The NBA Finals that Never Was

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September 3, 2013 by NowhereButPop

By Andrew Doscas

Maybe it’s because I was born in 1991, but I believe wholeheartedly that the golden age of the NBA lasted from 1990-2002.  I don’t know if this is a generational thing, but it seems that my generation is obsessed with the early 90s.  Is it because it’s a way for us to look back on things that amused us as children and reaffirm our familiarity with our past?  Is it a way for us to reclaim or capture a culture or trend that we grow up around, but missed to be a governing part of?  Whatever the reason my generation loves the early 90s; I for one am no different, especially with my love of 90s basketball.

Unlike the 60s or the 80s where the league was governed by a few bright stars with fewer lesser stars, the 90s were rife with bright stars that revolved around one mega star.  The 60s boasted Russell, Chamberlain, West, Baylor, and Frazier, but after that there was a huge drop off in amazing players.  The 80s had the two superstars in Johnson and Bird (who literally saved the NBA), and then a few lesser stars in Moses Malone, an old Dr. J, Isiah Thomas, and Kareem.  Obviously the stars of the 90s played in the 80s, but they didn’t flourish and come into their own until the 90s.  Even though Ewing, Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Stockton, Barkley, Pippen, and Drexler all played in the 80s they didn’t become the dominant players we know them to be until the 90s.  Even though their stats were similar throughout both decades, the 90s just treated them better.  Maybe it’s because all these players were on great teams that were constantly fighting for a championship.  In the 90s all the best players played on contending teams, it just so happened that all of them were stymied time and time again by one Michael Jordan.

Jordan is without question the greatest player in NBA history.  Even though the mega star of the NBA in the 90s was the best player ever, the drop off between him and the next tier of elite players wasn’t as steep as it had been in past decades.  If Jordan is the best player of all time that stands to reason that he was the best player of his time-1990s.[1]  The question remains however, as to who the second best player of the 90s was.  Most people would tell you it was Hakeem Olajuwon as after Jordan, it was his team the Houston Rockets who won the most championships of the 90s.  Asking the question of who the second best player in the NBA in the 90s was is a lot like asking what the second best Beatles album is.  Despite the fact that some answers are better than others, argue it the right way and there’s no real wrong answer.[2]  Between Jordan and Olajuwon they account for 8 of the 10 NBA championships won in the 90s and 5 of the 10 MVP awards won in the 90s.  Granted Jordan won six finals to Olajuwon’s two and four MVPs to Olajuwon’s one, but that’s why Jordan is the best player in the 90s.

As I write this I have to ask myself a very important and dangerous question-what is the purpose of this article?  Is it to disprove that Hakeem the Dream was the second best player of the 90s?  If so, I’m not really arguing against anyone in particular, only an unjust social designation that I believe to exist.  That’s most likely part of it, but it’s also to satisfy a question that I’ve never been able to find an adequate answer to.  Why did the Houston Rockets and the Chicago Bulls ever meet in the NBA Finals, and does this detract from the greatest of Hakeem Olajuwon?

I simply can’t wrap my head around how fortuitous the Houston Rockets were when they went back to back in 1994 and 1995.  Their only two championships came in the absence of the greatest player of all time; the first only happened because they were the beneficiary of a player on the other team (John Starks) imploding at the worst possible time (Game 7 of the 1994 Finals).[3]   Even though the second championship was a sweep, they benefited by trading for hall of famer Clyde Drexler who all of the sudden forced Portland to trade him to the defending champs midway through the 1994-95 season.  On top of that they were incredibly lucky that Nick Anderson missed FOUR consecutive free throws in the waning minutes of game one that would have assured Orlando a game one victory.[4]  It’s very easy (and incredibly depressing) to envision the Knicks winning the 1994 finals if Starks doesn’t have the worst day of his life on June 22, 1994, and it’s not absurd to think that Orlando would have fared much better if they won game 1.  Not only were the Rockets benefiting from horrible luck on the side of their opponents, they also won both championships in the absence of Michael Jordan.

This brings me to my next point; the Rockets are in the Western Conference and the Bulls are in the Eastern Conference; they wouldn’t have had to play the Bulls in any round until the NBA finals.  I find it incredibly odd, suspicious, and telling that even with Jordan playing in the opposite conference, the Rockets still could not make the NBA finals.  In this case Olajuwon is different from Patrick Ewing or Reggie Miller, or even a Charles Barkley, because the Dream never had to face off against Jordan in the playoffs.  Guys like Uncle Patrick, Reggie Miller and the Round Mound of Rebound are sort of undervalued because of their inevitable defeats at the hands of Michael Jordan.  Hakeem and the Rockets never faced such ignominy because they never opposed the Bulls in the playoffs.  This is most likely the biggest reason why Hakeem is in a bracket all of his own: because we forget that he never lost to Jordan (as he would have), because he never played against him in the playoffs.

