I am almost done with Dr. J's autobiography. It's been a fantastic read. I absolutely love learning more about NBA/ABA history. And if you enjoy audiobooks as much as I do, there's a huge bonus -- Dr. J. reads it himself.
Although Dr. J is considered an all-time great, it seems like the era that he played in hurts his legacy. As I mentioned recently, people consider Michael Jordan an all-time great because of the combination of his titles and his marketing. For Dr. J, sadly, both of these were more elusive. Dr. J's best years came when he played in the ABA, when no one was watching. And although more people watched in the NBA, most of his teams were just a step behind the juggernauts, like the Magic/Kareem Lakers and the Bird/McHale/Parish Celtics. With that in mind, here are some major "what ifs" in Dr. J's career.
What if Dr. J went to Atlanta?
Dr. J entered the ABA as an underclassman and went to the Virginia Squires. Like most ABA teams, they had money issues. Also, the agent that negotiated Julius' contract worked for the Squires. Dr. J decided to try to hop ship, and signed a contract with the Atlanta Hawks. This contract and the legal battle around it were intricate and confusing. In the end, Dr. J never played for the Hawks. But the Hawks won 46 games in 1973 without the doctor, who played a great year for the Squires. Atlanta fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Celtics and then fell into obscurity in the following seasons. Dr. J made a major jump in his third season and went on to the rule the ABA. Could Dr. J have turned the Hawks into a contender in the 70s?
What if Dr. J went to Milwaukee?
This is a much bigger question, because Dr. J already had both an ABA (the Squires) and NBA (the Hawks) contract. However, the already stocked Milwaukee Bucks had two first round picks. They gambled one on Dr. J. This was an interesting gamble -- a team that was just two years off an NBA title and had won 63 games the season before wanted to add Dr. J to the mix! This team had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his prime and a still-productive Oscar Robertson. In 1973 this team went on to win 60 games and could have been the super team to end all super teams. Sadly it was not to be; legal battles ended up leaving Dr. J back on the Squires.
What if the Nets stay together after the merger?
In 1976 the Nets would upset the Denver Nuggets in the last ABA finals. While listening to Dr. J talk about the Nuggets being up 22 points in game 6, I almost threw my phone against the wall. The Nuggets were a superior team! Sadly, the doc had their number in the finals. But I digress.
Anyway, in Dr. J's words, the merger was more of a capitulation. The Nets had to pay the NBA millions to get in, pay the Knicks millions in territorial fees, and oh yeah, pay the Spirits TV revenue. The end result was they could not afford their star studded roster. The Nets lost Dr. J, Jim Eakins, and Brian Taylor and turned into a 22 win team.
Dr. J played great on the 76ers and took his team to the finals in his first year before losing to the Blazers, despite winning the first two games. The NBA was arguably at its weakest, with 50-win teams making the finals. This was just before the NBA became the collection of super teams dominating the finals (Larry and Magic entered the league three seasons later). Had the Nets kept their team together, they could have contended and perhaps won a title. Instead, Dr. J would go on to be the greatest 76er ever, make it to four finals, and the Nets would wallow in obscurity.
What if Barkley had been a Year Earlier?
The above scenarios were of course possible. This one is a complete hypothetical. In the star-studded 1984 draft, the 76ers picked up Charles Barkley, one of the greatest forwards ever. They had a team with Dr. J, Moses Malone, and Mo Cheeks. Dr. J was far removed from his prime, and Moses Malone was just exiting his, and his skills overlapped with Charles'. This caused the 76ers to foolishly trade Malone after two seasons. The 76ers managed to make it to the eastern conference finals once, and make the playoffs every year with the doctor and the round mound of rebound, but never won a title with the two of them. However, had these two played together in their prime? It might have been enough to keep around Moses Malone, and could have been another title team. The Boston Celtics managed to get KG, Allen, and Pierce together right before they left their primes. The 76ers almost did the same, but sadly just missed out.
It's always fun to look over a player's career and wonder "what if?" And in the already amazing career of Dr. J, it's even more fun thanks to the "wild west" days of the NBA and ABA, where there were many brushes with amazing alternate realities. Of course, the version that played out was pretty remarkable, so I really shouldn't complain!