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If You Could Change NBA History, Would You?

There’s only one rule: You can’t mess with championships

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Imagine it’s 50 years in the future. Imagine that, for whatever reason, there’s no more internet, no real way for anyone to search for what’s happened in the past, minus some very big and clunky books someone put together that only ever have a portion of the information on any given subject.

The books are hard to come by. They’re heralded, and almost religious texts by this point. Everyone in your village wants them. (By the way, you live in a village now.) So they’re safeguarded by the elders. Through luck and chance and good fortune, though, you get five minutes with them on your birthday. So you’re (very carefully) flipping through them and you see there’s an NBA section. (Yes!) Sadly, though, it’s very incomplete. (No!) It has the big things, like who won the championship in any given year and who the league MVP was in every season and who the all-time scoring and rebounding and steal and assist leaders were. But that’s it. There’s nothing else. It’s all gone. All that beautiful history has vanished into the ether.

If that’s the case, then let me ask you, a loving and serious NBA loyalist, a question: What are you going to lie about when you talk to the children in your village about the NBA? What parts change? What parts shift? What shots that were missed in real life get made in your retelling, and what shots that were made in real life get missed? Remember, there’s a skeleton there, so you can’t steal any championships from anyone. You can steal games, sure. And you can steal moments, of course. But not championships. So what are you changing?

Would you change LeBron’s Game 7 Atomic Boom Dunk that he missed in the 2016 Finals?

It’s the greatest missed dunk in NBA history. And we have the chance to let LeBron make it without it affecting the outcome of the championship? Yes, of course I’m changing it. I’m gathering all of the kids around me every night. We’re going to sit by the fire and eat beans out of a can, because that’s all the food that’s left to eat. And I’m going to tell them the story of how LeBron James one time dunked the ball with such ferocity that it knocked Draymond Green’s head clean off his shoulders, and then even though he had been decapitated, Draymond, in awe of the magnificence of the dunk, said, “Great dunk, LeBron!” to which LeBron responded, “Thank you,” and then he picked Draymond’s head up and dunked that, too. That’s what I’m telling them.

Would you change John Stockton’s buzzer-beater 3 to send the Jazz to the 1997 Finals?

The game was tied. There were 2.8 seconds left. The Jazz had the ball. Bryon Russell was inbounding. He threw it to Stockton, who’d been left all alone because Charles Barkley got lost on the play. Stockton caught it, stepped into his shot, and buried a 3 at the buzzer. The Jazz went on and the Rockets stayed home. I’m changing that shot. In my retelling, the kids learn that Stockton missed it, the Rockets won in overtime, then they won Game 7, too, (FINALLY) giving us the Hakeem vs. Jordan Finals we always wanted. (The Bulls win the title that season because they won it the first time around so we have to give it to them here, but Olajuwon goes nuts in the series, pushing it all the way to a tight, tight, tight Game 7 that Jordan wins at the buzzer.)

Would you change Allen Iverson’s jumper-to-step-over shot against Tyronn Lue near the end of Game 1 of the 2001 Finals?

I’ll fight you if you even pretend to erase this shot.

Would you change Vince Carter’s Game 7 buzzer-beater he missed in the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals?

No, dude. The Raptors were playing the Sixers in that series. If Vince hits that shot, that means the Raptors move on to face the Bucks in the conference finals and then the Lakers in the Finals, and if it’s the Raptors in the Finals then that means Allen Iverson isn’t in the Finals, and if Allen Iverson’s not in the Finals then he can’t hit the jumper-to-step-over shot, and if he’s not hitting the jumper-to-step-over shot*, then guess what, and I can’t believe I have to say this for a second time: I’ll fight you.

*The only way that this becomes acceptable, and I mean this is the tiniest, slimmest, barely-est way it becomes acceptable, is if we still get a jumper-to-step-over shot, but this time rather than it being Allen Iverson over Tyronn Lue we get Vince Carter doing it over Kobe Bryant.

Would you change LeBron’s buzzer-beater 3 over Hedo Turkoglu in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals?

No. Never. It’s the second-best post-shot LeBron Celebration of his career**. I don’t want to lose that. I do that same celebration every time I realize the food delivery guy is pulling up to my house.

**The best post-shot LeBron Celebration was his Insta-Tears at the end of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. It was great.

