What if ... KG had landed in L.A.?
Consider the possibilities if Kevin Garnett had been traded to Lakers, not Celtics
A Garnett-Bryant combination would have oozed intensity on both ends of the floor
Boston would have been a playoff team, but its defense wouldn't be title-worthy
We all remember how it ended last June, the Celtics winning their 17th NBA championship, Paul Pierce brandishing the Finals MVP trophy, Doc Rivers with a silly smile and a sticky suit, Kevin Garnett essentially losing his marbles in the clamor and the confetti, and Kobe Bryant subdued, almost unresponsive at times, after a 39-point drubbing in Game 6.
We tend to forget, though, how it all began, nearly 12 months earlier. At least, that's when the initial trade rumors emerged, that Minnesota was seriously shopping Kevin Garnett and the Lakers were seriously interested. Team owners Jerry Buss and Glen Taylor talked about it, basketball bosses Mitch Kupchak and Kevin McHale talked about it, Bryant and Garnett most definitely talked about it.
But it stayed just that -- talk -- and McHale eventually went all Celtics pride on the L.A. team, sending Garnett instead to Boston and old pal Danny Ainge in a move that, as some saw it, should have earned the Timberwolves' vice president another championship ring. From that point, Bryant and Garnett were stuck on opposite sides of the NBA's most storied rivalry, one West, one East, purple and gold versus green and white, as far apart geographically and competitively as possible.
Had McHale zigged instead of zagged, had he bit on what many believed to be the Lakers' best offer -- center Andrew Bynum, forward Lamar Odom and a first-round pick -- Garnett would have been playing on Pacific time, Bryant might have been Finals MVP and the Lakers might have been hanging the 15th championship banner in franchise history (five in Minneapolis, the next nine in Los Angeles, then a 10th that deserved a real Minnesota asterisk). It might not have come down to McHale's decision at all; had Garnett dug in his heels and balked at Boston even after Ray Allen's arrival, he might have been commuting to practices and games from his beachfront home in Malibu.
The balance of power in the league might have shifted, not just Thursday night for the Lakers-Celtics game at the Garden but for seasons to come.
"That's a scary thought,'' Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said Wednesday. "It's no different from him teaming up with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. It's not guaranteed it's going to work. ... But I don't see why not. You've got two superstars who don't get in each other's way. They both want to win, and they both play at a high level every night. You've got a winning combination right there.''
Paul Shirley, the NBA fringe player, admitted contrarian, self-deprecating author and inveterate blogger, got swept up in the rumors at the time. Shirley knew Bryant and Garnett from the inside, having spent training camp with the Lakers in 2001 and with the Wolves in 2006. In a piece for Slate.com in June 2007, Shirley wrote, "The scenario might be plausible if everyone who's not on the Lakers' payroll lost his mind at the exact same moment.'' Shirley referred to the proposed tandem as "the most unstoppable pairing since He-Man and Battle Cat'' and added, "The resulting cauldron of intensity would be impressive to behold.''
No kidding. Remember how Bryant, in a notorious amateur video, called for the Lakers to "ship out'' Bynum? How Garnett, earlier this season, reduced Boston's Glen (Big Baby) Davis to tears -- without even trying? Teamed up, airing out other Lakers for a slipshod practice, they'd bring Jack Bauer back for Day 8. And make life even more miserable for 29 other teams.
Granted, this is a "what-if'' scenario. But it's a rather considerable one, affecting three, maybe even four teams directly and the other 26 or 27 indirectly. Rewinding the Garnett trade to Boston and replaying it in the Lakers' direction would dramatically alter the present and the futures of these franchises:
Minnesota: Suppose the Wolves had landed Bynum, Odom and the 19th pick in the 2007 draft (Javaris Crittenton). Odom likely would be gone by now. As an eight-year veteran, he wouldn't have fit into either Minnesota's rebuilding plan or its pay scale. Odom would have been the best player on the floor for this team in 2007-08, which isn't a good thing. Most coaches want him a little further down in their pecking order. Crittenton or whomever McHale drafted with that pick would have been inconsequential -- McHale's draft history argues that point rather persuasively.
As for Bynum, he probably wouldn't have developed as quickly with the Wolves, who wouldn't fund Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a tutor or others in L.A.'s vast support staff. And if he had suffered these knee injuries in consecutive seasons on their watch, he would be viewed as a Sam Bowie in the making for a mostly hapless, snakebit, flyover franchise.
Boston: All of the pieces sent to Minnesota -- Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff's expiring contract and two first-round picks -- would have stayed right in Beantown. Ainge would have acquired Allen but not Garnett; the Big Three last season would have been a Big Two. Jefferson might have been ready to build on his 2006-07, when he averaged 16.0 points and 11.0 rebounds. But there's no way he's getting up the 1,441 shots he took for Minnesota -- 343 more than Pierce last season, 455 more than Allen and 451 more than Garnett was accorded. So Big Al might have taken a half step had he stayed in Boston, not the giant stride he made as the Wolves' go-to guy and low-post beast.
The Celtics would have had Ratliff's contract to peddle and, most likely, Green to cut. Telfair might not have gotten in Rajon Rondo's way at point guard, and Gomes is a player who can help in any role. But with all due respect to assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, there is no way -- no way -- Boston's defensive culture changes without Garnett around to demand it, enforce it and demonstrate it in that one-man-zone way of his. And without that defense, last year's Celtics are not, well, last year's Celtics. They're a playoff team, but Cleveland probably gets by them in the East.
Memphis: This is the wild card. If Garnett goes to the Lakers, does Pau Gasol end up there, too? Hard to say. Instead of losing Bynum in January and feeling the need to replace him, L.A. would have been used to playing without him all along. Then again, without Odom, the team's frontcourt would have needed someone -- and it's unlikely that Kwame Brown would have reinvented himself playing next to Garnett. Besides, most of the pieces that the Lakers eventually sent to the Grizzlies still would have been available to ship: Brown, dusted-off Aaron McKie, some draft picks and the rights to Marc Gasol. They just would have had to plug someone into Crittenton's spot in the trade. Unless Ainge had pried Gasol loose for some of his surplus bodies.
Lakers: Let's say that Kupchak did swing the Gasol deal after all, at which point his club would have played the second half of last season, the entire postseason and so far in 2008-09 with its own Big Three of Bryant, Garnett and Gasol. That's nothing short of eye-popping, jaw-dropping and mind-reeling, a little lean up front but ridiculously skilled. Let's say that Garnett had made this team's defense his own, the way Bryant runs its offense, and the Lakers were the ones consistently clamping down on teams rather than Boston. Let's say, too, that Phil Jackson reached into his bag of tricks and came up with something on par with Rivers' ubuntu theme, while deploying Garnett in his triangle system at one end and as an extra-long attack dog in the tradition of Jordan and Pippen at the other.
What-if your way through all that and the Sliding Doors, road-not-taken conclusion seems pretty clear: The winner in the Garnett trade was going to end up with a ring. Bryant already would be, again, where he's trying to get. Pierce and Allen would be racing against the clock, the Cavaliers and the Magic. Bill Russell wouldn't have found a new soul mate. McHale would have a different pet project, once more on hold. And Ainge might be enjoying an endless string of tee times.
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