Anyone who would make the claim that Uncle Patrick, Charles Barkley, and Stockton/Malone still wouldn’t have won without Michael Jordan playing is most likely the same idiot who would tell you that Thriller didn’t prevent scores of other artists from going to number 1.  But again Hakeem doesn’t have this stigma.  He won when Michael Jordan decided to retire, and we forget that.  Just like we forget that David Robinson only won once Tim Duncan came to the Spurs.  All that matters is that they won, not how they got there.  Gary Patton, Shaq, Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Drexler, and Olajuwon only won at times when Michael Jordan wasn’t playing.  All played at the same time as Jordan, but it was only in the Jordan Power Vacuum that each player ascended to victory.

The Knicks, Pacers, Magic, and Heat had to face off against the Bulls consistently in the playoffs, and they consistently lost.  The Suns, Jazz, Supersonics, and Trailblazers lost to the Bulls in the Finals as well.  Their respective superstars faced off against the best and were vanquished.  My question then is how can we take the Houston Rockets as seriously as we do when they never played the best.  The Finals that never was is the Finals between Jordan’s Bulls and Olajuwon’s Rockets.  It doesn’t matter the year, but again it’s suspect that the Rockets never made it to the Finals when Jordan was at the top of his game.  The Bulls and Rockets are considered to be the two best teams of the 90s, because they won the most.  Why then did it never evolve in a similar fashion to the Lakers and Celtics in the 1980s, who were truly the two best teams of the decade?  Can a team really be considered one of the best if they just take advantage of a power vacuum?

Obviously to be the best you have to beat the best, or else it just becomes a chaotic fight to fill a power vacuum.[5]  In the 90s there was no one better than Michael Jordan and the Bulls.  Jordan was the best of the best; guys who perpetually lost to him like Uncle Patrick, Reggie Miller, the Round Mound, Stockton and Malone are the rest of the best, elite hall of fame level players who just couldn’t end Jordan’s reign of supremacy.  Olajuwon, by virtue of winning during Jordan’s tenure as messiah of pop culture, is considered the best of the rest, slightly superior to the rest of the best, but well below Jordan, the best of the best.  What people fail to comprehend is the way in which Olajuwon won his rings-when Jordan was not playing.  Any star player, who managed to win in 1994 or 1995 would be in a category all his own, as Olajuwon is today.  I will concede however, that capitalizing on Jordan’s hiatus by monopolizing victory does indeed provide for a special legacy, but again, we would have seen anyone in this light; the title of second best player of the 90s wouldn’t only apply to the Dream.

If the Knicks or the Pacers or the Magic won in 1994 or 1995, there would be that accomplishment of a championship, but it would be a bit hollow because Jordan wasn’t there to slam the door shut, as he always had been.  But because the Rockets never had to face the Bulls in the playoffs, we can’t assume they would have lost to the Bulls, and actually conceded inferiority to them.[6]  Hakeem is free from this stigma, because Jordan never ousted him from the playoffs to begin with.  Guys like Ewing and Barkley have their legacies slightly diminished because of their failure to overcome the hegemony of the Bulls, while a guy like David Robinson has his own inability to even lead a team to the Finals without help (Tim Duncan) hanging over his head.  On the other hand Hakeem and the Rockets have their legacy bolstered despite having never played the Bulls, when in all actuality this fact should detract from their legacy.  Instead of displacing and ousting the champions they simply took advantage of a J.P.V.  On top of that, they never even made it to the Finals once Jordan came back.  You can’t just default them as the second best for this, when their being the best only lingered for a brief time that was provided for solely by opportunistic fortune.

Whether it be because I’m an embittered Knicks fan or a social contrarian, I can’t in any good consciousness give myself over to the idea that the Houston Rockets were the second best 1990s NBA had to offer.  If the Jazz played anyone else in the 1997 and 1998 Finals they would have won easily and been viewed in the same light at the Rockets are.  And if the Rockets played the Bulls in 1994 and 1995, and lost they would have been exactly what every other great team in the 1990s was: just another victim of Michael Jordan’s.

[1] Although he played for half of the 80s, he and his team didn’t dominate like they did in the 90s.  The honor of player of the decade has to be Magic Johnson, a player who played the entire decade and led his team to the most Finals appearances and championships of the decade.  If Magic Johnson saved the NBA, than Michael Jordan elevated it to heights previously thought unimaginable.

[2] Unless of course your answer to the question is Shawn Bradley and Yellow Submarine.

[3] I attest to the theory that John Starks has never fully recovered from that fateful day in June of 1994 where he shot 2-18 from the field, and lives each ensuing day with an undiagnosed case of PTSD.

[4] Clyde Drexler and Nick Anderson are numbers 7 and 4 respectively on my list of most despised NBA players of all time.

[5] This is why baseball sucked in the 80s, because there was no dominant team.

[6] But if they ever met in the finals, the Bulls would have won in six games.


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