NBA: Top 10 ‘What ifs’ from the 2010s

NBA Oklahoma City Thunder James Harden #13, Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
NBA Oklahoma City Thunder James Harden #13, Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /
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NBA Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

5. What if the Sixers ride out “the Process” fully?

Sam Hinkie was never actually fired as General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, but he might as well have been. The writing was on the wall as soon as Jerry Colangelo found his way on to the Sixers’ front office in December 2015, with many speculating the role that Adam Silver played in this.

So what if the Colangelos never barged in on the party and Hinkie was left to see his vision play out? Let’s assume that Hinkie is still with the Sixers to this day. Everything up to the 2017 offseason goes pretty much the same, except for the disastrous Gerald Henderson and Jerryd Bayless contracts.

The 2017 draft is where things start to go haywire. While I cannot pretend to know Sam Hinkie’s thoughts on Markelle Fultz and the other top prospects, I find it hard to believe that he would part with the fabled Lakers/Kings pick just to move up two slots. Danny Ainge made his feelings on Fultz (and Ball) known with his bold move, so we can assume that he still finds a way to move down. Guess who else was looking for a long-term answer at point guard? The Phoenix Suns!

With the Suns rumored to be enamored with UCLA standout Lonzo Ball, Ainge finds a way to swindle them into giving them the 2021 Miami pick to move up to No. 1. Here’s how the new top-4 plays out: 1) Lonzo Ball (Suns) 2) Markelle Fultz (Lakers) 3) Josh Jackson (76ers) 4) Jayson Tatum (Celtics). Fultz was the consensus number-one pick, so although it is said that Magic Johnson was high on De’Aaron Fox, they end up going with him. Since Sam Hinkie never exactly shied away from picking toolsy guys who cannot shoot, Jackson lands in Philly. And of course, Danny Ainge wins again.

Push comes to shove, does Sam Hinkie finally sign veterans in the summer of 2017? This is four straight seasons of bottoming out after all, and J.J. Redick/Amir Johnson really helped the Sixers. It is an interesting question, but I lean towards no. Hinkie was a cold, cold decision-maker with pretty much no regard for the human elements of the league, which was ultimately his downfall. The 2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers manage to sneak into the playoffs (not exactly a high bar to climb in the Eastern Conference), on the back of a late-winning streak led by Ben Simmons sans Embiid.

With Embiid hitting restricted free agency, Hinkie balks at the opportunity to sign him to a max contract given his injury concerns and fit issues with Ben Simmons. Hinkie also views the late-season run as a glimpse into what a Simmons-led team could look like. That summer he signs and trades Embiid to the Sacramento Kings for the number-two overall pick (still Marvin Bagley), Buddy Hield, and a future first-round pick.

So what does the present-day NBA look like? The 76ers core of Ben Simmons/Marvin Bagley/Dario Saric/Robert Covington/Buddy Hield is a solid playoff team (and still has stylistic identity questions), with Sam Hinkie still searching for a second star to propel the team to championship contention. Markelle Fultz blossoms outside of the seemingly voodooed Philadelphia ecosystem.

With Fultz on his way to stardom, Los Angeles is willing to put its other prized young piece, Brandon Ingram, on the table in big-name trades. While Gregg Popovich still does not relent in a Kawhi Leonard deal, the Lakers manage to acquire Anthony Davis six months earlier in this reality for Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and picks.

The 2018-19 Lakers make it to the NBA Finals, but lose to the Toronto Raptors in seven games. Kevin Durant never tears his Achilles, and the 2020 Brooklyn Nets are Finals co-favorites with the Clippers and Lakers. The Phoenix Suns are still rebuilding, but having Lonzo Ball instead of Josh Jackson these past few years pushes them much closer to respectability.