The Seattle SuperSonics franchise consistently found themselves in the postseason picture during the 1980 to 1990s era. They continued to make the playoffs even after trading away a valuable 5th overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. However, one can only wonder what could’ve been for Scottie Pippen, the Chicago Bulls, and the SuperSonics if things stayed the same on draft night.
In the 1986-1987 season, the Seattle-based squad concluded a 39-43 record which was enough for them to snag the 7th seed in the stacked Western Conference. They eventually overachieved and dealt upsets to stronger opponents in the Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets. The team faced a tough Los Angeles Lakers side which was eager to make it back to the NBA Finals after suffering a disappointing loss in the prior season. The Sonics ultimately bowed out of contention via a Western Conference Finals sweep by the Purple and Gold.
Their campaign ended with power forward Tom Chambers snagging the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player honors, along with shooting guard Dale Ellis being named as the league’s Most Improved Player during that season. Despite the abrupt ending to their playoff run, the Sonics certainly had a future to look forward to.
Having eyed Pippen before the 1987 NBA Draft who was selected at No. 5 overall, the Chicago Bulls manufactured a trade with the SuperSonics that would send the Central Arkansas product to Windy City in exchange for No. 8 selection center Olden Polynice along with future draft pick options.
The SuperSonics found no place for Pippen on their roster with Chambers, Ellis, and forward Xavier McDaniel all forming a three-headed monster on offense. The team went on to bag another 7th seed with a 44-38 record after the 1987-1988 regular season to head into the postseason. Unfortunately, the trio failed to power the team deep into the playoffs and succumbed to the Denver Nuggets in a deciding Game 5 for a first-round exit.
On the other hand, things didn’t go well with Pippen either. He finished his rookie season with a dismal tally of 7.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.1 assists across 20.9 minutes played in an off the bench role for the Bulls.
In the 1989 NBA Draft, big man Shawn Kemp was drafted out of Concord High School in Indiana with the 17th overall pick. He initially struggled to find his place in the league until he progressed under the mentorship of his teammate Xavier McDaniel. The Sonics finished the year with a disappointing 41-41 record to narrowly miss out on a postseason berth by ending the 1989-1990 regular season with the ninth seed.
A new era was slowly ushering in for the Sonics who then selected point guard Gary Payton out of Oregon State with the second overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. Together with Kemp, Eddie Johnson, Ricky Pierce, and Nate McMillan, they became a high octane squad under new head coach K.C. Jones.
In their first year with new faces around the team, McDaniel and Kemp managed to lead the Sonics to another 41-41 record and grabbed the last seat in the playoff picture. They went on to suffer a first-round loss from the Portland Trail Blazers led by Clyde Drexler.
Meanwhile, Pippen was already coming into his own as a player and won his first NBA championship in his fourth campaign in the league. Together with Michael Jordan, the Bulls defeated the Lakers on a 4-1 series outcome in what turned out to be the last Finals series to be played by Magic Johnson.
The 1991-1992 season was when the Sonics began to take the high road and got back on track. After starting their campaign with an even 18-18 record, the team parted ways with head coach K.C. Jones and slotted lead deputy Bob Kloppenburg at the helm for four games who was eventually replaced by George Karl.
The team managed to salvage the season and carved out a 47-35 record to finish in sixth place of the Western Conference. Led by the improved play of forward Ricky Pierce, the Sonics then defeated the Golden State Warriors in the first round but lost against the streaking Utah Jazz in the ensuing encounter.
The Sonics found their groove and continued to join the postseason party from 1992 to 1995 while the Pippen and the Bulls won two more championship titles in 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 to accomplish the first three-peat of their budding dynasty.
The two teams eventually crossed paths in the 1995-1996 NBA Finals with Payton finally becoming the leader of the team and were previously named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year during that season. He together with Kemp formed a formidable duo against the big three of Pippen, Jordan, and newcomer Dennis Rodman surrounded with a handful of reliable role players.
The Sonics failed to counter the offensive prowess of the Bulls who ultimately won the series on a 4-2 outcome to snag the team’s fourth championship and what would be the first of their second three-peat.
Pippen would go on to finish his playing years with six total titles and ultimately go down as one of the greatest players in Bulls history. Payton and Kemp would both play out their careers without a single ring but successfully etched themselves as the catalysts of the feared Sonics squad.
If the Sonics front office held onto the rookie Pippen, he would eventually become a major contributor alongside the younger guys in Payton and Kemp. The trio could’ve at least won a chip together and posed problems to the prominent squads in the 90s era namely the Bulls, Orlando Magic, New York Knicks, and the Utah Jazz.
However, it is also important to mention that Jordan played a major role in Pippen’s development throughout his career. It isn’t safe to say that he will turn out to be the player that he was from an individual standpoint had he stayed in Seattle.
Without Pippen on the Bulls, Jordan would have looked and molded another player to be his sidekick but none would still come close to the Arkansas native. He could’ve been the main man on another team but Pippen sorted things out with the rest of the team and perfectly played the role of a sidekick behind their leader in Jordan. The Bulls dynasty would’ve not played out the way that it did if Pippen wasn’t included in the picture.
The fate of both the Sonics and the Bulls turned out to be a tale of two cities and the Seattle-based squad can only imagine what could’ve been if they kept the then-22-year-old rookie on their team instead.