Imagine an alternative universe where the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks shocked the world with a Stephen Curry trade.
The world of sports is predictably unpredictable. Many number one draft picks don’t become franchise cornerstones. Many big free agent signings turn into a waste of money. Many blockbuster trades go awry.
In March 2012, the Golden State Warriors traded Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. It was the day that the Warriors spurned fan favorite Ellis, and gave the franchise keys to Stephen Curry, a young, unproven guard recovering from an ankle surgery.
But according to Marc Lasry, who became one of the Bucks’ owners in 2014, the Warriors had Curry’s name swirling in the negotiations, but it was the Bucks’ medical staff that was hesitant to deal for him. To be fair, Curry had had multiple ankle surgeries, and there were many question marks as to whether or not he could sustain a fully-healthy NBA career on those ankles.
In 2017, Larry Riley, the Warriors GM in 2012, claimed that Curry’s name was only tossed out to the Bucks as bait, with Ellis being the main trade piece all along. Of course, with hindsight, anything can be said. Today, the Warriors look like geniuses for choosing a two-time MVP over a player who’s no longer in the league. But at the time, some believed the Bucks to be the clear winners of the deal for snagging a scorer like Ellis in exchange for an oft-injured center.
What if Stephen Curry had actually been the Bucks’ breaking news trade that week instead of Monta Ellis? It’s plausible to believe that the Warriors could’ve chosen Ellis, a proven scorer, over Curry. Ellis himself admitted that the Warriors had to move on from one of them to be championship contenders. What if it had been the injured Curry they moved on from?
In an unpredictable sports world, the “what if” game can be haunting and heartbreaking. But what if the Bucks had traded for Stephen Curry instead of Monta Ellis? Which, at the time, was a lot more realistic than it seems like now. Let’s dive into the hypothetical, imaginary world where Stephen Curry ends up in Milwaukee. The Warriors’ and Bucks’ future would be drastically altered, and the rest of the NBA landscape would be unrecognizable.
Let’s imagine, and know that all of this wasn’t too far from becoming reality.
Golden State Warriors
In the 2012-13 season, Stephen Curry averaged 22.9 points and 6.9 assists per game with the Warriors. Golden State entered the playoffs as the six-seed, and upset the third-seeded Denver Nuggets, announcing to the world that this up-and-coming three-point shooting team could be deadly.
Had Ellis stayed on the Warriors though, they likely wouldn’t have made as much noise in the playoffs. Curry shot 45% from three-point range that season, and his lethal outside shooting, paired with Klay Thompson, was one of the big reasons the Warriors caught many teams by surprise. Ellis, though, shot a miserable 29% from three-point land that year, and is only a career 31% three-point shooter. Without the floor spacing and Curry’s dynamic play, the Warriors are likely first-round exits.
The following year, the Warriors lost in the first round to the Los Angeles Clippers, and the front office subsequently fired Mark Jackson. One of the turning points in the Warriors’ current dynasty was the hiring of coach Steve Kerr.
In 2014, when Kerr decided to make the jump from commentator to coach, the Warriors and the New York Knicks were at the top of his list. He ultimately chose the Warriors for their promising core and bright future. However, with Ellis, the Warriors wouldn’t be able to unleash a three-point shooting barrage each night. Instead, they’d still be dealing with a ball-dominant player like Ellis, who shoots a low percentage and isn’t a great outside shooter. Even pairing him with Klay Thompson wouldn’t have solved their issues.
With that in mind, Kerr very likely may have chosen to go join his former coach Phil Jackson, the Knicks’ president at the time, in New York. Without Kerr’s motion offense implemented and without Curry’s playmaking, the Warriors would be doomed to be good, but never great. To have a core of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Monta Ellis, and Andrew Bogut that screams potential, but never reaches it.
Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Monta Ellis averaged 19 points and 6 assists per game in his first full season with the Bucks, leading the team in scoring along the way. The Bucks finished with a 38-44 record in the 2012-13 season, and lost in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Paired with guard Brandon Jennings, the Bucks were hopeful their duo of scoring guards would usher in a new era of basketball. It didn’t work out, as Ellis bolted in free agency and signed with the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 2013.
Had they traded for Curry though, Steph would continue to grow on the Bucks in the 2012-13 season. But the development may have stalled a little. Curry wouldn’t be walking into the most ideal scenario for growth. Coach Scott Skiles was fired halfway through the season, and Jim Boylen took over the rest of the way. Skiles was a defensive-minded coach who failed to utilize the shooting of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. There were rumblings that the Bucks’ locker room wasn’t in the greatest place either. Stephen Curry, along with Jennings, would have indeed formed a formidable shooting duo, but with Skiles lacking the ability build around shooters, the Bucks’ record wouldn’t have been too much better.
The following year, in 2013-14, Larry Drew continued the coaching carousel and took over for the Bucks, only to see them stumble to a 15-67 record. Brandon Jennings was dealt to the Detroit Pistons, and Khris Middleton came over as a part of that deal. Even with Curry, this trade would still make sense, and pairing Curry now with a bigger guard in Middleton would be similar to what the Warriors did in drafting Klay Thompson.
The Bucks also drafted Giannis Antetoukounmp with the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, and there’s no reason to believe the Bucks wouldn’t still be in position to do that, even with a developing Curry instead of Ellis.
Their measly 15 wins that year no doubt would have been surpassed with Curry. Unlike the Warriors, the Bucks were not a good three-point shooting team. They ranked 23rd in the league that season in total three’s made in ’13-14. But Curry’s presence would no doubt change that. That season with the Warriors, Curry averaged 3.3 three’s made per game while scoring 24 points a game. Both those numbers would lead the Bucks roster, by far.
