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The Blockbuster Trade That Could Have Happened If Hakeem Olajuwon Didn't Resolve The Beef With The Houston Rockets

The Blockbuster Trade That Could Have Happened If Hakeem Olajuwon Didn't Resolve The Beef With The Houston Rockets

Hakeem Olajuwon is often remembered as the greatest Houston Rocket of all time. After being drafted with the No. 1 overall pick, Olajuwon embarked on a legendary career with the Rockets. That included becoming the all-time leader in points, rebounds, steals, and blocks. Olajuwon was a two-time Finals MVP that helped the Rockets win back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. 

Those two titles are the only championships in team history. The Rockets haven’t been back to the NBA Finals since their last title. What if we told you there was a time when making the NBA Finals nearly never happened? Olajuwon and the Rockets had a back and forth struggle over contract negotiations that nearly cost the team their best player. Through name-calling, accusations, and a trade request, the adversity was very real between the two parties.

If this beef with Houston was never resolved, we could have been talking about Olajuwon joining up with another superstar in the league. These are the blockbuster trades and the story behind that time.

The Love For Houston At First

Olajuwon grew up in Nigeria, and his first visit to the United States was in New York. He wasn’t a fan of the largest city in the state and then asked to go to Houston. He played college basketball at the University of Houston, where his team was known as Phi Slamma Jamma. The Cougars eventually played in the NCAA Championship two times but never won a title. Once he declared for the draft, he had a 50/50 shot of the Rockets getting the top pick, which the team eventually did. The Rockets kept Olajuwon in town by drafting him with the first overall pick.

With the combination of Ralph Sampson and Olajuwon, the Rockets had instant success. However, this was the beginning of the first domino of the initial tense times. The Rockets knew how much Olajuwon loved the city of Houston, so the team lowballed him because they knew he wanted to play with the Rockets. Olajuwon didn’t love the contract, but he instantly succeeded right away. The team made the NBA Finals in 1986 despite losing to the Celtics in six games, but it paved the way for a bright future.

Early Playoff Exits And Market Value

For a moment, owner Charlie Thomas and Olajuwon had the best player-owner relationship in the league. Olajuwon had spent time with Thomas in his own home. Everything seemed like it was perfect when Olajuwon agreed to an eight-year contract after the Finals. Even former General Manager Ray Patterson, the man who lowballed Olajuwon on his rookie contract, stepped down.

Despite all of this, the Rockets never capitalized on signing Olajuwon. The Rockets had first-round exits in the playoffs each season between 1988 and 1991. Head coach Don Chaney was fired, and Olajuwon didn’t like that decision despite warming up to new head coach Rudy Tomjanovich. By this time, centers like Patrick Ewing and David Robinson were making more money than Olajuwon. This didn’t sit right with Olajuwon, who began trying to negotiate a new contract.

Faking Injuries And Character Shaming

The animosity between Olajuwon and the franchise began to intensify. Thomas didn’t want to promise Olajuwon a bunch of money because he was trying to sell the team. Steven Patterson, the new Rockets GM, declared that he and Olajuwon would negotiate a new contract, and if they couldn't find a solution, they would trade Olajuwon. This was on a Monday during the week. The Tuesday after, Olajuwon hurt his hamstring in a game.

Patterson speculated that Olajuwon faked an injury for contract negotiations. The team doctor said that Olajuwon was cleared to play, but Olajuwon got a second opinion and sat out the next game. The Rockets deliberately listed Olajuwon as “refused to suit up” and then suspended Olajuwon. The team went on record saying that the team employees would need to take pay cuts, and ticket prices would need to triple to pay Olajuwon the money he wanted.

The suspension was salt to the wounds. It cost Olajuwon $46,900 to sit out all five games he missed, in which the Rockets lost every single one. Olajuwon had a dedicated history of playing in games, and his teammates claimed that they didn’t believe Olajuwon faked an injury. The suspension essentially cost the Rockets a chance of making the playoffs. The team was fighting for the No. 8 seed in March. The Rockets missed the playoffs. Olajuwon wanted an apology and a trade because he lost faith in the team with the injury accusations.

The Interested Teams

Three teams on record made offers to the Rockets. Those included the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and Portland Trail Blazers. Here is a summary of each deal and what each lineup would have looked like heading into the 1992-93 season had any of these deals been processed.

Los Angeles Lakers Deal

Trade Package: James Worthy, Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell, Af Future First-Round Pick For Hakeem Olajuwon

Lakes Projected Lineup

PG: Sedale Threatt

SG: Byron Scott

SF: A.C. Green

PF: Sam Perkins

C: Hakeem Olajuwon

Rockets Projected Lineup

PG: Kenny Smith

SG: Vernon Maxwell

SF: James Worthy

PF: Otis Thorpe

C: Vlade Divac

In this deal, the Lakers would have traded a 31-year-old James Worthy and a 24-year-old Vlade Divac. By this time, Worthy was in the final two years of his career and on the decline. Divac was trending upwards. During his third season with the Lakers, he averaged 11.2 points and 6.9 rebounds. While Divac would have helped fill the void of Olajuwon, Divac was nowhere near the elite talent that Olajuwon was. This would have kept the Rockets in playoff contention but not for the championship.

