Saturday, June 15, 2024

The 30 Biggest What-Ifs That Will Haunt NBA Finals History Forever

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As the 2024 NBA Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics fight for their place in NBA lore, it’s time to reflect on the history of the league’s biggest series.

Or rather, what could’ve been its history.

The NBA seemingly gives us new what-ifs every single year. Just a few weeks ago, the reigning champion Denver Nuggets had the biggest Game 7 collapse in NBA history. What if they hadn’t coughed up a 20-point, second-half lead? How different would these Finals look?

Hypotheticals like that can be found throughout the league’s nearly eight decades of existence. If certain trades weren’t made, some dynasties wouldn’t exist. Different decisions in the draft or free agency could’ve altered the course of history. Some individual moments within several Finals could’ve swung a series one way or another.

Some of these events (or non-events) happened during the Finals and directly affected those individual series. Others happened prior to the Finals, but they altered the course of history to such an extreme degree that they changed those potential series.

Regardless of how or when they took place, the 30 below are among the biggest “what ifs” in the history of the league’s most important annual series.

Bill Russell UPI/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

On draft night in 1956, one of the most consequential trades in the history of sports went down.

After picking Bill Russell with the second overall pick, the St. Louis Hawks swapped him for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley.

In his very first season in the league, Russell won a title with the Boston Celtics. Between the trade and 1969, he won 11 rings with Boston. By the time he retired in 1969, he was the all-time leader in career playoff win shares. Hagan and Macauley’s combined total in that category was just over half of Russell’s.

Without him, the Celtics almost certainly wouldn’t have dominated the ’50s and ’60s, at least not the way they did with the game’s premier defender and leader.

Over the course of his career, Boston played 72 Finals games. That was 30 clear of the second-place Minneapolis (and eventually Los Angeles) Lakers.

Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar James Drake/Getty Images

Nearly 20 years after the Russell trade, the Lakers made their own transformative, dynasty-spawning deal when they acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975.

The move didn’t immediately lead to championships (more on the other move that put them over the top in a minute), but Kareem wound up winning five with the Lakers and earning a Finals MVP award with them in 1985.

And despite starting his career with the Milwaukee Bucks and competing within perhaps the most storied team history in the NBA, Kareem finished third among all Lakers in career points scored in the Finals (behind only Jerry West and Elgin Baylor).

Meanwhile, the players L.A. traded to get Kareem—Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters—combined for 6.7 playoff win shares after the deal. Abdul-Jabbar had 23.0 as a Laker.

Magic Johnson Set Number: X34952

The Kareem acquisition wasn’t the only one that changed the Lakers’ Finals history.

A year after landing the best player in the league, L.A. allowed the New Orleans Jazz to sign Gail Goodrich. At the time, if you signed another team’s player, you had to offer compensation, so New Orleans sent four picks to the Lakers in exchange for two from L.A.

One of those picks was a 1979 first that the Lakers wound up using to land Magic Johnson. And he, of course, would go on to win five championships and three Finals MVPs in purple and gold.

Goodrich was a multi-time All-Star prior to the deal, but he only played three seasons after the move. He retired before Magic even reached the league, and he averaged 14.2 points and 4.5 assists during his time with the Jazz.

Bill Walton James Drake/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

This “what if” spans the entirety of Bill Walton’s career. “Healthy” is a relative term for him. Before he even got to UCLA, he broke multiple bones and underwent a knee surgery. The year he won MVP, he only appeared in 58 games.

But during those early years with the Portland Trail Blazers, Walton was truly dominant on both sides of the ball.

In the 1977 playoffs, he averaged 18.2 points, 15.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 3.4 blocks and 1.1 steals. During those Finals, which Portland won, he was at 18.5 points, 19.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.7 blocks.

But after the 1978 MVP, he appeared in fewer than 30 games per year for the rest of his career. He missed three entire campaigns with injuries.

Had his body held up, it seems like a near guarantee that he would’ve had more monster series like the one he had in 1977 against the Philadelphia 76ers. He was only 24 at the time.

Years later, longtime Portland Trail Blazers play-by-play man Bill Schonely said, “If you talk to people who have been around the league, they’ll tell you that if Bill Walton would have been healthy for a longer period, he might have gone down as the best center ever.”

