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 rest of the league calls them crazy. How could the Nets possibly pass up a franchise center like Syracuse’s Derrick Coleman? But New Jersey simply fell in love with a person rather than a player. Maybe Gary Payton doesn’t have Coleman’s natural ability, but his tenacity, loyalty and heart make him a far more attractive Net. So with the No. 1 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, the Nets take Payton leaving Coleman for Seattle at No. 2.
Payton has a stellar rookie year, but the team still lacks talent around him. He plays a big chunk of his minutes next to another short point guard, Mookie Blaylock, as the team doesn’t have a suitable shooting guard, and while the pair plays great defense it is too young to make the Nets competitive. A trade is explored with Portland for their young shooting guard, Drazen Petrovic, but ultimately the Nets decide to save their assets to find a big man to pair with Payton down the line.
Their search doesn’t take particularly long. While the rest of the league fawns of high-flyers Larry Johnson and Kenny Anderson in the 1991 NBA Draft, the Nets key in on Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo right from the start and waste no time in grabbing him with the No. 4 pick. With Payton and Mutombo in place, the Nets finally feel as though they have the core of a future champion.
They’re too young to reach those heights in the early 90’s. The NBA belongs to Michael Jordan’s Bulls through 1993, but a window is pushed open when Jordan retires surprisingly before the 1993-94 season. The Nets take advantage. They win 59 games in the regular season and take down the favored crosstown Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to Mutombo’s lockdown defense on Patrick Ewing. Dikembe is just as effective against Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Nets win arguably the most surprising championship in league history.
They repeat a year later, even with Jordan rejoining the Bulls late in the season. Houston adds Clyde Drexler to prepare for another run to the Finals, but Payton absolutely smothers him when the teams meet in a rematch. The Nets become two-time champions, but never win another title. To many casual fans, they were simply the beneficiaries of Jordan’s absence and their titles deserve something of an asterisk.
But the Payton-Mutombo years reinvigorate New Jersey’s interest in basketball. Fans pack the arena, TV ratings skyrocket, and while some talk surfaces about moving the team to Brooklyn late in Payton’s career fan support is ultimately too strong in New Jersey to make such a move. In fact, many argue that Payton is the greatest player in the history of the New York area, and as the Knicks spend most of the post-Ewing era out of the playoffs the Nets remain and stake their claim as New York’s favorite basketball team.