Eastern Conference – NBA’s biggest what-ifs of the past five years

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Few issues encourage extra debate than pondering again on what might have been.

That’s significantly true in terms of the NBA, a league chock-full of big personalities and skills whose actions and moments have formed its panorama. (Assume “The Resolution”, when LeBron James famously introduced on reside TV he was taking his abilities to the Miami Warmth.)

Recognizing that, and with (most of) the offseason formally behind us, we thought it could be enjoyable to take a seat again and try the largest what-if eventualities for all 30 NBA groups over the previous 5 years, courting again to the 2018 offseason.

What if Kevin Durant stayed wholesome throughout his time with the Brooklyn Nets? What if Jimmy Butler remained with the Philadelphia 76ers and constructed a prolific dynamic duo with MVP Joel Embiid?

We’ll kick issues off with a have a look at every of the 15 Jap Convention groups’ greatest what-if, earlier than shifting to the West on Wednesday.

What if the Atlanta Hawks did not make the convention finals in 2021?

The Hawks reaching the 2021 Jap Convention finals was seen as Trae Younger’s ascension to stardom. As an alternative, it was a staff that caught a positive draw and lucky breaks; because of this, it achieved an excessive amount of success too quickly, and it has paid the worth for it since.

By dropping to Philadelphia within the second spherical, Atlanta’s season is seen for what it ought to have been: a stable success however one with out the expectations that in any other case adopted the Hawks into the 2021-22 season. In consequence, the Hawks haven’t got the identical turmoil shadowing them by that marketing campaign nor do they commerce for Dejounte Murray final summer season or fireplace Nate McMillan and Travis Schlenk this previous season.

As an alternative, each are let go after the Hawks lose within the first spherical for a second straight season. And after Landry Fields ascended to take over the entrance workplace — however with Quin Snyder having gone to the Philadelphia 76ers after the season, moderately than becoming a member of Atlanta throughout it — he would faucet into his San Antonio connections and rent Ime Udoka because the staff’s coach.

The summer season of 2019 was a tumultuous one in Boston, as each Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn) and Horford (Philadelphia) departed on big-money free agent offers to different locales, and the Celtics responded by inking Kemba Walker to a four-year max contract by a sign-and-trade deal that despatched Terry Rozier to the Charlotte Hornets. However after a scorching begin to his time in Boston, Walker’s knee shortly gave out on him, and he wound up being despatched out in a deal — together with a first-round decide — to carry again Horford two years later.

With Horford on the roster within the NBA bubble for Boston in 2020, the Celtics do not get dominated inside by Miami’s Bam Adebayo within the convention finals, and so they make it to the NBA Finals. As well as, having Horford on the roster means Boston would not have to signal Enes Kanter (now Enes Freedom). In flip, which means the Celtics maintain the thirtieth decide within the 2020 draft, moderately than buying and selling it to the Memphis Grizzlies as a part of a Kanter wage dump. The participant taken with that decide? Desmond Bane, who’s now firmly entrenched as a core participant in Boston alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics additionally by no means would’ve needed to wage dump Walker on this situation, both, which means they’d have stored the sixteenth decide — which the Houston Rockets wound up utilizing on promising younger massive Alperen Sengun. And Rozier would nonetheless be a part of the combination too, as a stable guard off the bench.

What if the Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant did not endure a pair of knee sprains?

There isn’t a scarcity of what-ifs in terms of the in the end doomed triumvirate of Durant, Irving and James Harden in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, if there may be one factor that its collapse will be tied again to, it’s Durant struggling the misfortune of opposing gamers falling into his legs.

In January 2022, it was New Orleans Pelicans ahead Herbert Jones. In January 2023, it was Warmth ahead Jimmy Butler. In each circumstances, the results have been extreme.

In 2022, Durant’s absence noticed the Nets collapse, going 2-11 by the commerce deadline as they fell from second to sixth within the East, which led to Harden forcing his method out of city. In 2023, the Nets went 6-9 by the commerce deadline, resulting in first Irving then Durant asking for — and receiving — trades away from Brooklyn.

It is simple to imagine one thing else would’ve befallen this group, given all that went on throughout their shared time collectively. However had Durant stayed wholesome for both marketing campaign, Brooklyn would’ve remained on the prime of the East, the circumstances resulting in Harden and Irving asking out of city by no means would’ve materialized and not less than two of the three would doubtless nonetheless be in Brooklyn as we speak — maybe even having received a championship alongside the way in which.

