The year was 1986. The Boston Celtics were already the Boston Celtics back then. Of their current 17 championships, the C’s had won 16 already by the summer of ‘86. Even more, Boston was still celebrating their last chip when the NBA hit draft time. As ridiculous as it sounds, the Celtics would be drafting at the second-overall spot in the 1986 NBA draft thanks to a trade that took place in April 1984 with the Seattle Supersonics. Just as if Boston needed more fuel, they would be getting one of Ron Harper, Chuck Person, Brad Daugherty, Jeff Hornacek, Dennis Rodman... or Maryland native Len Bias.
In fact, that last name is the one itched to Boston’s history. The Celtics selected Bias with the second pick of the draft after he had spent four years playing college ball at Maryland. He had become a monster there, racking up accolades: two times ACC POY, another two First-Team All-ACC, ACC Athlete of the Year, consensus Second-Team All-American in 1985, and consensus First-Team All-American in 1986 as a senior. And the list probably goes on and on a lower-level set of achievements, such as playing 37 MPG, scoring 23.2 PPG, and grabbing 7.0 RPG during his last year at Maryland while hitting 86.4% of his freebies.
You can go and Google his name, and you won’t find anything sort of Michael Jordan comparisons, “generational” labels, etc. I’m not exaggerating. Len Bias was probably the next-big-thing, and Boston (remember, a 16-time champion franchise with the Larry OB just took from the basketball oven and put in the Celtics showcase mere days before the draft). Boston had all of the reasons to be ecstatic, until the unthinkable happened.
For this scenario, we’re going all the way back to the 1986-87 pre-season, just after the 1986 NBA draft. To be more precise, we’re exactly on June 18, 1986. If you know the story, then you know Bias was drafted on June 17 to die only two days later on June 19, leaving Boston without their soon-to-be second-overall pick and rookie. This alternate universe is meant to test what could have the Celtics done had Bias not died in 1986, but instead had a full NBA career.
Each alternate universe changes depending on the situation, players, and teams involved, but for this one, I’m focusing on the Celtics primarily. Leading up to Bias’ death Boston had won 16 championships and four of them in a span of 10 years going back to 1976. They had also lost the 1985 Finals, and made a couple of trips to the conference finals too. Simply put, the Celtics were a machine poised to keep it going for long. Without Bias, though, the Celtics lost the 1987 Finals and the 1988 conference finals. They never won another chip until the trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen (shouts to Rajon Rondo too!) made it possible in 2008.
With Bias, though, things would have looked like this at the start of the 1986-87 campaign.
That is some stocked roster right there. The Celtics were already carrying Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson. All of them posted 6.7+ Win Shares in the title-winning 1986 season. Even Bill Walton, already 33, reached 5.0 WS. Add Bias to that, who entered the league (according to this simulation) with an OVR rating of 68 (Ron Harper, just for comparison with another rookie from 1986, is a 65; Michael Jordan is a 74; Bird is the best player in the game at 78).
Basically, it was chip or bust for these Celtics. And that shouldn’t be the case just for the 1987 season.
1987 to 1989: Great Core, Bad Outcomes
You know the team Boston started with: Bird, Bias, McHale, Johnson, Parish, and Ainge off the bench. That was the main core for 1987, when Boston went all the way to... the second round of the playoffs and out at the hands of New York, which had traded for Reggie Theus earlier in the year and turned him into their best player.
The Celtics were able to sign Ricky Pierce for the 1988 season and retained the rest of the pieces, making it to the conference finals... and losing to New York again. No super big deal, though, considering the Knicks had added Dominique Wilkins as a free agent that summer and rode three players (Wilkins, Theus, and Gerald Wilkins) to the chip while getting 20+ PER on the year (Patrick Ewing finished with 15.1).
The 1989 season was quite different for Boston, as Parish was already cooked, Ricky Pierce dropped his production a ton, and only Len Bias (21.7 PER) and Larry Bird (31.5) were able to carry the team... to another second-round exit against New York again (the Knicks would lose the Finals to Denver).
Bias himself had delivered on the expectations: he snatched the Rookie of the Year award in 1987 at age-22, made the All-Rookie team, and was named to the All-Star game during the three-year span while even making the Second and Third All-League teams three times and the Third All-Defensive another three. Truth be told, Bias couldn’t do much more and Bird was already giving it all and winning MVP awards effortlessly.
1990 to 1995: The Glory Years
The new decade kicked off with something in everybody’s mind: the East was a conference of four teams (New York, Boston, Milwaukee, and Philly) mainly ruled by the Knicks. Michael Jordan was good but never reached the cult-level we all know him for in our world, and the Bulls were a middle-of-the-pack team at best. Detroit missed the playoffs more often than not. And the Celtics, well, had two of the most dominant players in the league but couldn’t do anything to overcome the competition... until the 90s arrived...