Let’s just do the big Spurs ones all at once so we can get them out of the way: (1) Would you change Charles Barkley’s 20-footer over David Robinson at the end of Game 6 of the 1993 Western Conference semifinals? (2) What about the 3 that Ray Allen missed at the end of Game 6 of the Spurs-Sonics 2005 Western Conference semifinals? (3) What about Derek Fisher’s 0.4 Karate Kick to the Neck shot that he made at the buzzer in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals?

(1) Charles Barkley’s jumper was the last shot any NBA player made during a game at the Hemisfair Arena, which is where the Spurs played at the time. I’m changing it. He misses the shot, the Spurs get the rebound, David Robinson makes a 14-footer at the buzzer to win the game for them, then the Spurs get blown out in Game 7. A blowout is way less painful than what happened here. (Changing this shot doesn’t affect the Bulls winning the title that season.)

(2) Most everyone knows about the shot Ray Allen hit in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals that helped the Heat steal a championship from my beloved Tim Duncan. Since I can’t change that one (because if he misses it, the Spurs win the title that season, and that breaks our rules), I’m changing his end-of-game 3 that he missed in Game 6 of the 2005 Western Conference semifinals. The Spurs had a two-point lead following a Tim Duncan layup with 0.5 seconds left. Ray Allen shot his 3 at the buzzer, it clanked off the rim, and the Spurs went on to the conference finals. In my new version, he makes that 3, then the Spurs win Game 7. And the ONLY reason I’m changing it is because I’m hoping against hope that the universe somehow rewards us for sacrificing the only playoff-series-clinching shot of Tim Duncan’s career by reversing the 2013 Game 6 that I can’t change on my own. (Changing this shot doesn’t affect the Spurs winning the title that season.)

(3) Yes. I’m changing it, and the reason I’m changing it is because on the play immediately before Fisher hit it, Tim Duncan hit the best, most miraculous shot of his career: a running, falling-down, please-Jesus jumper over Shaq from the top of the key that gave the Spurs a one-point lead. I want that to be the last shot of the game. The Spurs can lose Game 6 and Game 7 of that series. That’s fine. I just need for Timmy to have won Game 5 for us there. (Changing this shot doesn’t affect the Pistons winning the title that season.)

Would you change Michael Jordan’s The Shot in Game 5 of the first round of the 1989 playoffs?

We could. Sure. The Pistons would still win the title that season. But just as a general rule, I’m against changing any shot that has its own name. This one is safe.

Would you change Courtney Lee’s missed alley-oop layup at the end of Game 2 of the 2009 NBA Finals?

LOL. Who even cares?

(That was the year of Kobe’s Lakers vs. Dwight Howard’s Magic. The Magic were inbounding the ball with 0.6 seconds left. Courtney Lee got free for a wide-open alley-oop layup, and that was a good thing, but the bad thing was just as he was catching the ball he remembered that he was Courtney Lee and so he clanked it way too hard off the backboard. The ball bounced off the rim, the game went into overtime, the Lakers won, then eventually won the series in five games. We can change this and have the Magic win and it doesn’t affect much. The Lakers can still win — they do so in six games now — the Magic can still lose, and Dwight can still acid away that team like the Fly would when he’d throw up on things.)

Would you change Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s made free throws at the end of Game 6 of the 1988 Finals?

This was when the Lakers and the Pistons played in the Finals and Isiah Thomas had his Sprained Ankle game, scoring 25 points in the fourth to bring the Pistons within a whisper of their first title. Kareem got phantom-fouled by Bill Laimbeer in the closing seconds, then hit two free throws to put the Lakers up one. They won the game, and then won Game 7 going away. We’re sort of hamstrung by the rules here: We can’t have him miss both free throws because then the Pistons steal that championship. We can have him miss one free throw, then the game goes into overtime, then the Lakers win there, but I’m not sure how much better that is for Isiah.

I don’t know, man. I’m just trying to juke this into his favor. That Sprained Ankle game is one of my favorite NBA games. It’s always bothered me that it ended in a loss. (I suppose the one redeeming thing about it is that the Pistons won the title the next season, and they beat the Lakers to do so, and revenge titles are always great.) (But still.) (I wish they’d won Game 6.)

Would you change any of Anthony Bennett’s first 15 shots in the 2013–14 season?

