There is an alternate basketball universe in which a tearful Allen Iverson, now mayor of Toronto, thanks the Raptors for retiring his number and supporting his successful bid to earn Canadian citizenship. In that same alternate universe, Steve Nash is widely hailed for singlehandedly saving professional basketball in Vancouver while Minnesotans are wondering whether KG and Kobe will be able to ride off into the sunset with one last trip to the NBA Finals and a chance to add a sixth championship banner to the Timberwolves' home arena.
This alternate NBA universe exists at the nexus of reality and the 1996 NBA Draft, where a loaded draft class radically altered the fates of not just players and teams, but also the game itself. Had things gone differently, it’s quite possible that those seemingly far-fetched scenarios (yes, even Mayor Iverson) would have actually come to pass. After all, the 1996 NBA Draft included three players who would go on to win the NBA MVP Award and two more who would earn NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors, not to mention the 10 players in total who would go on to earn at least one trip to the NBA All-Star Game (11, if you count the undrafted Ben Wallace as a member of the draft class).
The astonishing depth of talent in the 1996 class easily puts it alongside the 1984 and 2003 draft classes as the best of all-time, but the intrigue in this particular draft lies in how radically different the NBA might have looked had things gone differently. It’s fun to imagine the possibilities had an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant been paired with a 20-year-old Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, as the Timberwolves actually considered taking Bryant with the fifth pick of the lottery in 1996.
The NBA may have thus been witness to an unstoppable Minnesota dynasty led by two of the most intense competitors to ever play the game. It is perhaps equally likely, however, that Kobe and KG would have just murdered each other during a meaningless preseason game or pushed their teammates so hard in practice that the T-Wolves would never have been able to round up five healthy bodies to suit up for a game.
Whether a legendary pairing such as this would have been an unbelievable success or an unmitigated disaster can only be left to speculation, as the T-Wolves proved once and for all that fate is not just a cruel mistress but is also quite fond of irony, as the club decided that Stephon Marbury would be a safer bet than Kobe Bryant to play alongside KG.
That possibility alone makes redrafting the 1996 NBA Draft an entertaining exercise, as the NBA would be a vastly different league had this draft class been selected with the benefit of hindsight. If KG and Kobe would have been an entertaining pairing, imagine Allen Iverson playing in Toronto or Vancouver: Iverson could have pushed the Grizzlies out of Vancouver inside of a year or just as easily could have become a beloved Toronto icon on par with any athlete in the city’s history, especially if he could have convinced Vince Carter to stick around.
In redrafting the 1996 NBA Draft, some consideration will go to matching each player based on “fit” with each team’s roster and style of play at the time, but the primary goal is for teams to select the best player available based on what we now know about the way their careers turned out. With four surefire Hall of Famers and 11 future All-Stars available in the lottery, many teams would have enjoyed far different fates if provided the opportunity to redraft, but unfortunately for them, this is nothing more than a hypothetical exercise in which an entertaining alternate NBA universe is explored.
20 Philadelphia 76ers – Kobe Bryant
Original Selection: Allen Iverson
The Philadelphia 76ers are not likely kicking themselves for taking Iverson with the first pick, as The Answer ruled Philadelphia during his prime, won an MVP Award and singlehandedly willed the Sixers to the NBA Finals in 2001. The player they lost to in that series, however, just happened to be Kobe Bryant, a Philadelphia native who is easily one of the NBA’s greatest – and most polarizing – players ever. Whether the Sixers would have won a title by building around Kobe instead of Iverson is another story, but there is no way the team would pass up the homegrown player who went on to win five championships with the Lakers.
19 Toronto Raptors – Allen Iverson
Original Selection: Marcus Camby
Instead of a shot-blocking big man, the Raptors pick the show-stopping Iverson, a player whose unrivaled toughness and underdog persona made him Philly’s basketball version of Rocky Balboa. As a recent expansion franchise, the Raptors probably would have continued to struggle even with Iverson’s ability to take over any game on offense, so it seems entirely likely that Iverson would have eventually had Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter playing on either wing, making the Raptors an instant contender and perhaps one of the most entertaining teams in the history of the league. If nothing else, that trio would have dominated the highlights on a nightly basis and drawn plenty of attention from fans outside of Toronto, making it far more likely for McGrady and Carter to stay with the Raptors instead of bolting as they did.
18 Vancouver Grizzlies – Steve Nash
Original Selection: Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Nash attended high school in Victoria, so the Grizzlies take the two-time NBA MVP with the third selection overall and are able to build around a homegrown talent whose entertaining style of play would have kept fans in the seats in Vancouver. Though the Grizzlies took Abdur-Rahim with the hope of creating an imposing frontcourt with Bryant Reeves, Nash’s penetrating, pass-first style would have maximized Reeves’ abilities around the basket and elevated the play of those around him. It’s hard to imagine the Grizzlies heading to Memphis with Nash, a hometown hero, on the roster.
