Fantasy-Booking the NBA Playoffs: The Chris Paul Heel Turn, the James Harden Disguise Shocker, and other NBA Narratives Reimagined WWE-StyleMuideen Ogunmola
Six years ago, we didn’t know Steph Curry would be an MVP candidate. Sure, he put up points in college, but he was coming out of Davidson — not exactly an All-Star factory — and he was built like a string bean. His NBA pedigree didn’t guarantee anything; Dell Curry had been a heck of a shooter, but he wasn’t the kind of player who made fans dream of how great his son would be. When the Warriors drafted Steph, fans could look at it like a match made in mediocrity heaven — a star who might never live up to expectations on a franchise that hardly ever had expectations in the first place.
But Curry flipped the script. He came along at the right time, in an NBA when rules favor slick ball handlers and great shooters — a league he was practically engineered to succeed in. And the Warriors, after a couple of false starts, managed to surround him with real talent. But Curry’s emergence as an All-NBA performer and the likely MVP this season has been more than that. It’s a heroic underdog story writ large, the sort of inspirational tale that fans adore. The mantra in sports for a story this good is that “it couldn’t have been any better if it were scripted.” In this case, that’s true. Curry’s rise from lightly recruited high school point guard to NBA royalty is as good as any pro wrestling story acted out in the squared circle with pulled punches and premeditated steel chair swings.
In wrestling — rather, in wrestling fandom — there’s a concept called fantasy booking. It’s when fans imagine better ways to tell the story than what the writers (called bookers in pro wrestling argot) came up with, or detail how they’d like to see the story proceed in the future. It’s like fan fiction with real-world constraints and (somewhat) fewer erotic overtones. For a lot of wrestling fans, fantasy booking is a way of life, and it’s something that real sports sorely lack. Because even in a scripted world, sometimes the story could have been better. In the real world? The options are endless.
Take the Warriors, for example. Many NBA observers still remain unconvinced of their championship potential, even though Golden State has the eighth-best point differential in league history. If dumping Mark Jackson was the narrative equivalent of Odysseus conquering Troy (or Daniel Bryan toppling the Authority), then this season has been like The Odyssey (or Bryan’s injury-plagued victory lap). The Warriors are an all-time great regular-season team, but they still get eye rolls from casual fans. If you superimposed their record and advanced statistics onto a team with built-in respect like the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State would be hailed as a historically great team. Despite the considerable efforts of Grantland’s Zach Lowe and other heady NBA writers, there remains a sense that the Warriors still haven’t quite received the amount of respect and praise they deserve this season.
The only way for the Warriors to earn that respect is to take the trophy. So how would I fantasy-book the Warriors’ playoff run? They dominate the Pelicans in the first round, dismember the Clippers in the second, and then barge into the Kawhi Leonard–led Spurs slaughterhouse in the Western Conference finals. They trade punches through the first six games, and then in the closing seconds of Game 7, with the Spurs up two, Curry leaps and elbows Tim Duncan in the face (no call, naturally), strips the ball, and drives down court for what would be a game-winning 3 — and he misses. Curry collapses on the court, buries his head in his hands, and is lifted up by his teammates. Suddenly, Duncan charges over, as if he’s still irate from the elbow — but then he extends his palm for a handshake. Curry accepts, the Spurs win one last title, Duncan retires, and the Warriors win three out of the next four NBA championships.
See how this works? Now let’s go team by team, fantasy-booking their paths to the NBA’s promised land.
Editor’s note: Since the playoff seedings will not be set until after tonight’s games, we’ve taken some liberties in imagining certain teams’ routes to the Finals. We also acknowledge that Oklahoma City may not make the playoffs and that possible playoff teams like the Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, and New Orleans Pelicans are not represented below. Feel free to fantasy-book their postseason triumphs on your own — Paul George’s NBA Finals clash with Anthony Davis could be truly legendary.
