What would happen if we gave NBA general managers a weirdly specific, five-year-only time machine? I would like to think that they would go back in time to correct their worst personnel mistakes, though it’s also possible we create a Back to the Future situation and kick off some kind of gambling scandal instead.
If GMs did use the time machine for the right reasons though, how different would the NBA landscape look right now? Well, we’d have to start at the 2011 draft, which featured plenty of future All-Stars, as well as a number of bad players who were selected before great ones.
Let’s have some fun and re-do the 2011 lottery, and together we can imagine a world in which scouting is a science and not a blind dart throw. Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler? Klay Thompson or Kyrie Irving? The right answers to these questions could have really changed the direction of the NBA.
(Note: I’m keeping in place all the draft-day trades, so the players are going where their actual 2011 counterpart ended up on draft night. Also, don’t get too upset. It’s not real.)
1. Cavaliers: Kawhi Leonard
Original pick: Kyrie Irving
Leonard's original slot: 15
In retrospect, it’s scary to think that Kawhi didn’t go No. 1 overall in this draft. Whatever voodoo the Spurs concocted to keep this guy a secret is nothing short of remarkable. In this re-draft, Leonard ends up on the Cavaliers, which means he never earns the “Kingslayer” moniker for defeating LeBron in the Finals, and instead is maybe Bron’s teammate in a few years. By the way, is there a more forgotten active Finals MVP than Kawhi Leonard? Sometimes people actually argue if this guy is a superstar. Leonard went toe-to-toe with LeBron in a Finals and has since gotten remarkably better! Now that he's improved his individual offensive game while maintaining his ridiculous efficiency, he’s entering a rarified air of stardom. Imagine a team led by Kawhi and LeBron. That’s the kind of starpower that would even make this year’s Warriors team blush.
2. Timberwolves: Jimmy Butler
Original pick: Derrick Williams
Butler's original slot: 30
The Bulls got an absolute steal with Butler at the end of the first round in 2011, as the Marquette product has turned himself into the second–best player from this class. Butler made his mark on the defensive end early in his career, but he’s since turned into a bona fide No. 1 scoring option. The Timberwolves would really love a do-over on this pick, as Derrick Williams never really panned out for them. Selecting Butler in 2011 would have really changed the course for Minnesota, who would have had an intriguing two-man combo of Kevin Love and Butler.
3. Jazz: Klay Thompson
Original pick: Enes Kanter
Thompson's original slot: 11
This is really where you have to start splitting hairs. I have Klay Thompson getting the nod over Kyrie Irving here because I think Thompson is a slightly more complete player. It’s a little difficult to judge both players in a vacuum because they both play for great teams, but those pre-LeBron, Kyrie-led Cavs teams were just bad enough to give Thompson the leg up. In this scenario, Thompson would team up with Gordon Hayward to give the Jazz a formidable perimeter duo. I’m also really curious about this alternate reality because Klay would have a larger role on almost every team besides Golden State. Would Thompson be able to carry a team offensively like a true No. 1 option? Sometimes I wish we could find out.
4. Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving
Original pick: Tristan Thompson
Irving's original slot: 1
How about that? Cleveland still ends up with Irving, and pairs him with Kawhi instead of Tristan Thompson. If LeBron still comes home three years later—and at that point, why wouldn't he?—the Cavs probably have an even better team than they do now. The only thing I worry about is Kawhi and Kyrie getting along. Leonard is almost too perfect of a fit in San Antonio, where it is practically news when he smiles. He wants to shy away from the spotlight. Then again, I could also see Kawhi going to Cleveland and winning an Emmy after a memorable supporting role in an Uncle Drew commercial. Leonard would probably never want to take off his disguise.
5. Raptors: Kemba Walker
Original pick: Jonas Valanciunas
Walker's original slot: 9
Instead of taking center Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors go with a point guard in Kemba Walker. The UConn product has really elevated his game the last couple of seasons, and he’ll likely represent the East again in the All-Star Game in February. I’m really into the pair of Walker and DeMar DeRozan, who was selected by Toronto in the 2009 draft. Walker’s clutch heroics could have really come through for Toronto in playoff time, and it’s possible the Raps have more substantial playoff runs if they had nabbed Kemba five years ago. With Kemba in town, Toronto probably never acquires Kyle Lowry, who joined the Raptors in 2012. Does Lowry still blossom into an All-Star somewhere else?