Robert Parish, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale Nathaniel S. Butler/ NBAE via Getty Images

The rivalry that defined the NBA Finals for much of the 1980s wouldn’t have been complete without the aforementioned Lakers deals. Ditto for a Celtics trade in 1980 that sent Robert Parish and a first-round pick (that was later used to select Kevin McHale) to Boston for two picks.

Those would eventually turn into Rickey Brown and Joe Barry Carroll. The latter had a decent NBA career, but he and Brown combined for a total of 0.4 playoff win shares.

Parish and McHale, on the other hand, made up two-thirds of perhaps the greatest frontcourt trio in NBA history. They won three championships together with Larry Bird.

Bird, McHale and Parish are 16th, 29th and 31st, respectively, in career points scored in the Finals, and it’s hard to imagine them getting to those spots without each other’s help.

Sam Bowie Brian Drake/NBAE via Getty Images

The 1984 NBA Draft is arguably the greatest of all time. It included Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton.

And of course, most notable of all, it’s famous for Michael Jordan falling to the Chicago Bulls with the third overall pick.

Within a decade of the selection, Jordan won the first of his six championships with Chicago. He’s third in Finals history in points scored, fifth in minutes and fourth in box plus/minus. At six, he’s also the all-time leader in Finals MVPs won.

Jordan and the game’s biggest stage seemed inseparable for much of the 1990s.

As for the players taken before Jordan in 1984, the No. 1 pick obviously did fine for himself. Hakeem won two championships after Jordan’s detour through minor league baseball.

Sam Bowie, on the other hand, had a career marred by injury and played in fewer playoff games than Jordan did Finals games.

The alternate universe in which the Blazers had both MJ and Clyde Drexler almost certainly would’ve seen some championships for Portland.

We’re going to try to limit the number of officiating-related “what-ifs.” Otherwise, it could swell to an unmanageable number. It’d probably start to sound a little whiny, too.

But there are definitely some calls (or non-calls) throughout NBA Finals history that dramatically shifted outcomes. And this one is so infamous that it has its own name.

The so-called “phantom foul” on Bill Laimbeer happened with fewer than 30 seconds to play in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals. With the Lakers trailing the series 3-2 and down one in the game, Kareem caught the ball on the low post, lofted his sky hook over Laimbeer and missed.

But during the shooting motion, the official whistled Laimbeer for a foul. The replay, at the very least, made the call questionable. In 2014, Lakers coach Pat Riley even called the foul a phantom.

Of course, Abdul-Jabbar had to hit the two free throws. And he did. L.A. had to go on to win Game 7, too. But without that foul on Laimbeer, his sixth for the game, there’s a real chance the Pistons would’ve won the 1988 championship. And if they’d still gone on to win in 1989 and 1990, we’d obviously be talking about a threepeat for the Detroit Pistons.

Michael Jordan SetNumber: X46553

Fresh off his third straight NBA title and Finals MVP, and at just 30 years old, Jordan shocked the sports world by announcing his retirement from the NBA.

He was at the absolute peak of his powers. It looked like he and the Bulls could just keep winning championships in perpetuity. Instead, he opened the door for the rest of the league. And Hakeem and the Houston Rockets walked through it to win back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.

If Jordan hadn’t taken that time away to chase his dream of playing professional baseball, Olajuwon may never have those rings. The more pessimistic read of the situation, at least from Chicago’s perspective, is that the group might’ve burnt out earlier than 1998. In that case, does the so-called “Last Dance” happen earlier than 1998? Do John Stockton and Karl Malone have a title together?

The possibilities are probably endless. The reality is that Chicago had just one underwhelming run between Jordan’s comeback and second retirement. And the recharged GOAT, along with Scottie Pippen, dominated three more Finals series in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

During that Jordan hiatus, the Orlando Magic were one of the teams that had an opportunity to sneak in a championship.

With a loaded young roster that included Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, the Magic made it to the 1995 Finals to face the reigning champion Rockets. They beat Jordan’s Bulls on their way there.

And at the start of the series against Houston, it looked like they might go up 1-0.

After grabbing two offensive rebounds, Orlando had the ball with 10 seconds left and a three-point lead. The Rockets intentionally fouled Nick Anderson to stop the clock, sending him to the line for two free throws. He short-armed both, but he grabbed his own rebound on the second. Houston immediately fouled him again.

