NBA Butterfly Effect: What if the Suns had gotten Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

MILWAUKEE, WI - MARCH 3: NBA Hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks during a press conference prior to the game between the Utah Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks on March 3, 2014 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - MARCH 3: NBA Hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks during a press conference prior to the game between the Utah Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks on March 3, 2014 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The history of the NBA is a tangled web of what-ifs and could-have-beens. This week at The Step Back, we’re going to pull on some of those threads to alternate futures, focusing in on key turning points in the history of players, teams and the league itself, wondering how things could have been different. Welcome to Butterfly Effect Week.

There is more than one huge what-if surrounding the team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — then Lew Alcindor — would end up on once he finished his collegiate career at UCLA.

The ABA’s New York Nets, before they moved to New Jersey and then Brooklyn, got the chance to make Abdul-Jabbar a contract offer, same as the Bucks — the team with his NBA Draft rights — did. The Brooklyn offer was a low-ball. Milwaukee’s wasn’t. Abdul-Jabbar went to the Bucks and gifted the franchise its only title, while the ABA folded a few years later.

There was another big turning point that occurred around that time as well, one that took the form of a literal coin flip. See, the NBA Draft lottery did not exist in 1969. It’s predecessor was even less logical. The worst team in the NBA’s Eastern and Western Divisions flipped a coin to determine who got the first pick, then it went by order after that.

Read More: What if Andrew Bynum hadn’t gone bowling?

The Bucks and Suns, both expansion teams who were bad in their first year of existence, ended up as the two teams who would flip for the first pick in 1969. That pick was always going to be Abdul-Jabbar — he was so good in college the NCAA banned the dunk, and the only reason he didn’t win more than three titles at UCLA was because he had to play on the freshman team his first year. That team beat the UCLA varsity team. You can probably guess who MVP of that game was.

The Suns were actually clearly worse than the Bucks. Phoenix only won 16 games that season, while Milwaukee won 27. That may make it seem like the Suns got shafted by modern lottery standards, but that’s not actually true — the worst team in the NBA only has a 25 percent chance of getting the top pick in the modern lottery, half as good as the 50 percent chance the Suns got. Phoenix was just plain unlucky.

Or, more precisely, the city of Phoenix was wrong. Jerry Colangelo, then GM of the Suns, told the L.A. Times the fans got to vote on how the team would call the coin flip via a newspaper poll. They picked heads. Apparently, tails never fails wasn’t a fact known by the majority of Phoenix residents in 1969.

There are so many implausibilities involved in the telling of the background to this what-if that we’re not even actually to it yet, but there’s one more incredible detail about this coin flip that needs to be shared: it happened over the phone. Representatives of the Bucks and Suns found out who got Kareem Freaking Abdul-Jabbar over the phone. It’s not polite to dump somebody over the phone — imagine finding out you get Neil Walk instead of Abdul-Jabbar that way!

Anyway, here we finally are: What if the Suns won the coin flip for the first pick in the 1969 NBA Draft and subsequently selected Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

We’re going to eliminate the possibility that the Suns somehow took a player besides Abdul-Jabbar, because they would not have. Colangelo himself admitted that the team planned on adding Abdul-Jabbar basically since its inception.

"“We had drafted in the expansion draft a group of young guys that would have fit perfectly with Lew Alcindor,” Colangelo says, naming Dick Van Arsdale and future Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. “I just felt like we were going to win the flip and we would have been in a prime position to have a good long run.”"

Now that that possibility is out of the way, let’s answer some more questions that would invariably come up from discussing this what-if. That seems like the best way of working through this.

The biggest question, of course, is: Would the Suns have won a title with Abdul-Jabbar?

The answer is almost invariably yes. As Colangelo mentioned, the Suns had a pair of 25-year-olds in Van Arsdale and Goodrich who both averaged more than 20 points per game in Phoenix’s first season, and both of whom could play alongside Abdul-Jabbar.

The Suns also had Connie Hawkins, himself a future five-time All-Star and Hall of Famer. Even without Abdul-Jabbar, the Suns improved to be 39-43 in the 1969-70 NBA season and 48-34 in the 1971 season, despite a bizarre move to the newly-formed Midwest Division, the same one the Bucks were in that season.

The 1970-71 season is an important one because it’s Milwaukee’s lone title season, in part thanks to Oscar Robertson joining the team but largely due to Abdul-Jabbar being the unquestionable best player in the league that season. His presence meant the Bucks were a contender every year. It’s hard to imagine the Suns, with Abdul-Jabbar, Goodrich, Hawkins and Van Arsdale, would not have gotten a ring.

“But wait,” you say. “The Suns traded Goodrich for Mel Counts before the 1970-71 NBA season. Does this still happen, and if so does it ruin Phoenix’s title hopes?”