Los Angeles Clippers
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Chris Paul goes into Atomic F-U Mode, destroying the Grizzlies in the first round and willing his team past the Spurs in the second. When they run up against the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, Paul’s dominance wears off and he makes up for it by reaching into his bag of dirty tricks — ball slaps, eye pokes, distracting the refs while DeAndre Jordan blinds Klay Thompson with a cloud of hand chalk. Still, it’s a close series. Finally, during a particularly unruly Game 6, Blake Griffin takes exception to Paul’s tactics, pulling him away when he’s in the act of giving Curry a wedgie. The two Clippers stars exchange words but are separated by Jordan. In the postgame press conference, Griffin explains, “I just wish Chris would do it the right way. He’s a better man than that.” Suddenly Paul comes out with his arms extended. “You’re right,” he says, and embraces Griffin. “I am the better man.” Suddenly, Jordan attacks Griffin with a chair, and he and Paul stomp on Griffin’s fallen body relentlessly. “We never needed you!” Paul yells. “You were what was holding us back!” Austin Rivers appears in the background doing crotch chops. The Clippers win the title with Griffin injured on the sideline, then trade him in the offseason for Julius Randle and the Lakers’ no. 1 pick, finally making the Staples Center rivalry one for the ages and making the Lakers babyfaces for the first time ever.
Portland Trail Blazers
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This is the ultimate underdog team, the only “nobody believed in us” team in history where every player on the roster has a legitimate chip on his shoulder for one reason or another. Nobody picks the Blazers to beat the Rockets in the first round, but they muscle up on the inside and limit James Harden to the perimeter, and somehow they pull it out. They have the Warriors in Round 2, and they play them tough but can’t keep Curry and Thompson under wraps, falling behind 0-3 in the series. Suddenly, midway through Game 4, a murmur from the entrance tunnel spreads through the crowd. A player in Blazers warm-ups jogs out with a towel over his head. He gets to the court and tosses it off, revealing himself to be Wes Matthews, somehow recovered from his ruptured Achilles tendon. “By god, it’s a miracle!” Kevin Harlan crows as Warriors coach Steve Kerr screams at the nearest referee: “He’s not supposed to be here, damn it!” Matthews locks down Thompson and scores 20 points in the second half, lifting the Blazers to a win. With the return of the backcourt defensive stalwart, they somehow win four in a row, sending the Dubs packing. They destroy a tired-looking Spurs team in the Western Conference finals despite being picked by everybody to lose that series too. They’re the underdogs again when they face LeBron’s Cavaliers in the Finals, and they’re determined to prove the doubters wrong, but the Blazers’ team bus skids off the highway on the way to Game 1 and everyone on the team blows out their ACLs.
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Every player on the Rockets gets hurt except for Harden, who leads a team of D-League replacements and scores 85 points a game throughout the playoffs, breaking every postseason scoring record and single-handedly winning the title. This is literally the only fantasy that could possibly come true for the Rockets.
San Antonio Spurs
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Option 1: Spurs do Spurs things, Leonard turns into the love child of Scottie Pippen and Dominique Wilkins, and the Spurs coast to another championship. After the game, Pop promises to coach for the rest of his life, and Duncan and Manu Ginobili both sign five-year minimum-salary contracts as confetti falls from the ceiling.
Option 2: The Spurs methodically tear through the West: They dismantle Dallas in Round 1, proving that last year’s seven-game series against the Mavs was a fluke; they clobber Houston in Round 2 to solidify their in-state dominance. In the Western Conference finals, the Spurs become fan favorites as they hold their composure against a super-talented Golden State squad. In Game 7, the Spurs finally appear fully overmatched, but they dig deep and find a reserve of energy, pulling within two. Next trip down the court, with a minute to go, Duncan strips the ball from Andrew Bogut and feeds Tony Parker, who finds Leonard streaking down the court. Parker rockets the ball to Leonard for an uncontested layup, but Leonard’s knee buckles and he falls to the floor in a heap before he can get a shot up. The Warriors win the game. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker lift Leonard off the floor and help him to the locker room as “Thank you, Spurs!” chants reign through Oracle Arena.