With 7.7 seconds left in the game, Anderson was headed to the line again. And again, he missed both.

Anderson had four chances to put the game on ice, and he missed them all.

When the Rockets finally got the ball back, Kenny Smith hit a game-tying three, and Houston went on to win in overtime and eventually sweep the series.

Now, Orlando was probably too young and inexperienced to go all the way that year. Olajuwon and the Rockets still would’ve been very much in the series if they’d lost Game 1, but the momentum of a Magic win also could’ve changed things dramatically.

If Shaq had won a title with Orlando, would he have gone to the Lakers in 1996? If Olajuwon only has one title instead of two, is his legacy viewed differently?

This is another Finals moment that easily could’ve generated limitless other timelines.

Kobe Bryant Set Number: X51025 TK1 R19 F3

The trade had been agreed upon prior to the draft. Vlade Divac was headed to the Charlotte Hornets, whether Kobe Bryant was available with the 13th pick or not.

But the big man was only in the teal and purple for two seasons. And when you see pictures of Kobe in that Hornets hat, it’s easy to wonder what might’ve been.

Charlotte would’ve had one of the best and most determined wings in the history of basketball. The Lakers would’ve been without him.

And though they’d landed Shaq that offseason, there’s no telling how long it would’ve taken him to win his first title without a second option as good as Bryant.

As it happened, Shaq and Kobe won a threepeat from 2000 through 2002 and made another Finals together in 2004. After O’Neal’s departure, Kobe won two more titles with the team that acquired him from the Hornets.

With L.A., Bryant was a staple of the Finals for most of a decade. The history of that series looks much different if he’d stayed with Charlotte.

This one’s nowhere near the slam dunk the “phantom foul” was. Good luck getting anyone with the 1997-98 Bulls to admit, even tacitly, that something should’ve been called on Chicago’s last possession of Game 6 of the Finals.

In all honesty, there really isn’t much contact from Jordan’s left hand as he crosses over and rises into his jump shot. There’s a pretty good chance Bryon Russell just slipped.

But this is one of the most famous shots in NBA and NBA Finals history. And nearly three decades later, it remains perhaps the sorest memory for Jazz fans.

Is it at least reasonable to say a push-off could‘ve been called on this play? Sure, and that’s enough to keep this moment festering in the minds of Utah’s faithful followers.

Had the whistle blown, there’s a chance Stockton and Malone have a championship. The Jazz were up a point in Game 6 when Jordan sank the shot. They still would’ve had to win a Game 7, but that was at home.

Again, there at least would’ve been a chance.

Instead, Utah suffered back-to-back Finals defeats at the hands of Jordan and the Bulls. And being on the wrong end of the GOAT’s history is among the first sentences in any discussions about Stockton or Malone’s legacies.

Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady Photo by: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Tim Duncan hit NBA free agency for the first time in his career in 2000. By that time, he’d already won a title and a Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs.

But there was some real traction toward his departure, as noted by longtime Spurs executive R.C. Buford in a 2016 interview with Adrian Wojnarowski.

“Orlando at the time had draft picks, Disneyland, a very bright picture,” Buford said. “I think we focused more on trying to convince him that Orlando wasn’t a place for him than we focused on who we were, and the meeting we shared with Tim was a disaster. I mean, I walked out of it, and we blew it… Orlando did a terrific job of painting a picture that was very attractive, and you know they had enough cap room at the time to bring two great players together.”

If the Magic had landed both Duncan and Tracy McGrady that summer, they could’ve competed for titles as early as the following season. The East hasn’t exactly had a lot of juggernauts since then (11 of the top 15 teams in winning percentage from 2000 to now come from the Western Conference), so a Duncan-led Orlando squad could’ve been a staple in the Finals.

Instead, Duncan remained the backbone of what would become a dynasty.

“What saved us was Pop and Tim’s relationship and their trust,” Buford said. And that relationship led to four more championships between Duncan’s free agency and 2014.

Darko Miličić Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images

The Pistons didn’t really need the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft. They were coming off a 50-32 season in which they made it all the way to the conference finals.

But a 1997 trade with the Vancouver Grizzlies gave it to them anyway. And that draft class was loaded with future Hall of Famers.

