Western Conference: NBA's biggest what-ifs of the past five years

Could Wemby calling the NBA 'less physical' come back to bite him? (3:06)

Michael Wilbon and Frank Isola react to Victor Wembanyama saying the NBA play in Las Vegas is less physical than his competition in France. (3:06)

Tuesday saw us take a trip back in time to an alternate universe -- 15 of them, in fact -- and examine the biggest what-if surrounding each Eastern Conference team over the past five years and how it could have played out.

Now we look at the 15 Western Conference teams and how life might have been different had these big storylines taken another direction.

What if Jamal Murray hadn't gotten hurt in 2021? Would the Denver Nuggets be three-time champs instead of just winning their first? What if the New Orleans Pelicans never miraculously moved up to receive the rights to draft Zion Williamson with the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft?

Let's dive into the remaining NBA teams on our list and give you the scene from their alternate reality -- for better or worse.

What if the Dallas Mavericks had extended Jalen Brunson?

Forget whether Dallas should have matched the deal Brunson got from the New York Knicks last summer. What if they had extended him for a four-year, $54 million deal when they had the chance during the 2021-22 season?

Instead of the drama that befell the franchise last season, Dallas would again finish with a top-four record in the West, with Brunson's steady play leading the Mavericks back to the second round of the playoffs and removing a lot of the pressure surrounding Luka Doncic's long-term future with the franchise. Dorian Finney-Smith would also remain in Dallas, and there would've been no need to get into business with Kyrie Irving.

What if the Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray hadn't gotten hurt in April 2021?

In the two weeks after the trade deadline during the 2020-21 season, Denver looked like an absolute juggernaut. Landing forward Aaron Gordon via trade helped the Nuggets start outscoring teams by over 18 points per 100 possessions in the 110 minutes the quartet of Murray, Gordon, Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. played together. But then Murray suffered a torn ACL, knocking him out of the next two postseasons and leaving Denver essentially sidelined as a Western Conference power.

With Murray never leaving the lineup, Denver would have reached the NBA Finals in 2021 instead of Phoenix, who lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. A healthy Warriors team would've stopped the Nuggets in the West finals in 2022, but by then all doubts about Jokic's ability to drive the team's winning ways at the highest levels would've been dispelled. He would've gone on to claim a third straight MVP award this season as a result -- becoming the fourth player to do so -- and Denver would've gone on to win its first championship, setting it up as the league's next dynastic power with four consecutive trips to the conference finals or beyond, plus a title.

What if Golden State drafted LaMelo Ball instead of James Wiseman?

After falling into the second pick in the 2021 draft, the Golden State Warriors made a fateful decision to make James Wiseman, who had only played three games for the University of Memphis as a freshman, their selection. Wiseman, through a combination of injury and ineffectiveness, never cracked Golden State's rotation, and was eventually dealt away at this season's trade deadline.

Ball landing on a veteran-laden Golden State roster is the perfect setting to mature into the kind of professional the Warriors need him to be, while his on-court flair and passing ability couldn't be a better complement to the way Stephen Curry and the Warriors play.

The Warriors then move on from Jordan Poole last summer, rather than paying him following the team's championship run. They would add some future draft capital while avoiding the drama from this season, as the Warriors repeat as champions for a second straight year and are now well-positioned for the future.

What if the Houston Rockets didn't trade for Russell Westbrook?

The trade for Westbrook in 2019 felt like a last-gasp move by the team's then-head of basketball operations, Daryl Morey. Either it would work, and Houston would finally break through, or it wouldn't, and massive changes would ensue.

In this scenario, however, Westbrook never happened at all. Rather than trading Chris Paul at the nadir of his value, Morey instead holds onto him, insisting he and Harden could still co-exist. And, it turns out, they could, as Paul has the same bounce-back season he had with Oklahoma City the next season. Rather than Houston needing to figure out how to play with Westbrook, and ultimately moving on from Clint Capela, the Rockets instead kept their team together.

As a result, when they arrived in the NBA's bubble the following summer, Houston was a team that had been together for years, and the Rockets reach the NBA Finals and deliver Houston its first championship since the Hakeem Olajuwon days of the mid-1990s -- changing the legacies of Harden, Paul and Morey.