Duncan and Ginobili retire the next week, Parker spends the 2015-16 season nursing a suspicious elbow injury, and the Spurs win 10 games before selecting Ben Simmons with the no. 1 pick in the 2016 draft. In the fall of 2016, Simmons, a fully recovered Leonard, and Parker combine to form a new big three, and the Spurs win five more championships.1
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After limping into the postseason, the Grizzlies look every bit the underachieving squad that they’ve seemed in recent months. They’re down 3-2 in the first round, and they’re getting run out of the gym in Game 6. Cut to John Hollinger at a giant chalkboard in the Grizzlies locker room. He’s disheveled and his eyes are bloodshot; he hasn’t slept in days. He’s scribbling furiously with a nubby piece of chalk, producing a seemingly never-ending series of formulas, until — “I forgot to carry the two!” He runs out the door screaming, “THE TWO! THE TWO!” Seconds later, he’s on the court, waving a stack of papers in front of Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, whose eyes go wide as he nods his head. They have cracked the code. The Grizzlies win every game for the rest of the playoffs by double-digit margins.
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Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and point guard Rajon Rondo clearly aren’t communicating well in Round 1 against the Spurs. They squeak by on the back of a rejuvenated Dirk Nowitzki, who was kidnapped by Holger Geschwindner after the regular season and taken to Miami to visit LeBron’s mysterious witch doctor. The dark magic must have worked, because the first time Nowitzki touches the ball against the Spurs, he blows by Danny Green on a baseline drive and soars over Tiago Splitter for a one-handed jam. In Round 2 against the Warriors, the tension between Rondo and Carlisle finally boils over, and Carlisle backs down: He admits that Memento really doesn’t hold up narratively when taken in chronological order. Rondo nods plaintively. “That’s all I needed to hear.” Suddenly, Playoff Rondo appears — the player who held his own against peak LeBron during the Miami Heat’s 2012 championship run. Combined with Nowitzki’s new 24-year-old knees and Chandler Parsons’s game picking up when he realizes his dating life will be majorly affected by his playoff performance (the least likely of these three scenarios, I know), the team coalesces into an elite unit, storming through the West and forcing their way into the NBA Finals, where LeBron sees the Dallas uniforms, starts suffering from 2011 Finals flashbacks, and spends the series crying on the bench. The Mavs win in a sweep, and Mark Cuban pens a blog post outlining how he’d plotted the whole championship run just like it happened.
Oklahoma City Thunder
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In my fantasy of fantasies, the Thunder squeak into the playoffs and shock the Warriors in Round 1 on the back of Russell Westbrook’s 48 points per game. Serge Ibaka then makes a surprise return from injury in Round 2, powering the Thunder past the Spurs. In the Western Conference finals, they’re going head-to-head against the Rockets, who begin to exploit the weariness of the Durant-less squad. The Thunder make it to a Game 7 only because Harden isn’t attacking the paint like he had all season. Regardless, the Rockets have a slight edge, and just as they seem primed to drop the hammer, Harden pulls up at the 3-point arc, sets his feet, and tosses the ball comically off target. His teammates look at him quizzically, and Harden’s face goes cold as he tears off his jersey to reveal an Oklahoma City jersey underneath. And, yes, it’s Harden’s no. 13 — this is why the Thunder wouldn’t let Dion Waiters wear no. 13 after they acquired him in January! Harden raises his hands in victory and runs off the court. The Rockets are too stunned to respond, and Westbrook scores the winning basket. Before the Finals against the Hawks, it’s announced that Waiters has suffered a face injury and will be forced to wear a mask for the finals, but when he appears on the court, Waiters appears to have a heavy beard stuffed under the mask and he debuts a brilliant, never-before-seen left-handed game. Behind the unexpected firepower of “Waiters,” Westbrook, and Ibaka, the Thunder win the NBA title, and Sam Presti wins the inaugural executive of the decade award.
