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.
The shot itself is a thing of singular beauty.
It was just one of 3,358 shots Ray Allen made from a similar distance but it likely stands as the greatest of his long career. Because it capped an improbable comeback in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Because it seemed so unlikely that Chris Bosh would pull down the rebound that led to it, or that Allen would obsessively and precisely know how far back he could step before unleashing it. And because, as the ball fell gently through the net, it sent a message that those yellow ropes, just seconds away from cordoning off the hardwood floor of the AmericanAirlines Arena, should get motherf***in’ outta’ here.
Years later, the shot is remembered as one of the most significant in NBA Finals, and perhaps the league’s, history. The improbability of that comeback has certainly added to its legend, so much so that it’s often overlooked that the victory, in the game or the series, remained very much in doubt. Special moments are transcendent in that way, beyond the cloying reach of time and rational thought, and this one has certainly achieved that.
As far back as 2013, the game was already being dissected as a legacy-defining one, even prior to its white-knuckling finish. Four years later and with history already written, the challenge is to un-write it and determine what might have happened without Allen’s late-game heroics. In one alternate universe, he was called for a travel; in another, one toe might have overstretched onto the 3-point line. Perhaps it was something more dull — like six out of every 10 3-pointers Allen attempted, this one might simply have missed the mark.
The point remains, however, that if making the shot has led to overstating its significance, there might be even more value in understanding the potential outcomes if Allen and the Miami Heat had somehow fallen short.
The individual impact is difficult to estimate but there’s a good chance that the shooter himself, Allen, would have fared best had he missed the shot. His Hall-of-Fame career was well-established, and he had already secured a title in 2008. There are plenty of clutch shots that already defined him and, as a role player with Miami in 2013, he would probably not have been scapegoated for the failure to win a championship. Still, there would have been plenty of mockery to go around, particularly from Boston Celtics players and fans that felt (and perhaps still feel) betrayed by Allen’s decision to join their Eastern Conference rivals in 2012.
While making the shot and subsequently winning a title justified his departure, failure to do so would surely have left a sour taste. It’s been rumored that Allen bristled as a part of Miami’s system during the two years he spent with the Heat; without the buzz of 2013 to sustain him, he might just as easily have called it a career after losing to the Spurs. When he did, in reality, retire just a year later, the iconic image of Game 6 was a positive memory etched in time. If he had missed, the last we might have seen of him was walking away after a brutal loss, head lowered as he made his way past the yellow ropes he hadn’t kept at bay.
Most of Miami’s role players during the 2012-13 season were with the team the previous season, with Allen and Rashard Lewis as the most notable exceptions. For Lewis, one of the best 3-point shooters in NBA history, this was his last, best shot at a title. He did play another season in Miami but a loss in 2013 might have forced him to ring-chase elsewhere. He would eventually have retired without a title and been remembered as a solid shooter with a contract many felt he could never live up to. Losing in 2013 wouldn’t have done much to change the perception of players like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Joel Anthony or even the stalwart heart of the team, Udonis Haslem.
Miami’s superstars bore the most responsibility for their team’s success and, similarly, would have been most impacted by a 2013 loss. Dwyane Wade was likely headed to the Hall-of-Fame before the Heat’s “Big 3” era began in 2010 but there’s no denying that this co-mingling of stars changed the narrative of his storied career. As time went on and he took a lesser role next to LeBron James, Wade was widely viewed as an aging, diminished star — moments of greatness were fewer and further between. A two-time champion, a third title might not necessarily have altered perception of Wade.
Still, it certainly helped stave off the criticism that would dog the team the following season. That year was a brutal slog for Miami, with the wear of three straight trips to the Finals starting to show, punctuated by a “maintenance program” that kept Wade out of 28 games. While Wade would, in reality, play another three injury-marred seasons in Miami, perhaps team president Pat Riley might have expedited the separation from Wade that eventually took place in 2016. Winning in 2013 was a good reason to keep the band together the following season. But a loss to the Spurs, coupled with James’ continued evolution as the game’s best player, might have cut Wade’s tenure in Miami short.
If Wade’s career arc might have been tarnished by Allen’s missed shot, no player crystallizes the impact of Game 6 on an individual as much as James. His alternative timeline is harder to discern, but even without a title in 2013 and still in his prime, there’s still an incredible career that might have been shaped differently. Would a rebuilt Heat roster have enticed James to stay? Or, conversely, would he have requested a trade and looked to start over elsewhere after losing in the Finals twice in three seasons?