Detroit didn’t have a shot at LeBron James. He went first overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the next three from that draft in career wins over replacement player were Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh.

Instead of taking any of those three (or David West, Kyle Korver or Boris Diaw), Detroit settled on a young, seemingly loaded-with-upside Serbian big man by the name of Darko Miličić. He’s 42nd in the class in career wins over replacement player, and yes, his total is below zero.

Of course, for the Pistons’ purposes, the whiff didn’t hurt them in 2003. Miličić rode the bench on the way to a Finals appearance and championship ring in 2004. Taking one of the stars, like Melo or Wade, might’ve thrown off chemistry or the team’s identity.

It also could’ve dramatically altered the trajectory of a player like Melo. He spent most of his career as a shoot-first, all-offense forward who’ll certainly be in the Hall of Fame, but he never won a title.

Would the Pistons have won with him in Darko’s roster spot? Could they have developed him into a more balanced superstar? And might that have set Detroit up for more trips to the Finals?

In reality, this version of the Pistons made it to the NBA’s last series twice. On the Melo (or Wade or Bosh) timeline, there’s a real chance they would’ve made more.

Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Kobe Bryant Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Pistons fans will be quick to tell you that this didn’t really matter. They may be right. Their team won the 2004 Finals over the superteam Lakers in just five games. And their average margin of victory, even with the one loss included, was 9.0 points.

But during L.A.’s lone win in the series, Malone sprained his knee. He was hampered in the next two games and missed the closeout Game 5 altogether.

Again, a healthy Malone may not have dramatically shifted the direction of this series, but in the regular season, he was third on the Lakers in box plus/minus and fourth in wins over replacement player. Their point differential was significantly better when he was on the floor. Ditto for their effective field-goal percentage and free-throw-attempt rate.

Malone wasn’t the offensive force he was at his peak, but he still took some pressure of Shaq and Kobe. And had that been enough for L.A. to avoid the Finals upset, perhaps there’s a chance Shaq wouldn’t have left the following summer.

He and Kobe made up perhaps the most talented duo in NBA history, but their time together was relatively short-lived. The Spurs certainly would’ve had something to say about it, but if Shaq and Kobe had stayed together, they almost certainly would’ve made more trips to the game’s biggest stage.

Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Between Shaq’s departure and Pau Gasol’s arrival, Kobe built himself a pretty strong “best in the world” case, but his team was generally mediocre.

A return to the contenders’ tier demanded the Gasol trade. And the Lakers got their immediately after picking him up.

In February 2008, the Memphis Grizzlies traded Pau and a second-round pick to L.A. for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, Aaron McKie and two first-round picks.

Four months later, Kobe and Gasol were in the Finals. They lost that series to the Celtics, but they won back-to-back championships immediately after that.

Those three post-Shaq trips to the Finals are a huge part of Kobe’s legacy, and the legend himself admitted he may not have gotten there without Gasol.

At the 2018 Oscars, Bryant said, “The reality is, I don’t win those championships without Pau.”

Amar’e Stoudemire and LeBron James Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2010, LeBron had perhaps the most public and most discussed free agency in NBA history. He held a cable TV special to announce where he’d play after coming off the Cleveland Cavaliers’ books. It was called “The Decision” and hosted by longtime broadcaster Jim Gray.

Before the program, he’d visited with the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers, Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. And when the cameras were on, he said he’d be taking his “talents to South Beach.”

Years later, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons suggested an alternate reality.

“From everyone I’ve talked to in the know since then, it’s clear that the Knicks were the first choice.” Simmons said on his podcast. “It was basically the Knicks’ to lose, and they just couldn’t stay out of their own way. The stories are legendary. [Team owner James Dolan] was Dolan. They didn’t have anything prepared. It just couldn’t have gone worse by all accounts. It was a disaster.”

Had New York been able to convince LeBron to come to the Big Apple, he and Amar’e Stoudemire could’ve been one of the most dangerous pick-and-roll duos we’ve ever seen (the Knicks had enough cap space to sign two max free agents that summer).

Due to Stoudemire’s health, the runway probably wouldn’t have been any longer than the four years LeBron played in Miami, but LeBron’s dominance of the East would’ve happened in New York, too.

Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

December 8, 2011 was one of the most bizarre days in the league’s recent history. Just before the end of a league-wide lockout, news broke that the New Orleans Hornets had agreed to a trade that would pair Chris Paul with Kobe Bryant. And then, within an hour, commissioner David Stern nixed the deal.

Stern could ultimately shut down the deal because the league just happened to own the Hornets at the time. But that certainly didn’t soothe the ruffled feathers of any Lakers fans.

L.A. was coming off a sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Mavericks in the 2011 playoffs. For at least a few minutes, it seemed poised to start a new era with a traditional point guard, something Bryant hadn’t really played with to that point in his career.

Doing so probably could’ve spared him some of the physical and mental stress that came from leading a contender as he aged out of his prime. And maybe that, in turn, could’ve extended his career a bit (barring the ruptured Achilles, of course).

Even if it didn’t, Kobe still had a couple more All-Star (or near All-Star) level seasons left after the would-be trade. And even without Gasol (who would’ve gone to the Rockets as part of the agreed-upon trade), Kobe and CP3 would’ve been good enough to get L.A. back to contention and potentially change the course of Finals history.

Derrick Rose Set Number: X154756 TK1 R2 F240

Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history in 2011. The next season, despite multiple extended absences from Rose, Chicago went 50-16, finished first in the East and was built to be tough whether its leading scorer was available or not.

Rose was the player who took them from good to great, though. When he was available, the Bulls looked like one of the only teams in the East that might be able keep LeBron’s Heat out of the Finals.

And given his age, Rose was just 23 in the 2011-12 campaign, it looked like he and Chicago might be LeBron’s foil for a while.

But he tore his ACL in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, and he and the Bulls haven’t been the same ever since.

Won he won that MVP award, it felt like multiple Finals appearances could be in store for Rose. Instead, he has zero, while LeBron went to eight straight.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The same year Rose went down with the torn ACL, the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder made the Finals from the West’s side of the bracket.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were 23, 23 and 22, respectively, when that series ended with a loss to the Miami Heat.

Their youth made it reasonable to expect multiple Finals appearances in their future, but Harden and the team couldn’t agree on an extension the following summer. He was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets, and OKC hasn’t been back to the Finals since.

Of course, a return was far from guaranteed. The Spurs weren’t done being a juggernaut. And a certain superstar was about to ascend in the Bay Area, but the possibility was officially buried when Harden was moved.

With less than 20 seconds to play in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, the Spurs were up 95-92 in the contest and 3-2 in the series. One stop, and they’d have their first title since 2007.

And for a moment, it looked like they’d gotten it. LeBron missed a catch-and-shoot three from the left wing with 10 seconds to go, but Chris Bosh secured the offensive rebound and kicked it to the corner, where Ray Allen hit one of the most famous game-tying shots in league history.

The Heat went on to win that game in overtime. Then, they won Game 7 to secure their second straight title.

The “what if” here, of course, comes from what happened right before that possession. With Kawhi Leonard at the free-throw line, Gregg Popovich took Duncan out of the game for Boris Diaw. The longtime face of the franchise was off the floor for Bosh’s fateful offensive board. Had he been there, the chances of Allen getting that second-chance opportunity would’ve at least been a bit diminished.

If San Antonio had indeed snagged that all-important rebound, it would’ve won the 2013 Finals. LeBron may well have been limited to just one title with Miami (though the Spurs may not have had the same revenge-like fire in 2014).

The legacies of a few players probably look a little different, in that case.

Kevin Love and David Lee Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Just before the Golden State Warriors won their first of four championships during the Stephen Curry era, there appeared to be real traction on a deal that would’ve sent half the Splash Brothers out of town.

“The Minnesota Timberwolves are seeking a future first-round pick from the Golden State Warriors in addition to the rights to prized marksman Klay Thompson in Kevin Love trade talks,” ESPN’s Marc Stein wrote during the 2014 offseason. “The Warriors, while they covet Love greatly, have been weighing internally whether they’re prepared to give up two such assets in addition to former All-Star forward David Lee for Love and Wolves swingman Kevin Martin.”

The trade obviously didn’t go down. Love wound up joining the Cleveland Cavaliers that summer. And the Cavs-Warriors rivalry that defined much of the 2010s ensued.

