What If Dallas Traded Dirk Nowitzki for Shaq?

Shaq Mavs

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. 

Trading a 26-year-old All Star is rarely advisable. In this case, though, Mark Cuban is willing to make an exception. In July 2004, his Dallas Mavericks trade Dirk Nowitzki, Eduardo Nájera and two first round draft picks for Shaquille O’Neal and a signed-and-traded Karl Malone. Malone is encouraged to agree to the deal by O’Neal, who had recruited him to the Lakers a year earlier and knew his Mavericks would need a new power forward to replace Nowitzki.

The move is only the beginning for both teams. Dallas later trades Antwan Jamison to Washington for the rights to rookie Devin Harris and Jerry Stackhouse, then deals Antoine Walker to Atlanta for Jason Terry. They had initially hoped to retain point guard Steve Nash as well, but he leaves after the acquisition of Shaq to play in a faster-paced Phoenix offense.

The Lakers, meanwhile, still have another big star to reel in. Of course, this one isn’t on the court. It’s college legend Mike Kryzyewski, who is so smitten with the idea of coaching both Kobe Bryant and Nowitzki that he decides to leave Duke for Los Angeles.

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But even with Coach K, the 2004-05 season belongs to Dallas. Don Nelson revamps the entire team around a revenge-motivated Shaq, who leads the Mavericks to a league-best 65-17 record. O’Neal wins league MVP, but the engine that makes the Mavericks really go is their deep bench. Their rotation legitimately runs nine-deep with starting caliber players in O’Neal, Malone, Harris, Stackhouse, Terry, Michael Finley, Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels and trade-deadline acquisition Keith Van Horn. When O’Neal and Malone sit, Nelson keeps opponents off balance by switching to his favored fast-paced system and a five-shooter Harris-Terry-Stackhouse-Howard-Van Horn lineup. That depth keeps the older Mavericks healthy and rested going into the playoffs.

That rest makes quite a difference. Dallas sweeps through the first two rounds (including a matchup with Kobe’s Lakers) and draws a tired Spurs team fresh off of a second round matchup turned track meet with the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. For the first time, Dallas has an answer for Tim Duncan in Shaq. the Mavericks win the west in six games and take the NBA Finals against Detroit in five.

The championship is sweet, but it’s the last O’Neal wins in his career. The Lakers overhaul their supporting cast in the summer of 2005, using their mid-level exception to sign defensive stopper Raja Bell and scoring Jason “White Chocolate” Williams in a trade with Memphis to be their point guard. Surprising rookie Ronny Turiaf completes their starting lineup at center, and with their more complete roster the Lakers spend most of the 2005-06 season competing with the Spurs for the league’s best record. They lose that battle, but win the war on San Antonio’s home turf thanks to a Nowitzki three-point play that sends Game 7 of their playoff series to an overtime the Lakers eventually win. They go on to defeat Phoenix and Detroit to give Kobe Bryant his fourth championship.

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Like Dallas, the Lakers fail to win another championship after the trade. San Antonio strikes back to take the 2007 title followed by Boston in 2008. The rest of the decade belongs to the Phil Jackson-coached Cleveland Cavaliers, who ride LeBron James to back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.

That dynasty is ultimately short-lived. Free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, both desperate for championships, team up in Chicago with a young Bulls squad built perfectly to complement the two. They end up sweeping James and the Cavaliers out of the playoffs en route to a title of their own, unceremoniously ending Jackson’s coaching career. Rumors swirl after the series that James might want to join his two 2003-draft mates in Chicago some day, but for now, the city is perfectly satisfied with the championship roster they already have.

 

Hey Kobe, Come Coach the Knicks!

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Hey Kobe, got any plans for the next decade or two?

You could go on TV and probably be great it, but do you really want to waste your time fake laughing at Chuck and smelling Shaq’s farts?

You could go run the Kings, but at this rate so could the average Turkish fourth grader.

