We are months removed from a months-long NBA layoff, facing months more without basketball. Almost a year and a half will pass between free-agency periods. In the coming weeks, we will spend ample time imagining what now lies ahead for the league’s 30 teams. But we’ve earned our fun, so join us as we first reimagine some of this century’s pivotal moments in a series we’re going to call Alternate NBA Endings.
There is some contention as to whether then-Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers’ policy against wives and girlfriends on the team plane led to Tim Duncan’s decision to return to the San Antonio Spurs, but he was “real close” to forming the NBA’s first free-agency super-team with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in 2000.
“If Duncan comes here, it will be scary,” McGrady told reporters when Duncan was still in play. “[...] It will be unfair to the league if all three of us come here. We have the East. We’ll be playing the Lakers for years.”
The Magic wooed the 24-year-old Duncan with all things Orlando, from private access to Walt Disney World to a golfing demonstration with Tiger Woods, and it nearly worked. Rivers still believes it was former Magic general manager John Gabriel’s failure to seal the deal prior to Duncan’s final meeting with the Spurs — and not his then-girlfriend and now-ex-wife’s opposition to team policy — that cost them a dynasty. Instead, David Robinson flew home early from his Hawaiian vacation and convinced Duncan to stay in San Antonio.
The rest was history. With one title already under his belt, Duncan won four more. He retired 16 years later, a lifelong Spur, an all-time great and the face of arguably the most successful franchise of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the Magic became a model of mediocrity. Hill repeatedly rushed back from his early 2000 ankle surgery in an attempt to save Orlando from a floundering start to his debut season, a development that ultimately cost him all but 47 games in his first four years with the franchise. Tracy McGrady never escaped the first round alone, and just four years later he left at age 25 as the reigning two-time scoring champion.
But what if Duncan had joined the Magic? What if Hill took his time returning from ankle surgery, confident his two co-stars could secure a playoff spot without him, and rejoined the team later in 2001 for a title run?
Tim Duncan’s alternate ending
Would Duncan have five rings if he joined the Magic? Maybe not. But in a world where Hill and McGrady stay healthy, it certainly seems plausible. If you gave me an over/under of 2 1/2 titles, I would take the over.
Orlando had the No. 5 pick in 2000 and drafted Mike Miller, the 2001 Rookie of the Year and a sharpshooter who would have fit seamlessly in a lineup with Hill, McGrady and Duncan. They won 43 games and secured a No. 7 seed with no Duncan, barely any Hill and Darrell Armstrong serving as the second-leading scorer behind McGrady, thanks to a handful of seasoned veteran role players like the 32-year-old point guard.
In the following years, the Magic would have been the low-cost free-agent and buyout destination that subsequent super-teams became. A 39-year-old Patrick Ewing averaged 17 minutes off the bench for Orlando in the 2001 playoffs and may have won a ring. He would not have been the only aging star chasing a title after so many had been left at the altar by Michael Jordan. Maybe Duncan convinces the Magic not to make the horrendous November 2001 trade that sent Bo Outlaw and a 2002 first-round pick back to the Phoenix Suns (Orlando owned it from the 1999 Penny Hardaway trade) in a deal that returned Jud Buechler.
That pick? Orlando native Amar’e Stoudemire.
At the very least, the Magic dominate the East playoffs from 2001-03, when the conference sacrificed three of the worst finalists in recent memory (Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers and Jason Kidd’s New Jersey Nets) to the Los Angeles Lakers. Duncan lost to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in the 2001 and 2002 playoffs, before Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were significant contributors. With a healthy McGrady and Hill at his side, Duncan’s Magic would have battled Shaq’s Lakers to own the early part of the decade.
Is Duncan able to create the same culture in Orlando that kept the Spurs core together for so long? Do the 2004 Detroit Pistons get a ring if Duncan, McGrady and Hill are still jelling? Duncan won titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Without him, who emerges in the West, especially if Stoudemire never plays with Steve Nash on the Suns? Are we treated to multiple meetings of Duncan’s Magic and Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks?
Whatever the outcome, Duncan finds his path to all-time greatness, his No. 21 retired in the Amway Center.
Tracy McGrady’s alternate ending
McGrady had one of the most star-crossed careers in NBA history. He left Vince Carter’s shadow in Toronto for spotlights in Orlando and Houston, only to have his star partners — Hill and Yao Ming — suffer injury after injury. McGrady spent years carrying teams for 40 minutes a night and losing in the first round prior to injuries derailing his career before he turned 30. He still made seven All-NBA teams and the Hall of Fame.