Their improved record would impact the 2014 NBA draft, where the Bucks selected Jabari Parker with the number two overall pick. Parker played well for the Bucks in his four season there, but injuries plagued him constantly. With Stephen Curry, a rookie Giannis, Brandon Knight, and a few other supporting pieces, the Bucks may have landed somewhere in the 14th-16th pick range in the draft. They may have even cracked the playoffs, which they only needed 38 wins that year to do.
With their shooting starting to take shape, it’s plausible the Bucks would’ve targeted a big man. The 16th pick in the 2014 draft was Jursef Nurkic, and the next center taken was Clint Capela with the 25th pick. Either centers would definitely have been players the Bucks would’ve targeted with Curry, Giannis, and a plethora of wing players like Khris Middleton, OJ Mayo, and Ersan Ilyasova on the roster. And both centers have had solid NBA careers so far.
The 2014-15 season is where the Bucks likely would’ve taken the leap. Jason Kidd took over as head coach for the Bucks, and while he’s often been criticized for his coaching, he would be walking into a great situation. Giannis would be growing, as he averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game that year, Curry would be having a breakout year, as he led the NBA in three’s made that season. And even without Kerr’s offense, Curry likely still would’ve enjoyed a successful campaign with the Greek Freak developing and wing shooters filling out the roster.
Kerr ran the low post split action with the Warriors, taking advantage of a good passing big in Bogut, and good shooters who can screen for each other on the perimeter. Kidd used similar actions in Milwaukee, where they would use the high post constantly for handoffs or ball screens that set up three’s or drives to the basket.
And while typically not playing at a fast pace, Kidd emphasized scoring in transition. With Stephen Curry, who can pull up from anywhere, and Giannis, whose speed and long strides put pressure on transition defenses, those scoring opportunities in the fast break become a lot easier for the Bucks.
While he may not have had the exact same success as he did with Kerr, Curry would blossom. Playing alongside Giannis would be lethal, as Giannis’ driving ability would open up the floor for an elite shooter like Curry. Giannis’ scoring averages have increased each year he’s been in the league. And his 16.7 points per game in ’14-15 showed that he was on his way to becoming something special. With Curry by his side, the Bucks would have made a run for the playoffs.
For the next several years, the Bucks would be led by Curry and Giannis. They would quickly become one of the most feared duos in the league, as both players developed to their full potential. Top East teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron, the Toronto Raptors, or the Boston Celtics would contend for the Eastern crown year after year, and the Bucks would have joined that conversation.
There’s reason to believe NBA fans would’ve been treated to multiple years of an Eastern Conference Finals featuring a Cavs team with LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, playing against a Bucks team with Steph Curry, Giannis, and a plethora of long wings. The East would start to be great once again, and the Bucks would’ve likely made the Finals at least once with Curry and Giannis, with both rounding into MVP form given due time.
In 2017, the Bucks traded Greg Monroe and draft picks to the Phoenix Suns for Eric Bledsoe. And that trade would’ve likely still happened, with Bledsoe’s quickness and defense complementing Curry. Especially if the Bucks already have a big like Nurkic from a previous draft, instead of being enticed with Jabari Parker with that second overall pick in 2014.
And with the the lack of a Warriors-level superteam in the NBA, it’s realistic that the Bucks may have won a title sometime in the past couple of years.
And if Mike Budenholzer coaches that Bucks team this year, and implements his three-point-happy system with Stephen Curry, Giannis, Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and company, the Bucks would be far and away doing even better than they are now. Budenholzer would bring to the Bucks what Kerr brought to the Warriors, and Milwaukee would be front-runners for a championship not only this year, but for years to come.
The rest of the league would have strong reason to fear the deer.
Rest of the NBA World
The rest of the NBA landscape would drastically be altered as well as a result of the potential Curry trade. In 2016, the NBA world was shocked when Kevin Durant chose to take his talents to Golden State. Coming off of a Finals loss and a record-breaking 73-9 season, the Warriors offered Durant the chance to build a dynasty. And since he’s arrived, they’ve won two straight championships and are looking for a third.
But had Stephen Curry gone to the Bucks, the Warriors would look completely different. They would not have gone on such a historic run in 2015-16 with Monta Ellis leading the way. And arguably the best team in the ’15-16 playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, would have at least went to the Finals, and possibly could’ve won a title.
Taking that into consideration, Durant would never have left to join the Warriors. He may have stayed in OKC to build a dynasty of their own. Or if they had lost in the Finals to LeBron, KD may have fled to the Boston Celtics in free agency, one of the three teams he was considering that summer.
It’s a possibility then, although various factors would’ve had to fall into place, that Durant, LeBron, Curry, Giannis, and coach Steve Kerr might have all ended up in the Eastern Conference. The balance of power would shift east, and the Bucks and the Cavs, and maybe even OKC, would be duking it out for NBA supremacy year after year. The Warriors would merely be a middle-of-the-pack team without Kerr and Curry. And talk of superteams, dynasties, and a potential three-peat would be nowhere to be found.
How vastly different the NBA would be. And to think that it all depended on the opinions of some weak ankles back in 2012, and whether a young, unproven Stephen Curry was worth trading for.
Sports is often unpredictable. And sometimes all you can do is just make the best decisions you can, and then live with the results. Even if that means losing out on maybe the best three-point shooter to ever play the game.