Finding the greatest ‘what if’

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If there’s ever a question basketball junkies love to talk about, it’s the “what if.”

I think about “what ifs” every day, in part because they give me the ability to say, “The Celtics would have won in 2009 if Kevin Garnett was healthy,” but mostly because they offer a break from reality. I know how history played out. What I don’t know is what could have been, had one decision changed or one moment been different.

Basketball fans are just like me, flocking to forums, bars and living rooms to rant and rave over the inherently unknowable. And as a sport with an infinite slew of “what ifs,” their conversations will never end.

Yet in this sea of unknowable futures and times never realized, I wonder what the greatest “what if” is. What is the question that, when answered, changes basketball? Put more simply, what moment, if it could be different, would have most fundamentally altered the NBA?

In answering this question, I’m going to limit myself to “what ifs” regarding injuries, as they are the most quantifiable, even if quantifiability is inherently futile.

The NBA injury question spans so many players that it’s impossible to name them all. But in searching for the great “what if,” I’m looking for the player that wasn’t just above average, good or even elite. I want the greatest “what if,” the player who, when healthy, is among the pantheon of basketball gods.

Right off the bat, I’m eliminating the players who were injured before they proved greatness. This means that players like Len Bias, who tragically died before reaching the NBA, or athletes with fewer than several seasons under their belt, such as Greg Oden, aren’t in consideration. While the “what if” question doesn’t have an answer, we can at least focus on the players whose lost careers were almost guaranteed successes.

The next group of players that needs to be taken out of consideration is the good, but not great. This means they might have been borderline all-stars or key role players, but they were never at the level of star. Arvydas Sabonis is a prime example of this tier of “what if,” whose play was valuable but never great. Likewise, Baron Davis, Jamal Mashburn and any other close but no cigar player lies in this tier.

At the next-to-highest tier, you have certified all-stars and Hall of Fame inductees. Think players like Pistol Pete Maravich, Tracy McGrady, Bill Walton or Bob McAdoo. These are players who not only proved how great their careers were, but were also in the upper echelon of their respective eras. They are the closest we can get to a guaranteed answer to the “what if” question.

And then there’s one player. One player whose play knew no bounds. Whose career was among the greats. One player, who rose above the “what ifs.”

Derrick Rose.

It’s hard to overstate how great Rose was. He entered the league by far and away the best player in his class, balling his way to Rookie of the Year in 2009. The very next season, he was selected to his first all-star game, and just one year later, he was crowned the best basketball player of the 2011 season.

He wasn’t just a “good stats” on a “bad team” type of guy, either. The 2011 Chicago Bulls won a then league-best 62 games that season and were one series away from a Finals berth. D-Rose was the best player on the best team.

But putting his accomplishments aside, what makes Rose special and the greatest “what if” isn’t just that he had a track record of success. Rather, it’s his unparalleled season to season progression. He won the MVP at 22 years old. For context, LeBron James was the youngest player to receive the MVP since 1981, and he was 24.

It was Rose. And it was LeBron. But it took LeBron, arguably the greatest — definitely a top-three — player of all time, six seasons. It took Rose three.

That’s why Rose’s injury is the greatest “what if” in basketball. If he progressed at even a 10th of the level he had in his first three seasons, he wouldn’t just be an MVP. He’d be the GOAT. He wasn’t just on track for greatness — he was already great, with a long and fruitful career in front of him. The 2010s may belong to teams like the Heat and the Warriors, but this decade should have belonged to Rose. The “what if” is almost irrelevant. Because it isn’t even a question. That’s how great he was.

Of course, he won’t always be the greatest “what if.” Some other players will come along and be taken from us far too young. Just as Brandon Roy, Tracy McGrady and Len Bias fade from our memories, so too will Derrick Rose. But for now, the greatest “what if” is ironically not even up for debate.

“What if Derrick Rose wasn’t injured?”

Michael Brust is a weekly columnist. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBesports.