The most fun thing to do as a sports fan is to ask the question, "What if?"
As we enter the third installment of the Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers trilogy that may be the best thing going in sports -- and as we get nearer to the 2017 NBA Draft -- I'm applying that question to both of these teams.
What if ... the Cavs still had Andrew Wiggins? What if ... Stephen Curry never lasted until the seventh pick of the 2009 draft? What if ... Draymond Green never lasted until the 35th pick in 2012? How would the fortunes of the Cavaliers and Warriors -- as well as the fortunes of other franchises -- have changed with a few slightly different decisions on draft night?
Yes, I understand the butterfly effect. I understand that each of these things that happened had a ripple effect for other things that also happened in reality. But this is my alternate reality exercise, and here I make the rules.
What if: LeBron had never forced the Cavs to trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love?
Headline: "LeBron-led Cavs facing steep odds in Finals against Warriors in rubber match"
The alternate reality: What, you think replacing Love with Wiggins is really going to stop LeBron from making another Finals run? The headline would be exactly the same as it is now -- and I'd posit that the result of last year's Finals would have been the same as well. Wiggins certainly wouldn't have shot 41.4 percent from 3 and grabbed 8.8 rebounds per game throughout last year's playoffs like Love did. But remember: Love was utterly ineffective in last year's Finals against the Warriors. He didn't play in the Cavs' Game 3 win, and he averaged 6 points and 3.7 rebounds in the Cavs' final three wins. In this alternate reality, Wiggins beats Love's numbers in last year's playoffs, and his defense is a vast improvement on Love. (Since I'm the master of this alternate universe, I'm going to ignore that Wiggins would have zero shot at matching Love's output in 13 playoff games this season: 47.5 percent from 3, averaged 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds. Kept up through these Finals and that would make Love the first player in NBA history to average 10 rebounds per game, shoot better than 45 percent from deep and make at least 20 3s over an entire playoffs.) Having LeBron constantly browbeating him in practices and games made Wiggins a more consistent energy guy and a more tenacious defender. Sure, the Cavs won't have Love's 3-point shooting, but there actually isn't much difference between the two there: Wiggins shot 35.6 percent from deep this season, while Love shot 37.3 percent. Plus the Cavs gained one of the most insane athletes in the NBA. Only their rebounding suffered.
Insane 2017 NBA Finals Draft fact: Two NBA teams have more than one No. 1 pick on their roster. The Cavs have LeBron and Kyrie Irving, who accounted for 41.7 percent of the Cavs' total points during the 2016-17 regular season and 48.9 percent during these playoffs. And the Minnesota Timberwolves have Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, who accounted for 46.1 percent of the their total points scored during the 2016-17 regular season.
What if: Literally anyone else had taken Draymond Green in the 2012 NBA Draft before the Warriors were able to get the steal of the century by taking him 35th?
Headline: "Grizz Wiz: Can Grizzlies' historic defense upend Cavs' historic offense in Finals?"
The alternate reality: Instead of taking Tony Wroten with the 25th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies took Draymond Green, a move that would turn the Grindhouse into the home of one of the NBA's all-time great defensive teams. The Grizzlies' defensive efficiency rating of .943 was the best in a decade, and completely anomalous in this offense-first era. En route to the Finals the Grizz were able to zig when the rest of the NBA zagged because of a roster that includes two former NBA defensive players of the year (Green and Marc Gasol) and two all-defensive teamers (Mike Conley and Tony Allen).
Insane 2017 NBA Finals Draft fact: Eleven of the 34 players who were taken ahead of Draymond Green in the 2012 NBA Draft didn't play in NBA during the 2016-17 season: Kendall Marshall (D-League), Royce White (National Basketball League of Canada), Fab Melo (Brazilian league, then died in February), John Jenkins (D-League), Jared Cunningham (Chinese Basketball Association), Tony Wroten (D-League), Arnett Moultrie (Baloncesto Superior Nacional, the Puerto Rican professional league), Perry Jones (D-League), Marquis Teague (D-League), Jeffery Taylor (Spanish league), and Bernard James (French league). Additionally, Jared Sullinger played only sparingly for the Raptors and the D-League before being traded and waived at the end of the season.
