Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don't make: The Dream Shake

We're a month into the season, and the We Rite Goode crew want to be responsible journalists actually blog about something, so we're revisiting a number of pressing questions, but answering them in total roundabout, WRG-style.

First up: Why isn't Kobe out of L.A. yet?


A star must be traded.

That was the mandate facing one GM. His future Hall-of-Famer was feuding with the owner and calling the GM incompetent to the press. The guy's teammates were muttering off-the-record about greed and ego. The team seemed locked in the middle of the West, far behind the real contenders.

Sound familiar?

Clearly, we're describing Kobe Bryant...except we're not.

No--we're flashing back 15 years to a star from the '90s. A player who had yet to win an MVP; a guy who was seen as unable to make his teammates better.

Rack your brain. It's not Karl Malone. Nor Patrick Ewing. Not Charles Barkley, although that guess would be a good one, since trade talk for both swirled that summer of 1992.

Instead, it's...Hakeem Olajuwon. What, the legendary Dream, you say? We'll let journalist Eddie Sefko take it away:

Dateline: May 31 1992
"Everytime you turn around, there is another piece of conjecture about what the Rockets will do with Hakeem Olajuwon.

Last week, Mike Fratello was quoted as saying one of the reasons he did not want the Rockets' coaching job was because the club was 99-percent certain Olajuwon would be traded.

The guess here is that it's more like 100 percent.

The Rockets have been calling around the league offering Olajuwon. Their first question to prospective takers is if there are any untouchables on their squad.

If there are, the Rockets move on."

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Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we all know that Olajuwon remained in Houston for another nine years before swan-songing in Toronto (about the time Sefko moved from the Houston Chronicle to the Dallas Morning News, where he would become part of press conference infamy.)

But to Sefko's credit, he was just parroting the conventional wisdom: Things did look pretty grim between Olajuwon and Rockets management. Hakeem had worn down after carrying the load alone for years; Ralph Sampson's career flamed out early, leaving lunchpail power forward Otis Thorpe as Olajuwon's best sidekick.

Existing tension escalated during that spring of 1992; although a team doctor reported he was OK to play, Hakeem said that a hamstring injury had yet to heal and sat out for two games, prompting Rockets management to issue a three-game suspension. Upon his return, Olajuwon called the owner a coward and the GM a fool, demanding a trade. For their part, the Rockets encouraged reports that Hakeem was greedy and not a team player. A divorce seemed imminent, if not necessary.

And while teams lined up for an Hakeem deal--among them, the Sonics, the Clippers, and the Heat--keep in mind, Hakeem wasn't universally viewed as a savior. One Seattle columnist argued that pairing Olajuwon with Shawn Kemp would be a mistake, as Hakeem never made other players better and had terrible practice habits. Behind a healthy Olajuwon, the Rockets had been just .500 in two of the three previous years; not to mention, it was also the era of the forward-guard (Jordan, Bird, Magic), and dominant big men weren't seen as necessary for a championship any more.

So what happened? Well, the Rockets never ended up making a deal, considering they were getting just pennies on the dollar. Perhaps the best proposal was from the Heat, who offered Rony Seikaly, Willie Burton, and Brian Shaw--or in today's terms, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Gerald Green, and Marko Jaric for a Tim Duncan-level talent.

At first, the shadow of a trade (or failure to make one), hung over the Rockets; by the end of December, the team sat at 14-16, in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. But whether it was the criticism, the challenge--something in Olajuwon caught fire, and soon, the Rockets did too. The team ended up with 55 wins and the first division title since prototype Twin Towers Sampson and Olajuwon led the Rockets to the 1986 Finals. And even though Michael Jordan's Bulls won the 1993 NBA title in a threepeat, it was Olajuwon who finished second to Charles Barkley for that year's MVP.

It was agreed: Rather than get dealt out of Houston, Olajuwon put the trouble behind him and had his finest season to-date, pushing his performance to the next level.



It was enough to get Hakeem his first Defensive Player of the Year nod, and he built on the performance to win MVP (and carry his team to a championship) in 1994.