...and with them the banners!
After endless rumors of a potential retirement due to a frustrating run with Bias in town, Bird decided to extend his contract with Boston at least until 1996 even being already 34 years old. Lenny was entering his peak at age-25 and the Celtics had traded for Michael Adams in 1989, who would become an important piece of the 1990 championship team.
Boston absolutely destroyed the field posting the best regular-season record (65-17) beating the second-best team in the league (Dallas) by nine wins. Those Mavs couldn’t even make it past the first round in a major upset by Houston, and facing Utah in the Finals Boston confirmed its supremacy after leaving Milwaukee (4-0), Indiana (4-0), and New York (4-1) in the dust before sweeping the Jazz. The Jazz, by the way, who had lost John Stockton to Philly as a free agent in 1988—although he would retire in 1994, so they didn’t miss out that much.
After spending five seasons in Philadelphia, Charles Barkley became a free agent in the summer of 1989 and half the NBA was trying to acquire his services. It was Boston who ultimately snatched him and added his power to an already-great team in which he would become an immediate starter along with Bias and Bird—he only played 46 games due to injury in 1990, though.
The core remained in place for the 1991 season, with Barkley, Bird, and Bias logging 72+ games played and all of them averaging 20+ PER on the season with Bird breaking for a league-leading 31.9 mark (25.2 PPG, 9.7 APG, 7.1 RPG). Barkley was a beast on the boards averaging a 15-12 line nightly with Bias contributing a solid 20-7-2 himself. Michael Smith, drafted in 1989, was also developing into an above-average player coming off the bench (25.5 MPG, 15.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 18.8 PER) and that was all Boston needed to conquer the league on back-to-back seasons.
The path was a tad bit different this time, but the round-by-round outcomes very similar. A couple of sweeps and a gentleman’s one against Washington in the first round were enough to reach the Finals. On the west side of the picture, Houston completed a nice run to the championship round but they were never a match for the Celtics. Houston was more an all-for-one team than anything else and had no clear leader in its roster. James Worthy (21 PER, 18-6-2) and Rodney McCray (21.2, 13-8-6) were the two best players of the team, but three more averaged 10+ points on the season with Hot Rod Williams the third-best by PER at 16.7. In any case, the difference was notable between both teams and Boston won its second title of the 90s in a resounding fashion.
After those 65- and 50-win seasons, the Celtics regressed a bit in the following two years. They won 43 and 48 games, made the playoffs both times, but were out in the first and second rounds respectively. Boston made it back to the Finals in 1994, this time facing the Golden State Warriors. Charles had already left the team, but two additions had made up for his absence: Richard Dumas and Scott Brooks. Add the 15th-overall pick of the 1992 draft, Malik Sealy, to the equation and five players of those Celtics posted PER marks over 18+ that year, again with Bird leading the bunch at age-38 with a 20.7 PER and another monster average line of 26-6-6 in 25.6 MPG. Bias himself kept his high level of performance with an 18-7-2 season and a 19.0 PER. The difference between the Warriors (60-22) and the Celtics (45-37) was too big to bridge, and Golden State destroyed Boston 4-1 in a Finals series without much story in which Mark Macon, Sleepy Floyd, and Don MacLean dominated the game.
It was one year later, in 1995, when all stars aligned to give NBA fans its dose of Lakers vs. Celtics—something that had not happened since the 1985 Finals when Boston fell to the Kareem-led Lakers 4-2. The final outcome of the 1995 Finals was entirely flipped, with Boston winning the chip 4-2 over Los Angeles.
Mike Jordan had finally reached his peak by 1995 and the Bulls were the toughest opponent Boston faced that year—Chicago would go on to make the Finals in both 1996 and 1997, though they never won the title with Jordan. Boston kept the same team together, and again added a quality player through the draft (as they did with Sealy) in 1994 when they drafted Eddie Jones 17th-overall. This was the first season in which Bird started showing aging symptoms—yes, already aged 39...—and it was all about Bias, Dumas, and Brooks to carry the Celts to the Larry OB. Although Boston got to hang the banner, kudos must go to the Lakers. The six players with the highest minutes-per-game averages in LA were all homegrown talents acquired through the draft: Nick Van Exel (10th-overall), Sasha Danilovic (11th), Charles Smith (11th), Lindsey Hunter (32nd), Lee Mayberry (33rd), and Sharone Wright (8th). All of them except Charles Smith were also 25 years of age or younger, but even with that they made it all the way to the Finals. One year later, in 1996, the Lake Show would be celebrating a championship in Hollywood after beating the very own Willie Burton’s and Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
1996 to 2001: A Completely Bias-ed Career
After winning three titles in a span of just six years from 1990 to 1995, the Celtics never tasted champagne again leading up to the moment Len Bias retired in 2001 after playing 1,038 games for Boston and averaging 17.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.2 APG and a 20.2 PER mark in his 15 years as a pro.
