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What if Al Horford joined the Wizards in 2016?

Kevin Durant was Plan A in the 2016 NBA Free Agency period and that didn’t work out. But what if Al Horford was intrigued enough by Washington’s talent to the point where he actually signed with them?

Longtime readers of the site may remember back in 2015 I went through an arduous simulation to figure out what it would be like if Kevin Durant joined the Wizards in 2016. While it was tedious, at least I only had to change the future.

Trying to construct a simulation where Al Horford joins the Wizards in 2016 is a little more complicated because it involves going back in time. And as we’ve all learned through literature and cinema, changing things in the past can create unintended ripple effects throughout history, even if it’s in pursuit of something noble.

Let’s not forget, unlike #KD2DC, #AL2DC had a real chance of happening. Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical (how’s that for a timestamp in history?) reported Horford had been “incredibly intrigued” with the Wizards’ talents. Moments after Horford signed, David Aldridge said “I think if he had decided last night, I think he would have picked the Wizards. It was that close.

Since we can’t change the past, we’re going to use NBA 2K16 to go back to the future.

Method

The only fair way to change the past and get Horford on the Wizards is to go back to the start of 2016 free agency so that everyone can change their free agency plans accordingly. But you can’t just fire up a season in NBA 2K at the start of free agency. You have to go through the whole previous season first.

To keep things as close to the conditions we had at the start of 2016 free agency, I simmed the season with the rosters everyone had at the end of 2015-16 season and disabled in-season trades. I did this to ensure everyone entered the summer of 2016 with the same roster and cap situations they would have had in real life.

At that point, I made two manual interventions: First, I signed Bradley Beal to a five-year extension—just like the one he signed in real life— to keep things as close to reality as possible. Then, I made this happen:

At this point, I reverted everything to full automation for the Wizards and the rest of the league.

What were the results?

2016-17 season: What an exciting season! (except for the Wizards of course...)

Believe it or not, the Wizards’ first game of the season was a road trip to Al Horford’s old stomping grounds in Atlanta. I got a screenshot so you could see Horford in all his glory against his former team.

*record scratch*

Yep, that’s Kevin Durant in an Atlanta Hawks uniform. You’re probably wondering how we ended up in this situation.

Remember how I mentioned that I had to re-sim the 2015-16 season to get to the offseason? Well, that led to some changes in the timeline. The Warriors do not have a historic 73-win season. Stephen Curry does not repeat as MVP. LeBron James does not lead Cleveland to a legacy-defining title. The Cavaliers don’t even win the Eastern Conference. They’re upset in the second round by…

Wait for it.

Wait for it.

Waaaaaaaaaaaait for it!!!!

The Toronto Raptors! But even after they vanquish The King, they don’t make it to the NBA Finals. They lose in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Hornets. Remember, this is the year they won 48 games and trick themselves into signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams to cap-crushing deals, it’s not that crazy. Not as crazy as DeMar DeRozan leading a team past LeBron James in the playoffs.

The Hornets get stopped in the finals by the Thunder, led by Russell Westbrook, who sweeps regular season and NBA Finals MVP honors. Westbrook’s emergence forces Kevin Durant to look for a new team, where he can be the unquestioned leader. He settles on Atlanta, a team that suddenly has a lot of cap space after the Wizards snatch Al Horford.

Meanwhile, LeBron James decides it’s time for a new team after Cleveland flames out in the second round. He joins a storied franchise with an emerging young core … the Boston Celtics.

For those of you keeping track at home, that means even in a summer where Washington signs Al Horford, the Celtics and Hawks find a way to sign bigger stars. Only the Wizards.

After signing Horford, the Wizards filled out their roster with anyone they could get on the cheap. They rounded out their roster with Anderson Varejao, Wesley Johnson, Dorrell Wright, Seth Curry, Charlie Villanueva, Tony Snell, and Shane Larkin. The bench isn’t great, but it’s far cheaper than the one they paid for in 2016-17, and it includes Marcin Gortat, who got moved to the bench to clear room for Horford.

The first season got off to a bumpy start. Bradley Beal broke his ankle in November, leading to a new wave of criticism over why Washington would commit max money to a player with his injury history. Despite the team’s struggles, John Wall earns Eastern Conference Player of the Month.

