The worst part of having no strong rooting interest in this year's NBA playoffs was knowing that me and my city should have had one of the best cars in the championship race.
You remember the team that Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks beat in the Western Conference Finals? Those babyfaced guys with the toothpaste-colored jerseys that said "Oklahoma City" on the front? Yeah, that team should have been wearing green, and the jerseys should have said "Seattle."
It's been three years since the Supersonics were hustled out of Seattle and turned into the OKC Thunder, and it's still easy for Sonics fans to play the "What If?" game. What if KeyArena was still the home base of Kevin Durant's evolution into the deadliest scoring machine the NBA has ever seen? What if Russell Westbrook had become Baron Davis 3.0 in our uniform? What if the Sonics—not the Thunder—were the NBA's Next Big Thing?
And that's just looking at the future. Going back into the past we can see stars and legends who, had things gone a little differently, become famous while playing for the Sonics. Sometimes it was a missed opportunity in the NBA Draft. Sometimes it was a trade that fell through. Sometimes it's a last-minute free agency decision. But it's a long list full of talented players.
Of course, with an exercise like this you have to suspend reality a little bit. If the Sonics had always made the right draft pick or the right trade, the team's record would put them in different draft and trade positions. So take these on a case-by-case, year-by-year basis.
Also, since it's not fair to single out one team for underrating a player that everybody else underrated, I put in a 10-pick margin for error when it comes to the NBA Draft. So if Seattle had the 12th pick in a year in which, say, Tony Parker went 28th, it'd be unrealistic to say they should have known to take TP that high.
With that, here are the top 25 players from the past 25 years who could have been Sonics:
Three years ago, the Sonics drafted an 18-year-old project who had drawn comparisons to a young Shawn Kemp. Since then, Ibaka has developed into a game-changing defender and shot-blocker who has drawn comparisons to a young Hakeem Olajuwon (on defense).
Too bad he never actually played for the Sonics. Ibaka was drafted by Seattle, but about a week later, the franchise moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. Next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Ibaka is a crucial part of an up-and-coming title contender and looks ready to challenge Dwight Howard for 2012 Defensive Player of the Year.
Coming off a 63-win season (let's not talk about the Nuggets series anymore), the Sonics had a chance to add another impact player with the 11th pick in the Draft, which they acquired from the Hornets in the Kendall Gill trade.
The Sonics went with Carlos Rogers, then traded him to the Warriors later that summer. Seattle could have picked Rose (who went 13th), a 6-7 uniquely talented lefty who could play three positions and potentially have been a championship X-factor.
You could say that RJ—drafted one spot after Seattle took Vlad Radmanovic 12th overall in '01—has only been as good as the point guard on his team. And yes, he has been fortunate enough to play with the likes of Jason Kidd and Tony Parker. But pairing Jefferson with Gary Payton for a few years in Seattle couldn't have been too bad.
Maybe David Lee's stats are inflated by playing in stat-friendly systems in New York and Golden State. But you could put Johan Petro, the center Seattle drafted five spots before Lee in '05, on an NBA Jam team and he'd struggle to post 20 points a 10 boards a night.
In hindsight, Vlade might have been the perfect frontcourt complement to Shawn Kemp: His high basketball IQ, deft passing, savvy defense and finesse style would have contrasted well with Kemp's often untamed fury.
The Sonics drafted Kemp 17th overall in '89. Had they used their No. 16 pick on Divac (who went 26th) instead of Dana Barros, it would have been the birth of a problematic big-man tandem in the West. Maybe Kemp/Divac wouldn't have been on the level of Duncan/Robinson, but they at least would have been better than Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler.
On pure talent and accomplishments, these four point guards would normally rank higher on this list. But had the Sonics drafted either one of them when they had the chance, it's very likely Seattle wouldn't have taken Gary Payton in 1990. That's what they call a smart mistake.
Finishing eight games under .500 in their first full season following the Gary Payton trade, the Sonics needed a lot of things from the '04 Draft; a point guard and center of the future among them.
You can't really blame Seattle for going big over small, choosing Robert Swift with the No. 12 pick over Jameer Nelson, who went 20th. After all, Swift was a straight-from-high school project whose standout skill was being 7'1". All Nelson had done as a college senior was lead an overachieving St. Joseph's team to an undefeated regular season and to the brink of the Final Four while copping a slew of National Player of the Year awards.
As far as I know, Eddie Elisma—who the Sonics picked two spots ahead of Stephen Jackson in the second round of the '97 Draft—has never been charged with any crimes, nor has he run into the crowd at a basketball game to punch people in the face.
I do know that Eddie Elisma—who never signed a contract with the Sonics and has had a solid career overseas—never put together three seasons of 20-plus points per game in the NBA, nor does he own an NBA championship ring.
The Sonics had their share of standout European imports, from Detlef Schrempf to Sarunas Marciulionis to Vitaly Potapenko (well...). Petrovic would have been better than all of them.
In the third round of the '86 Draft, three years before he'd make his NBA debut, Petro was picked seven spots after Seattle selected somebody named Tod Murphy. He averaged 15.6 points per game in the League before his death in a car accident in '93.
As the story goes, the Sonics saved Danny Ainge from himself. Going into the '04 Draft, Boston's GM was supposedly in love with Robert Swift, and had the 7-footer penciled in for the Celtics as the 14th pick. Luckily for Ainge, Seattle took Swift at No. 12, leaving the Celtics to "settle" for Jefferson.
Without Jefferson, the Kevin Garnett trade doesn't happen for Boston. Meanwhile, Big Al has carved out a solid career on his own, averaging 18.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season as Utah's interior building block.
