For decades, Marvel Comics has put out a series of "What If" books, postulating alternate realities that might have occurred if Stan Lee had been smoking a different strain of reefer. For instance: "What If Captain America Had Been Elected President?" (ironic). Or: "What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?" (hottt!). But the still-coolest What If scenario was the first one, from 1977: "What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?" That's a question every comic-book fan used to ask every day. It was a dream scenario that justified all the years we'd spent ignoring our actual problems while living in an imaginary reality where we knew the difference between the Green Hulk and the Gray Hulk.
Now the NBA is providing the same service for its equally nerdy, though probably drunker, fans. All season we've endured endless "What If" scenarios from the media figures who are paid to speculate for us by proxy. As anyone who's watched ESPN in the last three months would know, many star NBA players are scheduled to be eligible for free agency in 2010. Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Amare Stoudemire just might change franchises. But the biggest auction pony, by far, is LeBron James.
LeBron is one of the 10 most famous people in the world, the man of his times, and the greatest basketball player on earth. The prospect that he might change teams would be truly exciting, if it were the offseason and LeBron were actually a free agent. But it's not, and he won't be on the market for two years. Regardless, James, who last I saw was leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 20-4 record (they lost), is being heralded as the hero who will return the New York Knicks to glory. This despite the fact that—and I really can't emphasize this enough—he's not a free agent and currently plays in Cleveland.
Of course, LeBron isn't helping matters by saying stuff like, "You have to stay open-minded if you're a Knicks fan. ... If you guys want to sleep right now and don't wake up until July 1, 2010, then go ahead. It's going to be a big day." Now that's just freaking obnoxious. But the fish eats the worm every time. After LeBron's November visit to Madison Square Garden, the New York tabloids responded predictably, with headlines like"LeBron Likes What Knicks Are Doing" and "LeBron James' Pal Claims Knicks Are Favorites." It's like New Yorkers are waiting for LeBron to invite them to homecoming. The rest of the basketball punditocracy, meanwhile, has become so obsessed with next-decade scenarios that it's like this NBA season doesn't exist. Hear ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, the voice of today's fan: "The NBA's off-court subplots, in many ways, have become just as fun as anything happening on the court. Because of the Internet, sports radio, team blogs, better information guys and everything else, the whole trade/draft/free-agent market has practically evolved into its own sport to follow. ... The Summer of 2010 (it sounds like a blockbuster movie) ties everything we love about that goofy underbelly into one neat package."
In other words, basketball-land has become a real-life Marvel Comics "What If" book. What-Iffing isn't just a comic-book enterprise. The popular simulation site Whatifsports.com—create fake teams made up of your all-time favorite players!—has been enthralling sports nerds, myself included, for nearly a decade. But what's the point of a site like What If Sports now that imaginary basketball has been made real? After all, Simmons' beloved Boston Celtics are the most What If team ever constructed. The Celts, however awesome on the court, exist because of a series of implausible acquisitions that instantly transformed a terrible team into an amazing one: "What If the Timberwolves Dumped Kevin Garnett for Cents on the Dollar?" and "What If the Sonics Decided To Give Away Ray Allen?"
Last year, the NBA officially became a let's-pretend sport, with star players getting traded in the kind of deals that usually happen only in fantasy leagues where half the owners don't pay attention. The Lakers made it to the Finals by What-Ifing Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol. Other GMs tried their own moves—"What If Shaquille O'Neal Teamed Up With Steve Nash," and "What If Jason Kidd Returned to the Mavericks?"—that probably should've remained fictional. What If, no matter what happens, your team still can't get past the Spurs? And this season has already brought its own What If move, as the Pistons and Nuggets imagined a scenario where Chauncey Billups and Allen Iverson switched places. The Billups-Iverson deal actually might've been the first double What If move in NBA history, as Pistons GM Joe Dumars made the trade in part to free up salary cap space ... to maybe, possibly acquire LeBron James in 2010.
Why is What If management endemic to the NBA? It doesn't exist in the NFL, where trades are rare and any player can be cut at any time, not just in the summer of 2010. Major league baseball has been a What If hotbed for a long time, but baseball redemption can come from anywhere, including the minor leagues or Japan. And as the Steinbrenner family can tell you, no free-agent signing guarantees victory. Only in the NBA, the land of small rosters and more-or-less predetermined outcomes, can one or two players make the difference between the Finals and the lottery.
Half the league, it seems, now has What If fever, clearing cap space and punting real-life basketball games on the off-chance LeBron or Wade or Bosh might grace their courts in the 2010-11 season. The 2010 season has reared its head so soon because so many teams have nothing left for which to live. Nearly half the Western Conference is already effectively eliminated from this year's playoffs. The East, while more closely contested, isn't exactly a powder keg of suspense. So mostly we hear about LeBron. Will he go to the Knicks? Won't he go to the Knicks? What kinds of endorsements will emerge? The What If marketers of the NBA certainly wouldn't mind. Then they'd have their dream of LeBron in New York and Kobe in Los Angeles, plus maybe the Celtics and one other good team. The rest of the league would be left to What If bottom-feeding. ESPN.com has already begun running Chad Ford's lottery generator and mock draft so fans of failed teams can have their own pretend scenarios, such as: "What If Ricky Rubio Ran the Point for the Washington Wizards?" Meanwhile, ESPN's "trade machine" keeps the rest of us busy. For instance, I just concocted a deal where LeBron goes to Phoenix in exchange for Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic, Robin Lopez, and Alando Tucker. Personally, I think the Suns would come out quite well in that exchange.
Perhaps everyone is overspeculating because we pretty much know this season's outcome already. The NBA Finals will be a rematch of the What If Lakers and the What If Celtics, and the Celtics are going to win again with their superior defense and incredibly balanced scoring attack. They're just so damn good, with their Fantastic Four and all. But what if Spider-Man joined them? That would be awesome.