When I heard we were doing a "What if" theme day on SB Nation, so many potential scenarios flew through my head. What if the NBA Board of Governors had approved the sale of the Kings to Chris Hansen? What if the Kings had drafted Greg Monroe over DeMarcus Cousins? What if Q & R had passed? What if John Salmons expressed an emotion?
I had a bunch of options to choose from, especially being a Kings fan during these last few years, where "What if" was almost always better than the "What is". But there is only one moment that's impact (on the court at least) is still being felt today, and that is Chris Webber's knee injury.
In 2001-02, the Kings came about as close as a team can to winning an NBA title without winning it. They took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakasdsdreasdfffffffffj;aj;;weeeeeeeeeg.... sorry I blacked out there for a second writing those last four words, where were we? Oh yeah ... to seven games, and lost the seventh game at home in Overtime. The series was there for the taking, even with Game 6's terrible officiating, but Sacramento couldn't pull through.
After getting so close, the Kings reloaded their team for another attempt in 2002-03. They added Keon Clark and Jim Jackson, as well as seeing continued development from Hedo Turkoglu and Gerald Wallace. This was one of the deepest teams in the league, and they proved it, winning 59 games in the regular season despite long absences by key players like Mike Bibby (27 games), Bobby Jackson (23 games), Chris Webber (15 games) and Peja Stojakovic (10 games) due to various injuries and ailments. Only Vlade Divac, Doug Christie and Keon Clark managed to play more than 72 games (all were at 80) and the team still finished 1 win behind the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the NBA (speaking of which, you know how it's a running joke how much deeper the West is than the East? It was even more true in 2002-03, when the Detroit Pistons had the best record in the East with just 50 wins. In comparison, the Lakers and Blazers had 50 wins and were 6th in the West).
Sacramento promptly finished off the Utah Jazz and John Stockton's career in five games in the first round and were feeling pretty good heading into the second round against the Dallas Mavericks, who were probably Sacramento's second biggest rivals after the Lakers. The Mavericks did have home court advantage, but the Kings had won the season series 3 to 1 (with every game except one being quite close). Sacramento comfortably won Game 1 to take home court advantage but then disaster struck in Game 2 when C-Webb went down with torn cartilage in his knee. The Kings had already lost the game at that point, but lost Webber, their best player, for the remainder of the series. Their vaunted depth still managed to keep them in it, taking Dallas to 7 games before finally falling. The rest is history, as Webber never fully recovered, and just two seasons later he was traded to Philadelphia. The Sacramento Kings have never been the same since.
So now let's delve into the "What if" portion of our piece. What if C-Webb had never injured his knee, and further, never had any issues there at all?
Well for starters, the Kings likely would have beaten the Mavericks in that series. They would have then had to face the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, a team the Kings didn't particularly match up that well against (San Antonio won the season series 3 to 1). The Spurs would also have home court advantage and Tim Duncan in his prime. The Spurs were younger, featured the best player (Duncan) but also didn't have the same amount of depth or experience (how weird is it to say that about the Kings and Spurs in this day and age). This would most likely be a six or seven game series, with the winner almost guaranteed to win the NBA Title by facing a much weaker New Jersey Nets team. I can't say for certain that the Kings would have won that series against the Spurs, but they would definitely have had a shot.
Next season is where history really changes. In real life, Webber missed the first 59 games and when he came back, he was far from his old self. Prior to his knee injury, Webber had never had a defensive rating lower than 98 during his time in Sacramento. After the knee injury, he never got below 102. Offensively there was a similar trend as his efficiency dropped due to an increase in jumpers taken vs. points in the paint. Webber's FG% went from 46-49% to 41-43%. Despite all this he still managed to be a very effective player, just not one worth the 7 year, $120 million contract he was receiving. The 03-04 Kings, with a depleted Webber, still managed to win 55 games and finish with the 4th best record in the NBA. A large part of this was because of Peja Stojakovic's best year ever (he finished 4th in MVP voting) and the acquisition of Brad Miller, who helped alleviate Webber's absence somewhat. The Kings got to the second round again, and barely lost in 7 games to the #1 seed Minnesota Timberwolves.
If C-Webb had been healthy, Sacramento likely would have been the #1 seed in the West, as Minnesota had just three more wins overall. That home court advantage (and a healthy C-Webb) would have been key, and I could easily see the Kings getting to the Western Conference Finals that year for a rematch against the Lakers. These Lakers were older than the ones that defeated Sacramento in 2001-02, and the Kings had taken the season series (again, without a healthy or even available Chris Webber for most of the season) 3 games to 1. Unlike 2002-03, the Kings matched up much better to the Lakers than to the Spurs and I definitely think the Kings would take that series, particularly with homecourt advantage. This would have led to a very exciting NBA Finals between the Kings and Pistons. The Pistons matched up well with Sacramento, and Webber vs. Sheed would have been a fun battle, but in the end I think Sacramento would have been the team to come out on top in six or seven games. Unlike the Lakers team that Detroit beat, the Kings had a lot more offensive options, and a healthy Webber playing for a title in his hometown? I think he would have been on another level. He would finally be able to put the "timeout" behind him forever.
With a healthy Webber, Sacramento's window for a title would have been stretched at least two more seasons, with a really good chance of winning it all in 2003-04. Webber would have been just 31 after that season with at least a few more high level years left in him. If we look at the tenures of an athletic big man like Kevin Garnett, he didn't start to really slow down until 32 or 33. Webber would have probably seen a similar dip in production as his athleticism started to come down from the elite level he was at. We saw that after the knee injury, just on a quicker pace than would have happened naturally.
The Kings probably wouldn't have traded Webber in the middle of 2004-05 season if he was still healthy. However, I don't think they would have been quite good enough anymore to win a title. Vlade wasn't re-signed, although even if he had stayed in the afterglow of a title win, his career was basically over as his age and injuries finally caught up to him. Doug Christie was traded for Cuttino Mobley, which gave Sacramento a big scoring boost in the backcourt, but an obvious loss in defense. More importantly, the rest of the league was getting better as Sacramento got older. San Antonio especially had Duncan, Parker and Ginobili in their primes. Phoenix was taking the West by storm with Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson. The Mavericks had reloaded after a disappointing previous season. In the East, Detroit was still lurking and Miami had up-and-coming Dwyane Wade as well as Shaquille O'Neal. Barring a big trade for a younger star, the Kings were still good, but not quite good enough anymore.
But Webber being healthy would have been huge regardless. Rather than one real chance to win a title in 2001-02, the Kings probably would have had a couple more in 02-03 and 03-04. I find it pretty likely that the Kings would have at least one, maybe two, championship banners hanging from the rafters from those seasons if Webber hadn't gotten hurt.