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Atlanta cruises through the first two rounds, and then in the Eastern Conference finals surgically dismantles an overconfident Cavs team, closing out games in dominant fashion while LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love all wait for each other to take over. After the Hawks win, Philips Arena plays a video package of season highlights set to George Jones’s “Choices” and intercut with clips of Danny Ferry and the other Atlanta execs going to Vegas last summer to woo LeBron. They really dodged that bullet.
In the Finals, the Hawks find themselves facing up against San Antonio and Gregg Popovich, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer’s mentor. Popovich — now dressing in sunglasses and a sequined track jacket that has “Pop” embroidered on the pocket — finally settles on something he wants to talk to reporters about: the galling ingratitude of Budenholzer. “I taught that scoundrel everything he knows,” Pop growls. “But I didn’t teach him everything I know.” Coach Bud proves he’s learned a thing or two, as the Hawks top the Spurs by 18 points in Game 7. As the Hawks accept the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Pop is standing courtside and screaming about the refs being blind while Duncan holds him back.
The following summer, Thabo Sefolosha wins a civil suit against the NYPD following the leg injury he suffered at the hands of officers during a melee outside a New York nightclub. He wins $850 million and uses the money to buy the Hawks.
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LeBron crushes the Celtics in Round 1. Then Irving uncorks three 40-point games against Derrick Rose and the Bulls to power Cleveland into the Eastern Conference finals, where Love comes alive and the Cavs destroy the Hawks. In the Finals against the Spurs, LeBron must confront the ghost of his Miami team’s collapse in last year’s Finals.
We get to Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena with the Cavs trailing 3-2. Right before the jump ball, eagle-eyed fans notice Duncan’s eyes roll back into his head, and suddenly the air conditioning system goes kaput. The Cavs put up a valiant effort, but they can’t keep up their normal pace, while the Spurs seem oddly unfazed. At the start of the fourth quarter, with his team trailing by 15, LeBron takes himself out of the game, and as the camera follows him to the bench, he sits down, puts his head in his hands, then looks up grinning. He checks back in and scores 15 consecutive points, powering the Cavs to a victory.
The Spurs are disheartened and the Cavs cruise to a title win in Game 7, the first of five consecutive championships for the franchise, which are accompanied by a “Super Bowl Shuffle”–style music video and a 10-part Grantland documentary series called Kevin’s Song, which details how LeBron and Love became best friends when LeBron helped nurse Love to recovery from degenerative back problems.
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DeMar DeRozan builds a time machine and goes back to 1993, changing the course of history and preventing Toronto from ever getting an NBA franchise. He returns to the present, lets out a sigh of relief, and then opens his duffel bag to find a London Towers jersey. He sprints out to the hallway, where he finds Kyle Lowry walking along in matching Towers warm-ups. “You’re coming to the game, right, DeMar? Game 1 against the Bullets.” DeRozan screams a violent, futile scream.
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Ten minutes into Game 1 of the first-round series against the Wizards, Rose takes an off-balance jumper, lands awkwardly, and collapses on the court. The Chicago crowd goes silent, and the camera lingers on a shot of John Wall shaking his head solemnly as Rose is carted off the floor.
But suddenly, Rose sits up on the stretcher and pushes the medical team aside. He starts back toward the court, limping at first but eventually straightening out his gait. He’s fine. The Bulls maul Washington, shut down the Hawks in Round 2, and then tough out a hard Eastern Conference finals against the Cavs in six games. During the series, a story leaks to the press that GM Gar Forman spent the All-Star break interviewing potential replacements for coach Tom Thibodeau. After clinching against the Cavs, Thibs goes to center court and invites Forman to meet him there. “I’ll give you two options,” Thibodeau tells his boss. “You can fire me right here, right now, or you can sign this 10-year, $100 million contract.” Forman grimaces and grudgingly signs the deal, and the Chicago crowd goes wild.
