Playoff basketball is a wonderful thing and there is no better time than the postseason. The NBA’s elite are forced together for some of the most exciting match-ups the sport can offer.
San Antonio and Oklahoma City, Kawhi Leonard against Kevin Durant. Golden State against Damian Lillard and his Trail Blazers. The Hawks team against the star-studded Cavaliers. Miami and Dwyane Wade against Toronto, behind Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The association’s best teams and best players clash and we all love it.
But what if things could change? What if every team left in the NBA playoffs could reach back in time, pluck up any player that has played for them in the last ten years and put them into their current rotation?
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Considering both how good the player was at their peak and how good they were at the time, while ignoring salary issues, who would these teams pick and how much better would the playoffs be? From the Eastern Conference to the West, these are the choices of the eight teams competing for the NBA Championship.
Atlanta Hawks- Joe Johnson
The first thought here was DeMarre Carroll. He was an integral part of Atlanta’s best ever season last year but the Hawks aren’t really all that different now. Kent Bazemore has filled the role well and Atlanta has still managed to reach this stage. Besides, DeMarre’s defence was his best weapon and the Hawks’ defence has actually improved.
So, who else? It can only be Joe Johnson. During his time in Atlanta between 2005 and 2012, Johnson was a borderline star and earned a place in the All-NBA Third team. He may not have been a superstar but was close to being one.
He was an absolutely tremendous scorer and was consistent in doing so. His defence was not great but still solid enough and his team-play was similarly not great but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, for all of the criticism about his contract, Joe is the sixth top scorer and assister in franchise history. He is also among Atlanta’s top players in terms of minutes played, usage percentage and offensive win shares.
Today, Atlanta do not have a particularly consistent offensive presence from the backcourt and Johnson, either as a small forward or a shooting guard would be a huge help. For five of his seven seasons in Georgia, Johnson averaged 20 points or more.
No Hawk has done that in either of the past two seasons and that offensive power could lift a solid Atlanta roster into the upper echelons. With a starting five of Jeff Teague, Bazemore, Johnson, Paul Millsap and Al Horford with Dennis Schroder and Kyle Korver among a terrific bench, the Hawks would have a chance to go much further.
Indeed, this could have become reality when the 34-year-old was bought out by the Brooklyn Nets, even if he is not the player he was back then. Johnson and Atlanta. What could have been?
Cleveland Cavaliers- Shaquille O’Neal
This was a tough one. Two of Cleveland’s best players of the last decade, King James and Mo Williams, have re-joined them and current players Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love take some beating. That led to two players with wildly different name lengths: Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
For as good as Ilgauskas might have been for the Cavs - with his number 11 jersey retired and being the team leader in games, rebounds, and blocks - Shaq had more to his game. Ilgauskas was a solid rebounder, inside scorer and blocker but the Diesel is one of the greatest players of all time.
Of course, it feels like a cop out because Shaq only played 53 games in one season with the Cavs, but this is Shaq.
Imagine a starting five of Kyrie, Iman Shumpert, LeBron, Love and Shaq. Wow. Can a roster have too many stars? Shaq would operate in the paint with Love on the outside.
Kyrie would add a terrific offensive spark from the point with Shumpert adding a hustle game. LeBron would be LeBron and glue it all together and literally do everything.
Shaq may have been in the tail end of his career and, in fact, suggested he “didn’t have to do anything” when playing with LeBron, but what if Shaq was in his prime? Think about that. Peak Shaq and peak LeBron. Now wipe your mouth, you’re dribbling.
Miami Heat- LeBron James.
Talking about LeBron. Does any more need to be said here? The King makes any team a contender and Miami must look back fondly on the days when the American Airlines Arena was graced by said king.
As our own Alastair Davidson wrote: “With the Big Three intact, a deep playoff run had become a near certainty. Now, without the safety blanket of a once-in-a-generation player like James, uncertainty prevailed.”
LeBron is LeBron. Any team that has had him would want him back.
Toronto Raptors- Chris Bosh
Sticking with the Heat, Chris Bosh is the player that the Toronto franchise would want back. There was no need to think about this one. Bosh made his name with the Raptors and led the franchise for many years, taking that mantle off of the legendary shoulders of Vince Carter.
This one really does not take much explaining but has one of the biggest upsides. Bosh is a tremendous big man and offers something completely different to current Toronto big man Jonas Valanciunas.
While the Lithuanian operates solely in the paint and DeMar DeRozan drives to the basket, Bosh offers a threat from deep and from the corners. With such a good spot-up shooter on the perimeter, the opposition defence will always be stretched out of their comfort zone. They cannot collapse to defend the paint against DeRozan and Valanciunas because they can then simply kick it out to Lowry or DeRozan and the threat of their offence remains.
Bosh might be the greatest player in Toronto history. He is their all-time leader in rebounds, points, and blocks. He is even second in their all-time Player Efficiency Rating (PER). But best of all, Bosh fits the team like a glove.
