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.
Sure, DePaul’s Mark Aguirre might be the better prospect. But the Dallas Mavericks are a new franchise, and they need a floor general who can lead the team on the floor and off of it. So they take the point guard, Indiana’s Isiah Thomas, with the No. 1 pick of the 1981 NBA Draft and hope for the best.
The deal doesn’t bear fruit early. The Mavericks struggle through a tough season and Thomas shows serious growing pains along with signs of promise. Things really come together at the 1982 NBA Draft. Knowing that Dominique Wilkins doesn’t want to play for them, the Jazz agree to move down one spot and swap picks with the Mavericks. They take Wilkins and pair him with Thomas. That duo, along with Rolando Blackman and 1984 draft pick Sam Perkins (thanks to a lopsided trade with Cleveland years earlier), forms the basis of a very successful Dallas roster.
They just have to wait for their opportunity. The Lakers win the Western Conference in 1985, ’87, ’88 and ’89. They win the championship in three of those seasons, losing only to Michael Jordan’s surprising young Bulls in 1989. The Mavs finally get their opportunity in 1990, when they overcome the aging Lakers to get their shot at the defending champion Bulls.
And the Bulls beat the crap out of them. Dallas just can’t defend Chicago. Blackman, Wilkins and Perkins are all excellent offensive players, but their defense leaves plenty to be desired. The Bulls beat them again in 1991, winning three championships before Michael Jordan’s 29th birthday. The Mavericks know that they need to improve their defense big time if they want to prevent Jordan from winning a fourth straight.
They find a partner in their own state. Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwan is sick of losing and wants to contend. The Rockets can’t trade him without getting a franchise player in return. The Mavericks happen to have a spare. So after months of negotiation, the Mavericks send Wilkins and Perkins and to Houston for Hakeem and power forward Larry Smith. For the first time, Dallas goes into their Finals matchup with Chicago prepared to keep Jordan away from the basket.
And they succeed. Olajuwon wins Finals MVP and Thomas finally brings Dallas the ring they’ve so craved. A furious Jordan wants revenge the following spring, but Dallas loses to Phoenix to prevent a fourth-straight duel against the Bulls. Jordan wins the series and retires surprisingly. Four rings is apparently enough.
Thomas surprisingly follows suit a year later after an injury. He has his ring, his money and his legacy. What’s left to play for? Olajuwon sticks around several years longer and eventually finishes his career as a role player in Indiana, but nothing past 1992 matters in the grand scheme of either of their careers. Thomas and Hakeem led the one team that ever beat Michael Jordan. They can take that to their graves.