We are months removed from a months-long NBA layoff, facing months more without basketball. Almost a year and a half will pass between free-agency periods. In the coming weeks, we will spend ample time imagining what now lies ahead for the league’s 30 teams. But we’ve earned our fun, so join us as we first reimagine some of this century’s pivotal moments in a series we’re going to call Alternate NBA Endings.
A swift groin strike altered more NBA legacies than any other incident in the 21st century.
In this version of events, Golden State forward Draymond Green’s punch to then-Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James’ undercarriage irrevocably altered the career arc of every MVP candidate since.
Green averaged 17 points on 49/41/78 shooting splits in 40 minutes a game in the 2016 NBA Finals. He was suspended for Game 5, forcing Warriors big men Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao and James McAdoo into greater action. They scored five points (1-9 FG, 0-3 3P, 3-8 FT) in 37 minutes.
This is to say nothing of Green’s table-setting and defensive work. The Warriors logged 18 assists in Game 5. They had not recorded fewer assists in any game of their record-breaking 73-9 regular season. Likewise, James had averaged 24.8 points (48.2 FG%, 31.3 3P%) opposite Green in the four games prior to the suspension. James exploded for 41 points (16-30 FG, 4-8 3P) in the 112-97 Game 5 victory.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Warriors were 25.6 points per 100 possessions better with Green on the floor than they were without him in 2015-16, the widest margin in the NBA. It is beyond reasonable to believe Golden State would have ended Cleveland’s season in a five-game set had Green been present.
So, what does the future look like if Green never struck James in the groin or was not suspended for it?
Stephen Curry’s alternate ending
Golden State, with back-to-back championships against the greatest player of his generation and the best regular-season record in NBA history, takes its place among the best teams ever to play the game. Stephen Curry’s Warriors hold all-important trump cards over James and Michael Jordan’s 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
Passed over for 2015 Finals MVP honors, Curry gets the sympathy vote this time around, despite worse production. He averaged a 22-5-5 on 42/42/94 shooting splits in the first five games of the 2016 Finals, good enough to get it done. The back-to-back MVP is reigning the Finals MVP, unassailable on his résumé.
There is no guarantee, though, that the Warriors ever win a third ring ...
Kevin Durant’s alternate ending
Green, who in reality called Kevin Durant after losing Game 7 to the Cavs, never picks up the phone. The Warriors, having just submitted a historical season, ride that high into re-signing Harrison Barnes instead. Golden State never trades Andrew Bogut to the Dallas Mavericks, and Zaza Pachulia is never a Warrior.
Durant is left to choose between returning to the Oklahoma City Thunder or joining the Boston Celtics in free agency. He would almost certainly be followed by free agent Al Horford to either destination. While potential battles between Durant’s Celtics and James’ Cavaliers at the top of the East would have been awfully fun, the 2014 MVP has said returning to OKC was his second choice behind Golden State in 2016.
He could have returned to a Thunder team that featured Horford, Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Durant could have won titles with that roster, elevating himself to an OKC deity and Best Player Alive status. No footnotes attached to his rings or snake emojis sent his way.
LeBron James’ alternate ending
James would have continued to own the East, still hungry to deliver the title he promised to Cleveland. His 2016-17 Cavaliers may have been the best of his tenure and would have been a real problem for a Warriors team without Durant. That is, if Durant’s stacked Thunder team did not meet him in the 2017 Finals instead.
Were James to bring a championship to his home state, he surely would have still left for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018. But what if he had fallen short in each of his four years back in Cleveland? Would he still be on the aging Cavaliers, still searching for a third ring, now against a much stronger Eastern Conference?
The bigger question is whether Kyrie Irving would have been there to see any of it. The relationship between Irving and James may have frayed earlier than it eventually did, no longer held together by their joint success as champions. Had the Cavs lost in five games, the front office may have even become convinced Irving was not a championship fit with James and pulled the trigger on something akin to the three-team trade that fell apart a year later, which would have returned Paul George and Eric Bledsoe.
That, too, is a roster James could win with, but one that comes with its own series of alternate endings. How would Irving and Devin Booker fare as Mamba Mentality disciples in the Phoenix Suns backcourt? Does that become a destination for Durant or another big-name free agent? Do James and George find a home together in Cleveland? Without Bledsoe on the market, do the Milwaukee Bucks pursue alternative solutions that would have made them a better title contender — like Chris Paul, Kemba Walker or even ...
Russell Westbrook’s alternate ending
Westbrook is not the 2017 MVP if Durant stays in Oklahoma City. And if a Durant-Westbrook partnership fell short of title expectations again, the Thunder may have begun exploring deals involving their star point guard. Would the Bucks have had the assets to acquire him? The Paul-Westbrook swap of 2019 would have made more sense for the Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers in 2017 under this scenario. Either shifts the power dynamic for James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who split the next three MVP awards.
Anthony Davis’ alternate ending
This all could impact the future of Anthony Davis as well. Does he still end up in L.A. without James there to recruit him? In a world where Boston never dealt Isaiah Thomas for Irving, Davis’ dad presumably no longer has reason to distrust the Celtics, and maybe they become a more desirable trade destination for his son.
Remember that Boston does not sign Horford or trade for Irving in this world we created. The Celtics might have continued to be the free-agent wasteland they always had been. That likely would have meant no Gordon Hayward or Kemba Walker in their future, which may have scared off Davis from Boston anyhow.
Maybe Davis decides a pairing with Zion Williamson in New Orleans is not so bad. Or maybe the godfather offer the Clippers paid for George gets rerouted to the Pelicans instead, and — in the ultimate alternate ending — Davis recruits James to the Clippers, while George and Kawhi Leonard land on the Lakers. But ...
Kawhi Leonard’s alternate ending
As if it were not enough just to consider a universe where the career arcs of Curry, James, Durant, Davis, Westbrook, George, Harden and Antetokounmpo were eternally altered, imagine this: Without Pachulia there to step underneath his ankle in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals, Leonard’s 61-win San Antonio Spurs would have been a serious championship contender against a Durant-less Warriors team.
What if Leonard won another title with San Antonio? If his relationship with the organization never sours over the treatment of his injury, perhaps he takes his place as the next lifelong Spurs legend. That translates to the Toronto Raptors falling short of a 2019 championship, opening a path for either the Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers. Does Jimmy Butler leave for the Miami Heat if he reaches a Finals with the Sixers?
But wait: Does Durant tear his Achilles if he is not in the 2019 Finals with the Warriors? And who is in the 2020 Finals if the Heat have no Butler and the Lakers never signed James? Are the Thunder a dynasty? Is Antetokounmpo a champion? Green’s strike to James’ groin may not have just determined the 2016 title, but it might have altered every champion since and forever changed the legacies of the NBA’s best players.
There are also worlds where the Cavs win Game 5 and complete the 3-1 comeback anyway or the Warriors win and still sign Durant for a run at four straight rings, but what fun is an alternate ending if not extreme.
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