I definitely have multiple fascinations and mini obsessions in my life. In this space here and in the space residing in the smooth casing of my skull I like to imagine how the NBA could be different and by different I mean in a plausible sense. I don’t mean I want to see how Dwight Howard would compete in a league with Hakeem, Ewing, David Robinson, Shaq, Alonzo Mourning, Mutombo, etc; although if my mind’s in the right place, I do like to imagine how players would overlap generations. But alas, today is about plausibility, disaster, fragility and mortality—but not in the literal sense on that last piece, more in a basketball sense.
A month or so ago, I explored the ongoing agonies of number one overall picks; a pick that’s had to endure what seems like an abnormal amount of injuries relative to the rest of the pro basketball playing universe. When injuries happen, it’s not just the players and the organization that suffer; but rather it’s a massive boulder being tossed in a kiddie pool and me and you, the fans and writers and hoop heads are the little kids sitting around in our swim trunks, wondering what we’re going to do now since the water’s all gone and that boulder simply can’t be moved—because we can’t, with all of our will power and technological advances, make Greg Oden get well soon. This business about number one overall picks having health issues is nothing more than a sad coincidence, but when the wheels in my mind start spinning, I begin to obsess, little by little, with possibilities, alternate realities, the what could’ve been and that’s how I arrived at the post today. My mini obsessions take hold in daily emails to friends of hoop, take root in my mind, are validated through Basketball-reference.com’s encyclopedia of NBA information and finally flushed out here in some polished format … or not depending on your definition of “polish.”
Today, I’m exploring the impact bad luck or bad genes (it’s something bad) have had on all of us as basketball fans and the course of the league as a whole. I’m not making a case for butterfly effect theory on an NBA level, but rather investigating the massive ripples stemming from the painful belly flop of a few of our brighter, yet possibly cursed, stars:
Besides being ridiculously cluttered, the image above is somewhat functional. It tells the story of six men, six men blessed with unique combinations of size and athleticism who proved, at varying degrees, that they not only belonged in the NBA, but could actually thrive (and some may still thrive) as faces of franchises. These are all stars and guys who could’ve given induction speeches in Springfield in some kind of strange future, but instead they’ve danced with pain and lost. Some have given up, while others keep at it with mixed motivations of love, need, pride and stubbornness. No one’s here to judge the reasons of the retired or the motivations of the mad, but just to stroke our wise basketball beards and wonder what could’ve been, what we lost:
Andrew Bynum: Bynum, like Eric Gordon, is less tragic than the other members of the All Pain team because he’s younger. But his youth doesn’t take away from his injury-prone lower body which has been plagued by floating kneecaps, dislocations, surgeries, injections and probably crueler fates that we haven’t heard about (alien dissections, anyone?). Bynum’s highly decorated with rings, All NBA (2nd team) honors and an all-star appearance, but descriptions of his NBA existence or his immense potential are prefaced with references to his oft-injured body and missed games; a preface Philly fans likely precede with a “See, told ya so.” The Atlantic Division with Boston, the new-look Knicks and Nets and a Bynum-led Sixers squad should’ve been one of the more competitive divisions in the NBA this season; instead it’s all about New York and Brooklyn while the other three teams bore us with their flat storylines (no offense as in I didn’t mean to offend, not a reference to basketball scoring ability). And the tragedy here doesn’t end at the city limits of Philadelphia. It stretches across the country to Los Angeles where Jim Buss is likely still shedding tears over Bynum’s departure. It looms like an afro-wearing shroud over a league bereft of talented big men. What does health mean to Andrew Bynum? Would he still be in LA? Would he be dominating an Eastern Conference that has no answer for his 22 points/game and 12 rebounds/game? Will we ever know or will we all be swallowed in Bynum-less lament?
- Do the Lakers trade a healthy Bynum? If no, then this Lakers team looks the same, but with Bynum instead of Howard. Not sure that solves their problems though.
- No Dwight in Los Angeles means the dominoes fall in a different direction; one that I can’t possibly be expected to imagine since four franchises were involved.
- And of course, Doug Collins agrees Bynum’s healthy presence would change things in Philadelphia, the Atlantic and the East.