You could even just take your hundreds of millions of dollars and go enjoy life, but damn it you’re a masochist who needs to spend 18 hours per day working towards unrealistic goals.

And boy, do I have an unrealistic goal for you. Kobe Bryant, how would you like to coach the New York Knicks to a championship?

Phil Jackson says he’s only going to consider candidates that he knows. You spent half of your career playing for him. Phil Jackson wants someone who knows the triangle. You know the triangle. Phil Jackson once hired Derek Fisher to coach the Knicks. You’re also a womanizing former Laker with no coaching experience. It’s a perfect fit!

Even the roster is geared towards you, Kobe. The Knicks have your good buddy Carmelo Anthony. You wouldn’t even need to coach him, he’s just a younger version of you. Kristaps Porzingis is a young, foreign stud. You played with Pau Gasol, an old, foreign stud. They even have Sasha Vujacic! Why would anyone sign Sasha Vujacic in 2016 if they DIDN’T want you to coach their team?

There is virtually no downside. If you turn out to be a great coach, you’ll finally have something to hold over Michael Jordan’s head. The Knicks will have a real coach who will also sell some seats. Maybe New York will finally have a team it can enjoy on the basketball court.

And if you suck? No harm, no foul. Phil’s probably going to retire to go ride motorcycles on Jupiter or whatever it is he does within the next few years anyway. The new guy will just fire you and bring in a professional. There is no scenario here where the Knicks have a bad coach three years from now.

And do you think anyone would even care if you were a bad coach? Magic Johnson coached the Lakers for 16 games! He went 5-11! That’s not an NBA coaching record, that’s an average Detroit Lions season! But nobody ever mentions it. I could write a 2,000 word post about James Worthy’s underrated coaching career and nobody would realize that it never actually happened.

And the standards are so low! Our last head coach got fired for sleeping with his players’ girlfriends. That’s not even the worst sexual offense one of our coaches has committed this millennium. Do the words Anucha Browne Sanders mean anything to you? And most Knicks fans still think Isiah was a better coach for us than Larry Brown! You wouldn’t even have to win a championship, Kobe. Just go .500 and remain faithful to your wife and you immediately become the best Knicks coach in 20 years.

So come on, Kobe. You’re too good for TV and too young to play golf. Come coach the Knicks.

What If Kobe Bryant Went To College?

Kobe Duke

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. 

He’s not the nation’s No. 1 recruit. In fact, thanks to a lengthy stay in Italy he’s barely known at all outside of the Philadelphia area, where his father Joe once played for the local 76ers. But Mike Krzyzewski recognizes the gravity of landing Kobe Bryant. His Duke Blue Devils finally have the kind of scorer they need to get back to championship contention.

And boy, does Bryant live up to the hype. He’s so good, so quickly that he not only leads Duke to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and win multiple National Player of the Year awards, but actually manages to do the impossible. By mid-march, when Bryant’s Blue Devils storm their way to a Final Four while conference rival Wake Forest watches at home, many draftniks actually conclude that Kobe is a better prospect than Tim Duncan.

Duke destroys Arizona in their first Final Four matchup, setting up perhaps the greatest title game matchup in NCAA history. Kobe Bryant leads Duke against Vince Carter and arch-rival North Carolina. It is the first time the two teams ever meet in the NCAA tournament, but after Bryant wins a legendary duel with Carter, fans pray it won’t be the last.

Of course, Bryant decides not to stick around for a second season. Having accomplished all he set out to do at the college level, he enters the NBA Draft as a freshman. The race between Kobe and Duncan begins.

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The San Antonio Spurs win the draft lottery surprisingly, and head decision maker Gregg Popovich spends several days with each prospects hoping one will stand out. They both do. Pop falls in love with Bryant’s competitiveness and work ethic, but is equally impressed with Duncan’s basketball IQ and quiet leadership. He comes to the conclusion that Duncan will probably be better right away, but Bryant is the better fit next to aging star David Robinson. If Kobe can reach his potential before the Admiral’s retirement, there’s a good chance Bryant will be able to deliver San Antonio their first championship. So they take Bryant first, leaving Philadelphia to eagerly grab Duncan second.

