One of the dominant themes throughout the course of "The Last Dance" has been the tumultuous relationship between Scottie Pippen and the front office of the Chicago Bulls, namely general manager Jerry Krause.
Multiple times across multiple seasons, trade rumours circled the Bulls' locker room like vultures, ready to pick apart and prematurely put an end to Chicago's 90s dynasty.
Cooler heads prevailed each time and Pippen stuck around long enough to win six titles as the Robin next to Michael Jordan's Batman.
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But what if it went down differently?
There was the 1995 All-Star break trade chatter speculating about Pippen joining forces with Charles Barkley in Phoenix and the 1997 draft-day trade that would have shipped Pippen to Boston with a rookie Tracy McGrady landing on the Bulls.
Before either of those came the 1994 blockbuster that would have ended the Bulls' second 3-peat before it ever got off the ground. With Michael Jordan still playing baseball and tensions running high in Chicago thanks to a dramatic playoff exit, Bulls GM Jerry Krause had a deal in place with the Seattle SuperSonics, who were desperate to get over the hump themselves after finishing with an NBA-best 63-19 record in 1993-94 only to be upset in the first round by the 8-seed Denver Nuggets.
Even though Pippen had just finished third in MVP voting and won All-Star Game MVP during the regular season, the tension ratcheted up after the seven-game loss to the New York Knicks thanks in part a flair-up during Game 3 when he refused to enter the game after Phil Jackson called the final play for Toni Kukoc. That spilled into the offseason played a role in advancing trade talks to the brink.
MORE: The six biggest moves Krause made to build a Bulls dynasty
The proposed trade ahead of the 1994 draft? Scottie Pippen and the 21st overall pick to Seattle for Shawn Kemp, Ricky Pierce and the 11th overall pick.
The deal was done.
Sometimes when we talk about the big trades that almost happened, there are varying degrees of truth about just how close a deal was to the finish line. Well... this one was all but signed, sealed and delivered until SuperSonics owner Barry Ackerly nixed the deal.
In his book "Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection," then Seattle coach George Karl detailed how he even got Jordan's approval.
"When I tried to imagine the Sonics without Shawn I knew I'd miss him, but I got pretty excited picturing Gary and Scottie teaming up on a trap; they'd smother opposing guards. But every trade prompts a debate. I was in favor of this one but I wasn't sure.
So I called Michael. We talked about minor-league baseball, North Carolina basketball, and golf. Then we talked about the big deal on the table. Should we do this?
"Do it," he said. "Scottie can make your other players better. Kemp can't."
Let's just say the Bulls and SuperSonics pulled the trigger. Here's everything that would have happened next...
1994-95: The Sonics are loaded and the Bulls rebuild on the fly.
Let's start with Chicago.
Krause finally gets the opportunity to receive credit out from the shadow of Jordan and Pippen. With Pippen no longer in town, Jordan does not return midway through the season. There's no "I'm Back" fax, no Bulls No. 45, no double-nickel at Madison Square Garden.
MORE: Ranking the best games of Jordan's career
Instead, the Bulls now lean on a tandem of Kemp and Toni Kukoc. The 25-year-old Kemp shows promise, but isn't a natural fit for the triangle and butts heads with Phil Jackson. Nothing serious but enough friction that rumblings start to surface about Jackson's future. Kukoc takes a massive leap forward as the primary playmaker on the wings though he's still not quite the All-Star calibre talent Krause always envisioned. Chicago makes the playoffs as a 7-seed and gets unceremoniously bounced in the first round by the Indiana Pacers.
On the west coast, Pippen and Payton form a ferocious defensive tag team from Day 1. Payton might not be Jordan but he's unequivocally the best defensive point guard of all-time, even if nobody quite knew it yet. Just 25 years old after the 1993-94 season, Payton was also coming off the first of what would end up being nine straight first team All-Defense selections.
|Player||First Team||Second Team|
The Sonics are loaded. Pippen wins the MVP award, Gary Payton blossoms into a fully-fledged superstar, Detlef Schrempf makes the All-Star team, Sam Perkins keeps stoking beautiful lefty jumpers as an ahead-of-his-time stretch five and Kendall Gill shows tantalizing promise as another defensive dynamo on the perimeter with size. The Sonics once again roll to the best record in the NBA but this time do not disappoint, knocking off the Houston Rockets in the Conference Finals and beating Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway in the NBA Finals.
