The Step Back

1.8 seconds and a trade nearly shook the NBA to its core

The history of the NBA is a tangled web of what-ifs and could-have-beens. This week at The Step Back, we’re going to pull on some of those threads to alternate futures, focusing in on key turning points in the history of players, teams and the league itself, wondering how things could have been different. Welcome to Butterfly Effect Week.

On June 29, 1994, 25 teams flipped through their draft papers, scribbled names on their whiteboards and prepared to call the name of their next franchise savior. However, two teams — the Bulls and Supersonics — had bigger plans for draft night. They were engaged in trade talks that could have shook the NBA to its very core.

On that night, Seattle and Chicago were talking about a trade to send Shawn Kemp and two-time Sixth Man of the Year Ricky Pierce to the Bulls in exchange for Scottie Pippen.

The Bulls were coming off a 1993-94 season in which they won 50-plus games for the fifth consecutive season. This Bulls team was very different from the four prior, though. They were without their franchise leader, perennial MVP and greatest-of-all-time shooting guard, Michael Jordan, who “retired” before the season in hopes of pursuing a career in Major League Baseball.

Read More: NBA Butterfly Effect — What if Andrew Bynum hadn’t gone bowling?

The fate of the Bulls was now left in the hands of Pippen, the longtime “Robin” to Jordan’s “Batman.”

To most everyone’s surprise, the Bulls were not only competent, they were pretty damn good. Chicago finished with 55 wins — a full five above their projected record. Those 55 wins were good enough for second in the NBA’s Central Division behind only the Hawks, the East’s No. 1 seed.

Pippen dazzled during the regular season taking home All-NBA First Team and NBA All-Defensive First Team honors. Pippen ranked eighth in the league in scoring at 22 points per game, 23rd in rebounding at 8.7 rebounds per game, 19th in assists at 5.6 assists per game and second in steals at 2.93 steals per game. No longer in the shadow of Jordan, Pippen emerged as one of the NBA’s biggest stars by winning the NBA All-Star Game MVP and finishing second in MVP voting to Rockets big man Hakeem Olajuwon.

“Everyone worked hard at it and Scottie was an unbelievable leader that year, probably deserving of MVP in the league,” said Jackson. “That was a year in which he had shown everyone the quality level that he could play at and his team played very well, very unselfishly.” – Phil Jackson 

All eyes were on Pippen and the Bulls in a wide-open Eastern Conference at the start of the playoffs. Could Pippen really lead the Bulls to the NBA Finals without Jordan? The Bulls easily swept through the Cavaliers in the first round and had a date with destiny in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the East’s No. 2 seed: The Knicks.

The Knicks and Bulls were no strangers. The two franchises had met in the NBA playoffs for four straight years. But the prior three years certainly hadn’t gone the Knicks’ way as the Bulls dispatched them each time en route to an NBA championship.

The Knicks, determined to change the course of history, came out firing and won the first two games of the series. With their backs against the wall, the Bulls had to get a win in Game 3 if they wanted to save their season. The final 1.8 seconds of game three nearly changed the course of NBA history.

The score was tied, 102-102. Knicks center Patrick Ewing had just hit a beautiful hook shot to tie up the game. The Bulls were reeling after being up as much as 22 points at the end of the third quarter. Jackson designed the perfect play to ensure the Bulls wouldn’t go down 3-0. The only problem? Their star wasn’t the one with the ball: Pippen, his star, his leader, the MVP runner-up, would pass the ball to Bulls rookie Toni Kukoc.

Kukoc and Pippen made a great duo on the court with Kukoc filling in as well as one could for Jordan, but the two had their run-ins. Krause, the Bulls’ general manager, pursued Kukoc for years prior to his arrival in Chicago. Krause hoped to bring one of the European League’s best players into the fold, a scouting find Krause prided himself on.

During his pursuit, Krause promised the world to the young Croatian. Krause’s advancements rubbed Pippen, his incumbent small forward, the wrong way. Pippen was embroiled in a lengthy contract dispute with the Bulls and saw Krause waving money around as the ultimate form of disrespect.

