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Danny Moloshok/Associated Press
Since 1947, the NBA has delivered iconic playoff matchups, from Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The duels that saw Magic Johnson and Larry Bird battle for superiority again and again delighted fans for nearly a decade. The friendship that ensued even inspired a Broadway play.
And yet, some of the most notable superstars failed to meet one another in such classic fashion, robbing fanbases of the mano-a-mano confrontations they had desperately been craving.
Here are some of the what-ifs we wish could be remedied.
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Chris Pizzello/Associated Press
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s and Bill Russell’s iconic legacies stand the test of time decades after their highly decorated playing careers reached the end.
Kareem still owns the record books with the most points all-time, most All-Star appearances (19), All-NBA teams (15) as well as the most MVPs (six). He also has the fourth-most All-Defensive team selections (11) and is the only player to win Finals MVP 14 seasons apart.
Kareem is one of the game’s best ever on account of his MVPs, scoring and titles (six), but another big whose career barely preceded his carries the title of the game’s greatest winner: Bill Russell.
No athlete in any major American sport won more than Russell, who brought home 11 championships in just 13 seasons in Boston. He finished with five MVPs, 12 All-Star appearances and 11 All-NBA teams despite playing seven fewer seasons than Kareem.
The two each battled another historic great in Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt managed to eliminate Kareem and his Milwaukee Bucks in back-to-back seasons. Though Russell fell to Wilt’s 76ers and Lakers in back-to-back years, he largely owned him throughout their careers (57 wins out of 94).
So, how would the game’s greatest scorer fare against the game’s greatest champion ever? The two missed each other by just one season, robbing sports fans of one of the greatest potential clashes in NBA history.
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DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press
A Finals clash of Michael Jordan versus Hakeem Olajuwon is one of the great what-ifs in NBA history. The Houston Rockets were the only team to experience championship glory during Jordan’s nearly unblemished 25-1 playoff series record between 1991 and 1998. That run is only separated by two seasons in which Jordan “rode the bus“ with the Birmingham Barons.
But what if Jordan hadn’t given up basketball for close to two seasons? Could the Bulls have continued their path of destruction against the Houston Rockets in 1993-94 and 1994-95?
Olajuwon and his Rockets may have posed a threat that Jordan’s Bulls never encountered in the NBA Finals, with Patrick Ewing in the Eastern Conference playoffs being the closest exception. While Ewing is an undeniable Hall of Famer and all-time great at the center position, Olajuwon was the far superior defender, having placed on the All-Defensive team nine times to Ewing’s three in addition to two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1992-93 and 1993-94.
Jordan himself didn’t believe the Bulls had the personnel to defend Olajuwon, according to an interview The Athletic’s Michael Lee conducted with Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
“He gave our team great respect,” Tomjanovich said. “He didn’t feel that they could contain Hakeem. They just didn’t have the personnel to do it. And he said he thought we were the team that gave them the most trouble.”
During the ’93-94 campaign, the Bulls would have been a near-lock to return to the Finals with Jordan. Led by Scottie Pippen and reinforced by Toni Kukoc as a perimeter scorer and small-ball threat, the Bulls rattled off 55 wins, falling to the Knicks in the semifinals in seven games.
The matchups beyond Jordan and Vernon Maxwell would have intrigued. Horace Grant would have been the proper foil for Otis Thorpe with 1994 All-Star starter B.J. Armstrong chasing Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell. Pippen locking down a young Robert Horry or Clyde Drexler in 1995 may have served as yet another compelling showdown.
Incidentally, the Bulls beat the Rockets just once in six attempts during Jordan’s first three-peat, though they took five of six immediately following Jordan’s return.
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Susan Ragan/Associated Press
We were so close!
The twin towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson stand tall as one of the greatest frontcourt combinations ever. Duncan and the Spurs’ run of excellence began in 1998 when they started their streak of 22 playoff appearances in his rookie season.
In the lockout-shortened season that followed, Duncan and Robinson won their first title against the unlikeliest of opponents in the eighth-seeded New York Knicks. Even so, basketball fans can’t help but wonder, what if?
While the addition and play of Marcus Camby was critical in advancing to the postseason’s final round, could a healthy Patrick Ewing have dictated a different outcome? A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Ewing earned 11 All-Star appearances, seven All-NBA honors and three All-Defensive team nods.
Like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, Ewing stands as one of the greatest players to never win a championship, mainly because of Michael Jordan’s Bulls but also Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets. With Jordan freshly retired and Olajuwon’s prime fading, the path to a title finally shone itself. However, in cruel Knicks fashion, Ewing tore his Achilles tendon during the Eastern Conference Finals warm-ups against India