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 superstars grow increasingly frustrated in the summer of 1994. One, in New York, came just seven points short of winning his first NBA championship in June. The other, in Utah, has just seen one of his biggest rivals, Hakeem Olajuwon, snatch up that very title he believes should be his. So the frustrated star in Utah tells his agent to force a trade. He thinks that a partnership with New York’s embattled All-Star will finally deliver the championship he craves. So just before the 1994-95 season, Karl Malone gets his wish and is traded to Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks for a package led by Charles Oakley and rookie Charlie Ward.
The fit takes some time. Derek Harper and John Starks can’t quite match John Stockton as a pick-and-roll partner for Malone, but raw talent alone carries the Knicks to a conference best 59-23 record. That talent is molded into a cohesive team by the second round, when Ewing and Malone finally get their shot at Michael Jordan and the Bulls. They come into the series seen by some as underdogs, but leave after a decisive five-game victory as the clear championship favorite. Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic put up a good fight in the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing can stop the inevitable Knicks-Rockets NBA Finals rematch.
Both teams come into the series far stronger than their previous incarnations. The Knicks obviously bring Malone to the table, but aren’t to be outdone by Houston’s addition of Clyde Drexler. The new guys make their presence known early on, with Drexler hitting a game-winner in Game 1 and Malone scoring 36 points to even the series in Game 2. The Rockets take two at home to return to New York with a 3-2 series lead. Malone almost turns into the goat when Drexler steals the ball from him in the post and takes the ball coast-to-coast to give Houston a one-point lead late in Game 6, but in redemption for his failure in the ’94 Finals, John Starks hits a game-winner to force a seventh game. The Knicks take it with relative ease. New York wins its first championship in over 20 years, Starks is named Finals MVP, and five days later, head coach Pat Riley agrees to a five-year contract extension despite overtures from Miami to run the entire Heat organization.
The Knicks never quite reach championship heights again. Michael Jordan’s second Bulls dynasty sees to that, but both Ewing and Malone eventually see their numbers retired in New York, cementing their status as Knicks legends.
Things don’t go quite so smoothly for the team Malone leaves behind. John Stockton tries to play the good soldier and compete with teammates he’s given, but after several years of losing both sides grow agitated. Stockton wants to win, and during the 1998 NBA lockout he begins to seriously consider retirement. The Jazz, refusing to lose him for nothing, begin to shop their aging star to contenders as soon as the labor crisis is resolved. They find an eager suitor in the San Antonio Spurs.
With the young Tim Duncan and veteran superstar David Robinson, the Spurs head into the 1998-99 season primed for a championship run. But Avery Johnson is hardly an appealing option at point guard, so when the opportunity to upgrade to Stockton arises, San Antonio leaps. They send Johnson, Mario Elie and draft picks to Utah for the aging point guard and never look back. The Spurs waltz to the 1999 NBA Championship giving Stockton his first title. Who do they beat there? Stockton’s old teammate, Karl Malone, and the New York Knicks.
Despite the loss, Malone embraces Stockton in the tunnel after the deciding Game 5, congratulating him on finally earning the ring he so obviously deserved. When the press asks about the encounter afterwards, Stockton is coy, telling them only how much he enjoyed playing with Malone and that he wished him the best going forward. Malone is a bit more forthcoming.
“We talked about teaming back up some day, maybe trying to win one together, like we should’ve all those years ago,” Malone is quoted as saying, “who knows, I hear the Lakers might be interested…”