Being proved wrong isn’t fun. In an era of receipts, staking your name to an incorrect prediction can lead to ridicule and regret. So to be wrong over, and over, and over again, in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands—that takes nerve. The audacity … the temerity … the unmitigated gall to be wrong on live television, day after day, staring at a camera with chin held high, agreeing to cement that wrongness into the annals of YouTube for the rest of internet eternity. … It’s a complete lack of fear. It’s Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take.
I don’t mean to say that Smith is wrong on purpose. Making a claim like that would take its own unmitigated gall. I don’t have Stephen A.’s call logs, nor his texts, DMs, contact book, or emails. I’m not walking by his side in arena tunnels. What’s being said in his ear isn’t relayed to mine. So I can’t definitively say Stephen A. is often intentionally wrong, only that he is, indeed, often wrong.
Take just what he’s said about Kyrie Irving since the calendar turned to 2019, for example. Search for Stephen A.’s and Irving’s names online, and two videos will appear side by side, both clipped from episodes of First Take. “Stephen A. Hints That Kyrie Irving Might Join the Lakers in Free Agency,” reads the first, posted January 17, 2019. “Stephen A.’s Sources Say ‘No Way in Hell’ Kyrie Irving Is Going to the Lakers,” reads the other, published on May 13, 2019. Two days prior, Stephen A. reported that Irving was a “95 percent” certainty to sign with the Knicks. Just last week, he told First Take viewers that Irving had “given every indication” that he planned on coming to Brooklyn. No matter what happens, Stephen A. will be at least two-thirds wrong.
Stephen A. has spent the past decade evolving from journalist to talking head to caricature of a talking head, his celebrity steadily rising throughout. Somewhere along the way, we forgave his bogus reports and just liked hearing WEEEEEEEDUH enough for none of it to matter. Stephen A. doesn’t have to be right, just entertaining.
But in a sea of wrongness, Stephen A. has also been right. In 2016, he told us that Kyrie Irving was unhappy in Cleveland before Irving asked for a trade, for example. The scoop of his career was in 2010, when he correctly reported that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh would team up in Miami together. He was ridiculed, called a liar, and accused of making it up for attention. Multiple reports challenged his as untrue.
I just reported on my show that LeBron James is heading to S. Beach -- with Chris Bosh -- to team with Dwayne Wade and Pat Riley. Here's the— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) June 28, 2010
Then two fellow ESPN reporters, Marc Stein and Chris Broussard, confirmed the initial report later that day. A couple weeks later, James, Wade, and Bosh joined up in Miami. No matter how many times Stephen A. has been wrong since, he still has this feather in his cap—he’s the first person to report the most meaningful NBA player move of the century.
I decided to begin my quest there, to unearth the alternate universe that First Take viewers deserve: What would the NBA look like if everything (or at least the big stuff) that Stephen A. Smith reported over the past nine years actually panned out?
I read dozens of Stephen A.’s old columns. I re-lived Linsanity; I time-traveled to a period when Carmelo Anthony was “cool” with Mike D’Antoni. I closed my eyes and prayed and took a deep dive into Stephen A.’s Twitter archives. I watched hours of First Take. I bathed in blasphemy. I walked barefoot across coals heated by hot takes and, after a while, no longer struggled to embrace debate. I surrendered to it; I became it; it became me. I began. Pausing. Dramatically. After almost every. Word. I spoke into the Trader Joe’s loudspeaker what I had just heard from my very dear friend. I initiated arguments. I accused everyone—my brother, my coworkers, the FedEx guy, my grandma—of being on drugs. I emailed NBA players every day, many of them very dear friends with whom I have spoken many times in the past. Subject line: You do not want to make an enemy out of me.
Below are my findings. Here’s what the NBA would look like if many of Stephen A.’s reports came to fruition. This is where I live now.
March 14, 2012: Dwight Howard Heads to New York
Stephen A.’s report (January 23, 2012): “My sources tell me that [the Magic] have inquired about [the Knicks’] Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire going to Orlando for Dwight Howard.”