He would make them so much better and, at the power forward, fill a spot on the roster that could be a weakness. It really does seem that this addition could be one that made the Raptors a genuine championship contender. Lowry, DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Bosh, and Valunciunas - that would have to be one of the strongest rosters in the league.
Maybe one day this will happen. For now, let’s just hope that Chris Bosh manages to get past his current injuries.
Golden State Warriors- A healthy Steph Curry
This is both the easiest and the hardest at the same time. The current Warriors roster is, without doubt, the best they have had in the past decade. There is not one player they would even consider having instead of Steph, Klay or Dray and players like Festus Ezeli, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut supplement the trio for a roster capable of having the best season of all time. Kent Bazemore would give them better roster depth and David Lee was a solid paint player but they would be rather small impact changes in comparison to what is left.
Kent Bazemore would give them better roster depth and David Lee was a solid paint player but they would be rather small impact changes in comparison to what is left.
All that comes to mind is a completely fit Chef Curry. Don’t get me wrong, the Warriors are fine without him but having the reigning MVP and MVP-in-waiting to lead them would definitely make these Warriors better.
His unlimited range offence, playmaking, and steals are comfortably among the best in the league and everyone knows it. He is changing the game and setting all kinds of trends with players and fans of all ages. It is hard to say anything about Steph that hasn’t already been said so I’ll just say this: Curry is the best shooter of all time.
Oklahoma City Thunder- James Harden
If the Thunder could have their pick of anything to undo in the past decade, it is pretty clear that it would be letting James Harden go. Times are tough in Houston, though, thanks in no small part to Harden’s lack of leadership. Shaq has called the Beard out for this, criticising that “he doesn’t lead by example” and “has no leadership skills.” Harden’s defence is equally diabolical and he is, without doubt, a flawed player.
He is, however, arguably one of the association’s top five. He scores well, passes well and finished second in last year’s MVP race, although he argued that he deserved to take the award home, as he told NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury.
“I'm not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me.”
Maybe that’s true. The Rockets finished second in the West last year thanks almost solely to Harden’s efforts and some would say that his performances were that of a player who was the most valuable to his team.
Now imagine Harden with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. With them, he would not need to be the leader. Could any team in the league defend against a trio of KD, Russ and Harden while giving other threats like Serge Ibaka and Enis Kanter the respectable coverage they deserve? No. Each of those three can change a game and each of them can win a game for their team. It is a tantalising trio that we should be bitter the Thunder management stopped us from seeing.
With Harden, the Thunder would be a championship contender and you’d have a hard time arguing that said trio wouldn’t lead their team to ring at some point. It might not be the weak point of their team or their biggest need, but the Oklahoma City Thunder would snatch Harden back in a heartbeat. Considering what they pay players like Kanter, they must be kicking themselves for not signing James Harden to the max contract he wanted.
Portland Trail Blazers- Nicolas Batum
One player rushes to mind for the Portland Trail Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge was one of the faces of their franchise as a prolific scorer and rebounder from the four. So the Trail Blazers take back Aldridge, right? Nope.
Portland takes back Nic Batum. Aldridge’s offence has been completely replaced by the Most Improved Player, C.J. McCollum, and his rebounding replaced by Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee. Batum’s contributions, as it turns out, have been harder to replace.
Although Batum was a very capable three-point shooter and third option on offence, it is his defence and overall versatility that the Blazers would want back. Al-Farouq Aminu has done what he can to fill the Batum-sized void but there can be no doubt that Nic would do it better.
His defence and size means he could guard any player between a point guard and a power forward and with Damian Lillard and McCollum as the guards, Portland needs that defensive flexibility. On top of that, Batum can also pass and rebound like few other small forwards.
Is it a coincidence that the Hornets came good the first season they had Batum on their roster? Maybe, but he definitely helped unlock the team and Kemba Walker’s potential. Aldridge is the better player, but Batum fits better into Portland’s system and he is definitely the player they need more.
San Antonio Spurs- George Hill
Finally, the San Antonio Spurs would definitely take back point guard George Hill. The Spurs do not come close to regretting let Hill go, as Kawhi Leonard was the reward, but Hill, unable to dethrone Tony Parker as a starter, would be a very serviceable member of the rotation on what is already a tremendous team.
His contrasting abilities to be both effective off the ball and to run the floor make him an almost unique player and few would argue that George would not be an upgrade on the ever-inconsistent Patty Mills. The Australian is hardly a weakness but Hill would be better.
Hill has been an integral piece of Indiana’s team for some time and his undemanding role has helped Paul George blossom into the all-talented baller that he is. That low ego and quiet efficiency would make Hill a good fit for the Spurs system, which he would obviously be familiar with.
Having Hill to play as a point or a shooting guard on their rotation would give the Spurs almost unparalleled depth as Popovich and Duncan chase their sixth NBA title.
One thing is for sure, all of these would pull their respective teams closer to an NBA championship.