And, just as Popovich predicted, Duncan is the better rookie. Coach Larry Brown praises him ceaselessly, letting every reporter who will listen know just what a calming influence he’s had on second-year star Allen Iverson and how much he has changed the defensive culture for the 76ers. But Bryant has his fair share of rookie flashes as well. He wins the Dunk Contest, plays fierce defense and averages 16 points per game over the last two months of the season. He misses several key shots in a playoff series against the Utah Jazz, but San Antonio is quietly confident in what they have. With Kobe growing and Robinson still near his peak, they firmly believe they can claim Chicago’s abdicated throne once the 1999 lockout ends.

And that’s exactly what happens. Fortunately, the Spurs avoid Utah when they are surprisingly knocked out by Portland in the second round, and get even luckier when the No. 8 seeded Knicks win the Eastern Conference to become their NBA Finals opponent. The Spurs knock them off in five games to make Bryant the youngest Finals MVP in NBA history.

That championship proves to be Robinson’s last. He simply can’t stay healthy enough to help Bryant through another playoff run. Indiana takes the 2000 title over Portland, followed by Philadelphia in 2001, Sacramento in 2002 and Philly again in 2003. When Robinson retires after San Antonio’s second Finals loss to Duncan and the Sixers, Popovich knows he needs to find Kobe a new co-star. He settles on New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd.

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Kidd’s Nets have lost back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia. Popovich bonds with him over their shared Duncan-sized roadblock, promising Kidd that together they can overcome the Sixers and win the Spurs another championship. He buys in, and when injuries to Iverson knock Philly out of the 2004 playoffs, another title seems all but assured against the lowly Pistons.

The only problem? Bryant and Kidd aren’t getting along. Talent alone takes them to the Finals, but the Pistons team-first attitude and excellent defense stifle San Antonio’s offense. Kobe shoots and misses relentlessly, Kidd sulks in the locker room, and when the dust settles and the Spurs lose in five, Popovich knows he has to make a choice: keep Kidd and risk losing free agent to be Bryant, or use Kidd as a trade chip to convince Bryant to stay.

He settles on the latter when another team has an unhappy star to deal. Lakers’ center Shaquille O’Neal wants to win a championship, and owner Jerry Buss is fed up with his selfish attitude. Rather than sign him to a long contract extension, he finds a willing trade partner in San Antonio. The Spurs send Kidd and little-known youngster Manu Ginobili to the Lakers for Shaq.

Kobe is thrilled with the arrangement. O’Neal represents the best big man he’s ever played with, even better than Robinson. Shaq assures the team that he’ll stay in shape (largely as revenge against the Buss family, but hey, a vengeful Shaq is a dominating Shaq), and the pair seems destined to usher in a new era of Spurs basketball.

 