Pippen agreed to a contract extension with the Bulls in 1991 that would make him, at the time, among the 15 highest-paid players in the league. The deal — began at the conclusion of his current contract in 1993 — Pippen would earn $3.5 million per season through 1997-98 was great money for an NBA player in the early 1990s. But the NBA exploded in popularity soon after, leaving Pippen, one of the NBA’s best, with a contract unfitting of his talent level. In 1994 alone, Pippen would make less than Portland’s Buck Williams, Los Angeles’ Vlade Divac, future teammate (and then-Clipper) Ron Harper and even Cleveland’s John Williams. Pippen was nowhere to be found in the NBA’s Top 10 salaries.

Kukoc had a deal that would net him an estimated $2 million for his first season but clauses which may have allowed that contract to go above $3 million — or, more importantly, above what Pippen was being paid. In fairness, the Bulls hands were tied as the CBA at the time prevent teams from renegotiating an existing contract.

This left the Bulls and Pippen in an untenable situation. A situation that would be made worse in 1.8 seconds.

Jackson drew up the play and broke the huddle. Instead of walking to the floor, Pippen made his way to the end of the Bulls bench and sat. When Jackson wondered what his star was doing, Pippen reportedly told him and assistant coach “I’m tired of this.” Teammates pleaded with him, “Pip, come on, get up, what are you doing?” He never moved.

Jackson was forced to call a second timeout. Now irate, Jackson sent Pete Myers in place of Pippen. Jackson called the exact same play. Myers passed the ball to Kukoc, who sank a 22-foot shot at the buzzer to give the Bulls a 104-102 win in front of their home crowd.

“As far as the last play goes, Scottie Pippen was not involved in the play. He asked out of the play. That is all I’m going to say about it.” – Phil Jackson

While Pippen remained with the Bulls for the remainder of the playoffs — a run in which the Bulls took New York to six games — the bloom was off the rose. He even led the team in scoring in three of the last four games of the series, but the growing discontent had finally boiled over.

Four days before the 1994 NBA Draft, Chicago called Seattle. The proposal was reportedly for Kemp and Pierce for Pippen. There was a pick swap added later, but the core of the deal was those three and really those two: Shawn Kemp and Scottie Pippen.

Seattle had no intentions of trading Kemp.

After all, the duo of Kemp and Gary Payton led the Supersonics to their highest heights since their lone NBA championship in 1979. They were fresh off a 63-win season, then their franchise-best mark. However, a monumental upset at the hands of No. 8 seed Denver had head coach George Karl and the Seattle brass wondering if some changes needed to be made. Kemp specifically was not on the trade block but a deal for Pippen — one of the NBA’s premiere small forwards, the multi-faceted, multi-talented blossoming star — couldn’t be denied.

“I can tell you we never shopped Shawn Kemp since I’ve been here. But a team did present a trade to us that we did consider. I will not deny that.” – George Karl

Karl was unsure if he should make the deal. There could be a mutiny if the Sonics traded “The Reign Man.” But Scottie…man, the visions of Pippen and Payton stifling offenses in the Western Conference was tempting. Karl picked up the phone and called an old friend: Michael Jordan.

Karl recalled in his memoir “Furious George” that Jordan kept his words short when discussing the deal with Karl: “Do it.”

“Scottie can make your other players better,” Jordan added. “Kemp can’t.”

That was all Karl needed. The Sonics said yes. The deal was done … sort of.

Salary cap restrictions meant the deal would need some retooling. During this time, news got out in both Seattle and Chicago that their stars were on the move. Nervous at the blowback Seattle was receiving in the local media, they backed away from the deal.