17 Milwaukee Bucks – Ray Allen
Original Selection: Stephon Marbury (traded to Minnesota in exchange for Ray Allen and a future first-rounder)
The Bucks wanted Ray Allen and ended up getting him in 1996, but they managed to snag a future first round pick out the deal by taking Marbury and then sending him to Minnesota. In the redraft, the Bucks don’t have that luxury, but still wind up with the player many believe to be the best shooter to ever play in the NBA in Allen. It’s not often that a Hall of Fame talent like Allen slips to fourth in any redraft, which just goes to show how loaded with talent the 1996 Draft truly was.
16 Minnesota Timberwolves – Peja Stojakovic
Original Selection: Ray Allen (traded to Milwaukee for Stephon Marbury)
With the four future Hall of Famers off the board but plenty of talent remaining, perhaps it is surprising that the Wolves would take Peja Stojakovic over a pair of future Defensive Players of the Year along with six other future All-Stars. The vastly underrated Stojakovic would have been the perfect perimeter complement for Garnett, creating a potent inside-out tandem for Minnesota while also eliminating the potential for discord among teammates since Stojakovic seemed quite comfortable playing a secondary role throughout his career.
15 Boston Celtics – Marcus Camby
Original Selection: Antoine Walker
The Celtics get the defensive-minded Camby in this redraft and the UMass product gets to begin his pro career in front of the same fans that watched him become a dominant collegian. With Camby in place as a defensive stalwart in the middle and the rebuilding process completely underway, the Celts might have enjoyed a future that included Chauncey Billups at point and Paul Pierce on the wing, possibly forming a championship-caliber core of talent that prevents Rick Pitino from hastily trading away his best young players (Billups, for example, was gone midway through his rookie season) or ranting about how “Larry Bird is not walking through that door.”
14 Los Angeles Clippers – Stephon Marbury
Original Selection: Lorenzen Wright
The Clippers are proof that it is not enough to tank your way into the lottery to build a roster of talented future stars, as the Clips were so inept that they managed to botch their lottery selections with an unrivaled consistency. So even with the benefit of hindsight, the Clippers still select Marbury over Jermaine O’Neal, ensuring that their streak of leading the league in dysfunction remains firmly intact. Besides, how much fun would it be to have Marbury playing his home games in Los Angeles? There would be infinitely more crazy Marbury stories if he began his career in Los Angeles instead of Minnesota, making his recent resurrection in China all the more improbable and entertaining.
13 New Jersey Nets – Jermaine O’Neal
Original Selction: Kerry Kittles
O’Neal begins his career in a much better situation for a prep-to-pro player than Portland, and the Nets get a franchise-caliber power forward to build around for the future. It took a few years for O’Neal to develop into a solid contributor, but his best years would coincide nicely with the arrival of Jason Kidd, perhaps pushing the Nets over the top in one of the two trips they made to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.
12 Dallas Mavericks – Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Original Selection: Samaki Walker
The Mavs got next to nothing out of Samaki Walker, so the fact that Abdur-Rahim is available at nine is a nice change for Dallas. The power forward was good for 20 points and 10 rebounds on most nights, but he rarely led his teams to the playoffs and made the postseason on just one occasion, a first-round playoff loss in 2006. It would have been interesting to see how Don Nelson chose to use the offensively gifted Abdur-Rahim, but the really intriguing question is whether the Mavs would have taken Paul Pierce instead of Dirk Nowitzki in 1998 with a young and productive power forward in Abdur-Rahim already on the roster.
11 Indiana Pacers – Ben Wallace
Original Selection: Erick Dampier
In need of a big man to spell Rik Smits, the Pacers select Wallace, a project who went undrafted in 1996 and needed several years of development (it was four, and arguably five seasons before Wallace really came into his own as a player) to become the defensive monster known as Big Ben. Wallace drops all the way to number 10 because the team selecting him will need to be patient, and with Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson and Smits already in place, Indiana’s roster is strong enough to compete while developing a player who will become a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
10 Golden State Warriors – Derek Fisher
Original Selection: Todd Fuller
Fisher was originally taken with the 24th pick of the draft by the Lakers, which just so happens to be the team most adversely affected by the alternate NBA universe created by this redraft. Two of the building blocks for their run of five championships – Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher – were taken in the 1996 Draft and both go to different franchises in this redraft. Meanwhile, the Warriors get a tough and defensive-minded guard for their backcourt in place of Fuller, who only lasted five seasons in the league.
9 Cleveland Cavaliers – Antoine Walker
Original Selection: Vitaly Potapenko
If nothing else, seeing the “Czar” react to Walker shimmying down the court after draining a three-pointer in the fourth quarter of a game the Cavs were losing by 20 would make this a winning choice for the fans of Cleveland. It’s easy to criticize Walker’s game and his penchant for hanging around the three-point line despite being 6-8, but he was a gifted passer for someone his size and was a productive player for many years despite his early exit from the league. Cleveland may have had something if Walker had joined a roster that already included Terrell Brandon and Chris Mills.