Several Microwaved D’Angelo Russell Takes

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  • On balance, I have to say I’m surprised how anti-Russell the reaction has been. The overwhelming response has been about how Russell broke an unwritten locker room code and how unacceptable that was to his teammates. Well… Nick Young is the one who cheated on his fiancé. Can we at least agree on that part? While it’s an understandable no-no to tattle on a teammate from a basketball perspective, this actually serves as a valuable opportunity to shame the entire basketball community for their allergy to monogamy. If you want to sleep around, hey, that’s your business, but don’t do it at the expense of a committed significant other, and don’t be outraged when someone reports on your nefarious activities.
  • There’s no way this was an accident. Forget about the video getting released for a moment. Why was it being filmed to begin with? As a human being, who turns on a video camera, goes up to a coworker and asks “hey, why don’t you tell me who you’ve slept with?” There had to be some actual intent here. People don’t record things without a reason. The optimist would say Russell wanted to make a point about cheating in the NBA and hoped the video would make it harder for other players to do so. The realist would say that Russell doesn’t like Nick Young and wants him off of the team so he decided to start a controversy. The conspiracy theorist (me!) would say that Russell is in love with Azalea and needed her to break up with Young before he made his move.
  • Shame on the younger Lakers for continuing to alienate Russell for his part in this incident. This is ostensibly someone you’re going to be playing with for the next decade, someone you’re going to war with. And you can’t sit with the guy at lunch? How is he supposed to feel about you guys going forward? Why should he believe that you have his back when he gets fouled hard when this is your reaction to him doing something that might have actually been morally right?
  • And a second round of shame to Kobe Bryant. You supposedly care about the future of this organization and its legacy. Well then, do something public to take attention off of its future franchise player. Quash this thing now. If Kobe told the rest of the team to forgive Russell and stop this nonsense they would.
  • Russell has to be traded this summer. That’s the only end to this. His teammates can’t trust him. Free agents won’t want to play with him. This is an immature kid who did something selfish and stupid who needs to go to a team with some veterans who can both teach him what it means to be an NBA player and vouch for him to the rest of the league so he can earn something of a reputation back. How are the rest of the Lakers supposed to feel comfortable telling Russell anything now? And if you can’t develop a relationship with your teammates, how far can you really go? It’s sad to think that a controversy like this can cost a team such a promising young player, but there’s just no way to fix this within the organization.

What If Chris Paul Was Traded to the Lakers?

Lakers CP3

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 league office is split. Small-market owners are outraged. But commissioner David Stern is resolute. Chris Paul, of the league-owned Hornets, has been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

It takes time for Paul to figure out exactly how he meshes with Kobe Bryant. The Lakers open the 2011-12 season a pedestrian 13-10, and the midseason acquisition of Dwight Howard complicates things further. When the Lakers are bounced in the first round of the playoffs, management wastes no time in dispatching under qualified coach Mike Brown and, at the urging of Jeanie Buss, rehiring retired legend Phil Jackson.

Jackson’s return to the bench earns the Lakers a five-year commitment from Howard, and once a similar extension is agreed upon for Paul, Los Angeles sets about building the rest of their roster around their three stars. Ring-chasing veteran Grant Hill jumps on board as a wing. The midlevel exception yields power forward Kris Humphries. League pundits give the Lakers a reasonable chance to win the West.

And for awhile, it seems as though it just might happen. The Paul/Bryant ball-handling issues are settled as Kobe spends his offseason refining his three-point shot and accepting playing off of the ball. He turns into a deadly marksman off of the Paul/Howard pick-and-roll, and carries the offense for stretches as well. Their primary issue becomes depth. Though Bryant, Paul and Howard all stay reasonably healthy, nobody else on the team represents a significant threat to score. The offense dies when any of the big three rest, and with Kobe’s career clock ticking after a second-round exit against San Antonio, the Lakers are forced to take drastic measures in putting their team over the top.

They hand over an absolutely enormous sum—unprotected first round picks in 2016, 2018 and 2020 along with the right to swap picks in 2019—to Boston in exchange for what they hope are the last two pieces of their puzzle: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Aged or not, the Lakers suddenly have five Hall of Famers in their starting lineup. They round out the bench with veterans like Elton Brand and Jermaine O’Neal, along with a high-upside signing in Nick Young, and enter the 2013-14 season as the Western Conference favorite.

The third season yields a third disappointment. The Lakers are simply too old to keep up with the younger contenders out west. They earn the conference’s No. 5 seed and manage to get by the upstart Trailblazers, but once again can’t keep up with San Antonio’s team-wide brilliance. Things continue to devolve from there. Los Angeles sneaks into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed the following season, but are quickly dispatched in the first round by, you guessed it, the Spurs. Pierce leaves to follow former coach Doc Rivers to Houston, Garnett retires, and with few ways to improve their team the Lakers are faced with the grim prospect of handing over several future draft picks to the hated Celtics.

What If Wednesdays: Charlotte Keeps Kobe

Kobe Hornets

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. 