What happens? Dwight Howard is dealt to the Knicks at the height of his career. Blue and orange, baby. The trade that sent him to the Lakers in August 2012 never happens, reversing a four-team, 12-player, four-pick deal. Andre Iguodala and Nikola Vucevic never leave Philadelphia; a respective Finals MVP and All-Star spot never grace their Basketball-Reference pages. (Luckily, the Magic wasted away nearly everything they received in the real-life trade package, making the revisionist history simple on their end—they’re almost exactly the same.)
Dwight has no beef with Kobe Bryant, no conflict with the Lakers’ core. He also never signs with Houston, and never annoys James Harden. In fact, with a year and a half left on his contract, Howard seamlessly replaces Chandler for the Knicks and does a far better job, shooting the team up the Eastern Conference standings before besting Miami in the second round of the 2012 playoffs and giving it his best against 35-year-old Kevin Garnett in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics advance and beat the Thunder in the Finals, and their core is never dealt to the Nets. Billy King is gainfully employed. Dwight, leading the Knicks to the most success the franchise had seen since 2000, is a hero. There is no debate about whether or not he belongs in the Hall of Fame. It’s Dwight Howard, Knicks savior. First ballot.
Oh, and Amar’e Stoudemire never punches through a glass fire extinguisher case.
July 1, 2013: Chris Paul Joins Dwight
Stephen A.’s report (February 11, 2011): “Chris Paul, who ultimately wants to land in New York and, like Melo, is represented by Creative Artists Agency.”
What happens? Paul leaves L.A. after two seasons, signing a four-year deal with the Knicks instead. He joins Howard and Anthony, who, under Mike D’Antoni, win a title in 2014, the franchise’s first since 1973. The Clippers lean on Darren Collison as a starter, and struggle to recruit a Point God–caliber floor general in free agency. L.A. barely notches winning records over the next two seasons, and is eliminated in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. Blake Griffin leaves the league to pursue comedy.
The Knicks, not the Rockets, sneak through the tunnels of Staples in November 2013. And thus, it is Metta World Peace, not Tarik Black, who acts as decoy at the door. Black will never have that funny and brave story to tell his grandkids in 2054. His grandkids will find him completely unrelatable. It’s incredibly stressful for the entire family.
July 6, 2014: Tom Thibodeau Coaches the Knicks
Stephen A.’s report (February 6, 2014): “The Knicks, according to numerous NBA sources, have gotten involved by letting it be known they’d love to get Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau out of the remaining two years on his contract so he can come and coach in New York.”
What happens? Thibodeau becomes head coach of the Knicks after D’Antoni’s retirement. “D’Antoni has nothing left to prove after winning the title in 2014,” a statement from Knicks PR reads. “He told you pace-and-space fucking works.” This is much to the dismay of D’Antoni’s good friend Carmelo Anthony, though the two agree to open a glazed doughnut shop together in the offseason. After a season, Thibodeau signs an extension, convincing Knicks brass to let him run the front office as well. He immediately begins recruiting and trading for his former Bulls players; in 2016, New York signs Joakim Noah to an ill-advised four-year, $72.6 million contract. I—well, OK. You got me there, Stephen A.
Derek Fisher is never hired as Knicks head coach in 2014. He pursues broadcasting instead, eventually working his way up to become Jeff Van Gundy’s partner on the call. Basketball fans never hear the phrases “Mama, there goes that man!” and “With all due respect” on an ESPN NBA broadcast. Fisher doesn’t become an executive at Luxury Asset Capital, and current and former players aren’t mad at him. Except Matt Barnes. The butterfly effect doesn’t touch Barnes.
The Bulls hire recently fired Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks. He’s fired after two seasons and a 68-96 record. Then Chicago turns to David Blatt, who wins Coach of the Year in 2017-18. Fred Hoiberg stays with Iowa State for the rest of his 10-season contract. Never having served under Gar Forman and John Paxson, he saves thousands on yoga retreats and therapy sessions.
July 1, 2016: The Lakers Get a Big Three
Stephen A.’s report (October 2, 2015): “Regardless of how senseless it may [sound], in one breath I’m hearing that if Kevin Durant doesn’t stay in Oklahoma City, L.A. is his primary objective and landing spot as opposed to South Beach or even his home of Washington, D.C.”
Stephen A.’s report (May 3, 2016): DeMar DeRozan has “made it very, very clear that he wants to be in L.A. He has family out there. He’s from out there. He wants to be in L.A. He wants to wear the purple and gold, and if there’s a way for it to happen, again he’s restricted, if there’s a way for it to happen, DeMar DeRozan will be in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform next season.”
Stephen A.’s report (June 20, 2016): “As a said on @FirstTake this AM, I’m hearing more & more about LEBRON & the @Lakers. Was told by 1 source: only ?? will @KDTrey5 go to LA?”
What happens? Durant doesn’t stay in Oklahoma City. He signs a four-year deal with the Lakers, taking a massive pay cut to make room for LeBron and DeRozan. Durant receives only mild hate for leaving the Thunder, as the Lakers are not the best team in the league, and did not beat Oklahoma City in the previous postseason. L.A. didn’t even make the playoffs in 2015-16, finishing second worst in the league with a 17-65 record. Durant, who creates a second Twitter account exclusively to tweet pictures of puppies, wins his second MVP after the 2016-17 season and is championed and applauded.
DeRozan, meanwhile, also signs a four-year deal with the Lakers. Because he was a restricted free agent, DeRozan is the only member of the Big Three with a proper maximum contract; Toronto was ready to match, but DeRozan politely asked if he could please be excused, and, you know, Canada, so they let him. Up north, BFF-less, Kyle Lowry doesn’t re-sign with the Raptors in 2017. He instead signs with the Spurs, who no longer ruled him out to pursue Chris Paul in 2017 free agency, because Paul is under contract to be a Knick until 2018.
Toronto does not have the assets to trade for Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors rebuild completely from the ground up. Drake’s next album reaches new heights of moodiness.
The Lakers win the 2017 title, and after recruiting three top-tier free agents, general manager Mitch Kupchak keeps his job. Magic Johnson’s legacy with the franchise remains pure. The world is spared story time with Rob. (Rather than hire Kupchak in 2018, Michael Jordan decides to run the Hornets’ front office himself.)
Back in Ohio, Kyrie Irving has a team of his own. He’s not compelled to ask for a trade, and sticks it out as the Cavs’ new leader. However, Cleveland does lose in the first round of the playoffs, and the Pacers advance to the Finals, which is far enough to satisfy Paul George. He inks an extension.
July 3, 2017: The Lakers Become the Greatest Team Ever Assembled
Stephen A.’s report (January 31, 2016): “One of the biggest reasons I’m told that Kevin Durant may have the Lakers at the top of his list is because the Lakers have been led to believe, by whom specifically I do not know, but the Lakers have been led to believe that it is a very good chance that the following year Russell Westbrook is coming.”
What happens? By this point, L.A. has so little cap space that Westbrook signs under the veteran minimum. Now, you have to understand that Westbrook is joining the best team in the league. Not only are the Lakers the defending champions, they’re the ones who beat the Thunder last postseason in the second round, unfathomably climbing back from a 3-1 deficit. The public crushes Westbrook. “He’s ruining the league,” yell pundits and fans alike. Westbrook goes on private and public self-defense tours: Before long, he accidentally sends a pro-Russ reply to a tweet from his real account thinking he was logged into one of his many burners. It’s wildly embarrassing.
Los Angeles tops Golden State in three straight Western Conference finals in 2017 (before Russ joins), 2018, and 2019, winning rings all three years. As the two best midrange players in the league, DeRozan and Durant’s old-school attack is the perfect foil for the Warriors. The league begins to shift away from a 3-point-heavy game, reverting to the good old days before advanced analytics and math. Traditional centers make a comeback. Roy Hibbert has a resurgence, and thrives more than post-retirement Jordan.
After beating the Warriors thrice, LeBron ties MJ’s championships with six, finally making the GOAT debate about something other than rings. Thanksgivings everywhere are more civil. Every player in the league wants to be in Space Jam. Miraculously, LeBron’s hairline moves forward.
Meanwhile, Thunder ticket sales plummet, and owner Clay Bennett is forced to sell the team. (This isn’t even unusual—because nearly every superstar is signing with New York or L.A., small-market franchises are folding left and right.) Steve Ballmer, who has close ties to Seattle and was part of the group that tried to buy the SuperSonics in 2008, sells the Clippers to Tim Cook at a discount. (It’s been a rough, rather unprofitable stretch for the Clips without CP3 or Blake.) He buys the Thunder, moves the team back to Seattle, and restores the SuperSonics brand. With the jersey no longer so niche and interesting, livid Coachella attendees scramble to find OKC throwbacks. Most just sell back their tickets. Headliners pull out, and the concert folds. Some dude named Billy McFarland purchases the rights to the Coachella name.
June 21, 2017: The Celtics Trade for Jimmy Butler
Stephen A.’s report (June 19, 2017): “The Boston Celtics are planning on acquiring Jimmy Butler. … Their hope is they’ll be able to use the no. 3 pick.”
What happens? Chicago deals Butler to Boston for the third overall pick. (Quick clarification: Because Boston never made its infamous Brooklyn trade, this is the Celtics’ own pick after their dynasty declined. Thirty-seven-year-old KG and Co. have very, very little left in the tank in this timeline, too.) Butler never goes to Minnesota or Philadelphia; Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn stay put in the Twin Cities; Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and a 2022 second-round draft pick never leave Philly. No havoc is wreaked on Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins, who are coached by the player-friendly Monty Williams in 2017-18. No hostile practice ever transpires. Wolves executive Scott Layden, who will not be told by a screaming player that he “fucking needs” said player, drafts Lauri Markkanen with the seventh pick in the 2017 draft.
Now armed with the third overall pick, the Bulls select Jayson Tatum. Without LaVine, they’re quite awful the following season, awful enough to win the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. Chicago selects Luka Doncic. Phoenix, with the third pick, takes … Deandre Ayton.
Under Brad Stevens, Butler softens. He loses his edge, and the Celtics fall in seven games in the first round of the playoffs against the Bucks.
May 5, 2018: Dan Gilbert Sells the Cavs
Stephen A.’s report (January 24, 2018): “What [Cavs owner] Dan Gilbert wants to do, from what I’m being told, is sell the team.”
What happens? A private bidder later revealed to be Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg buys the team. “This is how we appease Middle America and the blue-collar workers of a swing state,” he writes in a private email that is later revealed by WikiLeaks. Zuck knows the only way to win over Ohio is for LeBron to pledge a return. He steals James’s personal information from Facebook likes and begins sending bottles of his favorite vintage reds to his Los Angeles home. And, though Zuckerberg claims to have been oblivious to the issue, it’s discovered that Russian hackers fix the 2019 draft, making Zion Williamson a Cavalier.
July 17, 2018: Damian Lillard Joins the Knicks
Stephen A.’s report (July 5, 2018): Damian Lillard’s “preference would be for the Portland Trail Blazers to find somebody, somebody big time to join him and CJ McCollum in Portland. That’s Damian Lillard’s preference. But if they can’t improve the team and if they can’t find anybody, then he’s interested in going one of two places: my sources tell me it’s the Lakers or the Knicks.”
What happens? Portland doesn’t have the cap space to sign another star heading into the 2018-19 season. Lillard demands a trade to either L.A. or New York, but the Lakers are so over the tax that in the last Board of Governors meeting, the league voted to extend the playoffs to generate more revenue and raise the salary cap just to keep the LeBron-Durant-DeRozan-Westbrook core together. What, are they going to break up the greatest team of all time?
In exchange for Lillard, the Knicks do a sign-and-trade with Chris Paul, shipping him to Portland. McCollum flourishes alongside Paul, who, at this point, is content with his career accomplishments and would rather be golfing somewhere. Paul facilitates nearly every shot to McCollum, who averages 31.4 points through the 2018-19 season.
Lillard finally has the roster help he needs in New York, thanks to years of recruiting from NBA legend and noted exceptional teammate Dwight Howard, who has since retired and moved into an advisory role in the Knicks’ high-functioning front office.
The Not-So-Distant Future: The Lakers Trade LeBron?
Stephen A.’s report (May 9, 2019): “I’m told people in Hollywood have told Jeanie Buss to trade @KingJames!”
What happens? I think I’ll leave this one for you to figure out based on what you’re hearing, my very dear friend.