What if the LA Clippers' Kawhi Leonard doesn't get hurt in '21 playoffs?

When Leonard went down with a torn ACL in the second round of the 2021 playoffs against the Utah Jazz, the Clippers had no realistic path to beating Phoenix in the West finals with just Paul George. They lost in six games.

With Leonard healthy and available, however, it's a different story, as L.A. finally gets past the second round for the first time and reaches the NBA Finals, with Leonard becoming the second player -- after LeBron James -- to win Finals MVP and a title with three different franchises.

What if the Los Angeles Lakers didn't make the Westbrook trade?

The Lakers responded to their first-round loss to the Suns in 2021 by trading for a third star in Westbrook, who couldn't have fit worse alongside LeBron James -- a mistake it took the next two seasons to correct.

Instead of trading for Westbrook, the Lakers keep that 2020 title group together -- meaning Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are never traded, and Alex Caruso isn't lost as a salary casualty while the Lakers ducked the luxury tax with Westbrook's gigantic contract on their books. So, instead of missing the 2022 playoffs, and barely making it this past season, the Lakers were a top four seed in both seasons, and had the ability to add to their roster, as well -- completely changing the conversation around the franchise and giving them multiple chances to get James a fifth championship ring.

What if the Memphis Grizzlies didn't move up to get Ja in the draft?

The Grizzlies jumped up in the 2019 NBA draft lottery to land Ja Morant with the second overall pick, but what would've happened if they hadn't. Because the Lakers had already leapt from 11th in the lottery, when it got to the Grizzlies selection, they had two possible outcomes lying in front of them:

• Move up into the top four, wherever that might be

• Or, lose their pick entirely to the Boston Celtics, who would receive it if it landed anywhere outside of the top 8 spots in the draft. And, with the Lakers jumping Memphis, it was set to be ninth.

In the latter scenario, the Grizzlies wound up with nothing to show for their efforts on draft night.

Memphis, meanwhile, did get Tyus Jones in restricted free agency in July -- though they did so with the thinking Jones would be its starting point guard. But the Grizzlies were lacking the foundational piece they had with Morant -- at least, that is, for one season.

Why? Because, having given their pick to Boston in 2019, the Grizzlies had their selection in 2020. And, after finishing ninth in the lottery again, the Grizzlies landed their franchise point guard -- Tyrese Haliburton.

What if the Minnesota Timberwolves didn't make Rudy Gobert trade?

Let's instead imagine a world where Rudy Gobert is never traded. Minnesota goes into last season with first-round pick Walker Kessler starting at center next to Karl-Anthony Towns and is pleasantly surprised to discover he can give the Wolves essentially what they acquired Gobert to do. As Utah tears apart its roster during the offseason, the Wolves eventually send a single first-round pick to the Jazz, along with D'Angelo Russell, to acquire Mike Conley, giving Minnesota the veteran floor general it needs and the perfect mentor to burgeoning star Anthony Edwards.

While Minnesota loses in the first round again, the future is bright. The Wolves enter this offseason with all their draft assets, a trio of building blocks on rookie scale contracts -- Edwards, Kessler and Jaden McDaniels -- and the flexibility to pursue whatever path they want in free agency, making them one of the more intriguing young teams in the league.

What if the New Orleans Pelicans didn't move up to get Zion in the draft?

So much of the past four years for the Pelicans has been built around wondering when Zion Williamson will play. But what if he was never on the roster at all?

Instead of jumping up to the top spot in the 2019 draft, the Pelicans instead receive the ninth pick, watching the Lakers and Grizzlies leap past them. They'll wind up taking Jaxson Hayes -- whom they wound up landing anyway as part of a separate draft night trade with Atlanta -- and he largely disappoints over the past few years before departing as a free agent.

Rather than having Williamson to center the franchise around after trading Anthony Davis, the Pelicans instead are built around Brandon Ingram -- the key piece they received in the Davis deal -- but they aren't good enough to make the playoffs in any of the past four seasons and remain stuck in neutral moving forward as a franchise.

What if the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't get SGA in the Paul George deal?

Thunder general manager Sam Presti demanded a heavy price in exchange for sending George to the Clippers in July 2019, getting the rights to several first-round picks and, most importantly, rising young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But what if the Clippers had managed to hang onto Gilgeous-Alexander in the trade?

