This edition of alternate history is a lot heavier than those of the past. It’s not wondering how the NBA would have been different if a player didn’t retire, wasn’t traded, or was drafted by another organization. Unfortunately in we are discussing a 22-year-old who would have an overdose death a day after he was drafted 2nd in the 1986 NBA Draft. Not only was Bias an elite talent that would have been ready to help from day one, but he was also drafted by the defending champion Boston Celtics. A 67 win dynastic defending champ with the 2nd pick in the draft is a perfect storm of basketball fortune, until it wasn’t. As a fan of the league, I believe leaves us wondering what could have been. For our exercise, we’ll assume Len Bias doesn’t pass that night and doesn’t develop any sort of further issues with drugs or his health.
The Boston Celtics and the 2nd Pick
|1985-86||Boston Celtics||67||15||Won Finals|
|1984-85||Boston Celtics||63||19||Lost Finals|
|1983-84||Boston Celtics||62||20||Won Finals|
|1982-83||Boston Celtics||56||26||Lost E. Conf. Semis|
|1981-82||Boston Celtics||63||19||Lost E. Conf. Finals|
|1980-81||Boston Celtics||62||20||Won Finals|
As you can see this was a dominant franchise coming off of one of the most dominating seasons in NBA history at the time. They had just won their 3rd championship in 6 seasons. The Celtics acquired the pick that would become the 2nd pick in the draft by trading Gerald Henderson to Seattle in 1984. At the time Seattle was 42-40 and coming off a season where they lost in the first round and Henderson averaged 11.6ppg as a starter. Seattle would struggle and win 31 games each of the next two seasons which is how they received a pick so high in the draft. Brad Daugherty would be drafted first in 1986, with Len Bias following at 2nd.
Bias would have an outstanding career at Maryland. He was a 2-time Consensus All-American and ACC Player of the Year. He would help Maryland finish 11th in 1984 in the final polls, and to make the Sweet 16 in 1985. Probably the most impressive aspect of his stats is that he averaged 23ppg on nearly .62% true shooting percentage. He was highly efficient even with few other good offensive options to take the pressure off of him. He got to the FT line 7.6 times a game and made nearly 87%.
Bias was 22 years old and ready to help immediately bridge the gap from the aging Celtics core to the future. These were the key contributors on the 1986 championship teams with their age and key stats.
Len Bias likely role at the start of 1986-87 would be to step into a situation where he came off of the bench, but played a solid amount of minutes to give the older Celitcs some support after the long playoff run. Bird would turn 30 years old at the end of 1986 for example. Bias would have likely been capable of playing either forward position and it would have been a perfectly aligned rotation when any one of Bird, Parish or McHale sat considering McHale could play some center, and Bird was tough enough and could rebound enough well that you didn’t need McHale or an enforcer PF.
The Celtics would win 59 games and make it to the Finals again vs the Lakers. The Celtics would lose the series in 6 games including losing one of those by 1 point. I believe if Bias was on the Celtics they win that game and likely for a game 7. I don’t think he changes the rest of the series and the Lakers with home court likely still win the championship. The Celtics were playing most of those 5 guys I listed 40+ minutes. Only Parish was at 30 minutes in the series a game. I think Bias would have filled in some of the weaker bench minutes from players like Darren Daye and allowed them to play McHale some at Center when Parrish was out. He helps as a rookie push it to 7 games, but isn’t enough to swing the series.
This season the Celtics would win 57 games and lose to the Detroit Pistons in the eastern conference finals in 6 games despite having home court advantage. All of the now significantly aging stars and core players listed would play 40.7+ minutes except Parrish. He logged 36 a game vs Detroit in those playoffs. Larry Bird played nearly 46 minutes a game in the series. Having Bias to spot them a few minutes or covers some for the weak bench would have been ideal in that series.
The Celtics won 3 games by 6 points or less. I believe with Bias in his 2nd year and better they do beat the Pistons. I think as closely as Detroit would play the Lakers that season taking them to 7 games before losing the Celtics would have beaten the Lakers this year. Kareem had taken a pretty big step back at that point.
This is the breakout season Len Bias likely would have emerged as a superstar with Larry Bird missing all but 6 games following foot surgery. Fellow young player Reggie Lewis would pick up most of the slack Bird left behind, but Bias was a much more talented player and capable. At that point he would have been 25 years old and I suspect a likely All Star. I could see him averaging 25+ppg on this team and taking some of the burden off of McHale. This could have potentially been the best season at a prime age, given the usage with Bird out, and a willing team around him to play their roles.
The Celtics would win 42 games that season and be swept out of the playoffs by the eventual champions Pistons as the 8th seed. With Bias, they probably still have a top 4 seed and could have won a round. Ainge was traded to Sacramento for a 1st round draft pick that turned into Pete Chillcutt.
Bird would return from injury and the Celtics would return to winning 52 games. They would secure the 4 seed and would lose 3-2 to the Knicks.
I think an All Star level Bias turns the tides on this season. They probably finish with the 2 seed that season with Bias, to the eventual champion Pistons. The way Bird came back and McHale was still playing the Celtics would have been tough to beat here. I think they beat the Piston’s and win their 2nd title with Len Bias.