It’s fair to wonder if Curry would have four titles right now had the Love deal gone through. Love was an MVP candidate at the time, so he may have blocked Draymond Green’s path to minutes. His unique point forward game was key to Curry, who won his first MVP in 2014-15, reaching his ceiling.

The volume and efficiency of Golden State’s three-point shooting was obviously crucial, too. And the way Thompson and Curry played off each other on the perimeter helped both dominate from out there.

Curry may be the kind of talent who’d find a way to make it to the mountaintop, either way, but there’s no doubt the story would’ve been different if Love went to the Warriors.

Stephen Curry Set Number: X159718 TK1

As noted on the last slide, Love joined the Cavaliers in 2014. He helped them finish second in the East in his first season there, but a shoulder injury during the first round of the playoffs knocked him out for the rest of that run.

That alone would’ve made beating Curry and the Warriors a feat, but things got even worse. During Game 1 of the Finals, Kyrie Irving went down with a knee injury.

Suddenly, LeBron was without both his second and third best players, but he still managed to lead the Cavs to two wins in the series.

Had Love and Irving been upright, back-to-back titles for Cleveland would’ve been in play. And without the confidence winning a championship brings, maybe the Warriors wouldn’t have beaten the Thunder in 2016. Maybe Kevin Durant wouldn’t have joined them that summer.

When one domino falls, plenty of others are in play.

One year after beating the depleted Cavs, the teams faced off again in 2016. And for the first four games of that series, Golden State looked more in control than they were for much of the first matchup.

But then, with the Warriors up 2-1, a little skirmish at midcourt led to a Draymond suspension. LeBron stepped over a downed Green, who then took a swipe at LeBron’s midsection. Golden State went on to win the game and go up 3-1 in the series, but after a postgame review, its point forward was ruled out for Game 5.

That’s when the snowball really started rolling. Draymond missed the first contest of a three-game winning streak from the Cavaliers that gave them the first comeback from a 3-1 deficit in Finals history.

Had Green been available in that fateful Game 5, the Warriors would’ve had a far better shot at repeating. And if they were coming off back-to-back championships and a 73-win regular season, would Durant have still joined them in the summer?

He took plenty of flak for front-running when he signed with Golden State, and that criticism almost certainly would’ve been worse if the Warriors were coming off a title.

In 2016-17, Durant’s first season with the Warriors, Golden State had the fourth-highest average point differential in NBA history. Winning the championship felt like a foregone conclusion.

But then Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs showed up for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Duncan was gone, but the machine still seemed to be in good working order with Kawhi leading the team. Then, early in the third quarter of that contest, Kawhi put up a three and landed on the foot of a hard-charging Zaza Pachulia.

The reckless closeout knocked Kawhi out for the rest of the series, Golden State came back to win the first game and eventually swept.

The Warriors probably still would’ve been favored without the injury and with a Game 1 loss. But that first half and change at least made a different outcome feel possible.

And if Kawhi had been able to eliminate that Warriors team, another championship would’ve been in play. Maybe that would’ve fostered some goodwill between him and the team and made his 2018 departure a bit less likely.

Jayson Tatum Jeyhoun Allebaugh/NBAE via Getty Images

In 2017, the Celtics traded out of the top spot in the draft, clearing the way for the Philadelphia 76ers to take Markelle Fultz. That selection couldn’t have played out much worse for the team or the player.

Then, with the second pick, the Lakers took Lonzo Ball. Just over two years later, he was gone (though L.A. fans probably aren’t sweating that fact too much, since Anthony Davis was part of the return, and he won a title there).

That meant Jayson Tatum was still on the board when the Celtics came up at No. 3, and they’ve been reaping the rewards ever since.

In his seven seasons with Boston, Tatum and the Celtics have made five Eastern Conference Finals and two Finals. They’re already closing in on Tatum’s first championship.

As of this writing, he’s 26 years and 98 days old. He has more playoff points through that age than anyone but Kobe.

And he’s likely far from done leaving his imprint on NBA Finals history.

Luka Dončić Matteo Marchi/NBAE via Getty Images

The way the 2018 draft played out was even more ridiculous.