I didn’t want this to happen!

Things did not get better when the calendar flipped to 2017. The Wizards lost 13 of their next 20 games as they waited for Beal. By the time he returned on February 7, the Wizards were eight games under .500 and already beginning to make moves for the future. They dealt Dorrell Wright to Toronto for two second rounders, and they traded Tony Snell and Wesley Johnson to Charlotte for Cody Zeller and another second rounder.

At the All-Star break they’re 21-31. John Wall is named a starter for the All-Star Game after averaging 20.8 points, 10.3 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game.

After the break, the Wizards only go 14-16. While it’s an improvement over the first half of the season, it isn’t enough to get them back in the playoffs or inspire much hope for the future.

Washington’s Final Record: 37-45, 11th in Eastern Conference

Celtics: 61-21, 1st in Eastern Conference. They lose in NBA Finals to Golden State

Hawks: 48-34, 3rd in Eastern Conference. They lose in first round to the Raptors

Other notable events

  • Russell Westbrook wins his second MVP award.
  • Stephen Curry wins his second ring and gets named Finals MVP.
  • John Wall is named 2nd Team All-Defense. It’s the only award won by a Wizard.

2017-18 season: It gets worse.

Washington stayed the course in the offseason, despite the previous season’s disappointments. They went about their business like a team confident it could be very good if healthy. They signed Otto Porter to a four-year deal for much less than the max. The rest of the summer was quiet since they were capped out.

The decision to keep things together paid early dividends. Washington started the season 9-3 with two wins over Kevin Durant and the Hawks. They looked like the contender everyone expected them to be when Horford signed.

Everything changed in December. Bradley Beal went back on the injured list with a stress fracture. The Wizards lost six straight games and responded by making a move to declutter their frontcourt. They dealt Marcin Gortat to Minnesota in exchange for Nikola Pekovic and a second round pick.

I didn’t want this to happen!

The move doesn’t stop the bleeding. The Wizards go on another six-game slide in January and fall under .500. Markieff Morris misses time with knee tendinitis.

The Wizards make a trade at the deadline in a last-ditch effort to save their season, dealing a second round pick to acquire Kyle Anderson. The move winds up creating more problems than it solves because now Washington has five small forwards fighting for playing time while Seth Curry is the team’s only viable shooting guard during Beal’s absence, which extends to early April.

In Beal’s first game back, Horford suffers a leg fracture that knocks him out for the rest of the season. Through two seasons, the two former Gators have only played 72 out of a possible 164 games (43.9 percent) together.

Washington’s Final Record: 32-50, 12th in Eastern Conference

Celtics: 51-31, win NBA Finals in 7 over the Warriors

Hawks: 39-43, miss playoffs (Eric Gordon, the Hawks’ second-best scorer, missed most of the season with injuries).

Other notable events

  • Anthony Davis (still happy in New Orleans) wins his first MVP award.
  • LeBron James wins his third ring and wins Finals MVP honors ... for the Celtics.
  • Washington gets the third pick in the NBA lottery.
  • Kobe Bryant retires ... as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies.
I am not responsible for this!

2018-19 season: A surprise late season turnaround and playoff run

It’s a pivotal season. Wall is entering the final year of his deal — remember, the supermax didn’t exist when this game came out — and Horford can enter free agency if he declines his player option. Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre are entering the final year of their deals as well. If the team doesn’t show some hope this season, it’s hard to see why anyone would stick around.

The Wizards are largely bringing back the same core from last year, including their quintet of small forwards. J.J. Tate, the power forward the Wizards selected with the third overall pick in the 2018 draft, isn’t a part of the team’s early rotation.

The Wizards come out of the gates hot. They open the season 5-0 and hold the third-best record in the East at the end of November. Washington’s early success convinces John Wall and Markieff Morris to sign contract extensions. Wall signs a two year deal with a player option while Morris signs a straight three-year deal.

Shortly after Morris signs his extension, he breaks his right index finger, which gives Tate his first chance to make a meaningful impression. He has some encouraging moments — including a 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks in a road win over the 76ers — but Washington struggles. They lose seven of their first eight without Morris in the lineup and by the time he returns in early February, the Wizards have dropped to ninth in the East. Things look dire as Washington approaches the trade deadline.

