What if …
… The NBA’s age limit was implemented prior to the 2003 Draft instead of in 2006?
LeBron James signs a letter to play at an elite college program (rumors had him at Tobacco Road or Syracuse) instead of turning pro and setting the NBA on fire. His national profile would not have swelled the way it did, as the national media would have waited to see him perform on the college level the way they do for every Kentucky team. That means no “Chosen One” Sports Illustrated cover and no televised high school games. We would have a chance to identify greatness by ourselves as opposed to being told how great “The King” would someday be. This may sound like semantics, but think about it. How many “next Michael’s” have we been teased with? With a high school kid we are programmed to look for reasons why he will fail. But if we had the chance to Witness his play against the best college basketball had to offer, we would become appreciative of what we were watching, and excited for what this could mean for the NBA. The national perception surely would have been different, but how would the NBA as a league look?
Let’s start with the 2003 NBA draft, the one that is now LeBron-less. With few teams willing to select a foreign player they haven’t seen live, with the number one overall selection, Carmelo Anthony is drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He helps the team and makes them more entertaining, but his skill set simply doesn’t make those around him a whole lot better (especially not early in his career). The Cavs averaged 27 wins the four seasons previous to winning the 2003 lottery, and while their win total nears 50, they are never able to make a deep run in the defense oriented postseason with their one dimensional franchise centerpiece.
Darko Milicic is still drafted by the Detroit Pistons and has little impact. Even the most devoted LeBron haters can’t blame this missed pick on him, the Pistons just whiffed. After the first two selections, it is reasonable to think that every player in the lottery simply takes one step up the draft ladder.
With the third overall pick in the 2003 NBA Re-Draft, the Denver Nuggets select Chris Bosh.
With the fourth overall pick in the 2003 NBA Re-Draft, the Toronto Raptors select Dwyane Wade.
With the fifth overall pick in the 2003 NBA Re-Draft, the Miami Heat select Chris Kaman.
We will revisit these results shortly, as the trickledown effect has just begun. Let’s fast forward 365 days to the 2004 NBA draft. With the age limit in effect, a 19 year old monster of a man cannot leave his chemistry exam and go straight into the league. Instead, Dwight Howard signs to play with a marquee college. The college impact is something I am going to pass on, just too many variables, but is it out of the question that the school that landed LeBron begins a Kentucky-like run of one-and-done’s on their way to multiple titles? James loved the college experience, but declares that he is taking his talents to Florida.
With the first overall pick in the 2004 NBA Re-Draft, the Orlando Magic select LeBron James.
The Magic, as they did in the original 2004 draft, spend their second round selection on a Saint Joseph’s star in Jameer Nelson. The improvement is rapid, as James is even more groomed than he was coming out of high school. NOW he is given the hype. The state of Ohio loves him for his high school greatness; the state of his college appreciates what he did for them during his one season, and now Orlando is salivating for its future. That is three times the number of supporters that he had in real life, something that would help his fragile psyche in his early career (remember, he still cannot legally consume an alcoholic beverage).
His mindset is different, but the immediate success is the same. He leads Orlando deep into the playoffs every season, finally breaking through against the Lakers in the 2009 Finals. In the real NBA, Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to a five game series win over the Magic, averaging 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, and 5.6 rebounds. In the re-Draft NBA, Bryant finds the sledding a bit tougher, as his career averages in games against LeBron (24.8, 5.1, 5.1) are considerably lower. The Magic take this series in seven games, but more importantly, LeBron never feels the need to leave town and create a super team. Also, Wade and Bosh are forced to make their contractual decisions a year before James’ rookie deal expires. But the impact of the age limit rule is far from over.
With the first overall pick in the 2005 NBA re-Draft, the Milwaukee Bucks select Dwight Howard.
Another mammoth high schooler in Andrew Bynum is forced to play college ball, preventing the Lakers from nabbing a dominant big man. For argument’s sake let’s move every player drafted in the lottery down one spot, as a result of Howard occupying the top spot.
With the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NBA Re-Draft, the New Orleans Hornets select Deron Williams.
With the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NBA Re-Draft, the Charlotte Bobcats select Chris Paul.
The Hornets get an elite point guard either way, so it is safe to assume that their franchise (from this point forward) follows a similar path in the re-Draft NBA as in the real NBA. The Bobcats, however, land arguably the top point guard in the game for the next decade, a significant improvement over Raymond Felton. Drafting a stud point guard is nice, but the rewards tend to be long term. The Bobcats struggle initially without a consistent scorer to play alongside CP3 and end up in the lottery once again.
With the first overall pick in the 2006 NBA re-Draft, the Toronto Raptors select Andrew Bynum.
With a full college season (presumably a healthy season) under his belt, Bynum elevates himself from a solid pick to a can’t miss prospect. The Raptors have struggled despite the greatness of DWade, but by adding a reliable big man; convince him to stay north of the boarder. In fact, Canadian’s are so optimistic that they change Canada Day (typically observed on July 1) to Canada Week, beginning on June 28th, the day Bynum is drafted. To adjust for Bynum entering this draft, we will slide all members of the 2006 draft class down one spot.
With the third overall pick in the 2006 NBA Re-Draft, the Charlotte Bobcats select LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge joins a second year Emeka Okafor in a strong front line to play in front of Chris Paul. Needless to say, Michael Jordan’s investment in the Bobcats takes a drastically different turn. He is the majority owner of a competitive team and therefore doesn’t feel the need to dabble in player development. The addition of Aldridge is just as important as the player they didn’t draft: Adam Morrison.
The 2007-2008 season was monumental in the current NBA, as it was the introduction of the “Big Three” mentality. While the Celtics were successful, they fail to earn a ring thanks to the Magic who built their team through the draft. Fans everywhere denounce Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen as traitors, saying that the Magic did things the “right way”. Different names, but does this sound a little familiar? A hated Big Three playing against a loaded team that drafted well, hmmm …
Another big off-season in NBA history was that of 2010. With LeBron still under contract in Orlando, he has no Decision to make. Carmelo Anthony (Cleveland), Dwayne Wade (Toronto), and Chris Bosh (Denver) are all great talents with expiring contracts, but none of them play in a big time market that can handle a super team. Wade and James were friends before their teaming up, but Melo and Wade don’t have the same connection. The idea develops, but ultimately the failure of the Celtics to win a ring, and the resulting backlash, is too much for this trio to overlook.
The idea of an age limit was brought up much earlier than it was actually implemented, and this is one way the NBA landscape could have looked if the “one-and-done” rule had been applied pre-LeBron James. You may be tempted to think that just James or just the Cavs/Heat would be affected greatly by this rule change, but on top of altering numerous franchises, we are changing the legacy of the GOAT and lengthening a holiday. We could be looking at the most influential event that didn’t happen in the modern era of the NBA.