MANILA, Philippines – There’s no question that the Chicago Bulls have been one of the most dominant NBA teams of the last 5 decades. There were, however, two teams that could have challenged the Bulls if only the stars aligned, or if they did not run into some bad luck.
When Jordan joined the NBA in 1984, he did not emerge as the top draft pick. That honor belonged to Hakeem Olajuwon who was selected by the Houston Rockets.
Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.68 blocks in his first NBA season. He finished second to Jordan in the Rookie of the Year race.
What was more impressive in Olajuwon’s debut season was how he sparked a turnaround in the team’s performance. The Rockets were a 29-53 team the year before. When the man nicknamed ‘The Dream’ came on board, the Rockets improved to 48-34. The Bulls made the playoffs that season on a 38-44 record.
Houston was a matchup dilemma for opposing teams because they had what was the original version of the Twin Towers – Olajuwon and 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson.
If there was ever a first sighting of a unicorn in the NBA, that would have been Sampson. He was the exact definition of a basketball unicorn 30 years before the term was even coined – a player with the athletic shape to play power forward or center, but had the technical skills of a guard or wingman.
Averaging 21 points and 11.1 boards, Sampson was the Rookie of the Year in the 1983-1984 season. As a rookie, he was chosen to play in the NBA All-Star Game.
Sampson improved his offensive output when he made the transition to power forward upon the arrival of Olajuwon. As a sophomore, Sampson won the All-Star MVP.
Sampson’s versatility was a perfect complement to the low-post presence of Olajuwon. In an interview, he said: “My mindset was to be the best basketball player I could be. Not just the best center. I wanted to play guard. I wanted to play forward. They gave me the opportunity to do that.”
Stuff of nightmares
The rest of the league recognized there was an impending threat in the horizon, and that it did not come from Chicago.
The Boston Celtics brought in Bill Walton to backstop Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. The New York Knicks started their own version of the Twin Towers with Patrick Ewing and Bill Cartwright.
At the end of the 1985-1986 regular season, Houston topped the Midwest Division with a 51-31 record, second best in the West.
Houston swept the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the playoffs before defeating the Denver Nuggets in 6 games.
In the Western Conference finals, the young Rockets eliminated the defending champion LA Lakers, 4-1. Houston eventually lost in 6 games to the Celtics in the NBA Finals.
The Rockets made the championship without starting point guard John Lucas, who averaged 15.5 points during the regular season. Lucas was suspended before the playoffs due to drug use.
When the Rockets made the finals in 1986, Olajuwon was a sophomore. Sampson was just on his third year. The two were not even at their athletic peak yet.
The following season, however, was the stuff of nightmares for the Rockets. Starting shooting guard Lewis Lloyd and key reserve Mitchell Wiggins were sacked for substance abuse. Sampson played only 43 games before going down with an injury which he would never recover from.
The Rockets of that era remain one of the biggest “what ifs” in NBA history.
Jordan began winning when Scottie Pippen blossomed into an All-Star. The Rockets already had a potent one-two combo years before the emergence of the Bulls’ own dynamic duo.
Sampson’s potential was off the charts. There was certainly no one like him in the league. How greater would Olajuwon have become if he had Sampson to draw the defense away from him?
There was another franchise in the Jordan era which already had a good team that could have been even way better.
The Portland Trail Blazers made the NBA Finals in 1990, losing to the Detroit Pistons, and in 1992, losing to the Bulls. Their starting center was Kevin Duckworth, a reliable big man who was a two-time All-Star.
The Blazers at that time, though, owned the rights to the best player outside the NBA, Arvydas Sabonis of Lithuania.
Most fans never fully realize how good Sabonis was in his younger years. He was not the slow, lumbering giant who could barely jump when he finally joined the NBA in 1995. He was already 31 years old in his rookie year.
Years of being forced to play for the USSR national team meant not getting proper treatment and rehabilitation. Sabonis was repeatedly ordered to prematurely resume active duty even when his injuries were not fully healed.
By the time he joined the Blazers, he was broken down and had lost much of his athleticism. Then Blazers general manager Bob Whitsitt said: “The doctor said that Arvydas could qualify for a handicapped parking spot, based on the X-ray alone.”
The Blazers drafted Sabonis in 1986. He was only 22 years. He went down that year with a serious achilles tendon injury. He was back in action just a few months later to play for USSR which lost by two points to the US in the finals of the World Championships.
Sabonis was named to the All Tournament Five along with David Robinson and Drazen Petrovic of Yugoslavia. The year before, he averaged 20 points to help the USSR win the European championships.
Balance of power
In the years 1985-1988, Sabonis was widely recognized as one of the top big men in the game. He could shoot from outside, was an exceptional passer, a strong rebounder and defensive player, and could run the break. Simply put, he was a strong big man who was also very skilled and athletic.
Legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach even called him one of the 3 best centers in the world along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone.
The Blazers, though, missed the golden opportunity to play him alongside the likes of Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Buck Williams, Duckworth, and Petrovic. The USSR would not allow Sabonis to make the jump to the NBA.
One can only imagine how potent the Blazers would have been if they acquired Sabonis after he won the 1988 Olympic gold. Drexler said he is sure they could have won a championship if they had Sabonis in the team.
The NBA of the late ‘80s and even the ‘90s was still generally big men-oriented. A healthy Sampson playing for the Rockets and a prime Sabonis in a Blazers uniform could have changed the balance of power and perhaps, reshaped basketball history.
At the very least, these two teams could have made the path to dominance more difficult for the Bulls. It is also not unlikely that Jordan, because he is the GOAT, would have still found a way to overcome these threats to his march to basketball immortality. – Rappler.com
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