With the NBA Finals ongoing and the NBA Draft just a couple weeks away, it feels like a legit time for a little what if/revisionist history exercise involving both events. C’mon, it’ll be fun.
The Celtics, should they choose not to make a trade, will be picking in the lottery portion of the draft for the first time since 2007. Remember when?
Last month, just as was the case in 1997 when the Celtics wound up with the third and sixth picks despite having the best shot at getting Tim Duncan No. 1 overall, the Celts got played by the system and bad ping pong ball luck again. In 2007, Boston had a 19.9 percent chance of getting the first overall pick and an 18.8 percent shot at No. 2 but dropped all the way to No. 5 and watched the two prizes of that year’s class, Greg Oden (ahem) and Kevin Durant, wind up elsewhere.
The Celts, as we all remember, picked Jeff Green at No. 5 then shipped him off to Seattle as part of the Ray Allen deal. That deal was of course the precursor to the trade with Minnesota which netted the C’s Kevin Garnett, a championship and five years of hallowed, contender status.
So here’s a great place to start this little game: What if the Celts had cashed in on one of those first two picks? And what if, regardless of which one it was, they the drafted Durant? Let your mind wander for a spell, won’t you…?
Step 1: With the second pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Kevin Durant, forward, University of Texas.
Not a bad way to start, eh? Let’s say that Portland, who won the ’07 lottery despite just a 5.3 percent chance at doing so, stayed the course and chose an injury prone big man over a can’t-miss, offensive monster for the second time in team history (1984, when they took Sam Bowie at No. 2 over Michael Jordan). That lands Oden in the Pacific Northwest, as was actually the case, allowing the Celts to take Durant. The Celtics needed many things in the summer of 2007, with a big man who could defend the paint and protect the rim on the list (sound familiar?). But back then, they had a young Kendrick Perkins, who was quickly developing into a solid defensive center. Someone like Durant, already talented enough to come in and easily take some of the scoring burden off the shoulders of Paul Pierce right away, was the most logical choice then, so for our fictional purposes here, he remains so.
Step 2: The Seattle Supersonics don’t get Durant, subsequently changing the balance of power in the Western Conference for years.
The Sonics were hijacked and moved to Oklahoma City one year later, when they drafted Russell Westbrook (and a year after that, James Harden). Westbrook is a special player and without Durant in the fold, it’s not difficult to imagine Thunder ownership choosing to keep Harden rather than cheaping out and dealing him to Houston after three years. Still, as good as Westbrook and Harden are, Durant turned out to be a potentially transcendent player and without him, the Thunder, who probably also have a veteran leader in Ray Allen given the absence of the 2007 trade between the Celts and the Sonics, are just another good team in a loaded conference. One more note: So as not to upset the space/time continuum too much, let’s throw in the Sonics/Thunder picking at No. 5 in the ’07 draft, meaning Green winds up there anyway. And now, we don’t need to think about him anymore.
Step 3: The Celtics still make the deal with Minnesota to bring Garnett to Boston
Winding up with Durant costs the Celts Ray Allen but none of the assets already under their control. While reveling in the ridiculous talent they wound up with in Durant, he’s still at the time just another young player joining a stable full of them. Danny Ainge recognizes that while raw, Durant is good enough to immediately contribute while also determining that staying the course with so many youngsters surrounding Pierce on the heels of a putrid, 24-58 season, is untenable, particularly to Pierce and Doc Rivers, who would not have lasted another losing year (his record as Celtics coach at the time was a brutal 102-145). So, to appease his star, his coach, and a fanbase that was foaming at the mouth for even a competitive team, let alone a contender, Ainge and the Celtics convince Garnett to come to Boston and sign an extension anyway, sending the same crop of players (led, of course, by Al Jefferson) to the Timberwolves. It may have been a longer sell to Garnett considering the third piece of the Big 3 puzzle was a rookie and not a proven star vet like Allen. But the deal still gets done, giving the Celts a core of Pierce, Garnett, Durant, Rajon Rondo, and Perkins and still supplemented, as it really was, with gamers like James Posey, Eddie House, and P.J. Brown.
Step 4: LeBron James remains in Cleveland
This is probably the biggest of all the leaps to be found here so please, bear with me. LeBron, who carried the Cavaliers all the way to the Finals as a 22-year-old just weeks before the 2007 draft, continues his climb to the top of the NBA mountain. His rivalry with the Celtics still happens, beginning, as it actually did, in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals. But in this scenario, since the Celts didn’t build the model for a veteran Big 3 by virtue of landing Durant and not trading for Allen, LeBron, without the benefit of beholding such a partnership, doesn’t wind up bringing Chris Bosh with him to join Dwyane Wade in Miami in the summer of 2010. Instead, he makes his Decision to remain in Cleveland. The Celtics and Cavs remain regular postseason combatants for another handful of years with James and Durant’s personal rivalry ascending in a way it hasn’t or couldn’t possibly with them playing in different conferences (in reality, the Thunder and Heat facing off in the 2012 Finals was a start down that road but when Oklahoma traded Harden for pennies on the dollar the following fall, the possibility of LeBron and Durant forging an ’80s, Bird/Magic style annual feud went out the window). Given Cleveland’s regular position at or near the top of the East, LeBron is able to recruit a marquee name or two to the Cavs (perhaps even Wade and Bosh?) as well as the annual class of aged veterans who can still contribute in small doses and are willing to take far less money for one last chance at a ring. Boston/Cleveland becomes the modern day version of Boston/Detroit, Chicago/Detroit, and Chicago/New York in the Eastern Conference and Celtics fans are treated to years of duels between the Pierce/Garnett/Durant Celts and the LeBron/(insert fellow superstars X and Y here) Cavs.
Step 5: Without the Thunder rising to the top of the West, the Spurs play in even more Finals and forge Lakers/Celtics style rivalries with Eastern powers Boston and Cleveland
San Antonio won its last championship in 2007, sweeping LeBron and the Cavs. But after that title, their fourth in four tries over a span of nine years, the Spurs wouldn’t make it back to the Finals until last season. The Lakers, having acquired Pau Gasol at the 2008 trading deadline, made it to three straight, winning in 2009 and (gulp) 2010. The Dallas Mavericks, who finally made it in 2006, got themselves a better coach and broke through, winning Dirk Nowitzki his first ring in 2011. The Thunder exploded onto the scene in 2012 with the trio of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, at the time all under 25 years old, looking poised to live in the Finals for years to come. But their ownership decided to trade Harden instead of pay the going rate for what could have become a perennial winner, the Lakers lost Phil Jackson to retirement as Kobe Bryant began to break down (and don’t forget the massive blunders in trying to replace Phil, as well as the ill-fated Dwight Howard and Steve Nash trades), and the Mavericks inexplicably broke up their championship core immediately after winning it all, and haven’t been out of the first round since. All of this reopened the door for the ageless Spurs, who have the benefit of playing for the best coach in the NBA and possess Duncan, who at 38 is still one of the best players in the league as well as the best power forward of all time. But when you teleport back to this web we’ve been spinning here, they’re even better. One of those years between 2007 and 2013 in which the Spurs failed to reach the Finals was 2012, when they blew a 2-0 Western Conference Finals lead to none other than Oklahoma City. Follow our phony timeline and Durant isn’t on that Thunder team, sending the Spurs to the Finals instead. And since this is Boston and it’s our little exercise, let’s say the Spurs overcome the Lakers at least once during L.A.’s three-year Finals run too. So what does that mean for right now? It means that instead of watching the Spurs play the Heat again, it’s 50/50 that we’re watching them play the Celtics.
That sounds a lot more fun, doesn’t it? What if indeed…