With two seasons left on his deal, Jackson agrees to a buy-out with the Bulls and within a week agrees to become the next coach of the New York Knicks.
Jordan is itching to return but refuses to play for the Bulls, so he helps orchestrate a reunion with Jackson on the Knicks, who manage to land him without giving up Patrick Ewing. Jordan had threatened to stay retired, leaving the Bulls with no leverage or choice. Player empowerment, baby!
The NBA wastes no time in ushering in a new era of drama as it pits the Knicks and defending champion SuperSonics against each other on opening night.
Jordan vs Pippen. Madison Square Garden. No Bulls jerseys in sight. There's no animosity between the two former 3-peat teammates, but it becomes the most anticipated regular-season showdown ever. Jordan shows some rust in his first game back, finishing 9-26 from the field. He's one-upped by Pippen, who finishes with a 23-point triple-double and sends a message that the reigning MVP and defending champs are ready to run it back.
Fast forward to June and the inevitable dream matchup comes to fruition. Jordan, fresh off winning his fourth MVP award, figures out the tag team of Pippen and Payton by channeling his playmaker as he once did in the 1991 Finals when he averaged over 11 assists per game against the Los Angeles Lakers. He feeds Ewing time and again and the Knicks win in six with confetti falling from the rafters at MSG for the first time in over 20 years.
1996-97: In the summer of 1996, Shaquille O'Neal still signs with the Lakers, who also still manage to land Kobe Bryant.
MORE: The never-before-told and completely fictional alternate history of Shaq and Penny
It barely registers as the NBA world revolves around Jordan on the Knicks. You thought the Bulls got lots of attention when winning titles? It's nothing compared to the scene in New York as the championship celebration continues well into the 1996-97 season.
The Sonics fall short of a Finals rematch, bowing out to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals. Irate at losing the MVP award to Karl Malone, Jordan takes out his frustration on the Jazz and dominates the series. The most memorable moment occurs in Game 5 when Jordan battles through the flu to score 38 points in dizzying fashion. The lasting image of Ewing helping Jordan walk to the bench for a timeout late in the fourth quarter resonates for years as the Knicks would go on to win back-to-back titles.
1997-98: There's buzz that it could be Jordan's final year, a murmur that steadily crescendos into deafening symphonic overtones by the time the 1998 All-Star Game rolls around at Madison Square Garden. In a tie game in the closing seconds, Jordan clears out to go one-on-one against Pippen and buries a jumper for the win at the buzzer. He claims All-Star Game MVP and while accepting his trophy, turns towards Pippen and delights the delirious MSG crowd with seven simple words: "Nice try, Scottie. See you in June."
Both teams hold up their end of the bargain. Somehow, the Knicks manage to take a 3-2 lead despite looking a step slow. Down one with the ball in the closing seconds, Jordan looks to re-create the exact scene from that year's All-Star Game. A hard dribble right with a soft push off, the 35-year-old Jordan rises from 18 feet while the crowd in Seattle's KeyArena holds their collective breath while awaiting certain defeat. Except that Pippen recovers and blocks the shot.
Payton secures the loose ball and passes ahead to Pippen, who dribbles out the clock to give Seattle its second NBA title in three years. Upon hoisting his second Finals MVP trophy, Pippen takes the mic and says only three words: "Nice try, Michael."
Those three words infuriate Jordan to the point he decides to return for the 1998-99 season.
1998-99: The lockout threatened to stymie Jordan's revenge tour but eventually the season would get underway.
In an effort to matchup with Seattle in a potential finals rematch, the Knicks signed Latrell Sprewell to pair on the perimeter with Jordan in hopes that would give them enough firepower to win one more ring.