Sans his second championship, James’ need to secure his legacy would have taken on a new level of desperation. A 1-3 record in the Finals wouldn’t fall squarely on James’ shoulders (with the exception of 2011, when Dallas’ J.J. Barea proved to be as adept at defending James as Kawhi Leonard), but would further weaken his place among the game’s most-accomplished winners. If current comparisons between James and Michael Jordan seem exhausting, imagine them in a world where the former’s regular-season statistics would have meant nothing compared to the latter’s 6-0 record in the Finals.
James has compared his tenure with the Heat to being “like college” and, having won just one title in Miami, he might have pursued a more successful graduate degree elsewhere. A return to the Cavaliers would still be a potential option later in James’ career but, in the interim, there would be opportunities to win more championships, perhaps in Los Angeles alongside Kobe Bryant, or in San Antonio, playing for Gregg Popovich.
For his part, Bosh plays a bigger part of this future-that-never-was than you might expect, fitting for someone whose career has been so vastly underrated. Miami’s success in 2012-13 was due in no small part to Bosh’s emergence as a small-ball center that could stretch the floor while defending perimeter players. Riley was reportedly opposed to Erik Spoelstra’s smallish lineups featuring Bosh at center and, while he had been hesitant to meddle with Spoelstra’s coaching, a second Finals loss in three attempts might have proved too much to ignore. There had been grumblings about trading Bosh in 2011, which thankfully subsided after Miami’s championship the following year. But it’s not to hard to envision those flaring up again in 2013 if a title hadn’t been the result.
That year’s list of free agents included centers like Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, as well as point guard Chris Paul, one of James’ best friends in the league. Riley might have looked to move Bosh in favor of anyone of these players, to either feature a more-traditional lineup (consider the lobs from James to Howard) or a pass-centric offense that included Paul instead of Chalmers and with Anthony at center. Here’s where impacts start to progress from the individual to the league-wide: Bosh’s likely departure might prematurely have ended the latest incarnation of small-ball, one that features as much versatility as possible, before it really began.
The same could be said of the Spurs, fresh off this theoretical championship. Individually, it’s harder to predict if a title in 2013 would have made more of an impact than it did the following year. Tim Duncan would still have won his fifth championship, albeit a year sooner. Perhaps he would have retired earlier than he actually did, maybe even to accommodate James in a Spurs uniform. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili still have their Hall-of-Fame legacies intact. We might have been robbed of another season of Boris Diaw’s worldly charm, or his growth as a player. Maybe Leonard might not have taken the leap that he did without the 2013 loss to facilitate a system reboot.
Moreover, the Spurs would have — again, very fittingly — changed as a team and thus had more far-ranging impacts. The 2013-14 San Antonio team seemed better in almost every way than they were the year before, motivated by the the title they let slip through their fingers the previous season. Without that motivation, would the Spurs have pushed through to the league’s best record? Would they have mustered the energy to beat back the Dallas Mavericks in an opening series that went a full seven games? What if San Antonio had managed to make it to the Western Conference finals only to meet a younger, hungrier Oklahoma City Thunder team. Perhaps the Thunder would have moved on to the Finals; they might even have advanced and won the title. Would Kevin Durant have left Oklahoma City in 2016 if he had achieved his championship goal?
That 2013-14 Spurs team played with a dynamic style that provided a template for years to come, one as aesthetically pleasing as it would prove inspirational. Assistant coach Mike Budenholzer joined the Atlanta Hawks in 2013 and would duplicate that pace to the best of his abilities, transforming that team into an unlikely 60-win unit the following season. Dubbed “Spurs East” by many pundits, they provided the most concrete facsimile of the Spurs, even if they have yet to match San Antonio’s postseason success.
But what of the Golden State Warriors? Steve Kerr has effusively praised Popovich as one of his mentors and implemented a system that was modeled in some ways after the Spurs. While the Warriors had the personnel to evolve that style further, the genetic blueprint — passing quickly and often, finding the best shot available and playing constricting defense — has some direct links to the Spurs’ championship success. Bosh, too, can be seen as influence, especially when Draymond Green and his versatile game helped unlock the Warriors’ potential as a historically-great team.
The common trope of a “make or miss league” can often feel like an oversimplification but Allen’s late-game shooting certainly proves it true; perhaps that’s why it felt — and continues to feel — like such an important, singular moment. On the surface, we were watching a clutch performance on the game’s brightest stage and yet its true depth will remain tantalizingly unknown. It might very well have been the first flutter of a butterfly wing, helping the NBA soar upwards along the evolutionary ladder. It potentially kept legacies intact, preserved individual careers and whole teams alike. Allen’s shot decisively sent those ropes away but a miss unravels into infinity, yellow strings stretching into a web of imagined possibilities.