The current pandemic gripping Planet Earth has basically shut everything down. There are no sports — including the sport that we all love, professional basketball. (If you’re a loyal follower to Liberty Ballers, then you are a professional basketball lover.)
There are no NBA games being played and the Philadelphia 76ers were forced into a standstill. No one knows what’s going to happen to the 2019-20 season, so I’ve spent the last month or so in “reminisce mode” — the great “What If”.
Marvel Comics started a series in 1977 called “What If …”. The premise was simple. “What if ‘Thing X’ happened instead of ‘Thing Y’?” My personal favorite being “What If Spider-Man had Joined the ‘Fantastic Four’?”
(Seriously, I have so many questions. Does he take someone’s spot on the Fantastic Four? If so, whose does he take? Ok. Crap. Avoid nerd tangent, Adio! Let me get back on track.)
The Sixers have so many “What Ifs” in their long history. There are plenty in the almost 40 years I’ve been alive, and more than enough to really think about in the last 25 years or so (the formative years of my basketball-enjoying lifetime).
Since there aren’t any games going on right now, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of my favorite Sixers “What Ifs” and discuss them with Liberty Ballers Nation.
Let’s fire up the DeLorean and go back to June 24, 1998.
Johnny Davis was replaced as head coach by a gentleman named Larry Brown, and a young Allen Iverson was on a path that would later ascend him into Sixers royalty. The Sixers were coming off a 31-51 season, and Iverson averaged 22.0 points, 6.2 assists, and 2.2 steals per game in 39.4 minutes.
Iverson was a budding superstar, the Sixers had a new coach in Larry Brown, and Pat Croce was entering his second season as team president. The Sixers had the 8th overall pick in the draft, and they selected Larry Hughes out of the University of Saint Louis.
Hughes played one year at Saint Louis and averaged 20.5 points while shooting only 40 percent from the field. He was a 19-year-old kid that had a good amount of upside, so the pick to pair him with Iverson made a little sense. Looking at the next two picks brings me to possibly my second favorite Sixers “What If”:
What if the Philadelphia 76ers selected Paul Pierce instead of Larry Hughes?
Let me address the first question: Why Paul Pierce instead of Dirk Nowitzki — who was also taken in the ’98 Draft?
Prior to the ’98 Draft, the Sixers hadn’t drafted too many foreign players. They took three in 1987, and they did take Marko Milič in the ’97 NBA Draft. Was Nowitzki on the Sixers’ radar after putting up 33 points on 6-of-12 shooting, 14 rebounds and 3 steals in a Nike Hoop Summit Game? Maybe? Maybe not.
It would’ve been IMPOSSIBLE for the Sixers to not have Pierce on their radar, however. Pierce was a three-year starter for the University of Kansas who had improved every year he was with the Jayhawks. In his junior year, he led a Jayhawks team in scoring that went 35-4. That team lost to the University of Rhode Island team, 80-75. In the loss, Pierce had 23 points, shooting 9-of-19 from the field.
(Editor’s Note: Larry Brown revealed in 2015 that the Sixers had Pierce ranked as the second-best prospect in the draft. The Sixers chose Larry Hughes because Brown had promised Hughes the Sixers would take him if he was there with the eighth overall pick, and Brown stuck to his word. Come on, Larry. Hughes was making millions of dollars either way. He would have gotten over it.)
Pierce was a 6-foot-6, 230 pound forward that could play shooting guard as well. There was always the question surrounding Iverson, however — the team’s next superstar: could he play well with others?
In an ESPN piece written by Jeffrey Denberg, Johnny Davis (Iverson’s first coach) said this about Iverson’s relationship with Jerry Stackhouse:
They both did the same things. For Allen to be the point guard didn’t make sense, but with Jerry at shooting guard, where else could Allen play? We knew that had to be broken up, but the day Pat Croce walked into my office and said that he was going to make [a coaching] change, it was out of my hands.
Hughes was a nice pick because it would allow Iverson to play point guard, but what about Pierce? Pierce could have theoretically played either 2-guard or small forward. Going into the 1998-99 NBA season, the Sixers had the following wings at the 2 or 3 position:
- Aaron McKie
- Anthony Parker
- Tim Thomas
- George Lynch
Paul Pierce could have gotten significant minutes over at least Parker and Thomas, and he’d likely challenge for the starting spot over McKie or George Lynch. Listen, I love Eric Snow as much as the next person, but a back court of Iverson, Pierce, and Lynch/McKie is just too good not to fathom.
The next myth that has to be put to bed a little is the idea that “Larry Brown doesn’t play rookies”. With Hughes, Brown played him 19.8 minutes per game, which was just as much as Aaron McKie. Pierce would’ve gotten minutes under Larry Brown.
Let’s put Pierce on this roster. The ’99 NBA lockout put a halt to a full NBA season, but 50 games were played, and the Sixers went 28-22 and made the playoffs. Here’s where it gets tricky. Pierce started 47 of 48 games for the Boston Celtics and played 34.8 minutes in those games. Per 36 minutes, Pierce averaged 17.4 points in his rookie season. Assuming he gets “Larry Hughes amounts” of minutes, you’d probably cut that number in half or take that number down a little.
Is 12-to-14 points per game out of the realm of possibility for Pierce? That seems fair considering Hughes scored 9.1 in his rookie season, right?
The very next season was the Iverson breakout year:
70 games, 28.4 points per game, 24 field goals per game.
