What if Jay Williams Never Got Hurt?

Jay Williams Bulls

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.

Young athletes do stupid things. It’s a given. Jay Williams is just lucky that the Bulls caught wind of his plans to buy a motorcycle, because once they did they strongly urged him not to do so and reminded him of the clause in his contract reminding him that he isn’t allowed to do so. Williams relents, and the Bulls breathe a sigh of relief. Their young point guard is safe from at least that sort of disastrous off-court injury.

And he develops into a very nice young player. Williams averages 17 points per game as a sophomore and that number hangs out around 20 for the next few years. He even makes an All Star team in 2006 as the Bulls return to playoff form. But Williams never quite becomes the superstar Chicago expected.

Derrick+Rose+Memphis+p1

A point guard who does become a superstar, though, is Derrick Rose. The New Jersey Nets luck into him with the first pick in the 2008 NBA Draft through a gift from the lottery gods: they jumped all the way up from the No. 8 slot to nab the Memphis product No. 1 overall. They immediately start gearing their team towards Rose, trading the veteran Vince Carter and taking Terrance Williams and Paul George in the next two drafts to surround him with the proper wings.

Of course, neither of them stick around for very long. When Carmelo Anthony hits the trade market during the 2010-11 season, the Nets offer both along with a cavalcade of other assets to nab him. Anthony is at first resistant, but the idea of playing with Rose warms him up to waiting for the move to Brooklyn. With a pairing of Rose and Anthony, the Nets feel as though they can compete with anyone in the East, even LeBron James and the Heat.

Of course they don’t get the chance. They lose in back-to-back second rounds to the Tom Thibodeau-Jay Williams pairing in Chicago. It’s hardly a satisfying consolation, as Chicago winds up losing to Miami just as consistently, but hey, there’s no shame in making the Eastern Conference Finals and losing to a better team. At least the Nuggets enjoy their part of the deal. Paul George is looking like the best young Nugget since David Thompson.

LeBron Can Leave Cleveland Now

LeBron Leaving

There are going to be a lot of stories today about LeBron James bringing Cleveland the championship he so often promised, about what a local hero he is to a city that hadn’t won much of anything for five decades, about how his legacy as a Cavalier is officially cemented and how no one will ever be able to question his commitment to winning or to Ohio for the rest of his career.

It’s easy to feel that way today because LeBron just won the championship. We saw him hug Kevin Love, we saw Dan Gilbert on the podium and Kyrie Irving make that game-winning three. Emotions run high in the heat of the moment. As overjoyed as he must be right now and as much as we all might think this is his happy ending, sooner or later that emotion is going to die down and he’s going to be faced with all of the same problems he had 24 hours ago. After all, he more or less said those exact words to his detractors four years ago.

Several months ago, I imagine sometime in the winter, after a loss in which Irving took too many shots and Love allowed too many to go in, James probably drove home in the snow and brooded in his living room (or lounge, or, dare I say, study) for a few hours. Maybe there was a deer’s head on the wall and a few logs roasting in the fireplace. For a split second he must’ve thought, “man, it’s not fun playing for Cleveland right now.” And then he probably thought, “I wish I could play with players who just get it.” And for just the briefest of moments, I have to imagine he realized something along the lines of “you know, I don’t have to stay in Cleveland once I win them a championship.”

So I’m going to present a very different type of story. What if this isn’t about LeBron coming home to win one for “the land.” What if this was about LeBron winning one so he could get out and never look back?

lebron-james-miami-heat-win-streak-2013

The social contract LeBron signed with Cleveland was very specific. He promised to revive the city and he did it. He regretted leaving the team in embarrassing fashion and with a bare cupboard and now he can do so with neither. It was never about winning “not five, not six, not seven,” it was, in his own words, about “bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.

Note the use of the word one. 

It might be arbitrary, but by now we should’ve learned to take LeBron at his word. He spent his entire Miami tenure croning about how badly he wanted to come back to Cleveland at some point to win them a title. Nobody bought it until it happened. He didn’t mention Andrew Wiggins in his letter returning to Cleveland, and then Wiggins was traded.

So what has LeBron said? Well, in that same famous letter he stated that his goal was still “to win as many trophies as possible,” and it’s fair to wonder if Cleveland is the best place to do that. Remember, had Draymond Green played in Game 5, it’s possible that the Cavs lose the series then and there and we aren’t having this conversation. Cleveland still has to reconfigure their roster to fit better against Golden State next year, when a suspension is unlikely and the Warriors will likely be healthier.

