What if Ralph Sampson Entered the 1980 NBA Draft?

Ralph Sampson Celtics

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.

Red Auerbach can do anything. He’s built champions, he’s coached champions, and this time, he convinces a college freshman to forego his final three years of college to join a future champion. After plenty of cajoling, Virginia’s Ralph Sampson finally agrees that he can’t pass up a chance to play for the best organization in basketball. So he enters the 1980 NBA Draft and gets selected by the Celtics first overall.

The move pays immediate dividends. Boston wins the 1981 championship behind Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell and Sampson helps them do it again by 1983. They take the title in 1985 as well while losing the Finals in 1984 and 1986 to the Lakers. Each team enters the 1987 season with three titles among their core group and an assumption that they’d meet in the Finals to see who’d get ring number four. But Sampson never plays another full season.

His injuries begin in 1987 and simply pile on from there, but Auerbach can’t bring himself to trade such a Celtics legends. So he holds him for too long and Larry Bird wastes the end of his prime playing with subpar talent. He retires out of frustration in 1990.


Things don’t work out quite as quickly for the Golden State Warriors, but behind their front court pairing of Kevin McHale (the No. 3 overall pick in that same 1980 draft) and Robert Parish they turn themselves into a real contender.

Their major mistake was trading perimeter scorer Bernard King for Micheal Ray Richardson, thinking that a star guard would help lift their front court into the Finals. He didn’t, but the principal wasn’t wrong on its face. They steal Terry Porter at the end of the first round in 1985 and have the core of a championship team.

All they need is the opportunity. The Warriors spend most of the 80’s stuck behind the Lakers, but finally got their chance in 1990 when the Lakers are unexpectedly knocked out by the Suns in the second round. Golden State breezes past the Suns into the Finals. They lose the series to Detroit, but just making it that far puts something of a cap on the careers of McHale and Parish. For a brief moment, they had a chance to win basketball’s ultimate prize. Those Golden State teams are remember fondly in the Bay Area, championship or not.