That’s a good and interesting question, hypothetical reader. I would imagine that Phoenix felt the need to trade Gail Goodrich, a former All-Star and solid 20-point-per-game scorer, for Mel Counts, who never scored more than 12.6 points per game, in an attempt to find a center, since they didn’t get Abdul-Jabbar. That means if Goodrich were still traded, there’s no way it’s for a center straight-up, not with Abdul-Jabbar on the team.

So, next question: Do the Suns win more than one title with Abdul-Jabbar around?

This is an interesting question, too. Milwaukee got just one championship with Abdul-Jabbar, since he only stayed on the team for six seasons. Could Phoenix potentially win more in that amount of time?

They probably could. As previously mentioned, The Big O coming to Milwaukee was a massive turning point for the team, as the three-headed-monster of Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Dandridge allowed Milwaukee to walk through the 1971 postseason and claim the franchise’s first title.

Robertson spent just four years with the Bucks. He was an All-Star in two of those seasons, but his production dropped steadily each year, and he retired after the 1973-74 season. Goodrich was in his prime over the course of those four seasons, earning All-Star nods in three of them.

Van Arsdale was also in his prime then, getting one All-Star nod in that four-year period and scoring more than 17 points in all four of them. Hawkins struggled in the 1973-74 season, but he was an All-Star in the previous three seasons. That Phoenix team would have been a legitimate super team, and the Suns had all of those players before the 1971 draft, meaning they could’ve kept them all and added Abdul-Jabbar.

So, despite the presence of some great Celtics and Knicks teams in that era, it’s hard to imagine the Abdul-Jabbar Suns not winning multiple championships, especially since the Abdul-Jabbar Bucks are not around.

Finally, the last question involving Phoenix here: Does Abdul-Jabbar leave for Los Angeles like he did in the real version of his career?

Abdul-Jabbar always maintained that it was a lifestyle change that drove him to request a trade to the Lakers, not the Bucks on-court product. Still, it’s worth noting that his request came after the Bucks worst-ever season with him on the roster, a 38-win team that couldn’t survive without Abdul-Jabbar after he got hurt before the regular season started.

Those Bucks were 35-30 with Abdul-Jabbar in his 65 games played, meaning the team was an atrocious 3-14 without him. In Milwaukee’s first season without Robertson, the team cratered and suddenly Abdul-Jabbar was out.

If Abdul-Jabbar is in Phoenix, maybe he never gets hurt in the first place. Even if he does, maybe a Suns team with younger stars who don’t age into retirement like Robertson can hold up without him for a while, giving the NBA’s all-time leading scorer a better shot at winning more.

But still, even if it did come down to lifestyle more than anything else, would Abdul-Jabbar have stayed in Phoenix? Maybe. When asked about preferring being drafted by the Suns as part of that same LA Times article, Abdul-Jabbar didn’t shoot down liking the fit there.

"“The weather’s a lot better. And my good friend Connie Hawkins ended up there.”"

It’s impossible to really tell — the Lakers are the Lakers, after all — but there’s at least a chance Abdul-Jabbar stays with the Suns for longer. He won six total titles in his real-life NBA career, a number which a super-powered Suns team might have been able to match.

One Abdul-Jabbar question: Would his career change significantly if the Suns drafted him instead of Milwaukee?

Probably not, and if it did it’d be for the better, barring some sort of injury thing. Assuming he’s also pretty damn healthy in Phoenix, Abdul-Jabbar might win more titles in his first six NBA seasons, only adding to his incredible NBA resume.

Finally: What about the Bucks?

Milwaukee probably doesn’t have any championships without Abdul-Jabbar. The “probably” rides on the Bucks draft record in the Abdul-Jabbar years, which is terrible. The only players of substance Milwaukee drafted in the six seasons he was around were Swen Nater and Julius Irving, who chose the ABA over the NBA and never played a minute for the Bucks.

If the Bucks were terrible without Abdul-Jabbar for those seasons, they would’ve had shots at drafting players like ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich, Bob McAdoo, Bobby Jones and Bill Walton. Of course there’s no guarantee they get any of those players, and those six drafts were not exactly star-studded in the top few picks outside of those four players.

It’s more than likely that the Bucks never win any titles without Abdul-Jabbar. The only way they do is if the team added somebody good in those years who stuck around until the 1980-81 season, when Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief won 60 games on a fantastic Bucks team.

Next: What if Jason Kidd joined the NBA Champion Spurs

There are lots of earth-shattering what-ifs involving Abdul-Jabbar. Hell, the NBA might’ve folded and we might all be Virginia Squires fans right now if he’d picked the ABA. But it’s tough to find a bigger Suns what-if than adding Abdul-Jabbar to a team filled with potential even without him.