Changing basketball's past

  • Post Author
    by Sports director
  • Post Date
    Thu Apr 22 2021

Author: Jared Rosenthal

MADISON- Since the beginning of time, humans have been speculating, predicting, assuming, and questioning how if certain events had occurred in their lives (or not occurred), then some things (or everything) about them would be completely different. In today's world, we experience this constantly in the simplest ways. For example, maybe if I went to the grocery store at six in the morning instead of two in the afternoon, then I for sure would have gotten my hands on a box of Eggo waffles. Maybe if I took more time to send a better selfie via Snapchat to the girl I was interested in, then she would respond back to me! Maybe if I put my clothes away before my sister upset my mom, then I wouldn't be thrown into the heat of their argument. You get the gist, don't you?

When it comes to sports, we commonly make these ‘if…, then…' statements and that's what keeps us up at night, tossing and turning. For me, my most common ‘if…, then…' statement is, ‘if the refs would have made the correct call in the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship game when Justise Winslow touched the ball before it went out of bounds, then Wisconsin would have gone on a rally to win the game, topping the story of ‘Miracle on Ice''.

When we look at the soap opera-esque, drama-filled, narrative-ridden NBA, there are an infinite number of these statements that we can compose. In today's series of ‘if…, then…' I have compiled my top five statements that pertain to the NBA and its history. 

5. If Kevin Durant stays in Oklahoma City, then…

On the birthday of American independence, a day that is centered around nationalism and patriotism, each firework shot, and pancake breakfast being consumed came to a screeching halt for several minutes. Kevin Durant had made the decision to become a…Warrior? A Golden State Warrior? No, couldn't be! This top-five superstar, MVP, rising threat to LeBron James, was going to be a part of the team that had just defeated him in the Western Conference Finals by coming back from a three to one deficit? Well, the blueprint for one of the scariest juggernauts in American sports history was officially sketched and ready to be put to use. 

Kevin Durant was family; he was drafted in 2007 which allowed him to be a Super Sonic for a year and then was a part of the transition from Seattle to Oklahoma City. He became the pride and joy of Oklahoma City and was essentially their oldest son! He showed James Harden the ropes, he welcomed Russell Westbrook in with open arms, and he turned the Chesapeake Energy Arena (formerly known as the Ford Center between 2002 to 2010 and then the Oklahoma City Arena until 2011) into a rowdy basketball frenzy. 

From 2011-2016, Oklahoma City was a part of 15 playoff series. During this span, the Thunder went to the conference finals four separate times but only went to the NBA Finals once, in 2012, against the Miami Heat A.K.A. ‘The Heatles'. I chalk this finals loss up to a lack of experience, LeBron being the greatest active player on the planet at the time and having unmatchable chemistry in his big three, and simply LeBron seeking vengeance after cracking under pressure against the Dallas Mavericks. Not to mention, LeBron's strong desire to win his first title after being in the league for almost 10 years factored into this series.  

Kevin Durant deciding to leave Oklahoma City in 2016 was comparable to roasting a marshmallow for your s'more and right when it turns perfectly golden and develops that crispy texture, you decide to throw your marshmallow in the garbage. The Thunder at this point had legitimate experience, a revenge tour set out, and the exact formula for winning a championship. The team had respectable players with size including Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams. The UCLA Bruin and fierce point guard, Russell Westbrook, was ready to run it back. The role players were ready to shoot; Kyle Singler, Steve Novak, and Anthony Morrow all had talent! Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson, Nick Collison–the list is extensive and the fact that Kevin Durant threw it all away to play in the Bay Area is disappointing. This team could beat the elite teams of the Western Conference (Rockets, Warriors, Spurs, etc.) easily in the 2016-2017 season, and would have gotten its revenge on Golden State and on LeBron. Magic Johnson lost to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals but got revenge in 1985. Michael Jordan lost to Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons multiple times before the Bulls advanced to the championship round in 1991. Reggie Miller lost to Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks twice before beating New York City in their third matchup in 1995. Dirk Nowitzki lost to Dwayne Wade in the 2006 NBA Finals and when 2011 rolled around, he got his ‘chip. Revenge was on the horizon, and if Durant had slid that golden marshmallow on top of that singular piece of Hershey's chocolate and in between the two graham crackers, then he would have had a championship-winning s'more.       

4. If Michael Jordan does not play baseball AND the Bulls run it back for the 1999 season, then…

This is simple. Michael Jordan owned the nineties; therefore, he would have won a title each year after they had lost their seven-game series against the Bad Boy Pistons (if Scottie Pippen didn't have migraines in game seven, the Bulls would have won–his production of two points was not going to get the job done on that night in Auburn Hills).  

In 1999, assuming MJ and each player re-signed for one-year deals, and Phill Jackson was the coach, the Bulls would have been champions again. Chicago would have taken down Patrick Ewing for the fifth time in the playoffs. If Reggie Miller and Indiana were the competition, you would see a repeat of the previous year. If it was Philadelphia, Allen Iverson was not getting past this team. If it was Atlanta, Dikembe Mutombo would be put on a poster. Next, the Bulls would have proceeded to take down an inexperienced Spurs team. Generally, teams have to lose a championship before they can win one (except for the 2019 Raptors when you beat a depleted team that would have lost to just about everyone in the Eastern Conference).