When Walker, the very best participant in franchise historical past, made the All-NBA staff in 2019, it left the Hornets with an enormous choice: give Walker a supermax contract and maintain him with a franchise caught in impartial or let him depart in free company. The latter occurred, with Charlotte finishing the sign-and-trade with Boston for Rozier, as a substitute of paying Walker.

On this situation, Walker would not make All-NBA — which, in flip, makes it extra palatable for Charlotte to re-sign him. Walker, who liked being in Charlotte, agrees to stay a Hornet and performs properly sufficient in 2020 to forestall Charlotte from leaping as much as get LaMelo Ball. As an alternative, the Hornets win the first-ever play-in sport within the NBA bubble, earlier than getting swept by the Milwaukee Bucks within the first spherical of the playoffs.

Walker’s knee would then collapse, leaving an enormous albatross of a contract on Charlotte’s books over the previous three years. And with the second decide on this 12 months’s draft, Charlotte would leap on the likelihood to take Scoot Henderson to supplant Walker because the face of the franchise as his contract expires.

When Ball tore a meniscus towards the Golden State Warriors in January 2022, the Bulls had the East’s finest document. With out Ball, the Bulls collapsed down the stretch, getting routed within the first spherical of the playoffs by the Bucks final 12 months, earlier than dropping within the play-in this previous season. He’s now unlikely to play through the 2023-24 marketing campaign, as properly.

With Ball nonetheless obtainable, nonetheless, that by no means occurs. The Bulls as a substitute end the 2022 season with the East’s finest document and win a playoff collection, earlier than returning to the postseason this previous season and being projected to take action once more this coming season.

Because the standoff between the Utah Jazz and New York Knicks dragged on final summer season, the Cavaliers swooped in out of nowhere and made a shocking deal for the star guard as a substitute. Mitchell then helped lead the Cavs to the playoffs for the primary time with out LeBron James in a quarter-century, at which level the Knicks sarcastically and emphatically ended their season in 5 video games.

With out Mitchell, there’s a a lot larger share of the offense obtainable to Evan Mobley, who as a substitute of taking 12 pictures per sport for a second season in a row vaulted as much as 18 makes an attempt per sport — scoring within the low 20s per sport because of this and creating abilities as each a passer and a fringe shooter. The Cavaliers make it out of the play-in event and lose within the first spherical to Boston, however it’s a much more optimistic finish to the season.

Cleveland, in the meantime, retains all of its draft capital going ahead, holding it as a first-rate participant for any expertise that considers shaking free across the league shifting ahead.

Since reaching the convention finals in six consecutive seasons, the Pistons have solely been to the playoffs 3 times over the previous 15 campaigns and have did not win a single sport. The inspiration of the following playoff staff in Motown, nonetheless, would’ve been set if Detroit had chosen a distinct level guard prospect than Hayes within the 2020 draft.

By taking Haliburton seventh general as a substitute of Hayes, Detroit would have its ground common of the long run. And when the Pistons leaped to the highest of the lottery the next 12 months and grabbed Cade Cunningham, they’d have the right mixture of dimension and ability at its two guard spots to enhance one another for the remainder of this decade — and past.

When the Pacers turned Paul George into Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, it was a win-win deal for either side. And when Oladipo practically led the Pacers previous LeBron James and the Cavaliers within the first spherical of the 2018 playoffs, it appeared Oladipo was set to be a pillar for the franchise — just for his profession to be derailed by a torn quadriceps tendon in 2019.

A wholesome Oladipo, in the meantime, has now made six consecutive All-Star groups and has remained one of many league’s elite guards. However the presence of Oladipo would not stop Indiana from making the swap of Sabonis for Tyrese Haliburton final 12 months, giving them a distinct balancing of their roster round Oladipo and Myles Turner, as Indiana has firmly entrenched itself as a top-four staff within the East.

The Warmth missed the playoffs in three of the 5 seasons after LeBron James returned to Cleveland and solely as soon as received a playoff collection. Within the second, it appeared they’d no path to touchdown a participant of Butler’s caliber — just for the Warmth to handle to flip Josh Richardson to Philadelphia for Butler.

On this situation, although, they don’t. With Butler, the Warmth made the NBA Finals twice and the convention finals 3 times. With out him, Miami flounders within the play-in combine over the previous few seasons, failing to search out the form of star essential to have the success the Warmth have had with Butler and now has received only a single playoff collection over the earlier 9 campaigns — a stretch that causes Pat Riley to lastly step away from the franchise after greater than a half-century in cost.