His alternate universe with a healthy Duncan and Hill at his side is a question of all-time greatness. He might not have his two scoring titles, but he could have contended for championships for the entirety of the 2000s. If he takes titles away from Bryant in head-to-head showdowns, how differently do we view them?
Grant Hill’s alternate ending
No player may have had his career altered more by injury than Hill. It is hard to describe how high his ceiling felt before his ankle gave out in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. An All-Star every year in Detroit, he averaged a 22-8-6 in his first six seasons with the Pistons, at the same time an heir apparent to Jordan’s title as the most talented player in the game and a prototype of the playmaking wings that have come since.
In March 2009, when a reconstructed Hill was still working as a starter for a contending Suns team, Basketball Reference ran a statistical projection of what his career numbers might have looked like had he stayed healthy. They had him with more than 20,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists by age 36. The list of players to hit those marks: Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Havlicek and Oscar Robertson. That is the company he might have kept.
Throw a couple rings on that fire, and Hill is remembered as a legend, several levels higher than the Hall of Fame benchmark he hit before his ankle issues. The possibilities for Hill, McGrady and Duncan — all in their primes at full strength — could have bordered on Best Big Three in NBA history. As it was, Duncan worked his way into consideration for that list with Parker and Ginobili. Hill and McGrady had a shot to be better.
Dwight Howard’s alternate ending
We know the Magic would not be winning 21 games with that trio healthy in 2003-04, which means Orlando never wins the draft lottery and never selects Dwight Howard. The Chicago Bulls had the second-best lottery odds behind the Magic that season, meaning Howard could have been the fulcrum of a post-Jordan resurrection rather than Derrick Rose, so long as the Bulls did not pass on him in deference to Eddy Curry.
Maybe the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Bobcats or Los Angeles Clippers land Howard instead, altering the course of another wayward franchise for the rest of that decade. Either of the No. 1 overall selections of John Wall or Blake Griffin may have been impacted, or Charlotte might not have spent those three straight years drafting Emeka Okafor, Marvin Williams and Adam Morrison with consecutive top-three picks. Ouch.
What if re-juggled Ping Pong balls deliver Howard to Cleveland in 2004, one year after James went No. 1? Is there a team and coach that may have made Howard a more likable and effective superstar in his prime?
Regardless, Howard never takes the Magic to the 2009 Finals, which then would have opened the door for the Kobe-LeBron showdown we never got. The course of our current history is forever changed by Duncan.
Kawhi Leonard’s alternate ending
Are the Spurs even still in San Antonio without Duncan? The careers of Parker, Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich are entirely different, and that line extends to Kawhi Leonard, whose legacy was born in the Spurs culture Duncan molded and is still growing today. Does Leonard still rise from relative obscurity to stardom?
He is certainly not the 2014 Finals MVP in San Antonio and probably not the experienced playoff hero who led the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 title. That creates sliding doors for James’ Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors. Our entire NBA universe crumbles under the weight of decisions like Duncan’s in 2000.
The super-team fad’s alternate ending
As you can tell, we can go on and on about alternate endings for almost every post-Jordan superstar based on the Big Three that never was, but the biggest impact of a Duncan, Hill and McGrady partnership would have been expediting the current player empowerment era and igniting a super-team arms race even earlier.
Instead, it was Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston who led James to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. And that was the predecessor to Kevin Durant’s tenure in Golden State and the current iteration of the Lakers. If the Magic were the perennial threat the Heat became a decade later, do Shaq and Kobe figure out a way to mend their differences? Does a third star join them in his prime?
Does Mark Cuban pony up to keep Nash with Nowitzki in Dallas (or does Nash even leave if Stoudemire is not in Phoenix)? Is Kevin Garnett convinced he has to leave the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to 2007? Have Pierce and Allen already pushed their way out of Boston and Seattle by then? How long does Iverson stay in Philadelphia if the Sixers never reach the 2001 Finals? Same with Kidd and the Nets. Are stars of the early 2000s flocking to join James and the next generation of superstars by the middle of the decade?
And is Gabriel given the front-office mastermind moniker that we have since bestowed on Jerry West, Pat Riley and Bob Myers? Does Orlando, with a rich history of success in the Sunshine State, become the NBA destination that Miami is now? Would Shaq regret his decision to leave Orlando for L.A.? Are players taking their talents to the Butler Chain of Lakes? Does Duncan make Mickey Mouse-embroidered denim cool?
Apologies to Magic fans, for I have spent far too much time imagining a world where their franchise did not lose in the first round or miss the playoffs entirely in 21 of the last 24 years. This is not their Disney ending.
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