The landscape of the NBA is constantly evolving. Star players are changing teams at an unprecedented rate.
So much so that some companies even adopted a “jersey insurance” policy – that if you buy a player’s jersey and they switch teams, you can swap your jersey for the new one for free.
It can be dizzying keeping track of player movement just in the past few years.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teamed up to try to help the Clippers be the new kings of LA.
Kyrie Irving has gone from the Cavs to the Celtics to the Nets in the span of 4 years. And James Harden has had Chris Paul, and now Russell Westbrook, alongside him in Houston.
But we very easily could have had a drastically different NBA scene over the past 4 years. If we trace back the ripples that have shaped the league, we have Klay Thompson, of all people, to thank for the version of the NBA we have today.
If two Klay Thompson 3-pointers in 2016 don’t go in, the league as we know it now wouldn’t even exist.
In 2016, the 73-win Warriors were infamous for blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. But it was such a pivotal playoffs not just because of that upset, but because of what happened in the round before.
The Warriors found themselves matched up against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
Coach Billy Donovan was getting the most out of his two superstars: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
And they were playing the best basketball they’ve played all season – routing the Warriors in Games 3 and 4 to take a 3 games to 1 series lead.
The stage looked set for KD and Westbrook to dethrone the mighty Warriors and reach the Finals.
Always tough to beat at home, the Warriors grabbed Game 5 in Oracle.
The series shifted back to Oklahoma City. It was a do-or-die moment for OKC. This was a prime opportunity to seal the deal and claim a spot in the Finals, or else risk a Game 7 in Oakland.
And the Thunder responded. In Game 6, they controlled the tempo for most of the game and were riding their raucous home crowd, hungry for a championship.
They held the newly-crowned MVP to just 9 points in the 1st half, and carried an 8-point lead into the 4th quarter. Per FiveThirtyEight, the Thunder had a 95.8% win probability heading into the 4th.
It sure looked like there would be a new champion in the West.
One that had the firepower to dethrone the 73-win Warriors. One that had 2 superstars in their prime and only getting better. And one that was about to see their 2nd Finals trip in 5 years.
Then, Klay Thompson happened.
With 5 minutes remaining, the Thunder had a 7-point lead, 96-89. Klay Thompson had been heating up in the 4th, and on this Warriors possession, he held the ball at the top of the arc – with one foot almost on the OKC logo. With his feet not even squared up, he launched a deep 3 over Westbrook. It seemed like a bad shot- until it went in.
And it was here that we knew there may be a touch of destiny to the Warriors’ comeback bid. 4-point game, 96-92.
If that wild shot doesn’t go in, OKC goes back on offense with a 7-point lead and under 5 minutes to play. Instead, the Warriors started to close the gap and, more importantly, snatched momentum back on their side.
We fast forward to under 2 minutes to play, and the game tied at 101-apiece. A Westbrook shot attempt was foiled by Andre Iguodala, who brilliantly stripped the ball on the way up. Iguodala pushed it ahead to Klay Thompson on the wing, and the ball was barely in his hands before he unleashed a quick transition three.
104-101, Warriors lead. A lead they would never give back.
The blue-clad crowd in Chesapeake Energy Arena sat silenced, stunned. OKC had the series in the palm of their hands, at home, with every opportunity to knock out the defending champs.
Instead, a supernova Klay Thompson, with 19 points in the 4th, outscored the Thunder all by himself in that final quarter. The Warriors stole Game 6 and went back home to take Game 7, completing their unlikely comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
We all know what happened after that. The Warriors took a 3-1 series lead of their own in the Finals, only to have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving come roaring back to win the series in 7.
In the offseason, Kevin Durant – fresh off of a heart-breaking loss – joined the Warriors – who were fresh off of their own heart-breaking loss. Golden State had created an even deadlier version of the Death Lineup, won the next 2 championships, and made 3 straight trips to the Finals.
But let’s explore what might have been if those 2 Klay Thompson 3’s don’t go in.
If Klay misses one or both of those shots in Game 6, it’s very likely that OKC goes on to win that game, and the series. They would be riding high heading into the Finals as they face LeBron James and the Cavs.
It’s unwise to doubt LeBron, but the Thunder were playing the best basketball of anyone in the league in the first 4 games of the Conference Finals. It’s very plausible that they defeat the Cavs and establish themselves as a perennial contender.
If that happens, Kevin Durant likely stays put in OKC instead of testing the waters of free agency.
The Warriors, who would not have signed KD, would have another few years of the likes of Harrison Barnes and an aging Andrew Bogut.
They would still be good, but unlikely they maintain their 73-win pace for the next few years.
Since the Warriors wouldn’t coast to the next 2 championships, the path is a little clearer for LeBron. The 2016-17 season could’ve resulted in a ring for the Cavs – since the only reason it didn’t was because they ran into a superteam in the Finals.
If they do win it all and LeBron brings home a 2nd title for Cleveland, morale is high in Cleveland. The Cavs probably don’t trade Kyrie Irving to the Celtics in 2017 – a move that was trying to prepare them for the post-LeBron era.
If they keep Kyrie, they likely get back to the Finals in 2018, considering LeBron took a much lesser supporting cast to the Finals that year anyway. And with no Warriors superteam, the Houston Rockets, with James Harden and Chris Paul, likely meet them there.
Regardless of who wins that series, there is no power in Golden State that perpetually blocks LeBron from winning titles. When LeBron hits free agency in 2018, he might decide that staying in Cleveland and in the Eastern Conference was his best route to future championships.
Houston would benefit greatly, as there’s no juggernaut that eliminated Harden and the Rockets in 2018 and 2019. Do we even get those 3-point-happy versions of the Rockets, whose sole purpose was to take down the superteam Warriors?
If KD stays put in OKC in 2016, a lot of the player movements that have shaped the past few years likely don’t happen. Paul George wouldn’t have been traded to the Thunder in 2017. Westbrook likely isn’t traded to Houston last year. Would Anthony Davis still have tried to force his way to the Lakers if LeBron isn’t there?
In the past few years, KD has often implied that Westbrook was one of the reasons he left the Thunder. So while Durant would probably elect to stay after winning a title, would he decide to leave OKC eventually anyway? Possibly.
But if he does leave down the line, it wouldn’t be to the Warriors. With the salary cap spike in 2016 and Curry’s bargain deal, that 2016 offseason was the only possible window the Warriors could have signed him.
Instead, KD likely moves elsewhere. The Celtics were one of the final teams he was considering back in 2016. Without Kyrie never going there in this alternate reality, could KD be a Celtic right now as we speak?
In the end, what we do know is that the landscape has drastically changed with the creation of a superpower. The Warriors making 5 straight Finals caused others around the league to either stock up on stars, or start tanking until the dynasty runs its course.
But if Durant never heads to Golden State, we would be watching a very, very different NBA play out right now. Sometimes just a couple shots, 4 years ago, can have a ripple effect that reverberates into the league today.
In Klay Thompon’s case, 2 cold-blooded 3-pointers altered the fate of Kevin Durant, the future of multiple franchises, and NBA history itself.