The Lakers were coming off of a season where the team was 43-39 and had the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. Worthy led the team in scoring during the season, but he didn’t replicate that success in 1992-93. The team would have kept their next three top scorers in Perkins, Threatt, and Scott. Combine Olajuwon into that equation with his offense and defense, and this team might have risen to the top of the standings.

Miami Heat Deal

Trade Package: Rony Seikaly, Brian Shaw, Willie Burton For Hakeem Olajuwon

Heat Projected Lineup

PG: Bimbo Coles

SG: Steve Smith

SF: Glen Rice

PF: Grant Long

C: Hakeem Olajuwon

Rockets Projected Lineup

PG: Kenny Smith

SG: Vernon Maxwell

SF: Willie Burton

PF: Otis Thorpe

C: Rony Seikaly

Let’s just get this out of the way now. It’s hard to think that the Rockets would have ever entertained this deal unless Glen Rice was included. However, this is what the Heat offered, so let’s get into the prospects. Seikaly was the second-leading scorer at 16.4 points per game while leading the team in rebounding with 11.8 rebounds. He was only 26 years old at the time and was an intriguing prospect. Burton was 23 years old and coming off a season where he averaged 11.2 points, while Shaw was 25 years old and averaged 7.0 points per game. Seikaly and Burton would have likely made their move into the starting lineup immediately.

The Heat was coming off of a season where the team was 38-44. The Heat was swept in the first round by the Bulls in three games. Keeping Rice, who had averaged 22.2 points per game the previous season, might have made a dangerous combination with Olajuwon. Steve Smith nearly led the team in assists and could have slid to the point guard role. The Heat might have been able to contend with the Bulls in the 1993 playoffs had this deal been pulled off.

Portland Trail Blazers Deal

Trade Package: Kevin Duckworth, Jerome Kersey, Alaa Abdelnaby For Hakeem Olajuwon

Trail Blazers Projected Lineup

PG: Terry Porter

SG: Clyde Drexler

SF: Clifford Robinson

PF: Buck Williams

C: Hakeem Olajuwon

Rockets Projected Fight

PG: Kenny Smith

SG: Vernon Maxwell

SF: Jerome Kersey

PF: Otis Thorpe

C: Kevin Duckworth

This would have been game-changing for the Trail Blazers. The team was fresh off of the 1992 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games. Had this trade been processed, the team would have been able to keep their backcourt in Terry Porter, the future all-time leader in assists in franchise history, as well as All-Star Clyde Drexler, the all-time leading scorer in team history. Drexler and Olajuwon would have been the 90s version of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. That might have been enough to help the team make it back to the NBA Finals in 1993 and defeat Jordan’s Bulls to stop the three-peat.

Then again, this is a dream. The Trail Blazers lowballed the Rockets. Kersey averaged 12.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, while Duckworth averaged 10.7 points and 6.1 rebounds. Those two players are valued starters for some teams but it would have still been short of the elite talent that Olajuwon brought to the table. Olajuwon was a top-5 player in the league. The Rockets would have continued to miss the playoffs and would have had no future assets to make the rebuild work out.

A Plane Ride Brought A Championship To Houston

Ultimately, none of these deals were accepted. Olajuwon never got his apology either. There were some testy times. Olajuwon called Thomas a coward and had no intention of finding a resolution for their contract talks. Going into the offseason, both sides were on poor terms. What eventually saved the relationship was a plane ride.

Both Olajuwon and Thomas shared a plane to Tokyo for an NBA function. It was a 14-hour plane ride. The ride helped the two sides reconcile. After all, Olajuwon had spent time in his home. He spent time with his kids. Olajuwon felt like the Thomas family was a part of his family. The two opened up their communication lines and that was the start of something great. With his teammates backing up his work ethic, the Rockets had everything they needed to invest in Olajuwon again.

The two sides ultimately settled their differences and agreed on a four-year extension worth $30 million. This finally ended the hostility between the two sides and the team could move on towards trying to win a championship. The Rockets would finish the 1992-93 season with a Midwest Division championship. The team nearly made it back to the Conference Finals but lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games in the second round of the playoffs.

After that, we all know how this story ends. The Rockets took full advantage of Michael Jordan’s retirement after the Bulls won the title in 1993. Olajuwon took over as the face of the NBA during the 1993-94 season. He won the regular season MVP and then led the Rockets to their first championship in 1994 with a win over the Knicks. Olajuwon claimed Finals MVP. The Rockets repeated as champions in 1995, where Olajuwon claimed his second consecutive Finals MVP.

Had this conflict ruined the relationship with Olajuwon and the team decided to be prideful and trade him, the Rockets would be without a championship in the present day. Olajuwon was a critical reason why the team was able to win back-to-back titles. Had Olajuwon and Thomas never shared that plane ride, we could be talking about Olajuwon as a champion but with a different franchise. In the end, it goes to show that resolving conflict can be the best business practice. 


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