It proved to be a weird year. Despite the addition of Sprewell, the Knicks managed to finish just fourth in the East behind the Miami Heat, Pacers and Orlando Magic in a 50-game season in which nobody could really get into a rhythm.
Over in the Western Conference, the Sonics gave way to rising threats in San Antonio, Los Angeles and Portland, not to mention the Jazz who were still hummingly along with Malone and John Stockton. A now 33-year-old Pippen suddenly looked lethargic and despite playing all 50 games, looked noticeably older as he began to phase into a different stage of his career.
The Sonics fell in the second round to Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs while the Knicks survived a brutal Eastern Conference playoff run that went the distance in all three rounds against the Pistons, Heat and Pacers.
In the Finals, a 36-year-old Ewing had just enough left in the tank to hold his ground against Duncan and a similarly aging David Robinson which gave Jordan and Sprewell the cushion it needed to come out on top. Jordan won his sixth and final ring, took home Finals MVP honours and retired after the season.
Pippen - sensing a clear changing of the guard with Payton in Seattle - opted to sign with the Portland Trail Blazers.
1999-00: Everything played out the same way.
- Pippen led the Blazers to within one game of the NBA Finals before falling to Shaq and Kobe's Lakers
- Shaq won MVP and Finals MVP
- The summer of 2000 ended with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill signing in Orlando and Duncan staying put
The tidal wave caused by that Pippen-for-Kemp trade in the summer of 1994 had finally washed ashore and left its mark. On to the 2000s...
What exactly changed?
This is obviously a ridiculous hypothetical, but assessing the damage in our hypothetical parallel universe, what exactly changed?
The Bulls never won without Jordan. In the end, Krause couldn't come close to replicating his success without Jordan and Pippen as they still have yet to reach an NBA Finals since winning their last championship in 1993.
Jordan still won six rings, but now has two statues: one in front of the United Center, one in front of Madison Square Garden. It's not quite the Statue of Liberty, but Jordan brought three titles to New York and is suddenly just as revered as a Knick as he is a Bull. And yes, the Washington Wizards thing still happened.
Pippen's two rings away away from Jordan - including one over Jordan in 1998 - validated his place as far more than an overqualified second fiddle. Much like how Bryant's two championships without O'Neal forced pundits to reconsider his place in the game, a similar shift happened with Pippen, who now goes down as one of the 12-15 best players ever.
Speaking of Shaq and Kobe, it's hard to imagine them winning three straight titles without Phil Jackson there to keep the peace. Perhaps Jackson still would have found his way to Los Angeles but given his stature in New York as a Knicks champion, both as a player and coach, it's hard to imagine the Knicks losing Jackson even after a Jordan retirement. The more likely scenario is what played out in Miami with Pat Riley, who left the bench for the front office and entrusted the sidelines to Erik Spoelstra.
Speaking of Riley, with no Phil Jackson in Los Angeles to keep the peace between Shaq and Kobe, perhaps he's lured back by the Buss family. If he goes back, maybe the Lakers 3-peat anyways and nothing changes. Or maybe he stays in Miami, in which case it's hard to imagine the two feuding Laker superstars working it out to the tune of three titles. The talent is so immense that they probably win one or two, but that's it.
Payton nudged his way into the conversation of Mt. Rushmore point guards alongside Magic Johnson, John Stockton and now Stephen Curry. Instead of being equals with the likes of Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, the Seattle legend's profile raised significantly to the point where he became on par with Charles Barkley as a post-playing career NBA talking head.
The allure of winning in New York remains, but comes with an added layer of complexity. With Jordan's three championships looming large, the lofty standards established next-to-impossible expectations for any prospective star thinking about winning in the Big Apple. Jackson - who struck out in leading the Knicks front office in real life - similarly struggled to produce results in this world but stuck around far longer given the cache that comes with winning big.
20 years later and the Knicks are still searching for their next big star to deliver them to the promised land after missing out on LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. A simple phrase sums up the state of the Knicks now two decades removed from winning it all with MJ: "Giannis 2021."
Some things never change.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.