When Lopez signed a $3.3 million take care of the Bucks in 2018, it was arduous to check what would lie forward of him in Milwaukee. However Mike Budenholzer helped remodel Lopez right into a defensive menace, and the middle’s whole profession arc shifted.

Milwaukee, needing to search out one other reply with out Lopez within the fold, as a substitute winds up with Nerlens Noel, who matches poorly subsequent to Giannis Antetokounmpo on account of Noel’s lack of taking pictures.

The Bucks stay a menace within the East merely due to the presence of Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton on the roster, however no Lopez means Milwaukee hasn’t ended its championship drought, and the noise surrounding Antetokounmpo’s future has grown louder by the 12 months, culminating in him asking to be dealt away from the franchise this summer season.

The Knicks have slowly however absolutely constructed up their expertise base beneath president of basketball operations Leon Rose. There may be, nonetheless, one vital mistake: selecting Toppin over Haliburton within the 2020 draft.

Toppin has been a bit participant the previous three years in New York, whereas Haliburton has blossomed into one of many sport’s brightest younger stars. Beneath this situation, the Knicks nonetheless had the cash to signal Jalen Brunson this previous offseason, and the Brunson-Haliburton combo would match collectively completely.

And with Haliburton, the Knicks can be adequate to take down the Warmth within the convention semifinals, earlier than dropping to the Celtics within the convention finals — all whereas nonetheless having their present cache of younger gamers and draft capital so as to add one other star at any time when one shakes free.

As a rangy, 6-foot-11 ahead, Isaac was starting to appear to be a modern-day model of Andrei Kirilenko — a very dynamic expertise.

Then got here a left knee damage suffered on Jan. 1, 2020. That started a collection of accidents that has precipitated Isaac to play in simply 13 of Orlando’s 275 video games over the previous three-plus seasons.

However what if he hadn’t gotten harm? The idealized, wholesome model of Isaac can be an ideal complementary participant in Orlando’s frontcourt — significantly subsequent to Paolo Banchero, as Isaac would tackle the highest defensive project whereas Banchero would carry out the heavy lifting on the different finish.

To say shifting on from Butler in the summertime of 2019 was a disastrous choice is an understatement. Al Horford and Josh Richardson have been each terrible matches in Philadelphia, with every lasting precisely one season. Butler, in the meantime, has led the Warmth to the NBA Finals twice and to the convention finals 3 times since he left the Sixers.

So how would issues look had Butler stayed in Philly? The Sixers, as a substitute of the Warmth, can be the dominant staff within the East behind Butler and Embiid. By holding Butler, it could sign the tip for Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, because the 76ers would ship him out in a deal for Kyle Lowry and future belongings the next season, properly earlier than Simmons’ disastrous collection towards the Hawks in 2021, and Philadelphia would attain the NBA Finals in 2021 — as a substitute of Milwaukee — and finish town’s close to four-decade title drought.

The Raptors acquired every thing they might’ve hoped for from Leonard in his one season north of the border. They simply could not persuade him to remain there.

However what if they’d? Toronto was adequate to win the title within the NBA bubble in 2020 with out Leonard; as a substitute, it misplaced a convention semifinals heartbreaker in seven video games to Boston whereas Pascal Siakam had a subpar collection. With a wholesome Leonard in tow, the Raptors would repeat as champions in Orlando. And in flip, the complete core group that has slowly splintered off the previous few years — together with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and coach Nick Nurse — would all nonetheless be in Toronto, and the Raptors would nonetheless be a bona fide title contender.

On this universe, Washington strikes on from Beal in the identical second it does from Russell Westbrook: the 2021 offseason.

And there may be an apparent commerce suitor simply up Interstate 95: the 76ers, who’ve simply collapsed within the convention semifinals after Ben Simmons’ aborted dunk try late in Recreation 7 and subsequent asking to be traded.

The Sixers wind up sending Simmons, Matisse Thybulle and their 2022 first-round decide to Washington for Beal, and so they instantly signal Beal to a contract extension to lock him in with the franchise shifting ahead. With Beal instead of Simmons (or, later, James Harden), Philadelphia makes it to the East finals every of the previous two seasons.

Washington, in the meantime, will get little out of Simmons the previous two seasons. However because of this, the Wizards profit from top-five picks in every of the previous two drafts — together with successful the lottery this 12 months, after having the NBA’s worst document, and getting Victor Wembanyama.

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