This is also where the timeline “skews into a tangent” as Emmitt Brown said in “Back to the Future 2”. There are two scenarios at play:
Pierce becomes part of the same package that lands the Sixers Toni Kukoč in February of 2000. (More on this further down the line.)
Pierce blossoms himself and becomes Iverson’s second in a young duo.
We know what happens in scenario one, so let’s go to the second. Let’s say Pierce blossoms in his second year with the Sixers the same way he did with the Celtics — not completely out of the realm of possibility. The Sixers went 49-33 in ’99-00, and with Pierce blossoming, they might have hit 50-plus wins. I still feel like they lose to the Indiana Pacers in the semis because Jalen Rose and Reggie Miller were on a tear during those playoffs.
So, going into the 2000-01 season, the Sixers have Iverson and a young, budding #2 in Pierce to go along with the rest of the roster (i.e. McKie, Lynch, etc.). You could argue that the Sixers would use Pierce as a piece to trade for a more veteran superstar, but in the 2000 offseason, I can’t think of what that name would have been?
Rose? Doubt it. They wouldn’t trade to get Stackhouse back because they tried Iverson/Stackhouse before. A big man? Chris Webber? Sacramento likely wouldn’t trade him. Rasheed Wallace? More likely, but again, does Portland part ways with the Philly native.
For the sake of keeping this simple, stupid (as my math teacher at Roman Catholic High School would say), let’s just say the Sixers keep Pierce on the roster. At the beginning of the year, this is what I think the starting lineup would have been:
- PG – Iverson
- SG – Pierce
- SF – George Lynch
- PF – Tyrone Hill
- C – Theo Ratliff
That’s a pretty damn solid starting five if I do say so myself. The first two guys off the bench would theoretically be Aaron McKie and Eric Snow. The first big off the bench is probably Matt Geiger — who if you watched the Stepover episode of “The Rewinder” is the reason why Allen Iverson is even still on the Sixers. (I’m serious. Matt Geiger. That’s a fact. Watch the video.)
The Sixers won 56 games in 2000-01. Does Pierce push that number to 60? Hard to say. I will say this. All-time, Pierce accounts for a 150.0 WS — meaning Pierce is attributed to an estimated 150 wins over his career (an average of 7.8 per year over his career). In 2000-01, he had a 10.4 WS with the Celtics. The math isn’t perfect, but with Iverson and Pierce, the Sixers likely get over 60 wins and might even push for 65.
The midseason is where it gets tough, because if you remember, Kukoč was part of the trade that brought Dikembe Mutumbo to the Sixers from the Atlanta Hawks. Without him, would the Sixers move Pierce to get him? I kinda doubt that. That means that the Sixers would be rolling into a playoff run with Geiger and Todd MacCulloch as the centers.
Doubling back to the question about the Sixers’ record, how many games do they lose with Geiger and MacCulloch as the centers versus Mutumbo? I still think they hit close to 60 games, but it’s likely something around 58.
Regardless of the regular season, don’t misunderstand the trade. Mutumbo was brought in to deal with Shaquille O’Neal in a potential NBA Finals match. Against the Indiana Pacers in round one, the Pacers didn’t have a talented enough big man to exploit the Sixers’ lack of a center. MAYBE Antonio Davis gives them a little trouble in round two, but that series was all about Iverson versus Vince Carter. (SIDE NOTE: With Pierce and Lynch as defenders on Carter instead of JUST George Lynch, Carter would have had to work a lot more to get good shots.)
The very same thing can be said about the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals: no elite big man to exploit a weakness. Glenn Robinson was the small forward for the Bucks, not the power forward. Similarly, would Ray Allen have gone as bonkers as he did in that series being guarded by Lynch and Pierce?
Here’s where it gets fun!
The 2001 NBA Finals. Sixers versus the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers won this series 4-1 after buzzsawing through the Western Conference. This is the ultimate question: Is this series different with a Sixers team led by Iverson AND Paul Pierce?
Here’s my theory.
I still think the Lakers win the series because it’s Shaq in his prime against a wounded Theo Ratliff, Matt Geiger, and Todd MacCulloch. What I believe is that it would NOT have been 4-1. It’s more likely 4-2 and maybe even 4-3 if you get another ridiculous offensive game from Iverson and/or one from Pierce. Every game will be super competitive until the final buzzer. Every. Single. One.
There are a lot of moving parts to this particular What If, but that’s why it’s my favorite. Drafting Pierce instead of Hughes gives Iverson a legitimate #2 scorer to run with who can play two-guard or small forward. The Sixers add another young wing defender to pair with the NBA steals leader and defensive ace George Lynch.
The Sixers never trade for Mutumbo, but in fairness, no one was beating that 2000-01 Lakers team. What comes after that year for the Sixers? The year after that, Iverson was in and out of the lineup with injuries. That could be the time where Pierce takes over and weathers the storm. The New Jersey Nets won the East that year, buuuuut with Iverson and a maturing Pierce, I don’t think New Jersey gets to the Finals — especially with a 100-percent-recovered Ratliff in the lineup.
Here’s the problem. I still don’t think they beat the Lakers in the ’02 NBA Finals, either, but the series would be way closer. That’s going seven. The Lakers don’t sweep the Sixers like they did the Nets.
Does a ’98 redraft giving the Sixers Paul Pierce produce a championship title for Iverson? In the end, probably not. In the early 2000s, Shaq was in his prime, and it would’ve been difficult to beat him. Pierce with Iverson would have made it really interesting, however, and it still presents us with one of the best “What Ifs” in Sixers lore.