On draft day, Krause, desperate to trade his disgruntled star, did everything he could to re-work the deal, including giving up more assets, to get it done. As Karl recalled, “(Krause) called to tell me the Bulls would drop the demand for our No. 1 pick. He offered a big chunk of money in the next call. Then he called back to double it. Literally minutes before the draft started [Sonics owner Barry Ackerley] backed us out of the deal. When I delivered the bad news, Krause dropped f-bombs and called me names. We’d keep Kemp, they’d keep Pippen.”

The deal was dead.

Kemp would remain with the Supersonics and Pippen would remain with the Bulls. But what if it went through? What if the Sonics didn’t listen to the noise coming from their local media and went through with the trade of their fan favorite? What if the Bulls got even more desperate and added more to the deal?

It’s not unrealistic to say that the course of NBA history would have changed. Dramatically.

What ifs?

The first question is obvious: would Michael Jordan have still returned to the Bulls if his old running mate Pippen was in Seattle?

“Probably not,” said Jordan in an interview with ESPN’s JA Adande. “I could have played with Shawn, but I wouldn’t have been as comfortable as I was with Scottie.”

Probably not isn’t a no. And though he says he wouldn’t have been as comfortable, he does say he could have. So let’s say hypothetically Jordan did come back, same time (midway through the 1995) season, would the duo have done as well as Jordan and Scottie?

A few dominos fall if Kemp is a Bull. Jordan would be there so they would always have a shot at the championship but the team would have taken on an entirely different identity. The Bulls would’ve lacked Pippen’s defensive prowess, which helped them finish top five in defensive efficiency over the next three seasons. Likewise, there would have been no reason to acquire Dennis Rodman, who played the same position as Kemp. No Pippen and no Rodman offer an entirely different look and feel for the Bulls, particularly the 1996-97 team that won a then-NBA record 72 games.

On the other hand, Kemp wasn’t a horrible defender. Sure, he wasn’t the level of Pippen, but who was? Simply assuming the same Kemp that had been with Seattle would have been the Kemp we saw in Chicago isn’t fair. We’re talking about a man who would be coached by one of the best ever in Jackson playing alongside one of the best ever in Jordan. Yeah, things would’ve been a little different in terms of roster construction, but a trio of Jordan, Kemp and Kukoc had the potential to be great.

We also have to keep in mind how history played out and how that will affect how we judge this potential trade. Kemp and the Sonics would face off with the Bulls during their historic 72-win season but shortly after, they, too, would have a divorce. In similar fashion to Pippen, Kemp became disgruntled with his contract situation. Seeing players like Jim McIlvaine signed to longer, more expensive deals irked The Reign Man. He wanted out.

Seattle obliged and Kemp was traded to the Cavaliers as part of a massive three-team trade. When the dust settled, Terrell Brandon, Tyrone Hill and a 1998 first-round pick went to Milwaukee, Sherman Douglas and Kemp went to the Cavaliers and Seattle acquired Vin Baker. After two productive years in Cleveland, things fell off a cliff for Kemp, and fast.

After the NBA lockout in 1999, Kemp returned to the team grossly overweight and his numbers plummeted across the board. Kemp was then sent to Portland where he became another veteran bench presence for the competing Trail Blazers. Kemp never again averaged double digits and, after a brief one-year stint with Orlando, he was out of the league at 33-years-old.

Now let’s ignore what happened and look at what could have been.

Let’s say hypothetically the combo of Jordan, Kukoc and Kemp won the NBA championship in 1996. Does Kemp still worry about his contract? Is he still as disgruntled as he’d become with Seattle — also the bridesmaid, never the bride? Would Kemp have bought into Jordan’s insane demands of his teammates? Jackson’s Zen powers? There’s a realistic chance that Kemp sticks with the Bulls for years to come, wins a title (or two or three) and moves onto another franchise after the 1998 season. Would the lockout have still drained every bit of his work ethic? It’s easy to imagine Kemp, now with a ring won as Jordan’s running mate, is a completely different player with entirely different narratives surrounding his career.

“If I did get the chance to play with Michael Jordan I probably would’ve got a chance to maybe go for a championship more than one year as we did here in Seattle.” – Shawn Kemp

Let’s look at the other half of the equation: Scottie Pippen.