6. Wizards: Tristan Thompson
Original pick: Jan Vesley
Thompson's original slot: 4
We’ve been going strictly best player available so far in this re-draft, but we have to make a pivot here. I don’t necessarily think Tristan Thompson is better than the next player on this list, but the Wizards wouldn’t need him because they already had John Wall. So, enter Thompson. Wall and TT form a pretty solid inside-out combo to build around. Washington really blew this pick in 2011, selecting Jan Vesely, whose only career highlight was planting a kiss on his girlfriend seconds after hearing his name called. Vesely currently plays in Europe; Thompson currently dates a Kardashian.
7. Hornets: Isaiah Thomas
Original pick: Bismack Biyombo
Thomas's original slot: 60 (!)
The Hornets lose out on Kemba Walker in this re-draft, but they do pick up another point guard in Thomas. Charlotte’s ceiling is slightly lower with Thomas, who was somehow the last player taken in 2011. IT has improved so much since entering the league, I wonder if building around him as a rookie would be anywhere near as successful as building around him now. Either way, Thomas would have needed a lot of help (just like Kemba) after arriving in Charlotte.
8. Pistons: Chandler Parsons
Original pick: Brandon Knight
Parsons's original slot: 38
Parsons went in the second round of this draft, getting selected one pick after...Trey Thompkins? Parsons’s knees definitely look like an issue, but when healthy, he is a deadly shooter who can add a lot of flexibility to a team’s lineup. Brandon Knight was the pick here for Detroit originally, and he was eventually traded away for Brandon Jennings. Parsons wouldn’t have significantly altered Detroit’s status as a contender, but stopping that point guard shuffle probably creates a really weird set of butterfly-effect consequences.
9. Hornets: Jonas Valanciunas
Original pick: Kemba Walker
Valanciunas's original slot: 5
The Hornets still get a big man in this draft, taking Valanciunas at nine instead of Bismack Biyombo at seven. Pairing Thomas with Valanciunas makes Charlotte better in the short term, as Biyombo needed a couple years of seasoning before turning into an impact player. Long term? Charlotte probably doesn’t sign Al Jefferson two years later with Valanciunas manning the paint, and it’s possible the franchise’s turnaround to perennial playoff participant takes a little bit longer.
10. Kings: Reggie Jackson
Original pick: Jimmer Fredette
Jackson's original slot: 24
The Kings are saved by the Hornets, because Sacramento would have absolutely selected Valanciunas if he fell to 10, thus angering Boogie Cousins by taking a center in the lottery. Instead, Sacramento picks Reggie Jackson, who probably doesn’t get along with Cousins either. Jackson’s reputation as a teammate took a hit in Oklahoma City, and his shoot-first style could have been an awkward fit with Cousins. Either way, this pick is better than the reality, which is Sacramento pinning their hopes on Jimmer Fredette.
11. Warriors: Tobias Harris
Original pick: Klay Thompson
Harris's original slot: 19
No Splash Brothers. Tobias Harris would be fun on the Warriors, but it’s crazy to think how different the team would be if they hadn't ended up with Klay back in 2011. I’m not ready to go down that rabbit hole.
12. Jazz: Enes Kanter
Original pick: Alec Burks
Kanter's original slot: 3
Whoa! Poor Enes Kanter. In this alternate timeline, he still goes to the Jazz (albeit nine picks later) but the entire world around him is different. It’s basically what Captain America went through after they froze him and woke him up 70 years later.
13. Suns: Nikola Vucevic
Original pick: Markieff Morris
Vucevic's original slot: 16
The Suns get a center capable of putting up 20–10 instead of dealing with the Markieff Morris rollercoaster, which was equal parts heartbreak and headache. Short term, Vucevic probably wouldn’t have made Phoenix substantially better. Long term, his presence stops the team from signing that Tyson Chandler contract.
14. Rockets: Bismack Biyombo
Original pick: Marcus Morris
Biyombo's original slot: 7
Biyombo stays in the lottery and goes to Houston one year before the team acquires James Harden. The current version of Biyombo would certainly look great with the Rockets. If selected by Daryl Morey back in 2011, Biyombo at the very least would have been a better asset than Marcus Morris, who played in 71 games for the Rockets before being traded during his second season.