Anthony Bennett was the no. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. He missed his first 15 shots that season, which, I mean, come on. That’s tough for a kid. He was 20 years old that season. That’s basically still a child (a very, very big child). So part of me wants to change it, probably because I’m a dad and that’s just what happens when you’re a dad and you think about someone’s kid being in a perpetual state of sadness. Here’s the thing to think about, though: Only two other no. 1 picks have ever missed 15 straight shots during their rookie year. Do you know who they are? I’ll tell you who they are: NBA champion Kyrie Irving and NBA legend Allen Iverson. I just don’t think I can break up the only Kyrie-Iverson-Bennett connection. I want him to have that. I want his name to be said when you say theirs. The 0-for-15 stays.

Would you change any of Reggie Miller’s shots?

Reggie Miller and Rick Barry both have exactly career 25,279 points scored, leaving them tied for 22nd all time. I don’t want Reggie, who is perfect, and Rick Barry, who is like if a trash bag full of wasps was a person, to share anything. I’m going back in history, picking literally any free throw that Reggie missed, and changing it so that he made it. Now he has 25,280 points, besting Barry by one. God bless***.

***This one was actually mentioned to me by a buddy of mine named Dixon.

Would you change Kevin Durant’s missed 3 from the end of Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals?

Big one here. The Warriors were up 104–101. KD had a shot to tie the game with 1:23 left and it rimmed out. The Thunder never got off 101 points. The Warriors won, then the Warriors won Game 7, then Durant was like, “Yo. Y’all need one?” like how you do at the park when someone already has next. I’m wiping that miss away. I’m telling all the village children that Durant made it, then made the next one, too, and so that’s how we got the great 2016 NBA Finals, where LeBron James chase-down-blocked Andre Roberson’s late-game layup to help bring Cleveland its first championship.

In this scenario, Durant never ends up getting a title (like he’s going to do this season, now that he’s with the Warriors), but that’s OK. He plays his whole career in OKC with Russy, missing out time and time again on his ring, like the universe preordained for him at his birth.

Would you change Michael Jordan’s fadeaway 3 at the buzzer that would’ve won Game 5 for the Bulls in the 1998 Finals?

This one is maybe the most interesting of the group. The Bulls ended up winning the championship in Utah in Game 6. Stockton hit a 3 in the final minute of that game to put the Jazz up three, but Jordan scored the game’s final four points, including his iconic corner-of-the-free-throw-line jumper. That’s a big, big, big shot in NBA lore. It gave Jordan his sixth title; it was a perfect swish; it came against a player who’d said he was capable of guarding Jordan; and it was his final bucket as a member of the Chicago Bulls. It’s hard to erase all of that, you know what I’m saying?

But here’s the thing that a lot of people forget: The Bulls actually had a chance to win that series in Game 5, and it could’ve been just as iconic a thing, maybe. The Bulls were down four in the final minute, same as they were in Game 6. Toni Kukoc hit a 3 to bring them to within one with 5.5 seconds left. Karl Malone inbounded the ball to Stockton, who skrrt’ed away from Steve Kerr, then threw it up to a sprinting Jeff Hornacek, hoping to run off the rest of the clock. Hornacek caught the ball and tried to dribble away, but Scottie Pippen, a basketball genius, literally dove headfirst after him, stretching his arm out just enough to foul him with 1.1 seconds left. Hornacek, who shot 89.3 percent from the free throw line that season, somehow missed one of the two free throws, and so the Bulls got the ball back with the Jazz up just two. Jordan missed an impossible-to-make turnaround fadeaway 3 from 32 feet out, the series went back to Utah, and Jordan did what he did in Game 6.

But what happens if he makes that turnaround in Game 5? Is it an even bigger moment? Do people point at it and say it’s the greatest, most clutch, most difficult high-stakes shot he’s ever hit? Can he become even GOAT-ier than he already is? Do people point at it and say, “Those final 10 seconds were everything that Bulls team was,” which is to say that it featured not only Jordan’s late-game heroics, but also Kukoc’s underrated fearlessness and Pippen’s late-game brilliance? There’s a lot in play, and a very strong argument to make the swap. But, much as I’d like to have him make that shot, I just don’t think it’s worth erasing Game 6. Jordan basketball-destroying the Jazz in Utah is just too delicious of a moment to lose. Plus, and this is a super-tiny thing, but Jay Z has a line where he raps, “I’m liable to go Michael, take your pick / Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6.” We lose that line if Jordan makes that jumper in Game 5, too. I like that line.