If Michael Jordan stayed with the Bulls throughout the nineties and the 1999 team was basically identical to their 1998 one–still intact–then the Chicago Bulls would have won nine championships in a row, surpassing the Boston Celtics from 1959-1966 for the most consecutive championships won by an NBA franchise. 

3. If Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal did not link up in Tinseltown, then… 

Between Shaquille O'Neil's big-man dominance and Kobe Bryants's killer drive, this team was destined to win. The Lakers had one of the deadliest duos in the history of sports and if this display of exhilarating basketball never happened, then humanity would have been short-changed of witnessing one of the most exciting forms of art.  

If Shaq stayed in Orlando, the team that he and Penny Hardaway ignited, then they would have never won a championship. Sure, they came close to winning, but the closest they got to winning was against the Rockets and they blew it! I love revenge, trust me, but the Chicago Bulls however were not going to lose again to Orlando. After Horace Grant was carried off the floor at the United Center, adding motivation to Jordan's mentality, and MJ was only getting better as he worked his butt off in the summer of ‘95 at his “Jordan Dome” in Burbank, California, there was no way Orlando would come close. Plus, between the Knicks and Pacers, it was much more strategic for Shaq to head west.

As for Kobe, he was a Laker for life and as we saw in 2009 and 2010, he won without Shaq. I think Kobe would have had a difficult time with multiple teams in the early stages of his career without Shaq because of the issues that other big men in the league would pose–forcing Kobe to shy away from playing inside out ball–but he would have persevered under Phil Jackson's instruction and Jerry Buss would have gotten another hot shot big man (or a few) to win. Plus, with the understanding of Kobe's commitment to the game and his talent, he would be crowned a champion soon enough.

2. If LeBron went to Chicago instead of Miami, then…

LeBron James grew up in Akron, Ohio supporting Michael Jordan while MJ was playing for the Chicago Bulls and won his six championships. LeBron's close friend that he wanted to team up with, Dwayne Wade, grew up in Chicago. The Chicago Bulls, commanded by Derrick Rose at the time who was the MVP of the league, was playing with competitive players in Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Luol Deng–a defense was clearly being established and was prepared to match a potentially high-octane offense. The logic for LeBron to Chicago was startling. 

If LeBron had chosen to go to Chicago, then you can bet yourself that each team in the Eastern Conference would be doomed as they were when he was a part of Pat Riley's Heat. Though, if he went to Chicago, then he would have beaten the Mavericks in the NBA Finals because the defensive effort would contain Dirk and the Dallas shooting show. Combine this with Derrick Rose's relentlessness, agility, and ability to produce in high-pressure situations and you have clutch moments waiting to happen. Also, LeBron would not have lost to the Spurs in 2014 because by then Jimmy Butler would have been added, and the team would have been ten times stronger, locking down Kawhi and Duncan. Guard play matchups would have been extremely interesting, but this would have boiled down to an unstoppable one-two punch in Rose and James…a potentially stronger duo than Scottie and Michael. In terms of Derrick Rose and his injury slate, if LeBron James had come to Chicago–considering James' playmaking ability, scoring ability, and leadership–then the pressure for D-Rose to be acrobatic in the lane would be reduced significantly and the Chicago offense would be well-balanced and dispersed among more players, lowering the chances of injury for Rose.

In layman's terms, LeBron and Derrick Rose on the Bulls together would have been the Cavs setup but on a more efficient, deeper, and successful level. Dwayne Wade would have most likely been a part of this decision as well so his role would be questionable. Wade's best asset would be that he had championship experience. As for Bosh, he would be another valuable and unique piece for Chicago–and without a doubt–to help LeBron and the city of Chicago repeat the 90's.    

1. If the NBA did not have Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in its league, then…

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird enabled the game of basketball to grow in a direction many people never envisioned. Sure, Michael Jordan made the game global and ‘cool', but the foundation for the expansion of basketball popularity can be largely attributed to these two athletes competing against each other. A true Indiana boy, Larry Bird, playing against a Michigan-made man, Magic Johnson, made for incredible headlines. When the two players competed against each other in 1979 for a national title in college, Indiana State (Larry Bird) and Michigan State (Magic Johnson) garnered a TV audience that ended up becoming the highest-rated basketball game in the history of the sport. Sparty took down the Sycamores, and the rivalry was just beginning.

When the two players got to the league, both became game changers instantaneously. Magic, in fact, won an NBA title in his first year, and Larry had won Rookie of the Year! The tension and rivalry from the previous decades that lingered between the Lakers and Celtics only grew when these teams inched closer to each other. Ultimately, the two teams combined for eight titles in the 1980s with the Lakers outlasting the Celtics in two of their three finals matches.

Boston showed fans across the nation how to bring their utmost energy to an arena, inspiring fans to pour their hearts out and dedicate themselves to their teams. Los Angeles showed people how going to a basketball game was entertaining and fun! People of all ages could be included! This grassroots mix made for the essence of what the sport is today: a competitive playground for everyone. In terms of inclusion, not only did these matchups enhance the game itself and the fan experience, but they also enabled citizens around the country to look at each other more transparently, bringing people of all races and backgrounds together to support a common goal: winning. Though we still see racism in our society today and many flaws, basketball and the NBA has provided us with hope for the positive turnarounds that we will see one day.