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It's kind of surprising. We think of Hakeem Olajuwon now as a fully formed superstar--cool and calm, using his Dream Shake to outplay Patrick Ewing in 1994, David Robinson and Shaq in 1995. But not long before...he was a hot-headed center who had all the talent, but hadn't quite put everything together.

As fans, playing with counterfactual history can be way too tempting--and sometimes the answers are far too easy. Would Chris Webber have emerged as an All-NBA performer had the Wizards not jettisoned him to Sacramento, revitalizing his career? At the very least, keeping Webber hardly could have gone worse for D.C. than trading him for a fossilized Mitch Richmond and sinking into the 20-win range. In the case of the Rockets and Olajuwon, the odds that the team and the player could have enjoyed better mutual (two championships) or individual success, had they parted ways, seems slim.

All this to say that, burned bridges or not, occasionally playing on auto-pilot, maybe Kobe Bryant can still write a whole new chapter in L.A. Unlike the young Hakeem, no one doubts that Kobe has championship mettle. And he clearly has another gear; after last year's all-star break, Kobe was on fire, averaging nearly 37 ppg. Watching a few early games this year, Kobe's clearly not in attack mode yet, possibly because he doesn't really want to be.

Of course, this whole post assumes that a Kobe trade, if not highly probable, is at least still possible. And where you stand on that likely depends on where you get your NBA news. Tom Ziller at the Fanhouse said over the summer that it wasn't going to happen; just one month ago, ESPN conveyed that a Kobe trade was still all-but-certain.

For our part, we cop to reading Simmons and Hollinger, so think (as they do) that Kobe trade talk isn't finished, despite the Lakers' early success. The team will hit a skid--maybe the current two-game losing streak, as of this writing, turns into six--and the buzz that the team isn't going anywhere will grow. Or, as beat writers feed the beast, reporters following the team will keep pecking away until someone hits on something juicy and reignites the story all over again.

But at the end of the day...

Labels: , , ,

posted by Crucifictorious @ 01:00,

10 Comments:

At November 26, 2007 at 1:56 AM, Anonymous steve p said...

welcome back- another good post.

 
At November 26, 2007 at 4:27 AM, Anonymous Jason said...

Houston would have pulled the trigger on that Miami offer if they had known they would be acquiring the future Mr. Elsa Benítez.

 
At November 26, 2007 at 1:04 PM, Blogger Jarrett Carter said...

If there weren't so many fine women, so much cocaine, so many nightclubs and places to get great fried chicken, DC would be a great sports city.

 
At November 26, 2007 at 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The dream is a selfish thug.

 
At November 26, 2007 at 4:08 PM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

Jason-

Yet as the future ex-Mr. Elsa Benitez, his long-term value to the franchise was limited.

Jarrett-

Which D.C. do you live in? The magical one that C-Webb comes from?

Anon-

Why the Hakeem hate? He always seemed more like a dream than a nightmare.

 
At November 26, 2007 at 11:33 PM, Blogger john marzan said...

you forgot a bigger name.

Michael Jordan.

plus Jerry Krause.

plus Jerry Reindorf.

 
At November 27, 2007 at 12:07 AM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

John-

True that the young MJ--like Kobe, like Arenas, like so many superstars who haven't won on their own--was subject to the "can't make other players better" label. At the same time, he didn't have much help, either.

But did Jordan ever demand a trade? His hatred of Krause was well-documented, but it never got to the level where he wanted out of Chicago, far as we know. And that's what ties Hakeem '92 and Kobe '07 together: Situations where stars seemed done in a city and everyone needed a new start.

 
At February 4, 2008 at 10:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is the one thing I never get about the NBA. When a superstar is on a subpar team, it is said they can't make the players around them better.

Hakeem, after Sampson got hurt and 3 of the best players where kicked out of the league for drugs in summer of 86, had nothing around him. You could see how a player would get frustrated. As we have seen with Bryant, Garnett.

Bird was an amazing player but he had an amazing team around him. You put Larry Bird on the teams Hakeem had between 87-92 and Bird isn't look at in the same light. Much easier to make Mchale look better then say a Buck Johnson.

Give Rudy T credit for creating an offense that had Hakeem as the main threat surrounded by guys who could nail the three.

 
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