In the moment, it seemed ludicrous, maybe even unthinkable, that anyone other than the reigning EuroLeague MVP, who’d just won EuroBasket in 2017 as an 18-year-old, would go first overall.

Not only did the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings pass on him for Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, the Atlanta Hawks traded him to the Dallas Mavericks.

It felt like three front offices had temporarily slid into the Twilight Zone.

Now, just under six years later, Luka Dončić is playing in his first NBA Finals. Getting back is far from a given, but it feels like a relatively safe bet for him.

To this point in his career, he has absurd playoff averages of 31.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 3.5 threes and 1.6 steals. And he’s already on the game’s biggest stage, in spite of having only one star teammate and a made-on-the-fly supporting cast.

Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Warriors may have benefited from some injury luck in 2015, but that pendulum swung back with a vengeance four years later.

Durant and the team were already fracturing from a team chemistry standpoint, but they were still likely to win the Finals with some decent health. They just didn’t have that.

Kevin Durant missed the first four games of the series, then ruptured his Achilles when he came back for Game 5. Thompson, meanwhile, tore his ACL in the closeout Game 6, and the Toronto Raptors finished their run to the first championship in franchise history.

Even with a third straight championship, Durant staying with the Warriors probably wasn’t a given, but it would’ve at least been marginally more difficult for him to make that call.

Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

After a midseason trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jimmy Butler spent just part of one season with the Philadelphia 76ers.

In the summer of 2019, as part of a sign-and-trade, he was sent to the Heat. And he’s led Miami to two Finals appearances in the five years since then.

Along the way, he suggested the Sixers actively chose Tobias Harris over him during that offseason.

Of course, the departure may have been a bit more complicated than that. Al Horford came to Philadelphia in that same summer. Ben Simmons had his first non-rookie contract on the way.

In other words, it wasn’t a direct, either-or choice between Butler and Harris, but Philadelphia may well have chosen a non-Jimmy path.

And for most of the half-decade since, it’s felt like the wrong choice. Simmons’ tenure with the Sixers ended in disaster. Horford only played one season there. Harris was the most recent scapegoat for another short playoff run in 2024.

It’s now been a decade since Joel Embiid was drafted. He’s yet to make it past the second round. Had his team prioritized keeping Butler in 2019, he might have some Finals appearances under his belt.

Jamal Murray Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In 2020, the Denver Nuggets overcame two separate 3-1 deficits to make the conference finals, seemingly ahead of schedule. Jamal Murray was 23 when that season ended. Nikola Jokić was 25.

At the next trade deadline, Denver took a home run swing on Aaron Gordon. And in the immediate aftermath of the deal, the metaphorical ball seemed to be sailing toward the fence.

The Nuggets won their first eight games after the trade. But then, like an outfielder snagging a fly ball out of the air just before it clears the fence, Murray went down with a torn ACL against the Golden State Warriors in April.

He obviously missed that postseason. Then, he was also out for all of 2021-22. A back surgery knocked Michael Porter Jr. out for most of that campaign, too.

Right when it looked like the Nuggets might become a perennial contender with Jokić, they were essentially forced into a two-year hiatus. Jokić had monster individual seasons, but without his No. 2, title contention was never really within reach.

Then, in Murray’s first season back, the Nuggets won the title in 2023. It certainly had to feel good for Nuggets fans, but plenty also had to be wondering what might’ve been in 2021 and 2022, had the injury bug not bitten so hard.

In Game 7 of their 2021 second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Brooklyn Nets were down two with six seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Jeff Green inbounded the ball from the left sideline to Kevin Durant on the right wing, who drove left into P.J. Tucker, wheeled back to his right and then launched a fadeaway jumper over Tucker and into the bucket.

For a split second, it felt like the Nets were moving on to the conference finals, but the shot was reviewed, and the very edge of Durant’s shoe was on the three-point line.

It wasn’t a game-winner. It was a game-tying two. And with Kyrie Irving out and Harden hobbled by a hamstring injury, Durant eventually ran out of steam.

The Bucks won that game in overtime, beat an outmatched Atlanta Hawks squad in the conference finals and eventually beat the Phoenix Suns for the title.

Had the Nets snuck past Milwaukee, there’s a very real chance they could’ve made that Finals. And in that case, the team falling apart over the next couple seasons almost certainly would’ve been a bit less likely.

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