Most probably thanks to the 1990 and 1991 titles—and the presence of Charles Barkley, Len Bias, and Scott Brooks in Boston—Larry Bird opted to extend his career way beyond the point everyone expected, playing until the end of the 1998 season. That Bird was nothing close to the Bird we had seen years before, of course, but he still brought a passion to the court each and every one of the 24 times he stepped into one during his farewell tour with Boston averaging a paltry 1.7 PPG but an impossible 69.2 three-point percentage in his last year playing in the NBA.
The Celtics as a team still made the playoffs five of the six possible seasons between 1996 and 2001, only missing on it in 1999. After finishing that year with a 32-50 record, Boston was awarded the 6th-overall pick in the 1999 draft, which they used on Leon Smith, a center with massive potential and a little bit of a disappointing rookie season of 8-5-1 averages. Some voices around the franchise—including the very own Larry Bird—criticized the pick, labeling Smith as a bust from day one and lamenting on Boston passing on other players such as Shawn Marion (7th), Baron Davis (8th), Steve Francis (14th), Jason Terry (15th), and James Posey (12th).
Coinciding with the arrival of Leon Smith, Boston entered the free-agent market with its eyes on a clear target: Kevin Garnett. The big man from the Indiana Pacers was about to test the market and the Celtics were able to sign him, adding KG to a roster that already featured Len Bias and a plethora of draft picks from years prior (most notably Rashard Lewis and Eddie Jones).
All of that led the Celtics to back-to-back conference finals appearances in 2000 and 2001, although they couldn’t beat Indiana first (4-2, with the Pacers led by a 28.7-PER Kobe Bryant that would get that year’s championship) and the Nets second (4-3, with New Jersey riding a stocked roster made of Zyd Ilgauskas, Stephen Jackson, and Dirk Nowitzki).
Both Bias and Bird made the Hall of Fame just after retiring in 2001 and 1998 respectively. Both won three championships and although Bias never made it to the MVP-level Bird reached four times (!), he was still ROY and a six-time All-Star. Perhaps Bias didn’t have the career most folks expected—that of a generational talent, at the level of Michael Jordan—but he would have done more than enough to bring the gold to Boston way earlier than the real-life trio of KG-PP-RA did in 2008, almost 20 years before it happened in this alternate universe.
Finally, the image above shows every player to log at least 145 games and average 15+ PER donning the Celtics green and white threads, sorted by PER. Bird was unique. Len Bias followed him breaking the 1K-game barrier and the 20-PER career-average. Alphonso Ford won the 1995 chip and left in 1999 for Golden State but keeps thriving there being a five-time All-Star. Scott Brooks, Richard Dumas, and Charles Barkley were all part of the winning-Celtics... And now it’s the time of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in Boston, who both were acquired as free agents in 1999 and 2000 and, such as it happened in our world, are batting to hand Beantown more titles to celebrate.
Other Quick Notes
- Paul Pierce is Philly’s very own after the 76ers drafted him 5th-overall in 1998.
- Atlanta drafted Kobe 3rd-overall in 1996, lost him to Indiana in 2001 as a free agent, and now Kobe is an MVP, 2x MIP, 2x Finals MVP, and 3x All-Star.
- Although Shaq never got to form a partnership with Kobe, he’s now playing for the Hawks after spending seven seasons in Milwaukee (4th-overall pick).
- Boston’s three titles are the most in the 1987-2001 Len Bias timeline, followed by Golden State and Seattle with two.
- Bird got four MVPs, Mike one, John Williams two, Shaq two, Grant Hill one, Jalen Rose four, and Kobe the last one.
- Garnett is already thriving in defense, having won two of the last three DPOY awards.
- The mighty Wally Szczerbiak was named 2000 ROY. DerMarr Johnson got the accolade in 2001.
- Hall of Famers: Bird, Bias, Dominique Wilkins, Sleepy Floyd, Magic Johnson, and John Lucas.
- Michael Jordan left the league in 1999 to play baseball in for his hometown Chicago White Sox. He came back to the league in 2000. He’s still hunting for his first championship now as part of the San Antonio Spurs.