Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.
Two of the NBA’s best teams enter the 1994 offseason determined to make a change. The Chicago Bulls, having finally acknowledged the end of the Michael Jordan era, decide to trade Scottie Pippen and rebuild around a new star. The Seattle Supersonics, coming off of an embarrassing loss to the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets, realize the rare talent Chicago has put on the market and decide to pounce. They send Shawn Kemp to Seattle for Pippen.
The move pays immediate dividends for Seattle, as the Pippen-Gary Payton pairing gives the Sonics the best defense in basketball. They finish with the NBA’s best record for a second consecutive year. Chicago, meanwhile, struggles to find a groove. Kemp is an awkward fit in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, and though their talent is monstrous, Michael Jordan’s return just frustrates Kemp even more. In fact, the awkward fit disrupts team chemistry so much that the Bulls turn down an opportunity to acquire Dennis Rodman the following summer, fearing the locker room ramifications.
Of course, that comes in July. June belongs to the Sonics. They lose only two Western Conference playoff games before taking down Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic in five games to win their second NBA championship. Pippen is named the Finals MVP for his defense on Penny Hardaway, and the Bulls slowly realize the mistake they made in letting him go.
In fact, they get to see it firsthand in the 1996 NBA Finals. Jordan and Kemp still struggle to play together, but they still manage to overwhelm a mediocre Eastern Conference to earn a shot at the champs. But Payton is the prototypical Jordan stopper, Pippen does the same to Kemp, and Seattle captures another title.
Phil Jackson is so fed up with his mismatched roster that he retires after the Finals. Jordan feels the same way, and despite a massive offer from the Bulls, he agrees to a one-year contract with the New York Knicks in free agency.
The Knicks may be old, but Jordan is so rejuvenated by his partnership with Patrick Ewing that they manage to tie the NBA record for wins in a season with 69. He earns a Finals rematch with Seattle, and with Ewing on his side he finally manages to take the Sonics down. Injuries to Ewing ruin New York’s chance at a repeat championship (which is eventually won by Utah), but Jordan is content to retire as both a four-time champion and the player who finally brought a banner back to the Big Apple.
Chicago realizes it has no future with Kemp, and after one .500 Jordan-less season general manager Jerry Krause trades the star for the draft rights to high school phenom Tracy McGrady. Their former coach, Phil Jackson, returns to coaching for the 1997-98 season, this time with the Indiana Pacers. They lose the ’98 Finals to Utah and ’99 Finals to San Antonio, but finally capture the franchise’s first title in 2000 against the Hubie Brown-coached Lakers.
Fast forward to the end of the decade. New Seattle owner Clay Bennett wants to move the Sonics to his native Oklahoma City. But Pippen and Payton rally the city behind their basketball team, and at the 11th hour, the team agrees to a new arena deal that will keep them in Washington for at least 30 more years. The duo are hailed as the men who saved basketball in Seattle.