Brandon Roy: I remember watching Roy at the University of Washington. He patiently waited his turn while more extroverted personalities like Nate Robinson’s shaped the team. But he waited and in his senior year, I recall seeing a kid possessed of absolute control, both physical and mental, whose game flowed like water, contorting himself to whatever the situation required, coolly flowing in waves or droplets—depending what look the opposition presented. He arrived as a pro in Portland with the same composure and pace. He spoke softly and was capable of the always-enjoyable “quiet” 35-40 point night. Genetics or fates weren’t having it though and young Roy’s knees began to deteriorate, or perhaps disintegrate is a more appropriate term (or perhaps someone injected his knees with cartilage-corroding acid), at the tender age of 24-25 and eventually resulted in retirement at 27 only to attempt a comeback this year at 28—a comeback with Minnesota that’s sadly been marred by more knee issues. But what could’ve been in Portland if Roy had been gifted with health instead of chronic pain? Stretch your imagination like one of those physical therapy rubber bands … pull it, stretch it and think of a Portland team starting Roy at the two (and don’t forget, he was a three-time all-star by age 25), Batum at three, Aldridge at four and a defensive anchor in Oden (more on him below) at five. Alas, my tears are dripping on the keyboard and it’s not because I have a Pacific Northwestern loyalty to the Blazers, but because as an NBA fan, I want a chance to witness what should be and what should be is the team I just described; instead it’s LaMarcus running with Wes Matthews and JJ Hickson.
- A title-contending nightmare in Portland with Oden, Aldridge and Batum
- No Damian Lillard in the Rose Garden—because of course they never end up with that pick; unless the Nets are feeling generous all over again.
- A Pacific coast rivalry with the Lakers: Roy vs. Kobe, Oden vs. Bynum
Eric Gordon: He’s back and since I built out the graphic a couple weeks ago, it doesn’t accurately reflect the fact that Gordon has actually appeared in games this season after curious rumors about microfracture surgery never came to fruition. He’s never made an all-star game or the playoffs, but he’s undeniably talented. At 6’3”, 220lbs, he’s the NBA’s answer to Earl Campbell; a battering ram of a two-guard with a smooth stroke that looks like it was crafted by the basketball gods of the Hoosier State. Three years into the league and the 23-year-old Indiana native was scoring 22/game and well on his way to something exciting, something special, some kind of explosive basketball device tucked in a compact package of muscle and talent. Of course, that was until he started breaking down with an assortment knee and wrist injuries. Gordon’s the youngest player on this list at 24-years-old which means he has the greatest opportunity to right any wrongs attributed to faulty genetics or mutations. In Gordon, New Orleans trusts and prays.
- If he’s a healthy all-star guard, do the Clippers send him to New Orleans in 2011?
- If the Clippers pass on the CP3 trade, then they move forward with Blake Griffin and Gordon at their core and Lob City becomes nothing more than the Lost City of Atlantis; an unverified utopia that gains beauty as time passes.
- No Clippers-Hornets trade throws a wrench in the league’s attempts to sell the New Orleans franchise and puts David Stern in a tighter spot after he became inexplicably involved in the CP3-to-Lakers trade veto. Like the Dwight scenario above, there are too many possibilities to explore.
- A healthy Gordon in 2011-12 (he played in just nine games) means the Hornets likely finish with a better record which means the Hornets don’t luck into Anthony Davis which means Davis likely ends up somewhere like Charlotte—a city desperate for a pro basketball savior. Instead they’re suddenly a tandem in New Orleans and David Stern is … well, I don’t know, but it feels like Stern’s name should be mentioned.
Gilbert Arenas: Over a three-season span at what appeared to be extremely near his prime (or anyone’s prime), Arenas had point averages of 25.5, 29.3 and 28.4. Over that span he scored 6,489 points in the regular season and scored 34/game in the 2006 playoffs while playing 47 minutes/game in that first round series. At the peak (this is an assumed peak because after the injuries was downhill, but it’s OK to wonder if he could’ve gotten even better) of his career, his primary rival was LeBron, he scored 61 in LA against Kobe and was the king of all that is swag in the NBA. And then all the weight of those self-created expectations collapsed inward and took him with it, robbing Gilbert of his all-important swag and once that was gone, it was time to move on (to China). It started with a torn meniscus and ended with a gun suspension. For a player of Gilbert’s showman caliber, it’s not that big of a surprise that things devolved the way they did. He could only be a comet; never meant for longevity, but given his upward trend and relative youth at the time of his meniscus injury (25), it’s appropriate to wonder where Arenas could’ve taken the Wizards or his own career. Could he have been a 30-point-per-night scorer? Would he have had an existence comparable to Dominique Wilkins? Or would he have gone the other route and provoked Javaris Crittendon into killing him?
- Five more years of oodles of points, threes, clutch buckets and quotes that beg for attention. If he played 70+ games/season, it’s likely we’d just now be entering the downward arc of his career—he just turned 31 two days ago! Please consider this when you see the Wizards leaning so heavily on Jordan Crawford and Bradley Beal (nice shot last night, kiddo).