It’s also fair to wonder if his best shot at grabbing a few more rings might come through something else he said. I’ll present this quote from Howard Beck’s Brotherhood story earlier this season without comment: “‘I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together,’ James said. ‘At least one, maybe one or two seasons—me, Melo, D-Wade, CP—we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that.'”

hi-res-139817575-carmelo-anthony-of-the-new-york-knicks-talks-with-chris_crop_exact

He and Wade are both slated to be free agents next month, and both spent last year—and will likely spend most future years—playing with the flexibility of one-year contracts. Carmelo Anthony is eminently acquirable considering his age and the likely direction of the Knicks’ franchise. And Chris Paul is going to be a free agent one year from now.

We looked it over in April and deemed Houston the likeliest team to unite the super friends. But realistically, LeBron could hop right on his banana boat back down to South Beach this summer along with Wade and get Pat Riley to trade Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic for Anthony. From there it would be a simple matter of waiting for Paul next summer and a few pay cuts to make it all possible. The same could be said of the Lakers, and the Knicks already have Anthony and could easily create the cap space to fit James and Wade in.

These are all cities that athletes would much rather live in than Cleveland. These are all cities that can accommodate James’ other interests—be they film, business or who knows what else—far more than Cleveland can. And most importantly, these scenarios all involve players that LeBron actually seems like he wants to play with. James never subtweeted Dwyane Wade in Miami. He never called out Anthony’s defense during the Olympics.

And frankly, there’s something much more interesting for LeBron to do with his buddies somewhere else anyway. Robert Horry and John Salley are the only players ever to win championships with three different teams. If James feels that he can’t catch Michael Jordan’s total of six, then the next best thing might creating an entirely unique resume of his own to change the conversation.

Who knows, he might even just retire. Maybe he wants to try football for a year, he hasn’t exactly been shy about his interest in doing so in the past. His beloved Dallas Cowboys could use another pass-catcher. There’s an argument to be made that he’s done everything he can do in basketball anyway. Why not try something new? He may be too far away from Jordan to become the greatest basketball player ever (though I don’t subscribe to that theory), but winning a Super Bowl could make him the greatest athlete ever. That’s not a bad distinction.

None of this is to say that LeBron is headed elsewhere right now. But rather, the terms of LeBron’s unspoken deal with the city of Cleveland have been met. He is free to do as he pleases from this point on, and there are more than a few signs that suggest playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers isn’t on top of that list.

Fake NBA Trade of the Day 6/17/16: Kevin Love to New York

Kevin Love Knicks 1

Every day, Pick and Popovich will post one fake trade and explain why it makes sense for every team involved to make it. There are no parameters beyond fitting within the salary cap. Sometimes the trades will involve stars, others role players. They are not grounded in actual rumors, they just make sense on paper. During the 2016 NBA Playoffs, each week will feature seven fake trades of one star player. This is Kevin Love Week. 

Cleveland_Cavaliers_2010.svg                                                         NYKNICKS_Logo-Final

 

Cleveland Cavaliers Receive:                                                  New York Knicks Receive:

Carmelo Anthony                                                                        Kevin Love

 

 

Why Cleveland would make this trade: Because Carmelo Anthony is LeBron’s friend, and that matters for some reason.

Why New York would make this trade: If you’re going to have an all-offense forward, better to have one who’s 27 than one who’s 32.

Fake NBA Trade of the Day 6/10/16: Blake to New Orleans

Blake Pellies

Every day, Pick and Popovich will post one fake trade and explain why it makes sense for every team involved to make it. There are no parameters beyond fitting within the salary cap. Sometimes the trades will involve stars, others role players. They are not grounded in actual rumors, they just make sense on paper. During the 2016 NBA Playoffs, each week will feature seven fake trades of one star player. This is Blake Griffin Week. 

9657_los_angeles_clippers-alternate-2016-1.0                    NYKNICKS_Logo-Final                    CelticsLogo_History-1           012513_landing_main_logo-1

 

Clippers Receive:                  Knicks Receive:                       Celtics Receive:                 Pelicans Receive:

Carmelo Anthony                 Jrue Holiday                              Robin Lopez                        Blake Griffin

Jonas Jerebko                       No. 6 Pick                                   Paul Pierce                         Cole Aldrich

James Young                        C.J Wilcox

 

Why Los Angeles would make this trade: The base trade is Anthony for Griffin, which makes sense if the Clippers want to get smaller and believe FIBA ‘Melo can show up in the NBA, but getting Jerebko, a two-way forward/center who can shoot three’s and Young, a prospect who hasn’t really gotten a chance yet, is just icing on the cake. Jerebko could play serious minutes for the Clippers right away.