The Celtics in 1991 had managed to draft well and develop some quality young players even with the tragic death of Bias. This season they would win 56 games and lose to the Pistons in the 2nd round in 6 games. Reggie Lewis led the way averaging 23ppg. Not listed was Dee Brown who was only 22 years old but would also average 16ppg in that series. It was a nice collection of young talent as the older guys would soon move on.
Jordan & Bias had been matching up since high school. That’s Coach K is in the bench in the background. and Craig Ehloe in red watching Jordan soar as usual.
With Len Bias I think they beat the Pistons and match up with Michael Jordan and the Bulls for the first time in the eastern conference finals. The Celtics would have had all the experience and Bias would have been at his peak at 27 years old by this point. Unfortunately for the Celtics, I believe this is just another all-time name Jordan would check off on his way to 6 titles. I think nothing fundamentally changes here as the Bulls likely beat the Celtics and take out the Lakers in the finals to effectively end both dynasties’ championship window.
This season would be the last dance for Larry Bird. He would turn in a very impressive regular season but unfortunately get hurt in the playoffs vs the Cavs. The Celtics would win 51 games and make it to the 2nd round where they lost to those Cavs 7 games. Bird played in 4 of those games, and was hampered. Reggie Lewis would lead the way averaging 28ppg.
With Bias I believe the get by the Cavs and have a 2nd meeting with Jordan’s Bulls where they again lose.
The Celtics would push on after Bird’s retirement with Reggie Lewis leading the way. They would win 48 wins and lose in the first round to the Hornets in 1-3. McHale and Parrish both turned in vintage performances in the series averaging 19ppg, 7.3rpg and 17ppg and 9.5rpg vs Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning on high efficiency. Unfortunately, Reggie Lewis would only play in one game in the series collapsing, and would tragically be dead in a couple of months from a cardiac arrest. He scored 17 points in 13 minutes in what would be his final NBA game that season.
With Bias the Celtics would have had a better season and could have ended up in the eastern conference finals but they wouldn’t have beaten the Bulls.
1993 Through 1995
Bias would have been 29 years old, and Lewis was 27 at the time of his death. The death of Lewis ended any chance they had to continue on as a true contender to the Bulls or Rockets. It’s a shame on many levels to lose young people like this. When Jordan retired in 1994 there would have been an opportunity for both Bias and Lewis to lead a team to a championship independent of Bird and McHale the two biggest stars of most of the previous dynasty. Had they both lived they would have led a good team, but likely fallen a little short to the Knicks or Rockets. Bias without Lewis by his side, probably could get the 32-win Celtics to the playoffs the next couple of seasons, but likely to quick first-round exits. There was enough quality depth to still be a playoff team. Dominique Wilkins was signed in 1994-95 which would have helped some, but Bias likely is traded by 1995-1996 when it had ran it’s course in Boston and they bottomed out with 15 wins the following season trying to get Tim Duncan.
Bias would have been 33 years old in 1996. He could have retired and continued to play as many aging stars did in the 1990’s. I believe with his style of game though at this point he’s probably more of a starter-level player than a star that would impact winning.
|1994-95||Boston Celtics||35||47||Lost E. Conf. 1st Rnd.|
|1992-93||Boston Celtics||48||34||Lost E. Conf. 1st Rnd.|
|1991-92||Boston Celtics||51||31||Lost E. Conf. Semis|
|1990-91||Boston Celtics||56||26||Lost E. Conf. Semis|
|1989-90||Boston Celtics||52||30||Lost E. Conf. 1st Rnd.|
|1988-89||Boston Celtics||42||40||Lost E. Conf. 1st Rnd.|
|1987-88||Boston Celtics||57||25||Lost E. Conf. Finals|
|1986-87||Boston Celtics||59||23||Lost Finals|
|1994-95||Boston Celtics||43||39||Lost E. Conf. 1st Rnd.|
|1993-94||Boston Celtics||42||40||Lost E. Conf 1st Rnd|
|1992-93||Boston Celtics||55||27||Lost E. Conf. 2nd Rnd.|
|1991-92||Boston Celtics||58||31||Lost E. Conf. Finals|
|1990-91||Boston Celtics||61||19||Lost E. Conf. Finals|
|1989-90||Boston Celtics||59||23||Won Finals|
|1988-89||Boston Celtics||52||30||Lost E. Conf. 1st Rnd.|
|1987-88||Boston Celtics||62||20||Won Finals|
|1986-87||Boston Celtics||63||19||Lost Finals|
I believe the best comparison to what Len Bias could have been is a more suppressed version of Dominique Wilkins statistically. He’s not putting up 30ppg with all the other great players on the Celtics, but I do believe that’s the comp. The way Bias shot free throws he probably even add a decent 3 point shot like Wilkins did later in his career. He wouldn’t be quite as flashy or put up the same scoring stats on the Celtics but he would contribute to winning and be a player everyone remembers I believe.
After the year Bird is hurt he’s probably averaging around 22+ppg 6rpg on similar efficiency as Wilkins did for the next 5 seasons. Bird, McHale, and Parrish would likely have no issue deferring at that point if it meant deeper playoff runs and a chance to still be a serious contender. They tried to with Lewis some as it was. Bird has said in interviews he would have retired in 1988 if Bias had lived. I’ll say maybe on that one. He had serious injuries but the level he played at from 88-92 I think it would have been hard for him to walk away. If he does stick around after 1995 or 1996, I think he’s on another team that is contending by 1996-1997.