Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player to ever play in the history of the NBA. Jordan finished his career as a 14-time All-Star, 10-time scoring champion, and won six league titles, which all included winning Finals MVP each time. At the bare minimum, Jordan will never falter below the second-best player of all time.
The Los Angeles Clippers wish they had Jordan’s legacy as their own. The team is historically an unsuccessful franchise. In the team’s 50 years of existence, the team has never won an NBA championship, yet made the NBA Finals. In the recent decade, the franchise has turned it around, but the team has ways to go before they ever finish on Jordan’s level.
It turns out that Jordan could have turned around the misfortunes of the team. The Chicago Bulls nearly traded Jordan after the completion of the 1987-1988 season. Had that happened, would the Clippers be the kings of Los Angeles? Here’s the blockbuster trade that never happened.
The Trade Details
Los Angeles Clippers Receive: Michael Jordan
Chicago Bulls Receive: Michael Cage, Mike Woodson, Ken Norman, two first-round draft picks
Four years into Jordan’s career, the Bulls were interested in dealing Jordan to the Clippers for the No. 1 and No. 6 picks of the 1988 NBA Draft. According to The Jordan Rules, written by former Chicago Tribune writer Sam Smith, the Clippers were also willing to give three players of Chicago’s choosing as well.
The three players were never specified, but if we looked at the three best players suited for Chicago’s team, it would have likely been Michael Cage, Mike Woodson, and Ken Norman. Smith believed that the Bulls were also looking to potentially trade Charles Oakley or Horace Grant for Kevin Johnson to help shore up the offense.
Jordan was already a star by this point in his career. He was named an All-Star four straight seasons and averaged a league-high 3.50 points and 3.2 steals per game, which landed him the MVP. With that said, the Bulls were coming off a first-round defeat to the Detroit Pistons and the management was starting to speculate that Jordan couldn’t involve his teammates enough to get Chicago to the top.
The Deal Fell Through
In the end, Jordan never went to Los Angeles. Reasons for why the deal fell through were never specified. All we know is that the Bulls decided to put their faith in Jordan and keep the current regime, while the draft capital that the Bulls would have received formed their own career paths.
“Ultimately, the deal fell through, and those two picks became Danny Manning and Hersey Hawkins (who was traded with a future first-round pick for Charles Smith, the third pick in the '88 Draft). Manning was terrific in the six seasons he spent with LA, though he obviously wasn't performing at Jordan's level.”
An easy reason for why the deal fell through was that the Bulls might have been crucified for trading away the reigning MVP. As much flack that Jerry Krause could receive, that would have been a bold move early into his career as a General Manager. As for the Clippers, the organization was not run like a championship franchise, so who knows how much Jordan would have put up with before he decided to leave.
Clippers Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Michael Jordan
SG: Quintin Dailey
SF: Reggie Williams
PF: Joe Wolf
C: Benoit Benjamin
When Doug Collins coached the Bulls and moved him to point guard down the stretch of 1988-1989, the results were amazing. Jordan averaged 32.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 8.3 rebounds in 41 regular season and playoff games as the team’s point guard. That stretch included a streak of seven consecutive triple-doubles. It would have taken a real good coaching job to make this move, but given the lack of true point guards on the team, this could have been a move employed and we know what would have happened had that gone through.
As for the supporting cast, the power forward position would be weak with reserve Joe Wolf needing to start. Benoit Benjamin was coming off a solid season with 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds. Quintin Dailey was coming off a year that saw him average 13.7 points, but he was a horrific three-point shooter at 16%. As for Reggie Williams, he was coming off a year that saw him average 10.7 points. Needless to say, Jordan would have had full range to play however he wanted because his supporting cast was a downgrade.
Bulls Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Sam Vincent
SG: Mike Woodson
SF: Scottie Pippen
PF: Michael Cage
C: Horace Grant
Michael Cage would have been a sign-and-trade deal but would have had to be included. Cage was the team’s best player the previous year where he averaged 14.5 points and 13.0 rebounds. That would have moved Horace Grant to the center position with Bill Cartwright playing as the backup.
The third player is up in the air, but Ken Norman displayed a lot of talent at a younger age. The Bulls could have asked for Norman as the third player that could have grown into a regular role player and backed up Cage. As for Woodson, he was the Clippers’ leading scorer at 18.0 points per game and would have taken over Jordan’s role as the starting shooting guard. Sam Vincent would have remained as the point guard because the Bulls had recently traded for him during the previous season.
There is a lot to dissect here. For starters, the Clippers won just 21 games in 1988-1989. The team would have a losing season the following two years before playing in the playoffs in 1992. The Clippers would lose in the first round two straight seasons before failing to make the playoffs for three consecutive years. By this time, Jordan had led the Bulls to a championship three-peat from 1991 to 1993.
As for their two best players, Cage would leave the Clippers to join the Denver Nuggets, while Mike Woodson would leave to join the Rockets. Ken Norman had a great season the following year with 18.1 points and 8.3 rebounds, but he would finish his career with zero All-Star appearances. As for the two draft picks, Manning averaged 16.7 points and 6.6 rebounds in his first season and eventually made two All-Star appearances with the Clippers. Hawkins was traded for Charles Smith, who played four seasons for the Clippers with zero All-Star appearances.
As for the Bulls, Jordan lost to the Pistons in 1989 and 1990 as Detroit won back-to-back championships. That fueled Jordan to work with his teammates and himself on bettering their game overall. Jordan led the Bulls past the Pistons in 1991 on their way to winning their first of three championships, which includes players that management previously thought he couldn’t include such as Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and Bill Cartwright.
Jordan would famously retire in 1993 but come back to lead the Bulls to three more championships in 1996, 1997, and 1998. His awards such as MVP, scoring titles, and more would help shape his legacy as the greatest player of all time. The Bulls franchise rose from being irrelevant to a world-known product, which is still highly regarded today.
The Lakers have owned basketball rights in Los Angeles for what feels like forever. From Jerry West to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to now LeBron James, the Lakers have always had the stars. What if the Clippers employed the dominant run by Chicago during the 1990s on their side? Would Los Angeles own all basketball stardom today? How much would the league have changed? Either way, the Clippers have been on the wrong side of history when it comes to basketball and they were on the wrong side when this trade fell through.