When Jerry West calls, you should probably just hang up. Doing just that ends up being the smartest thing the Charlotte Hornets ever did. On draft night, 1996, the Hornets refuse to trade West’s Lakers No. 13 overall pick Kobe Bryant.

Bryant’s first few seasons are fairly uneventful. He serves a useful role off of the bench on playoff teams in ’96-97 and ’97-’98, but doesn’t truly emerge as a superstar until the lockout shortened 1999 season. He carries the decrepit Hornets to respectability, and the team quickly realizes he is the sort of player you can build a franchise around. They use the No. 8 pick in the ’99 NBA Draft to give him a defensive co-star in UNLV’s Shawn Marion. Marion rides the bench as a rookie, but sensing his promise, the team trades incumbent star Glen Rice to Washington for Juwan Howard early in the ’00-’01 season. With a young core of Bryant, Marion and Howard, the Hornets race all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals where they meet the star-studded Toronto Raptors.

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Toronto entered the series with the best record in the East thanks to their young trio of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Baron Davis (the fourth pick in the ’99 draft that netted Charlotte Marion). McGrady almost left the team as a free agent the previous summer, but was eventually convinced to return in large part because Davis’ distribution helped fans realize that he was just as talented as his more famous cousin Vince Carter.

The series reaches legendary status as Bryant and Carter trade 50-point performances, but at the end of the day it’s Charlotte’s defense that carries them into the NBA Finals. This becomes a common thread for the Raptors, who lose playoff series to Charlotte in three of the next four seasons largely due to their lack of defense. The Hornets, meanwhile, meet San Antonio in what promises to be the beginning of another major rivalry: Kobe vs. Tim Duncan.

Unfortunately, the series tilts towards San Antonio early and they end up taking it in five games. The Spurs hound Kobe from the start, throwing all different assortments of double-teams and traps on him in an effort to force the rest of the team to score. When they don’t, the Spurs win their second championship in three seasons.

Charlotte responds by adding free agent Robert Horry to provide an extra element of spacing to their offense. Horry had been trapped behind twin towers Shaquille O’Neal and Vlade Divac in Los Angeles and desperately wanted to both compete and start. Both wishes are granted with the Hornets, whose improved offense carries them back to the Finals where they meet the Sacramento Kings.

The Kings are nothing like the Spurs. Their fast-paced, pass-happy offense gives Bryant fits. He has to chase the slippery Mike Bibby around the court all series, and Doug Christie holds him to only 41% shooting. The Hornets desperately try to come back late in Game 6, but they just can’t get enough calls to close the gap. The Kings win the NBA Championship, and once again Bryant has to spend his summer hearing pundits question his clutch credentials.

He enters the ’02-’03 season as a man determined. Winning the championship is all that matters, and after winning a regular-season high 66 games, all the league can talk about is the upcoming Finals rematch between Bryant and Duncan.

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This time, the Hornets dial up the pressure on San Antonio’s young guards. Kobe turns Tony Parker into such a non-factor that, after the series, the Spurs trade him to Seattle to help facilitate a successful pursuit of free agent Jason Kidd. Marion is just as impressive, coaxing rookie Manu Ginobili into eight turnovers in the series-clinching Game 6. As the final seconds tick away, so too does any ammunition left for the critics. When he is named MVP of the Finals moments later, the NBA is put on notice. Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league, and will be back here many, many times.

And he is. The faces change, like when Charlotte acquires Pau Gasol in 2008, and so too do the opponents, as Toronto gives way to Detroit, and then Cleveland and the Celtics. But for 20 years, Kobe Bryant is Charlotte’s anchor. He leads the Hornets to five championships and nine appearances in the Finals. He sets every meaningful franchise record. He even prevents the team from moving to New Orleans, as the city is so enthralled with their young star that they agree to build the Hornets a new arena. When he retires at the end of the 2016 season, the Hornets raise the number eight into the rafters knowing that there will never be a finer player in Hornets history.