- No bad meniscus means no John Wall means John Wall’s somewhere else.
- Of the nightmarish variety; with the cast of characters this Wizards team employed, it’s not hard to imagine a prank gone terribly wrong and resulting in death or dismemberment.
- The course of the Eastern Conference might not be altered with a healthy Arenas, but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining.
Greg Oden: It’s hard to dive as deeply into the pool of Oden’s potential and possibility as it is the rest of these players simply because he’s endured more physical challenges and his broken body of work as a professional is a fraction of theirs. I included him on this list because any discussion of injury-prone players of the past twenty years must include him. The ceiling was high: He played a total of 82 games in the two seasons he appeared in Blazer games and shot 57% from the field while averaging 15pts, 12rebs and 2 blocks per 36 minutes over that pain stained stretch. Assuming the worst, that we saw Oden peak as a 22-year-old (highly unlikely), if he can produce 15 and 12 and change games on the defensive side of the ball, he’s a more offensive version of Tyson Chandler. We all missed out on this career and it’s truly tragedy in the greater theater of basketball.
- I mentioned the Roy/Aldridge/Batum/Oden Blazers above; a lineup that would challenge any team in the Western Conference and would likely have ended a in similar situation to OKC in being forced to move one of their primary producers because the cost would’ve been too great.
- The league would no longer have been dominated by a singular center and this would’ve been a good thing for Dwight for multiple reasons.
- It’s easy to forget Oden is only 24-years-old. We’d just be entering the beginning of his prime. And at this point, I can’t help but drive down to the Columbia River which sits at the border of Washington and Oregon and toss a single rose into the rushing water and watch it sail away into the depths of the Pacific Ocean and take some kind of poetic comfort in its fleeting beauty.
Yao Ming: Yao’s tale is sadder than Oden’s, but less mysterious. He proved himself as a dominant post in the NBA with that massive backside and lower body and his elite skill around the rim. He had better touch than his peers and learned how to use his size as a great advantage. We knew what he was capable of; we just didn’t get the opportunity to see it all the way through. Over the course of his first five seasons, Yao improved statistically every season and then at age 25, his body (mostly his feet) began to break down. Those feet just weren’t made to support a frame that big running, jumping and pounding on a hardwood floor 35 minutes a night for hundreds of games and eventually the feet rebelled without mercy; the bones cracked and fractured and simply gave out. His last full season was 2008-09 when he averaged ~20, 10 and 2 blocks. This was casual for Yao, but only one player in the league has been able to equal this consistency since and that’s Howard.
- His last full season was 2008-09, so that’s three-plus years we’ve missed out on Yao delivering fits in the form of 30s and 10s to the rest of the Western Conference.
- In this re-imagined West where bigs stalk the paint, demanding respect and instilling fear, the game is altered and while it’s still a guard’s league, the Lakers, Blazers and Rockets each has an oversized weapon with which to do battle.
- If Yao’s healthy, Daryl Morey’s still going to be Daryl Morey which means he’s still going to make ballsy moves, moves that I can’t possibly predict, but it’s safe to say the Rockets would have a radically different roster today—no Jeremy Lin, James Harden or Royce White.
- Thanks to the China voting bloc, Yao would’ve continued to represent the West in the All Star game; whether he earned it or not.
This entire post has been built in a combination of facts and speculation and assumptions on what could’ve been. There isn’t any extra effort here to apply advanced forecasting models to project what kind of numbers these players could’ve achieved or how many wins they could contribute over players who replaced them. I thought about including Jay Williams and a case can be made for Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Steve Francis, Penny Hardaway, but I decided Williams’s career was too short and not as impressive as Oden’s, McGrady wasn’t racked/cursed in the fashion of the players above, Hill and Penny came too early and I just thought about Francis while I’ve been writing. Additionally, it’s a creepy coincidence how some of these guys have played together and single franchises and fan bases have lived through the agonies right alongside the players (condolences go to Houston, Orlando and Portland)—and often felt the pain even more deeply than the men sustaining these future-ravaging injuries.
Injuries always have and always will be a course-altering part of sports. It’s a death of sorts for all athletes and one of the greatest obstacles preventing athletes from realizing potential. I’m not making a case to the AMA or the league’s doctors and trainers to do a better job of injury prevention, but rather taking this long moment to acknowledge the unfair impacts injuries have on the league while considering how our world of basketball could’ve (plausibly) been a different place.
Original photo by Richard P. Fennimore
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I don’t know if it falls in quite the same category, but I also think of the lost career of Jay Williams, out of Duke. His rookie campaign wasn’t overwhelming, but he had all the tools, and I think he’d be a top 5 point guard in the league right now but for the accident.
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