Grade A Certified

The NBA’s Most Influential Missed Opportunities

Posted by J. Tinsley on October 29, 2010

Positive or negative, nothing about the past can be altered.

That’s what’s peculiar about nostalgia. Regardless of what happens, the question of the unknown always lingers. Rarely does this happen anywhere more often than with sports. In an environment that thrives on the never-ending wheeling and dealings of trades, releases and free agency, complacency will never assume itself as characteristic familiar with those who call themselves “fans.” The NBA is a league which creates dynasties as quickly as it destroys them, so the mere impact of one decision can effectively make or break a franchise.

But what about the aborted decisions? À la Pau Gasol to Cleveland in early ’07 or Durant to Portland #1 overall. The ones which never spawned into reality, and the ones that don’t even seem reasonable given the way the following sequence of events played out. Over the past twenty years, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have arguably been the sport’s most competitive forces. They have combined for 11 championships, six regular season MVP’s, eight Finals MVP’s, 26 All Star Game appearances and countless number of game winners. Yeah, for the most part, history has treated the two favorably.

Basking in their glory is fine, but wondering “what if?” is even better. Jadakiss even made a song about it. You see, His Airness – through the unintentional influence of Scottie Pippen – and The Mamba were involved in quite possibly the two greatest missed opportunities in NBA recent memory.

Selective memory would lead most to believe both of the Bulls’ three-peats in the 1990′s were obstacle-free. By the way they dealt with opponents with no blotches on their playoff resume, history will continue to support that. Still, think back to June 1994. Chicago had just completed their first full season sans-MJ and coming off a 4-3 season ending series in the conference semis to the New York Knicks. This is where the immediate and distant future of the NBA would teter in the balance.

Given his recent well earned enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, the fact that Scottie Pippen constantly battled trade rumors throughout his career is often swept under the rug. The most infamous involved “The Reignman” himself – Shawn Kemp. Before you begin to dismiss the deal, remember Kemp averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two steals during the 1993-94 season. For whatever reasons though, the deal did not go through and when asked about the deal in January 1996, Mike and Phil kept it simple and ominous.

“It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said.

“I probably wouldn’t be here,” Michael Jordan said immediately. [Sun Times]

Let’s face it, Jordan not returning in March 1995 changes everything. For one, Chicago doesn’t three peat with Shawn Kemp as their go-to-guy and 72 wins is likely considered an ignorant prediction as opposed to rarefied air. And just for the “you-had-to-be-there-to-appreciate-it” moments, the “flu game” nor does that last shot over Russell take place. A generation’s worth of memories gone if Pippen had been traded back to the team he was originally drafted to in 1987. So if the Bulls didn’t win from ’96-’98, who would? Would Shaq and Penny have stayed together in Orlando? How much does MJ’s legacy change if he ends his career with three rings instead of six? Tons of hypothetical, yet meaningless questions to ponder next time you’re in a bar or at a cookout.

BonusAnother popular urban Pippen trade myth involved himself, Luc Longley, the Boston Celtics and the third and sixth picks in the 1997 Draft. The story goes the only reason the trade didn’t go down was because Jordan was opposed to playing with rookies. It’s hard to blame the Bulls for looking towards the future especially if they could have taken Chauncey Billups and a young high school talent in Tracy McGrady that year. What’s even crazier is that Pippen would be hobbled by injuries and miss 38 games during the 1997-98 season.

Did you happen to catch the Lakers ring ceremony on Tuesday? Pretty dope, right? Aside from somehow playing the second fiddle to the NBA’s version of The Beatles, things appear to be flowing like a well oiled machine out in Tinseltown. They’re the odds on favorite to repeat and they actually have a better team this year. Yep, life for a Lakers fan truly resembles that of a fairly tale at the moment. A far cry from a mere three and a half years ago.

In 2007, the image of Kobe Bryant was completely different from what is seen today. Many of the fans who currently live and figuratively die by his every dribble had not yet openly admitted so because, let’s admit it, being a Kobe Bryant fan was not considered “cool” for a period of time. He was painted as selfish and one people of his ilk could never play alongside. And of course, the most popular criticism was “he’d never win a ring without Shaq.” After an early exit in the 2007 playoffs and no real viable help outside of Lamar Odom, his relationship with the Lakers hit a boiling point and the Kobe era appeared all but over in Hollywood.

“That place is a mess,” Bryant said, referring to the Lakers’ front office. “If we’re not making strides here to improve this team right now, to be aggressive in that nature, then what’s the point of having me here?

“I would like to be traded, yeah,” continued Bryant, who has led the league in scoring the last two seasons. “Tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative. It’s rough man, but I don’t see how you can rebuild that trust.” [USA Today]

Things got ugly in a hurry as Kobe claimed it was Lakers owner Jerry Buss who conspired to exile Shaq from L.A. – not him – because of financial reasons and his diminishing skill set. The trade rumors began to resonate at a fever pitch with Chicago being the most popular suitor. However, like a Beyonce pregnancy urban myth, the hearsay had no legs while cooler heads prevailed over what had previously resembled a volatile situation. What happened next? Just the Lakers somehow finagling the most lopsided trade since the Louisiana Purchase when they acquired Pau Gasol for Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton and Kwame Brown. It’s been Showtime ever since (minus that Game 6 in the 2008 Finals).

If Kobe goes East, who knows how the balance of power plays out. Would Kobe still be plagued by the stigma of not winning a title as the Alpha dog? Would the Lakers even be relevant today? Is Phil Jackson still chasing Red Auerbach for most championships all-time? And how would an Eastern Conference All-Star line up of Wade-Kobe-LeBron-Bosh-Shaq have looked?

Again, all completely irrelevant questions now that reality has taken its course, but still intriguing to ponder. To see a list of other big name missed opportunities, and there are quite a few, click here.


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