For Oklahoma City, the team's rebuild would look completely different without SGA as its centerpiece. Instead of players like Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren settling in as supporting pieces around one of the game's brightest young stars, OKC -- while still in good position with all of the young players and draft capital it has at its disposal -- would still be looking for a centerpiece of its rebuild instead of emerging as a real threat to be a playoff factor this season.

What if the Phoenix Suns didn't trade for Chris Paul?

Before acquiring Paul ahead of the 2020-21 season, the Phoenix Suns hadn't made the playoffs in a decade. After his arrival, Phoenix immediately returned to the NBA Finals for the first time in nearly 30 years, and then made trips to the second round the following two years.

In this scenario, however, Paul never arrives, with Phoenix instead trying to build on its impressive run in the bubble in 2020 with Ricky Rubio still manning the point, and Kelly Oubre Jr. on the wing. But, instead of leaping up to the top of the West, the Suns instead hover around the play-in tournament mix, eventually finishing ninth and losing to the Warriors in the eighth-place game to miss the playoffs.

While steps forward took place the past two years, making the playoffs and losing in the first round both times, the massive leap forward this group experienced in the Paul era never materialized. As a result, the Suns never acquire Kevin Durant, nor Bradley Beal -- and Monty Williams was still let go after this season ended.

What if the Portland Trail Blazers traded for Aaron Gordon?

Portland had longstanding interest in the combo forward before he eventually was moved from Orlando to Denver at the 2021 trade deadline. If he had been moved to Portland instead, his seamless transition to Denver, and his perfect fit alongside Jokic and Murray, never takes place. And Portland, which lost to Denver in the first round of the 2021 playoffs -- with Murray sidelined -- would advance to the West semifinals.

The Blazers would be back in the playoffs again last season around a core of Lillard, Gordon, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. They would also still have the ability to go after Jerami Grant in a trade, essentially turning the Blazers into a better version of what they were earlier in Lillard's career. No trips to the lottery means no Shaedon Sharpe or Scoot Henderson in Portland, nor is Lillard looking to leave. Instead, Portland is gearing up to continue to build around him.

What if the Sacramento Kings drafted Luka instead of Marvin Bagley?

The euphoria surrounding the way last year played out in Sacramento helped cover up the frustration over a decision that will be haunting Cowbell Kingdom for a long time: taking Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic with the second pick in the 2018 draft.

Put Luka on this team and Sacramento's -- and De'Aaron Fox's -- ascent happens much earlier, and the Kings return to their ascendant days from two decades earlier -- though Vlade Divac likely would've found a way to stick around, too.

What if the San Antonio Spurs traded Kawhi to the Lakers?

San Antonio's decision to send Leonard to Toronto led to the Raptors winning the 2019 title. What if the Spurs opted to do a deal with the Lakers centered around Brandon Ingram instead of the Toronto deal for DeMar DeRozan?

The Spurs would get Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and a future first-round pick and Leonard would've partnered with James in Los Angeles, potentially winning a title in their first season together after Kevin Durant got hurt in the Western Conference playoffs, while also removing enough assets that a trade for Anthony Davis the following summer never happens.

Meanwhile, instead of staying afloat as a fringe playoff team with DeRozan, San Antonio would've been near the bottom of the league with Ingram as its main offensive weapon. That would've jump-started San Antonio's rebuild a few years earlier -- and would've had the Spurs far away from getting Victor Wembanyama in the lottery, instead being firmly in the play-in mix this past season.

What if the Utah Jazz's Mike Conley hit the shot at the end of Game 7 in the bubble vs Denver?

One of the things lost to time about Denver's back-to-back comebacks from down 3-1 in the bubble was how close Conley's game-winning 3 was to going in.

So ... what if it had? Utah would've found itself in the West finals against the Lakers, achieving the playoff breakthrough it always lacked. And, after beating the Clippers during that bubble run, Utah would've been a different team when the two squads faced each other again in 2021, resulting in the Jazz getting back to the West finals again -- this time against a Suns team that Utah matched up really well against.

In this scenario, the 2022 collapse doesn't happen, nor does the departure of Quin Snyder and the trades of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Instead, they're all still there, and the Jazz remain a threat to be a factor in the West.