It's time to play the "what if" game. Why? Because it's nearly 5 a.m. in the morning when I'm writing this, I don't feel like sleeping and I had been mulling over the following thought recently.
Now, before we continue, I will acknowledge the danger of the what if game. All we have to go off of is what they have done in other environments. Even if they had stayed in Boston, there's no guarantee things would have work out the same.
That being said, any Celtics fan should cringe at the thought of having both of these players in their grasp and then trading them away for essentially nothing. Seriously, they gave up two All Stars (one NBA Finals MVP) for absolutely nothing.
Billups, who has averaged 15.5 points, 5.6 assists and 2.9 rebounds in 994 games, was drafted by the Celtics with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. After playing 51 games with the Celtics in his rookie season (averaging 11.1 points and 4.3 assists), Boston made the poor decision to trade him to the Toronto Raptors along with Dee Brown, Roy Rodgers and John Thomas for Kenny Anderson, Popeye Jones and Zan Tabak. Yep, that happened. Facepalm.
Don't get me wrong, Anderson and Jones were decent players in their own right, but neither would come close to being as successful as Billups would. Looking back, that was definitely a horrible decision for the Celtics. No doubt about it.
In Johnson's case, hia trade was a little more understandable. Only a little, though. Johnson was drafted by the Celtics with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. Johnson averaged an unimpressive 6.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 48 games in his rookie season in Boston, but he was shipped to the Phoenix Suns for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers.
Again, Delk and Rogers were serviceable. But compared to Johnson, it's no contest. Johnson has averaged 17.7 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 789 career games. Johnson is a five-time NBA All-Star and has averaged more than 16 points per game for nine straight seasons.
Together, Billups and Johnson wouldn't have been enough to bring the Celtics their first NBA Championship title since 1986. After all, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker -- two All-Stars and some of the best ever to play in Boston -- couldn't do it alone. But team them Billups and Johnson up with Pierce and Walker, and that goal becomes a lot more realistic.
Looking at when Billups and Johnson peaked, along with the time that Pierce and Walker were in their prime, it's absolutely reasonable to think that the Celtics could have competed with the creme de la creme in the Eastern Conference, mainly the Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons, in the early to mid 2000s.
Once again, it's unfair to assume that Billups and Johnson would have flourished in Boston. But looking at both of their bodies of work, it's clear that both were some of the best in the league of their generation. As the modern day Celtics showed us, three superstars can get the job done.
If Billups and Johnson had stuck around, the C's would have had four stars. Sadly, it's all in the past now and what's done is done. It worked out pretty well for most involved -- Pierce and Billups won championships, while Johnson cashed in on his quality seasons in Atlanta. Still, one can only wonder if Boston could have created a dynasty.