Why New York would make this trade: Holiday has been around for awhile, but remember he’s only 25-years-old. He’s much closer to Kristaps Porzingis’ timeline than Anthony is, and the No. 6 pick gives the Knicks a chance to add another major building block going forward.

Why Boston would make this trade: They’re giving up a rotation player on a non-guaranteed contract and a prospect they never use to fill their biggest need with a rim-protector on a cost-controlled contract and allow one of their franchise legends to finish his career where it started. They’d be crazy not to make this trade.

Why New Orleans would make this trade: Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis on one team is basically just combining the infinity stones.

What if Derrick Rose Stayed Healthy?

302316f779ab5d9dc7cde1932cf5dba9_crop_north

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.

bulls-melo

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.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry heads down the court after making a three point shot during the second half of the Golden State Warriors 106-101 win over the Boston Celtics in an NBA basketball game in Boston, Sunday, March 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

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?

What if Denver Won the LeBron Lottery?

LeBron Denver

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 lead up to the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery revolves around the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hometown prodigy LeBron James is up for grabs and the entire state of Ohio prays for him to stay put. But when the ping pong balls land it’s not Cleveland, but the team they tied with for the league’s worst record, Denver, that claims the draft’s top prize. With the first pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, the Denver Nuggets select LeBron James.

James leads a Denver renaissance, winning Rookie of the Year and leading the Nuggets to a surprising playoff berth. They are quickly trounced by San Antonio, but LeBron’s ascension comes faster than anyone could’ve hoped. Meanwhile, Cleveland is plenty happy with their consolation prize. Carmelo Anthony has an excellent rookie year, and when they use the No. 8 pick in the 2004 draft on a defensive complement for him in Andre Iguodala, they feel that their wings are secured for the next decade.

The Nuggets are busy themselves that offseason. They strike a deal with free agent power forward Kenyon Martin to beef up their defense, and many wonder if James is already good enough to lead Denver to the Finals. He isn’t, as the Nuggets are knocked out in Round 2 in each of the next two seasons, but most pundits agree that once his front office finds him a suitable co-star, nothing will keep LeBron from winning championships.

iverson

That co-star is eventually found in Allen Iverson. He is acquired in a deal centered around Andre Miller after it becomes clear that he can no longer coexist with management in Philadelphia. James happily gives up shots to make Iverson happy, and the Nuggets give San Antonio all they can handle in a seven-game Western Conference Finals loss. The Spurs go on to beat Detroit and win the championship, but all anyone wants to talk about are the young juggernauts growing in Denver and Cleveland. With the Pistons and Spurs aging, most believe LeBron and Carmelo are destined for a duel in the NBA Finals.

Denver holds up their end of the bargain in 2008, but both teams end up losing to the revamped Celtics in the playoffs. The stars finally align a year later, when Iverson is traded for Chauncey Billups and an injury to Kevin Garnett clears a path to the finals for Cleveland.

The series is especially emotional for James. His desire to play for Cleveland in 2003 is the league’s worst-kept secret, and with free agency looming in 2010 many believe he’ll ditch Denver to join Anthony in his hometown. But James is still a Nugget in 2009, and not even Iguodala can keep him from his first ring. James celebrates the championship on Cleveland’s home floor in a bittersweet ceremony. He may want to be a Cavalier eventually, but at this moment, he is the greatest Denver Nugget in team history.

Fake NBA Trade of the Day 5/2/16: Gasol to Atlanta

Marc Gasol Hawks PI

Every day, Pick and Popovich will post one fake trade and explain why it makes sense for every team involved to make it. There are no parameters beyond fitting within the salary cap. Sometimes the trades will involve stars, others role players. They are not grounded in actual rumors, they just make sense on paper. During the 2016 NBA Playoffs, each week will feature seven fake trades of one star player. This is Marc Gasol Week. 

795                                                                altanta_hawks_2015_logo_secondary

 

Memphis Grizzlies Receive:                                           Atlanta Hawks Receive:

Dennis Schroder                                                                Marc Gasol

Tiago Splitter

Thabo Sefolosha

2016 1st Round Pick

 

Why Memphis would make this trade: The Grizzlies are going to need a point guard of the future when Mike Conley leaves as a free agent, so adding Schroder and a pick gives their rebuild a nice kick start.

 

Why Atlanta would make this trade: Gasol is the perfect replacement for Al Horford should he decide to leave. He may not shoot quite as well, but he’s an even better passer and defender who fits Atlanta’s system perfectly. They lose a major long-term piece in trading Schroder, but this deal allows them to remain competitive indefinitely and potentially win the East.