This was not what I envisioned when I started! I take no responsibility for this!

But now, with everyone healthy, the Wizards make their case to stay together. They win five of their last seven before the deadline to jump back up to 5th in the East standings and avoid a fire sale.

Washington is primed to put it all together until Horford is sidelined in early March with back spasms. They drop six straight games and drop back to 10th in the East standings while he’s out. The Wizards spend the last month of the season clawing their way back into the playoff picture and sneak in thanks to a three-game winning streak to close the season.

At long last, Al Horford and the Wizards are going to the playoffs.

As an 8-seed with a 39-43 record.

The Wizards are pitted against Toronto in the first round. The Raptors came on strong late in the season after trading Kyle Lowry to Detroit for Reggie Jackson.

It’s clear early on in the series that Wall still has a score to settle with Reggie Jackson. He goes off for 16 points and 17 assists in the series opener, but poor shooting nights from Beal (4-of-12), Horford (5-of-12), and Morris (2-of-7) sink their chances of stealing Game 1 as they fall 110-106.

Everyone struggled offensive in Game 2 except for midseason acquisition Andre Roberson, who scored 17 points on 9 shots off the bench to help Washington keep it close before falling short 97-89.

Back in Washington, Wall kicks it up a notch. He goes for 24 and 9 in Game 3, and 28 and 16 in Game 4 to even series at 2-2.

Everything is playing out like the real-life 2018 playoff series between Toronto and Washington. That is, until Game 5. Bradley Beal only scored 2 points in 16 foul-plagued minutes of action. But in his absence, the rest of the roster rose to the occasion. Wall had another big game, tallying 29 points, 8 assists, and 3 blocks. Al Horford had 15 points, 11 assists, and 8 rebounds. Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre combined for 28 points. And just like that, the Wizards were up 3-2 after a 115-104 win in Toronto.

As it turned out the series played out more like their 2015 matchup, where Washington won four straight games and capped things off with a blowout in the finale. Wall went off for 26 points and 16 assists on just 14 shots in a 122-80 victory.

In the second round, the Wizards take on the fifth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. We finally get the John Wall vs. Kyrie Irving series fans spent a decade dreaming about, but the first game doesn’t live up to the hype. Irving scores 9 points on 12 shots while Wall scores 19 on 19 shots. Kevin Love ends up being the hero in Game 1, going for 21, 12 and 8 to help the Cavs squeak out a 115-114 win.

First-team All-Rookie J.J. Tate scores 18 points in 22 minutes off the bench to help Washington even the series as it goes back to Washington. In Game 3, Wall and Beal combine for 52 points to put Washington in a great position to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, but Cleveland fought back. In Game 4, they hold the Wizards to 87 points to tie up the series. Then, in Game 5 the Cavs took control with a 124-80 victory at home.

After only scoring 7 points in Game 5, Beal responded with a season-high 35 points to get Washington a 124-121 victory to force Game 7. With the season on the line, Washington’s most reliable presence stepped up again: The injury bug.

I cannot stress enough that this is not how I thought things would go! I’m sorry if you thought this would be uplifting.

With Beal out, the offense fell apart and the Wizards were eliminated 107-77.

Washington’s Final Record: 39-43, 8th in Eastern Conference. They’re eliminated by the Cavaliers in the second round.

Celtics: 48-34, 2nd in Eastern Conference. They’re eliminated by the Nuggets in the NBA Finals.

Hawks: 41-41, 6th in Eastern Conference. They’re eliminated by the Celtics in the second round.

Other notable events

  • Russell Westbrook wins MVP.
  • Emmanuel Mudiay wins Finals MVP while averaging 10.9 points per game. Don’t ask me how that works but I imagine the TV ratings were terrible.
  • John Wall is named All-Defensive Second Team. J.J. Tate is named All-Rookie First Team.
  • Al Horford picks up his player option to return to Washington for a fourth year.
  • Randy Wittman retires. (Oh, did I forget to mention Wittman was still the Wizards’ head coach during this run? Yeah, he was running the show this whole time. Like I said, ripple effects!)

2019-20 season: The post-Randy Wittman Era

The Wizards hire Larry Drew to replace Wittman, but otherwise keep the same core that finally showed promise in the playoffs. However, they start the season looking like the underachievers we saw during the regular season. They spend the first quarter of the season hovering around .500 even though they’re healthy. By mid-December, they’re ready to shake things up, whether it’s by trading Beal, or pursuing a big man to replace the aging Horford.

I really thought this would be a pleasant experience. I’m sorry!

Once again, the Wizards pull together as the trade rumors swirl. They win five of their last six before the All-Star break to prevent a rebuild, even after Al Horford goes down in late January with an MCL sprain that kept him out nearly two months. That short surge is enough to keep them in the playoff picture the rest of the way as they finish 7th in the East with a 44-38 record.

In the first round of the playoffs, they face Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks. After splitting the first four games, the Bucks beat the Wizards by 20 in Game 5 and win the series with a 70-64 victory in Game 6. The Bucks’ defense throttles Washington all series long. John Wall has at least 3 turnovers in five of the six games and never registers more than 7 assists in a game. The only Wizards who had a strong series was Horford, who averaged two points more per game than he did during the regular season, and finished with only one less assist than Wall during the series.

Washington’s Final Record: 44-38, 7th in Eastern Conference. They’re eliminated by the Bucks in the first round.

Celtics: 59-23, 1st in Eastern Conference, eliminated by Blazers in NBA Finals.

Hawks: 46-36, 4th in Eastern Conference, eliminated by Celtics in second round.

Other notable events

  • MVP: Kevin Durant
  • Finals MVP: Damian Lillard.
  • John Wall is named All-Defensive Second Team.
  • Marcin Gortat retires as a Celtic.

Closing Thoughts

Even though the Wizards make another trip to the playoffs, it’s clear the Al Horford Era has gotten stale in Washington. They have great continuity, but there’s no excitement left. There hasn’t been a 50-win season, there hasn’t been a trip to the Conference Finals, there hasn’t even been a series where they held homecourt advantage.

I’m guessing this did not go the way most of you expected. The Wizards only made the playoffs twice in four years, just like real life, and the furthest they advanced was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, again, just like real life. Their 152-176 record in four years with Horford (a .463 winning percentage) is slightly worse than the 148-162 record (.477 winning percentage) the Wizards have compiled in real life over the last four years.

There are several reasons why things didn’t go to plan, some more realistic than others.

The biggest issue was Bradley Beal. He’s more prone to injury in this simulation because of his early injury history. We’ve seen how Beal has turned into one of the league’s top workhorses in the last two years. But back in 2015, there were serious questions about whether or not he would ever be able to play a full season, and the game seems to think he never will. Since he never developed into a near All-NBA level player, or even an All-Star level player, Washington’s ceiling dropped considerably.

Horford also ends up being part of the problem. His playmaking takes some of the burden off Wall to create everything for the offense, but his outside shooting goes to the wayside. In real life, he averaged 3.2 attempts per game from deep with Boston. He averaged less than one per game with the Wizards. Maybe it’s because he had to play so much under Randy Wittman, or maybe it was because Wall needed him to roll to the basket more than the Celtics did, but either way, he wasn’t as dynamic on the offensive end in Washington as was in real life with the Celtics.

Otto Porter was also a bit of a disappointment. He develops into a good shooter, but not a great one that can bend defenses without taking a shot. Although his deal is more in line with his production, at the end of the day they wind up with a lesser player than the one they got in real life.

I could write something here about how fate is inevitable and every path the Wizards could have taken would have ended in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, especially with Ernie Grunfeld running the show. Wizards fans understand this at a level few others do in life.

If that’s the case, I’d still argue the experience of Horford on the Wizards beats the last four years without him. It’s more disappointing because it doesn’t live up to expectations, but at least Washington doesn’t waste good assets to get rid of bad ones. They don’t have to trade away a first rounder to get off Andrew Nicholson. They don’t have to give away second rounders to unload Jason Smith and Jodie Meeks. Kelly Oubre isn’t dealt away to save an unsavable season.

I guess you could say I had been incredibly intrigued with Washington’s talent and there was a time I preferred it to Horford. Mild finish.