Two weeks later, after the Bulls have defeated the Warriors to become the new NBA champions, Thibodeau is standing tall on the podium with the O’Brien Trophy. He goes to hand it to Forman and Jerry Reinsdorf but stops short and throws it on the ground. He pulls the contract out of his suit pocket, tears it in two, throws the pieces in their faces, and leaves Chicago to go run a White Castle franchise in Detroit, where the fast-food chain’s corporate offices name him franchisee of the month 39 consecutive times.
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As Wizards fan Andrew Sharp said on this week’s episode of the Bill Don’t Lie podcast, the fantasy for the Wizards is losing so appallingly in the first round that coach Randy Wittman will be frog-marched out of the Verizon Center in shackles. So really, the story of the Washington Professional Basketball Team starts exactly like the Bulls fantasy — except Rose doesn’t come back and the Bulls still win. Hell, they win in four games, ending Washington’s season in front of an apathetic home crowd, who are ignoring the game because President Obama, Jay Z, and Durant are watching from a luxury suite. After the game, Ted Leonsis marches out of the locker room like a drunken Vince McMahon and grabs a microphone from a befuddled David Aldridge as he conducts a postgame interview with Wittman. “Randy,” Leonsis bellows, “I’ve been dying to say these words for nine months. YOU’RE FIIIIREDDD.” The crowd goes wild. The Skybox Illuminati applaud politely.
Years later, an investigative report by Don Van Natta Jr. reveals that throughout his run as Wizards coach, Wittman was receiving payments from a producer of Colin Cowherd’s radio show to make Wall look bad. Cowherd himself is never directly linked to the controversy, and he goes on to have the highest-rated show until the radio airwaves are shut down in the Great Podcast Wars of 2035.
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The Bucks face their neighbors to the south, the Chicago Bulls, in Round 1. Nobody expects Milwaukee to win, least of all the Bulls, who chuckle disdainfully as the Bucks first jog onto the court. But the Bucks shock the world — they outhustle the worn-down Bulls, they out-defend them, and Jason Kidd miraculously coaches Thibodeau to a draw. Revulsion washes over the faces of the Bulls players, and they start to use veteran tricks to get an edge — working the refs, slowing down the pace, and battering the Bucks with relentless fouls. Midway through Game 7, after one particularly egregious hack on Giannis Antetokounmpo by Joakim Noah, Mallory Edens jumps up from her courtside seat to complain, only to be shoved back down by Noah. Antetokounmpo goes after Noah but luckily gets held back and channels his anger into the game — shocking the Bulls and sending the Bucks to Round 2. They lose to Atlanta in that series, but they already won the moral championship.
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After the Celtics barely squeak into the playoffs, Isaiah Thomas boldly predicts a six-game first-round conquest of the Cavs, which they miraculously pull off as Cleveland’s team chemistry unravels. Thomas doubles down by forecasting a five-game victory over the Hawks — and he again comes through after a Bird-Wilkins-style duel between Thomas and Jeff Teague. Then Thomas calls a seven-game series win over the Bulls and cements his new nickname: Prophet Isaiah. Before the Finals, Thomas refuses to answer reporters’ questions, and the Celtics lose in six games to the Warriors.
With the 16th pick in the 2015 draft, the Celtics select Willie Cauley-Stein — who slips because of suspicious last-minute allegations of drug use — and Boston builds a new dynasty on the backs of Thomas, Cauley-Stein, perennial MVP candidate Jae Crowder, and player/assistant coach Marcus Smart, who is elevated to that role when Brad Stevens needs to start splitting time between the Celtics bench and his side job as the governor of Massachusetts. To lavish in the Celtics’ return to greatness, Bill Simmons moves back to Boston, bringing with him the entire Grantland staff, who all live together in a giant dormitory overseen by Bob Golic, reprising his role from Saved by the Bell: The College Years.
Filed Under: NBA, 2015 NBA Playoffs, Eastern Conference, Western Conference, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James, Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose, San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich, Kawhi Leonard, Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry, Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets, James Harden, Los Angeles Clippers, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, WWE, professional wrestling