Headline: "Threepeat? Record-setting Cavs aim for dynasty"
The alternate reality: The Cavs never had to trade for Kevin Love because they never needed to. They had a superstar in Kawhi, and they never were bad enough to get the top draft picks in 2013 and 2014 that could be parlayed into Love. Instead, one year after selecting both Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard, they hit another home run in taking rebounder extraordinaire Andre Drummond instead of Dion Waiters in the 2012 draft. When LeBron rejoined his hometown team after his stint with the Heat, he was taking up with a team that had already made the playoffs two years in a row. With LeBron, these alternate reality Cavs won two championships in a row against the Warriors. Upset that some pundits still wondered if the 73-win Warriors of 2015-16 were actually the better team than last year's Cavs, LeBron sat his team down at the beginning of this season and told them they would end that argument once and for all. And in 2016-17 the Cavs set the all-time NBA record with 74 regular-season wins.
Insane 2017 NBA Finals Draft fact: The Cavaliers' roster has six players selected in the top five in NBA drafts: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams, Deron Williams, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. The Warriors have only two: Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston.
What if: Steph Curry never lasted until the seventh pick of the 2009 NBA Draft?
Headline: "Minny-Magic: After ending Spurs' stranglehold on West, Timberwolves face Cavs in franchise's first Finals"
The alternate reality: Instead of picking Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn with the sixth pick in 2009, the Timberwolves selected Steph Curry. At first pundits doubted the idea of putting Curry and Ricky Rubio, selected with the fifth pick in the same draft, in the same backcourt. But Curry's emergence as a superstar eased the pressure on Rubio's subpar 3-point shooting, and Rubio became the top assist man in the league with the NBA's most dynamic backcourt. Two pieces of bad luck during the 2014-15 season -- an ankle injury to Curry that limited him to 17 games and a freak broken bone to Rubio that ends his season in the opener -- took what was supposed to be a promising Timberwolves season and put it in the gutter. But the bad luck turned into good luck as the Timberwolves tanked that season and gained the No. 1 pick in the draft, where they selected future superstar Karl-Anthony Towns. (Whatever, this is my alternate reality.) And with a perfectly healthy backcourt in 2016-17 (Rubio, Curry and emerging star Zach LaVine), the upstart Timberwolves ended the Spurs' streak of four consecutive Western Conference championships and are taking the NBA's most exciting brand of basketball to the Finals.
Insane 2017 NBA Finals Draft fact: Of players who have logged playoff minutes for each team, two Cavaliers were drafted by the Cavs and have spent their entire career with them: Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. The Warriors have six players with playoff minutes who were either drafted by the Warriors or who were acquired during or immediately after the draft: Draymond Green, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, James Michael McAdoo (signed as undrafted free agent), Damian Jones and Patrick McCaw (acquired by the Warriors in a draft-night trade).
What if: The Warriors never selected Klay Thompson as the 11th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft?
Headline: "How Butler and Draymond formed the perfect LeBron-killing weapon"
The alternate reality: Instead of taking Klay Thompson in 2011, the Warriors surprised the whole league by taking a little-hyped 21-year-old senior out of Marquette named Jimmy Butler. Nobody expected Butler to be picked so high, but it turned out the Warriors' scouting was once again spot on. Butler turned into a superstar alongside Steph Curry, and coach Steve Kerr used a combination of Butler and Green to do what few have been able to do in the playoffs: limit LeBron's effectiveness. When the Warriors won the title for the second time in a row in 2016, Butler and Green combined to hold a frustrated LeBron to fewer than 10 assists and 25 points in each of the six Finals games.
Insane 2017 NBA Finals Draft fact: Draymond Green was selected as the 35th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He's been an All-Star twice. Only one player in that draft has been to more All-Star Games as Green: No. 1 pick Anthony Davis. And the only two players drafted ahead of Green who have won NBA titles did so as Green's teammate: Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli.