NBA heavyweight battles we wished took place

The 1980s and early 1990s were rife with NBA rivalries featuring many of the game’s greatest players, complete with clotheslines and throat rips and headlocks and haymakers and friends shoving friends.

The Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons spent a decade fighting for the right to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals, and the heavyweight belt exchanged hands eight times between Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Isiah Thomas before Michael Jordan seized control of it in 1991.

The bench-clearing brawls have seemingly subsided ever since, but fear not: Yahoo Sports and the NBA have partnered to remind you of yesteryear’s battles with a biweekly video series titled “Rivalries Reunited.” The first episode features Hall of Famers Kevin McHale and Dr. J discussing the back-to-back seven-game Eastern Conference finals split between their Celtics and Sixers in the 1981 and 1982 playoffs.

As Dr. J says, “We couldn’t have done this back in the day.”

Blame friendships forged through AAU, the Olympics, summer workouts or superteams, but for whatever reason, ever since Jordan essentially went unrivaled throughout the 1990s, superstars of this generation have had fewer heated meetings than we might have liked. Even as LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors met in four straight Finals, they seemed more civil than spiteful. The greatest rivalry of the past quarter-century involved Lakers teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

So, while you enjoy our Rivalries Reunited debut, check out the top 15 playoff rivalry series of the past 25 years that never were — a chronological list of the NBA’s heavyweight knockouts we wished took place …

Hakeem Olajuwon went two spots ahead of Michael Jordan at No. 1 overall in the 1984 NBA draft. (Getty Images)
Hakeem Olajuwon went two spots ahead of Michael Jordan at No. 1 overall in the 1984 NBA draft. (Getty Images)

Jordan vanquished just about all his contemporary superstars in the playoffs, save for Hakeem Olajuwon, the center Houston selected two spots ahead of Jordan in the 1984 draft. Jordan routinely pounded Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, and then eliminated Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers, Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns and Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz in the Finals.

Of the players to make multiple First Team All-NBA appearances in the 1990s, only Olajuwon and David Robinson never faced Jordan in the playoffs. While Jordan’s 18-month hiatus gave us big-man Finals matchups between Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal and Olajuwon, we never saw prime MJ face arguably his greatest threat. Olajuwon’s Rockets beat Robinson’s San Antonio Spurs in the 1995 Western Conference finals en route to a second straight title, both of which have asterisks.

Who knows what might have happened had Jordan not pursued baseball after his first three-peat. Exhaustion may have beaten the 1994 Bulls before Olajuwon got his chance. The only real shot for such a series came in 1995, when Jordan returned in late March to help Chicago capture a fifth seed, but rust and O’Neal caught them in the Eastern Conference semifinals (costing us a shot at another battle between Jordan and Reggie Miller by the way). Shaq’s Orlando Magic then eliminated the Indiana Pacers in the next round before getting swept by Houston in the Finals.

That Rockets team also featured Drexler, who never quite recovered as a challenger to Jordan after being summarily mocked by his nemesis in the 1992 Finals and Dream Team scrimmages. Years of pent-up vengeance awaited if only the Bulls could have returned to glory a little sooner.

1996 Finals: New York Knicks vs. Seattle SuperSonics

Pat Riley was gone by the time the Knicks ran into a 72-win Bulls buzzsaw in 1996, having lost their best title shot in a seven-game Finals loss two years prior. On the other side of the bracket were George Karl’s Sonics, another perennial 50-win team that often fell short of expectations.

Few things in the 1990s NBA would have been more fun than watching Gary Payton trash talk John Starks and those Knicks in a bruising Finals series. Likewise with the unstoppable force that was Shawn Kemp repeatedly trying to dunk on the immovable object that was Charles Oakley.

This may have turned into a WWF event. It also could have made for an interesting contrast in styles, as those Sonics had the ability to go small and space the floor with Hersey Hawkins, Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf opposite New York’s more traditional frontcourt. But would Seattle have had an answer for Ewing in the middle other than Ervin Johnson and Frank Brickowski?

1999 Finals: Chicago Bulls vs. San Antonio Spurs

Imagine for a moment the Bulls brass did not blow up the dynasty in 1998. They ran it back with Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, and found a suitable replacement for Dennis Rodman. They get the added rest of the 1998 lockout and coast to a playoff spot in a shortened season.

All that stood in Jordan’s way of a fourth straight Finals were two teams he had a 5-0 playoff record against. Are a 38-year-old Ewing’s Knicks or 33-year-old Miller’s Pacers knocking him out?

Then, we would have seen the aging Bulls dynasty against a nascent Spurs dynasty. Jordan and Pippen vs. Robinson and Tim Duncan. Phil Jackson vs. Gregg Popovich. Steve Kerr would have been there for one team or another, his face still in danger of a Jordan punch regardless of sides.

If only a 21-year-old Kobe Bryant could have met a 37-year-old Michael Jordan in the Finals. (Vincent Laforet/AFP via Getty Images)
If only a 21-year-old Kobe Bryant could have met a 37-year-old Michael Jordan in the Finals. (Vincent Laforet/AFP via Getty Images)

2000 Finals: Chicago Bulls vs. Los Angeles Lakers

This is Jordan’s version of Bill Russell’s 1969 title. All but washed, Russell willed his Celtics to a seven-game Finals victory over his arch-rival Wilt Chamberlain’s Lakers, capturing an 11th ring in 13 years and retiring the greatest champion in the history of team sports at season’s end.

In our imaginary scenarios, Jordan has played in the Finals every year since 1991, save for the 1993-94 campaign. He is an old 36, weary from so many 100-game seasons and the previous year’s compact schedule. He beats Miller’s Pacers (again) and Ewing’s Knicks (again) on his way to an unprecedented ninth Finals in 10 years. This seems implausible, but Jordan is implausible.

Awaiting him this time around is O’Neal’s Lakers, featuring a 21-year-old superstar in the making named Kobe Bryant. Give me old MJ vs. young Kobe all day, every day, in a seven-game series.

2001 Eastern Conference finals: Orlando Magic vs. Toronto Raptors

Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill were on the same roster for four years and played zero playoff games together. Zero! Their debut season with the Magic resulted in 43 wins, and Hill only played in four of them. It was the first of McGrady’s seven straight All-Star campaigns, and he willed Orlando to a playoff spot with a rookie Mike Miller serving as the team’s second scoring option.

McGrady had left the Raptors in 2000 free agency to escape the shadow of his cousin and co-star Vince Carter. Behind the best season of Carter’s career, Toronto won 47 games and reached the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals, where they lost Game 7 to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers on Carter’s errant buzzer-beater attempt. The Sixers then beat a Milwaukee Bucks team that eliminated McGrady’s Magic in the first round to advance to the Finals, where the Lakers awaited.

There is a world, though, where McGrady and a healthy Hill take Milwaukee’s place and give us the prime McGrady-Carter playoff matchup we never got in the Eastern Conference finals. Two cousins and former teammates turned rivals. Prime McGrady, Hill and Carter all with a shot to make a Finals against Shaq and Kobe. The Raptors’ Charles Oakley is involved with no expletives left to give. A 13-year-old Stephen Curry is watching his dad participate with Toronto from the sidelines. Give us all of it.

2003 Western Conference finals: L.A. Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings

One of the best teams — and quite possibly the most fun — not to win the title, the Kings were coming off a seven-game 2002 Western Conference finals loss to the Lakers, one of the most controversial in NBA history. As long as we are imagining this series for our own entertainment, disgraced referee Tim Donaghy might as well be handcuffed a few years earlier in this instance.

If only Chris Webber had not fractured his knee in Game 2 of the 2003 Western Conference semifinals. He was in the midst of another All-NBA campaign and certainly capable of countering a 24-year-old Dirk Nowitzki. Might Webber have made a difference in Sacramento’s double-overtime loss in Game 3? That is all that stood between the Kings and a seven-game series win.

Then, a conference finals rematch with the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers, under the FBI’s microscope. That 2002 series needed a redo, and this was the year for it. C-Webb always got the short end.

Give us this between Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in the 2004 Western Conference finals. (Paul Buck/AFP via Getty Images)
Give us this between Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in the 2004 Western Conference finals. (Paul Buck/AFP via Getty Images)

2004 WCF: Minnesota Timberwolves vs. San Antonio Spurs

How differently would we envision Duncan and Kevin Garnett had they switched franchises? It is one of the great alternative NBA realities. The former landed in an ideal situation, playing with David Robinson on a team coached by Popovich that added more future Hall of Famers in short order. The latter joined a fledgling franchise that has proven to be one of the league’s worst run.

Skill-wise, there is nothing Duncan could do that Garnett could not, and there is little reason to believe KG would not have won multiple titles in San Antonio. But we can never know for sure. As it were, Duncan’s Spurs and Garnett’s Wolves met twice in the playoffs — a pair of first-round series that San Antonio took in four games. They posted similar statistics opposite each other in those meetings, but KG’s best teammate in 1999 was Terrell Brandon, and still they won as many playoff games (one) against Duncan’s first title team as the Lakers, Blazers and Knicks combined.

Not until 2004 did Minnesota give Garnett reinforcements. Alongside Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Wally Szczerbiak, KG captured MVP honors and took the Lakers to six close games in the Western Conference finals, just as Duncan had done a round earlier. It would have been fascinating to see the two most skilled power forwards of their generation go head-to-head in their primes with a comparable amount of talent around them and a trip to the Finals on the line.

2007 Western Conference semis: Phoenix Suns vs. San Antonio Spurs

The mid-2000s Suns and Spurs were a contrast in styles — a seven-seconds-or-less frenzy opposite methodical execution — and the two met in a wildly entertaining conference semifinals series in 2007. This happened, only not the way everyone outside San Antonio would have liked.

Spurs forward Robert Horry’s cheap shot of Steve Nash in the final minute of a Game 4 Phoenix had in hand drew Suns teammates Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw off the bench, resulting in Game 5 suspensions for both by the letter of the law, despite neither entering the ensuing fracas.

With the series tied two games apiece heading back to Phoenix, the Spurs stole Game 5, 88-85, and then closed out the series in six with Stoudemire and Diaw back in the fold. Give us Game 5 again. Maybe it results in another Spurs victory, much the same way it did in a full-squad 2005 Western Conference finals clash, but maybe Nash gets his best chance at a championship back.

2009 Western Conference semis: L.A. Lakers vs. Houston Rockets

Man, McGrady could not catch a break. For five seasons in the mid-to-late 2000s, he and Yao Ming were teammates on the Rockets. When healthy, the two were an automatic 50 wins. In their first season together, they lost a seven-game first-round series to Nowitzki’s Mavericks in 2005. Neither McGrady nor Ming finished the 2006 season. They lost a seven-game first-round series to the Utah Jazz in 2007. Ming missed the 2008 playoffs, and McGrady missed the 2009 playoffs.

Even without McGrady for the entire 2009 postseason and Ming for the final four games of the second round, a Rockets team led by Aaron Brooks pushed Bryant’s Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. Imagine if Houston had a healthy McGrady and Ming for the whole series. Might T-Mac have gotten the playoff monkey off his back and competed for a title?

At the very least, we would have seen the playoff matchup between McGrady and Bryant we never got — two prep-to-pro phenoms whose career circumstances present a sliding doors scenario. How might they have fared in similar conditions? It all could have converged in 2009.

2009 Finals: L.A. Lakers vs. Boston Celtics

In a rivalry renewed, the Lakers and Celtics split their two meetings in the 2008 and 2010 Finals. Boston won the first in six games, and the Lakers took the second in seven. In between, L.A. beat the Magic, who beat a Kevin Garnett-less Boston team in a seven-game conference semifinals.

The Celtics were 44-13 with KG in the lineup before he initially suffered his knee injury in 2009, and they have long since contended that edition was the best of his teams with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. That they never got a chance to defend their title in a Lakers rubber match is a shame.

How differently we might view their legacies had we gotten that series. Boston’s big three had a legitimate shot at back-to-back rings and a mini dynasty, or Bryant could have exorcized his 2008 demons earlier without the caveat of a Garnett or Kendrick Perkins injury. Regardless of how it played out, the competitiveness alone among the superstars in those series was worth its weight in gold, and most NBA fans would probably take that over Dwight Howard in the Finals any day.

2006 ECF: Miami Heat vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade played on different teams in the Eastern Conference from 2003-10, combining for 15 playoff series victories and four conference finals appearances, each reaching a Finals. Yet, LeBron’s Cavaliers and Wade’s Heat never faced each other in the playoffs.

The best chance we had was the 2006 Eastern Conference finals, but Cleveland lost its second-round series to the Pistons in seven games. LeBron scored 27 points in the Game 7 defeat. The rest of his team combined for 34 points on 9-for-41 shooting. Twenty-two percent! The Pistons advanced to lose in a six-game conference finals to Miami that is all but erased from NBA history.

We were that close to a battle between Wade and James — not to mention Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — that would have gone a long way in forming the narratives around their early careers. Wade won the title that year, cementing himself as a proven winner, all while James spent the next few years facing questions about his inability to get the job done. The two ultimately joined forces in Miami, but a conference finals rivalry between the two might have altered their futures.

LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were a couple buckets away from potentially meeting in the Finals. (Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were a couple buckets away from potentially meeting in the Finals. (Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

2008 Finals: L.A. Lakers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Likewise, James scored 45 points in a 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals Game 7 against the Celtics, only to be outdone by Pierce in a 97-92 defeat. That game could have easily swung the Cavs’ way, with a conference finals rematch looming against a Pistons team they ousted in 2007.

Then, we might have gotten the Finals showdown between Bryant and James that never was. What should have been a rivalry between the two greatest players of the post-Jordan era never came to fruition, and instead Kobe fans spent a decade touting his rings edge over LeBron.

Now, maybe the Lakers beat the Cavs, and Kobe loyalists have even more fodder for their argument, but at least we would have gotten to see him vanquish the man coming for his crown as the game’s best active player — much the same way the all-time greats before him had.

2015 WCF: Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers

The last team to beat the Warriors in the Western Conference playoffs? The Lob City Clippers in a seven-game first-round series. Chris Paul did his best to manhandle a 25-year-old Stephen Curry, and Golden State’s Death Lineup was not yet operational under coach Mark Jackson in 2014. It was the root of a rivalry between the two teams that quickly became a hammer-and-nail situation.

Kerr unlocked the offense in 2015, when the Warriors won the first of three titles in five straight Finals trips. That team avoided the Clippers, whose conference semifinals collapse to Houston is well-documented, and Golden State disposed of James Harden’s early Rockets in a five-game conference finals win. The Warriors then enjoyed some injury luck against Cleveland in the Finals.

That was Lob City’s last best chance at a title, as Paul and Blake Griffin battled injuries of their own the next two postseasons. The Clips had a real shot at those 2015 Warriors, too, because they would have had the confidence edge against a team still searching for its championship mettle.

2017 WCF: Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

This could have gone down two ways. Durant stays in OKC, and a Thunder team that came within a Klay Thompson barrage of beating the 73-win Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals gets its rematch. Or Durant still leaves for Golden State, and Russell Westbrook finds a way to make this rematch happen in order to go at his ex-teammate’s throat for however long it lasts.

Instead, Westbrook’s MVP campaign could not lift the Thunder out of the first round, where they lost to Harden and Houston in five games. And Golden State swept its way through the Western Conference without so much as the satisfaction of Westbrook jawing at Durant for four games.

The 2016 series between Golden State and OKC was one of the most entertaining in recent memory, followed by the most entertaining Finals we have seen in a long time. Durant sticking with the Thunder and challenging the Warriors again obviously would have been more fun for us, and we might have even gotten a Durant-James Finals on a more level playing field as a result.

2017 WCF: Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs

Lost in the annals of NBA history are the 61-win 2017 Spurs, who were destroying the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals before Zaza Pachulia stepped under Kawhi Leonard’s ankle. San Antonio looked like a team with the recipe for an upset, but with Leonard sidelined, Golden State promptly erased a 20-point deficit, stole the opener and swept the series.

Those Spurs had also lost Tony Parker to a hamstring in Game 2 of their semifinals victory against Houston (poor Harden). It was the first and only shot Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge got to show their potential as a tandem, as Leonard missed almost the entire 2017-18 campaign before requesting a trade and dismantling the hobbled Warriors on the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 title run.

Sure, the Warriors may have won the series anyway, but Leonard might have established himself as The Best Player Alive two years before he staked his claim in Toronto. The fates of multiple superstars and dynasties twisted on the weight of Pachulia’s left foot. If only we could run it back.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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