test to date. Butler guards Curry better than just about anyone could imagine and the tandem of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson make life difficult for Love. But the Warriors are just too deep. Eventually their shooting makes it too hard for the Bulls to play both of their big men at once, and lineups with Anthony at power forward struggle mightily on defense. Despite falling behind 2-1 in the series, the Warriors sweep the next three and win the NBA Finals in six games.
James does end up returning to Cleveland that summer. In fact, he coerces the Cavs into trading young stud Andrew Wiggins to the Kings for DeMarcus Cousins to give him another veteran star to play with. But the Bulls and Warriors remain the favorites going into the 2015-16 season. Why bet against the incumbents?