Pippen, of course, would reunite with Jordan and former foe Rodman to win three consecutive NBA championships. Pippen would then move onto the Rockets for a disjointed year before making his way to the Trail Blazers.

The Blazers would come only a few minutes (and one thunderous Shaquille O’Neal alley-oop) away from making the NBA Finals. After a few more disappointing seasons in Portland, Pippen would play out the strings of his career in Chicago before taking a front office position with the team he clashed with for so many years.

If Pippen had gone to Seattle — ironically the team that initially drafted him — what would have happened? First off, the combo of Pippen and Payton is tantalizing. Two of the best perimeter defenders in NBA history, owners of 19 All-Defensive Team awards, on the same team. Sure, Seattle would’ve lacked some of the high-flying offense they received from Kemp, but it’s hard not to imagine them as the NBA’s best defense. In a Western Conference without a clear powerhouse, Payton, Pippen, Detlef Schrempf and their deep bench seem like the easy favorite.

What’s hard about this conversation and wondering what could’ve or would’ve happened is that both teams remained great even after the trade. It’s not as if Seattle immediately faltered and you wonder how much better things could have been. Seattle still had a great defense, they still made it to the NBA Finals in 1996 and remained good even after Kemp was sent away. The Bulls still won three straight titles by keeping their core intact.

What really changes is after the success, once those players were out of their prime, how their career arcs would have differed. If Kemp, not Pippen, won three titles with the Bulls, how would the narratives around his career differ? If Pippen only won the first three titles with the Bulls, but never reached that apex again with Seattle, would he be a sure-fire Hall of Famer? Would people have questioned Pippen’s leadership ability? Would he have been tagged as someone who could only win when the best player of all-time was his running mate?

Worse yet, if Kemp goes to the Bulls and they don’t win the title, questions arise immediately about him and his ability. After all, Kemp and the Sonics were contenders throughout the early 90s but always found themselves on the losing end come playoff time — often, as the series favorite. If he doesn’t win with Jordan and the Bulls aren’t consistent winners, Kemp becomes the focal point.

There was also the ever-wavering stability of the Bulls throughout this period. Amidst the winning was a ton of turmoil. Jordan and Jackson were both untrusting of the Bulls front office, Krause in particular. They would eventually sign one-year deals in the 1996-97 offseason, suggesting that year would be the end of their dynasty.

It’s not unfathomable after Krause traded Pippen and the Bulls with Kemp didn’t win the NBA title that Jordan, Jackson and numerous others would have left. Success kept them together. The Bulls instead go through a rebuild years earlier than they did, with two fewer titles under their belt.

What about Seattle’s franchise? One has to wonder if the Payton/Pippen duo reaches another NBA Finals or even wins one, that the franchise may still be in Seattle. It’s said that the miraculous playoff run of the 1995 Seattle Marines baseball team kept them in Seattle. What if the Sonics won a title between 1995-1998? Would that have been enough for them to securing financing for a new stadium? Would Barry Ackerley not have sold the team to Howard Schultz? Would Schultz have considered the Sonics, recent champions of the NBA, a Seattle institution?

Schultz never could get the money he sought to build a new state-of-the-art facility to replace the aging Key Arena. Opinions of publicly-funded arenas aside, you have to think a championship or two — hell, even a few more runs in the NBA Finals — may have kept the Sonics in Seattle’s good graces and may have led the city to do everything and anything they could to keep the Sonics there.

If Scottie Pippen was traded for Shawn Kemp, the Bulls would have maybe had two fewer championship. The Sonics may still exist. The green and yellow that so many of us grew up on would still be representing the NBA’s northwest. They may be one of the NBA’s charter franchises in one of the NBA’s most fan-friendly, loyal cities.

Or maybe the same story plays out.

Either way, a few seconds could have wide-reaching effects on players, coaches, teams and even cities. The very fabric of the current NBA could be entirely different because of only 1.8 seconds.

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