Drafting Stephen Curry instead of Jonny Flynn in the 2009 draft might have changed things for the Timberwolves in any number of ways. Of all the recent mistakes in Timberwolves history, this is both the most obvious and among the most painful. On the other hand, even with Curry, there were plenty of ways the Wolves could have screwed it up.
Let's assume that he would have had a similar rookie year in Minnesota. Already we can see the difficulty of this exercise, since we have no way of knowing he would have been the same, but it's at least likely that he would have gotten minutes (Jonny Flynn started 81 games as a rookie), and been able to show his talents. It's possible that Kurt Rambis would have stifled him somewhat as he did with others, but it's hard to imagine we would not have recognized him as one of the best rookies of the class.
The Wolves finished 15-67 that year, and while Curry over Flynn might have led to a few more wins, it's pretty clear they still would have been an also-ran. With him for 80 games and nearly 3000 minutes, Golden State won 26 games that year.
One question we might ask is whether Curry would have had an effect on the development curve of Kevin Love. Curry's rookie season was Love's second year, and the year he began to force his way onto the floor despite Rambis' best efforts. Let's assume that he still would have done so, given their different positions and since even then it was clear to people who were paying attention that Love was their best player.
Which leads to the off-season after Curry's rookie year. What changes? Do they still trade Al Jefferson, or do they decide to keep him with the idea that with Curry, they can start winning sooner rather than later? My guess is no; that they take the same approach. David Kahn was going to move that salary, so let's leave that alone. Same thing with the draft; whether they would have been in the same draft spot or not it's hard to speculate. They were the 2nd worst team in the league that year and wound up with the 4th pick. Let's assume that they still wound up with the 4th pick, and took Wesley Johnson. Because we're Timberwolves and we can't have nice things.
Curry's second year was also excellent. He played 74 games and shot the ball even better. One of the differences I suspect we would have seen is that Curry would have played off the ball a lot more with the Wolves then he did with the Warriors, even prior to Ricky Rubio's arrival. Especially had they still made the Ramon Sessions to Luke Ridnour exchange in the summer of 2010.
I imagine their base lineup being Ridnour, Curry, Michael Beasley, Love, and Darko Milicic. One benefit to having a quality healthy Curry that year is that we likely would have seen less Wes Johnson on the court as a rookie. He played over 2000 minutes, which didn't help anyone, certainly not the Wolves.
This is still not a good team, but it's significantly better than the actual 2010-11 Wolves who went a staggering 17-65. That team actually had a Pythagorean record of 24-58, and in some ways it's a good thing they radically underperformed, otherwise we might have been subjected to more Rambis.
It's possible that the 2010-11 Wolves with Curry could have won 30 games. I'm not sure whether that's ultimately good or bad for the future, but it would have been a lot more enjoyable then the 2nd year of that death march of fandom we went through. Love emerged as a star that season, and with Curry playing, it's possible we would have seen a bit less hoisting from Mike Beasley.
The summer of 2011 is the tipping point for this exercise. The team is on a bit of an upward trajectory because Steph Curry is a terrific young player along side Kevin Love. They won 30 games.
And here's where it starts to go south: Rambis is retained. Why not? The team is getting better and is led by two very young players. Rubio is on his way. Let's imagine they drafted Bismack Biyombo instead of Derrick Williams because they would not have had the 2nd pick that year. I wonder, and invite you to speculate on, what the draft would have looked like for the Wolves had they not needed the Rambathon. Would Kahn still have sold their later picks?
I'm assuming Rubio still comes over that season (which was the lockout, as we'll remember). Why not? Curry has been playing the two, (which has unfortunately limited his ability to show off his passing game), and Rubio is ready to come to the NBA after a frustrating season at Barca.
Here is the actual roster for 2011-12:
What changes in our imaginary scenario?
First of all, this is the year Curry missed more than half the season with his ankle problems. We have to assume he's similarly injured for this exercise.
More importantly for the long term, I doubt whether Nikola Pekovic gets his opportunity to beat out Darko with Rambis still at the helm. Mike Beasley plays more minutes when healthy (which might not have been terrible had they been at the expense of the execrable Wes Johnson). Kevin Love is a star, but I question whether Rambis would have let him score 26 points a game. Anthony Randolph needed minutes, you know. Great athlete.
That team went 26-40, with consistent injury problems. My guess is that it would have been worse under Rambis. Either way, they had no pick that summer (Clippergeddon). The question is whether a step backward would have cost Rambis his job after year three? It's clear that he and Kahn didn't get along, but how much of that was the losing? Kahn seems to be the kind of guy who knows how to get along with his bosses, but not so much the people beneath him on the organizational chart, so it's possible that the relationship would have imploded regardless.
Let's assume that Ramis gets fired after the lockout season. There is no reason to believe that Rick Adelman would have been available/amenable, though he might have been. It did look like he was prepared to take the year off until he took the Wolves job in 2011.
In the meantime, Golden State took something of a risk that year with Curry: they signed him to an extension for four years, $44M. It was a risk because there was some concern that his ankle problems were chronic. On the other hand, it's a massive bargain for a healthy Steph Curry. That extension kicks in for the 2013-14 season. I'm guessing that the Wolves do not do this. Instead, they let him play out his 4th season and become an RFA.
This team, much like the actual 2012-13 Wolves, could have made the playoffs had they been healthy. The Love injuries still stifle them, and Pekovic is a year behind now because he didn't get his opportunity until this year, and it took him a while to work into the starting lineup and a prominent role. Still, Curry is a terrific player, and the Wolves manage something along the lines of 37 wins instead of 31.
However. They are forced to give Curry a max contract this summer, along with having Love on a big deal and Rubio in line for one in a couple of seasons. Are they better off with that core instead of the one including Pekovic? Can they retain Pekovic after the three seasons he had in our alternate universe as opposed to what actually happened? Is he frustrated enough to return to Europe? Does a savvy NBA team offer him a deal the Wolves can't afford to match?
This is one of the central questions that arises out of our counter-factual: how does the drafting of Steph Curry affect the future of Nikola Pekovic? Strange as it seems, as I went through this, that's what emerged. If Rambis hangs on longer than he did because Curry is such a good player, does Pek ever get his opportunity to shine and emerge as a top notch big man in the NBA? If he does, and the Wolves find a way financially to keep all four of those core players, this counter-factual obviously works out for the good, and the Wolves are at least semi-serious contenders. If he doesn't, and the Wolves cannot afford all of them, I'm not sure changing the draft has a huge impact on the future of the franchise.
What do you think about this alternate history? Or give us one of your own.
Stories like this one should be going up this morning around the SB Nation NBA blogospehere; check 'em out.