8 Charlotte Hornets – Erick Dampier
Original Selection: Kobe Bryant (traded to Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac)
The Hornets were without a center after the departure of Alonzo Mourning, so taking Dampier with the 13th pick of the lottery just makes too much sense. Though Charlotte would likely have preferred to have held onto Bryant rather than shipping him to Los Angeles for Divac, Kobe is long-since off the board in this redraft, leaving the Hornets to settle for Dampier, a solid but unspectacular center who blocked 1,398 shots during his 16-year NBA career.
7 Sacramento Kings – Kerry Kittles
Original Selection: Peja Stojakovic
The Kings are one of the few lottery teams to do worse in the redraft, though Kittles still enjoyed a nice career as a pro despite its relative brevity. Stojakovic, however, turned out to be one of the bigger steals of the 1996 NBA Draft and Kittles was often limited by injury after an excellent collegiate career at Villanova. While his first two seasons in the league appeared to foreshadow an excellent NBA career, Kittles struggled with knee injuries and was out of the league by age 30. When Kittles was on the floor, however, he was often quite productive and was a solid rotation player on some very good New Jersey Nets teams.
6 Phoenix Suns – Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Original Selection: Steve Nash
With Nash long since off the board, the Suns go with a big man in order to inject some youth into their aging front line. Ilgauskas’ passing skills, high basketball IQ and ability to stretch the floor with his shooting would have complemented the Phoenix offense quite nicely at the time. Of course, Big Z’s foot problems kept him sidelined throughout the 1996-97 season and continued to hamper him for the remainder of his career, but the 7-3 center still managed 13 NBA seasons highlighted by two All-Star Game appearances.
5 Charlotte Hornets – Malik Rose
Original Selection: Tony Delk
The Hornets actually wound up taking Rose in the second round of this draft, so it only makes sense for Charlotte to grab him here while he is still available. Rose was a solid rotation player throughout his 13 NBA seasons, playing a key role on two San Antonio Spurs championship teams. The Hornets could take Lorenzen Wright at this spot, but the fact that Charlotte nabbed a center in Erick Dampier with the 13th pick means that Wright will continue to slide down the board to the 17th pick.
4 Portland Trail Blazers – Lorenzen Wright
Original Selection: Jermaine O’Neal
With Arvydas Sabonis established as the Portland center, the Trail Blazers get a decent backup in Wright to spell Sabonis. The Clippers originally took Wright in the lottery, and his status as the seventh overall pick in a loaded draft caused him to be tagged with the “underachiever” label. One of the benefits of redrafting is that it helps to frame a player’s career with the proper perspective. Had Wright been taken by Portland with the 17th pick while only being expected to give solid minutes as a backup, Wright’s 13-year career might be viewed a bit more favorably than it was given his status as a lottery pick.
3 New York Knicks – Jerome Williams
Original Selection: John Wallace
Williams, better known as the “Junkyard Dog,” fits right in with the Knicks’ bruising style of play during the 1990s. Joining a roster with Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and Larry Johnson already in place, Williams’ scrappiness and hustle gives the Knicks the kind of energy and toughness off the bench they could have used during frequent playoff meetings with the Heat in the late 1990s, particularly since it seemed that the basketball games were often a secondary event to the brawls and other fisticuffs that served as the main attraction.
2 New York Knicks – Walter McCarty
Original Selection: Walter McCarty
The Knicks got this pick right the first time around, taking McCarty with the second of their back-to-back picks. The versatile forward never made much of a mark in New York, however, but he became a fan favorite after a trade sent him to Boston. McCarty’s hustle endeared him to longtime Boston broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn, with Heinsohn frequently screaming “I Love Waltah!” anytime McCarty made a big play for the Celtics. Had the Knicks held onto their draftee, one can only imagine what Walt “Clyde” Frazier would have come up with to celebrate McCarty’s penchant for clutch play.
1 Cleveland Cavaliers – Tony Delk
Original Selection: Zydrunas Ilgauskas
The Cavs originally plucked Big Z at this spot, but are instead left with relatively slim pickings with the best players already off the board. Instead of landing a two-time All-Star center, the Cavs take Delk, a solid guard off the bench whose shooting kept him in the league for 10 seasons. Delk, who was part of the trade that sent a young Joe Johnson out of Boston during his rookie year, put up a career-high 53 points while shooting 20-for-27 during an overtime loss to the Kings in 2001. Delk’s 53-point outburst ranks as the fourth-best career high of the 1996 draft class, trailing only Kobe Bryant’s 81, Allen Iverson’s 60 and Ray Allen’s 54.