The history of the NBA is a tangled web of what-ifs and could-have-beens. This week at The Step Back, we’re going to pull on some of those threads to alternate futures, focusing in on key turning points in the history of players, teams and the league itself, wondering how things could have been different. Welcome to Butterfly Effect Week.
The 2005 NBA Draft is probably the one that stings Hawks fans the most.
The Hawks were coming off a rancid 2004-05 NBA campaign, one where they went an atrocious 13-69 under first-year head coach Mike Woodson. They had historically been a playoff-viable team for most of their tenure in Atlanta. However, those first eights years at Philips Arena (1999-07) were easily the worst stretch in franchise history. With the Braves still winning division titles and the Falcons having Michael Vick at quarterback, there was really no reason for anybody but Hawks diehards to watch this team struggle. It was that bad.
To further complicate things, the Hawks had not been one of the better drafting teams in NBA history. They traded Pau Gasol’s rights to the Grizzlies for Marietta native Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who was good but not great for the Hawks. They picked Josh Childress over Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng. The Hawks even took some guy called Priest Lauderdale in the 1990s.
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However, the worst pick the Hawks have ever made was back in 2005. The Hawks had the No. 2 overall pick and completely blew it. While Utah Utes star center Andrew Bogut was a great selection for the Bucks at No. 1, there was no reason Atlanta needed to take North Carolina Tar Heels sixth man freshman forward Marvin Williams at No. 2.
Williams rode that Tar Heel hype train all the way to No. 2. He was a freshman who put up modest numbers but his potential as an athletic, skilled, and versatile forward was too much for Atlanta to pass up. The Jazz took Illinois Fighting Illini point guard Deron Williams at No. 3. Like Bogut, Williams was a great player before he got hurt and had great size at the position. Then there was the pick the then New Orleans Hornets made at No. 4: Some point guard kid from the Wake Forest Demon Deacons named Chris Paul.
Today, Paul is considered to be the best all-around point guard in basketball and arguably the best player in the game that has not won an NBA Championship. At the time, Paul may have been more conventional in terms of the potential he presented, but his greatness looked like much more of a sure thing than Marvin Williams’. Although to be fair to Atlanta, they weren’t the only ones who passed on Paul. Utah liked Deron Williams’ size over whatever edge Paul offered in efficiency and potential.
If the Hawks just made the safe play and took Paul at No. 2, so much of the NBA landscape is different. It’s borderline unbelievable how much this one better selection for the Hawks would shape the NBA today. Buckle up, were going into the wormhole.
Where to start? One could argue that the Zaza Pachulia Nothing Easy 2007-08 Hawks had a chance to defeat the No. 1 seeded Celtics in the first round with Paul. Also, former Hawks point guard Doc Rivers might not win an NBA championship as the head coach of the 2007-08 Celtics. The Hawks never have Al Horford because Atlanta has a better record with Paul at point guard his first few years in the league.
It would not take the Hawks until 2015 to reach their first Eastern Conference Finals with Paul at point guard. They could have pulled another playoff upset over a team like the Magic to play a LeBron James led Cavaliers or Heat team in the ECF a few years earlier. Maybe the Big Three concept doesn’t work and James stays in Northeast Ohio?
Paul becomes a superstar faster with him playing in the weaker Eastern Conference. The Hawks might be able to sign a free agent like a 2013 Dwight Howard and could have become a perennial 50-game winner. Maybe Woodson is revered as an NBA coach and doesn’t have to go to that grease fire in New York? Jeff Teague might have washed out of the league very early after leaving Wake Forest, since he’s not able to get the reps he would with Atlanta as a young NBA point guard.
While the city of Atlanta doesn’t win championships, the Hawks with Paul as their star point guard, Joe Johnson at the two and I guess Josh Smith at the four play in a pair of Conference Finals, maybe get to an NBA Finals? Paul has never been to either in his 12 seasons in the NBA.
However, the really interesting stuff about the Hawks taking Paul over Williams is what it does to the rest of the league. First, maybe New Orleans as an NBA city becomes hopeless. The Hornets could have been relocated in 2008-09 to the Sooner State to become the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Oklahoma City fans might not be as loud as they are now. Sure, they cheer for Anthony Davis, but this version of the Thunder doesn’t play in the 2012 NBA Finals. That would be the 2011-12 Seattle SuperSonics, your NBA Champions that year.?Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the best of buds and Seattle sports fans could not be happier.
With Paul not going to New Orleans, there is no vetoed trade with him going to the Lakers and he doesn’t end up with the Clippers. Paul is having fun playing for the Hawks, though he wishes J-Smoove would stop taking 3s like Sandy Lyle. The Seahawks and Sounders are really good, too. Seattle sports fans become Boston-level obnoxious.
The Clippers don’t get Rivers in a trade with the Celtics, probably because he’s canned since he doesn’t win a title with the Big Three in Boston. Blake Griffin is tired of dealing with the Donald Sterling nonsense in Los Angeles. As soon as he hits unrestricted free agency, he signs with his hometown Thunder. He and Davis take the 2013-14 Thunder to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the SuperSonics in five games.
Since the Clippers become hotter garbage after Griffin leaves for the Thunder, nobody is paying attention to Sterling and he still owns the team today. While Howard Schultz still doesn’t want to take all that Starbucks money to build a better stadium in downtown Seattle, in comes a bidding war for the Sonics ownership: Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer vs. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Ballmer gets too fired up and spends a ridiculous $3 billion on the best team in basketball. He doesn’t have to commute to Los Angeles anymore and Bezos is a trillionaire by 2015.
Paul may not have a ring entering year-13 with the Hawks, but he is beloved by the Atlanta community and challenging Dominique Wilkins for the greatest Hawk of all time. A second Hawks statue in front of Philips Arena will be commissioned soon.
Tony Ressler would still buy the Hawks because Atlanta Spirit Group was an abomination of ownership groups (RIP Thrashers). Only this time, it costs Ressler close to $1.25 billion to own a slice of Atlanta hardwood real estate.
In short, Paul changes the fortunes of maybe as many as 12 NBA teams (Hawks, Hornets/Pelicans, Clippers, Lakers, Celtics, Rockets, SuperSonics/Thunder, etc.) if the Hawks just picked him at No. 2. But the gamble on Marvin Williams was made, and here we are: No Sonics basketball and no rings for Paul or The ATL.
Those are all sad things.