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The Any-Other-Year NBA Free Agents

What if Pau Gasol had joined the Spurs in 2009?

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

In any other year, Pau Gasol agreeing to sign with the San Antonio Spurs would be huge news. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect pairing of player and system. Gasol’s point-center passing skills fit perfectly with San Antonio’s ethos. A frontcourt of Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kawhi Leonard should scare the hell out of the league. Alas, Gasol is 36 years old — a little past his prime — and the Spurs put this team together in the summer the Warriors broke basketball.

This made us wonder: What would have been the perfect year for some of this offseason’s signings to have happened — both for the player and the team they were joining?

Pau Gasol

What if he had joined the Spurs in 2008–09?

Gasol agreed to terms with the Spurs this week, but it looks like he’s coming just as Tim Duncan is walking out the door. So what would have happened if the two had played together in their primes? If the Spurs, rather than the Lakers, had acquired Gasol in 2008? If you look at San Antonio’s history, one of the primary reasons they had a long dip in titles between 2007 and 2014 is that they were never able to find a suitable frontcourt partner for Duncan once Robert Horry got old. They were running out DaJuan Blair and Matt Bonner for years. Put Gasol in that spot and you have Twin Towers 2.0. A frontcourt with those two 7-footers would have run roughshod over the pre-space-and-pace league, and that’s before you account for prime Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. In all likelihood, we’d be talking about Duncan as the next Bill Russell. — Jonathan Tjarks

Joe Johnson

What if he had joined the Utah Jazz in 2011–12?

The last time the Jazz made the postseason was in 2012, a season shortened by a lockout. Paul Millsap was still on the team, and DeMarre Carroll was largely a benchwarmer who couldn’t get minutes over a rehabilitating Jamaal Tinsley. The Jazz were basically a sad incubator for the future Atlanta Hawks (then–Jazz starting point guard Devin Harris played for the Hawks the following season). They could’ve used an actual Hawk then.

It’s really a shame that this union of Joe Johnson and Utah is happening five years too late. Outside of a prime Big Al Jefferson, the 2012 Jazz were devoid of offensive options in their playoff series against the Spurs, who looked like the best team in the league. The Jazz were able to score over 90 points only once during the four games (they scored 91); the Spurs averaged more than eight 3-point makes per game, while the Jazz made nine for the entire series. Utah was a hopeless place, but you know what they say about hopeless places: That’s where you find love, and ISO Joe.

The 2011–12 version of Johnson was perhaps the final year of Joe Johnson: Star Player. It was his best 3-point-shooting season since his final year in Phoenix. His usage had declined, though that wouldn’t have been a problem playing among a lackluster wing rotation (Gordon Hayward was in his sophomore season, not yet realizing he was in the midst of a breakthrough). Yes, give Joe all the possessions he can handle. Yes, give him and Al Jefferson complete license to play on their respective islands. This still leaves the issue of them playing against the Spurs, but watching those two bludgeon San Antonio for one playoff game before getting eliminated would have been worth everything. — Danny Chau

Al Jefferson

What if he had joined the Indiana Pacers in 2013–14?

Despite taking the Miami Heat to six games in the Eastern Conference finals, I would not say that this Pacers season ended well. Evan Turner (who had been acquired at the trade deadline, along with Lavoy Allen, for Danny Granger) got into a fistfight with Lance Stephenson right as the postseason was beginning, and the Indy dream sort of died right there, along with Roy Hibbert’s usefulness.

Larry Bird gambled on team chemistry, bringing in pre-folk-hero Turner for … playmaking, I guess. But what if Larry had thought bigger? Much bigger?

2013–14 Al Jefferson was an all-you-can-eat buffet of baby hooks and drop steps. The Pacers wanted to slow things down against Miami. Big Al would have taken them into bullet time. If you would have cracked his game open, molasses would’ve dripped out. Did he play defense with the focus and intensity that characterized the Pacers of that era?

Look, everything is a matter of perspective. Jefferson went down with plantar fasciitis in the playoffs that season. But before that, he won Eastern Conference Player of the Month in March and April, and ended the regular season with a 22.75 PER. Sharing time with Hibbert and David West, Jefferson would have given the Pacers frontcourt a significant offensive punch. If Big Al stays healthy, maybe they beat the Heat and get the Finals berth that eluded that squad for years. — Chris Ryan

Brandon Jennings

What if he had joined the Knicks in 2010–11?

Back in 2009, he dropped 55 points against Stephen Curry in the Bradley Center as a bright-eyed rookie who had bested the collegiate one-and-done model. What a time it was. What if the original face of the Under Armour brand had taken his talents to the Mecca and done these things in, say, 2010?

It wasn’t so long ago that Amar’e Stoudemire signed a five-year, $100 million deal with the Knicks and set the world on fire (for two months) at Madison Square Garden. Raymond Felton ran the offense and Stoudemire went on a run of nine straight games with 30-plus points. Despite Felton’s affinity for running Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense, the thought of Jennings at the point, helping with the scoring burden, playing alongside Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, is worth salivating over. Now, Jennings holds a one-year trial deal with James Dolan’s idea of a “superteam.” Times change quickly. — Tate Frazier

Rajon Rondo

What if he had joined the Chicago Bulls in 2012–13?

I was really tempted to put Rondo on the ’09-’10 Bulls, just to have the Rondo–Vinny Del Negro experience, but ’12-’13 makes so much more sense. Derrick Rose missed this entire season because of the brutal ACL injury he’d suffered in the 2012 playoffs. Rondo actually suffered a similar fate in January of the following season, but for the sake of argument/employing the butterfly effect, let’s think about him on this Bulls team. Rondo was a dime dealer this season, beginning with a run of 13 games in a row with double-digit assists (after closing the previous season with 24 straight such games). Are those numbers inflated because he hunted for them? Sure. Live a little, though: He would have filled the point guard void, and we would have gotten the joy of seeing him playing for Thibs and alongside double-double monster Joakim Noah and an emerging Jimmy Butler (who started showing signs of what he’d become in April and May of ’13). Would this team have made any jump shots? No. Would they be the savviest, grittiest, trolliest squad in the league? Yes. — C.R.

Andrew Bogut

What if he had joined the Dallas Mavericks in 2009–10?

In 2009, the Mavs had the makings of a championship team, save for one thing — a quality big. They already had a perennial star in Dirk Nowitzki, along with great shooters in Jason Terry and Caron Butler. Jason Kidd was playing captain, while Rick Carlisle concocted mad schemes in his laboratory. Not to mention that they had the best wing defender in the league in Shawn Marion. Oh, and for those who preach intangibles …

The problem with Dallas was its big-man spot. Brendan Haywood was a quality backup but never good enough to start. Instead, they had the expensive corpse of Erick Dampier out there getting torched for 23 minutes a game. Dallas managing to snag a 2-seed with Damp’s 14.0 PER is nothing short of a miracle. I’m not embellishing for effect. This was my generation’s feeding of the 5000.

Swap Damps out for 2009–10 Bogut, and the Mavs would’ve blown your mind harder than a Doc Rivers pitch meeting. Bogut averaged 15 and 10 along with 2.5 blocks a game and a PER of 20.7. There is zero doubt that the 2009–10 Mavs would’ve been light-years better with him. If you need proof, just look up the following year’s squad. All Dallas did was plug in a quality center, and out came the confetti. — Jason Gallagher