I was too young to watch LeMone Lampley play at DePaul, so I can't say why the Sonics drafted him 38th overall in '86. Maybe LeMone was The Man. But I'm guessing he wasn't as good a shooter as Hornacek, who went 46th that same year.
That said, don't sell Hornacek short as just a shooting specialist. For a good 5-6 years of his career he hovered around 15-5-5 averages, including 20.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists in his All-Star season of '92.
Technically, Nick the Quick falls out of the 10-pick window for this list—he was drafted 14 spots after Seattle drafted The Other Ervin Johnson in '93—but it is well-known that the Sonics were taking a serious look at Van Exel before and after he infamously tanked a pre-draft workout in front of George Karl.
"It was the worst interview we've ever had with a player, bar none," says Karl. By that time Van Exel had moved on from junior college and spent two seasons at the University of Cincinnati. He had helped the Bearcats make the regional finals of the 1993 NCAA tournament before they were eliminated by North Carolina. When Van Exel met with Karl at a hotel in Seattle later that spring and saw that the Sonics' coach was wearing a North Carolina cap, he offered the opinion that given all the talent he had to work with, Dean Smith should have won more NCAA titles. "I asked him what made him an expert on coaching," says Karl, who played for Smith at Chapel Hill. After the interview in a Seattle hotel Van Exel went to his room and reappeared wearing a Duke hat. "I loved it," says Karl.
Karl says that Van Exel loafed through the agility drills and all but quit on the 300-yard shuttle run. Guards generally complete it in 50 to 55 seconds; Van Exel ran a 1:08 on his first try. Karl says he called Van Exel "a real asshole," then told him that if he turned in a respectable 55 seconds in the second run, Karl wouldn't say anything, but "if you dog it, I'll tell the league." Van Exel looked at Karl and said, "This second one is going to be a cooldown." He ran it in 1:20.
Some observers might look at Van Exel's challenge to Karl and conclude that it shows a delightfully defiant spirit and an admirable competitiveness. Heck, even Karl, an admitted hardhead, concedes that some part of him "had to love the guy." In perhaps the ultimate testament to Van Exel's talents, Karl tried desperately to trade up in the draft to select him.
Cassell had no such drama with George Karl; he was simply passed over in the '93 Draft in favor of The Other Ervin Johnson, who went one spot ahead of him.
With career averages of 15.7 points and 6.0 assists—plus three NBA championships and one All-Star nod—Cassell's resume stacks up against a lot of point guards who are already in the Hall of Fame. Odds are Cassell won't get that kind of recognition, but he was respected as one of the better PG's and clutch shooters of his era.
Another one Seattle could have had in '04 instead of Robert Swift. And it's not like the Sonics didn't have a good track record with freakishly athletic high school forwards who were seemingly addicted to dunking and swatting shots. Shawn Kemp had a decent career for Seattle once upon a time.
Nick Collison is good. He served the Sonics well as the 12th pick in the '03 Draft, and remains a key component of OKC's game plan today.
David West is just better. The two-time All-Star power forward, drafted 18th that year, just keeps getting buckets and boards. Since he entered the League, only 13 players have tallied more points and more rebounds.
Ron-Ron could have been Seattle's next X-Man. Not a superhero, but cut from the same cloth as Xavier McDaniel. Maybe his temper would have been too hot for our laid-back fan base, but then Seattle did embrace men like Lou Piniella and Gary Payton.
The Sonics had the 13th pick in the '99 Draft, and used it on Corey Maggette, who was then traded to Orlando as part of a deal for Horace Grant. Artest was drafted three spots after Maggette.
Westbrook wore the Sonics cap on the Madison Square Garden stage as the No. 4 pick in the '08 Draft. But like Serge Ibaka, he never actually made it to Seattle. By the time his rookie year rolled around, Westbrook was a member of the re-branded Thunder.
Again, maybe he wasn't the right personality for this area, but try to picture Kendall Gill's skill set on an ornery antagonist in constant attack mode. It could have happened in '92, but the Sonics picked homegrown product Doug Christie seven spots ahead of Spree.
Drafted seven spots after Vlad Radmanovic went to the Sonics at No. 12 in the '01 Draft, Z-Bo gave Seattle an up-close view of our missed opportunity racking up 20-and-10 digits in Portland. Today he's finally getting some long-deserved praise in Memphis, but basketball fans in the Pacific Northwest had seen Z-Bo doing damage for years beforehand.
During the '00-01 NBA season, when I was in college, my Mom bought a house in the Seattle suburb of Bothell. We soon heard rumors that one of the Sonics lived on her same block. My little brother and my cousins were all excited ... until they found out the player was little-known rookie Olumide Oyedeji. I'm thinking this would have been a better story if the rook was Michael Redd, the guy drafted one spot after Oyedeji in 2000.
Oyedeji played two seasons in Seattle, and probably made more shots on his backyard hoop than he did in KeyArena. Redd became the Milwaukee Bucks' franchise player and won an Olympic gold medal in '08.
Around the time when the city of Toronto was just starting to hate Vince, his name was involved in a lot of trade rumors. One of the more realistic options was a would-be deal sending VC to Seattle for Ray Allen.
As great as Ray was for the Sonics, would having Carter, one of the NBA's most exciting players at the time, stationed in KeyArena have generated enough support to keep the team in town?
It figures that from what was arguably the most loaded NBA Draft of all-time, Seattle wound up with THREE second-round picks who never played a minute in the League, and Drew Barry, who less than a full season.
And with each of those draft picks, the Sonics overlooked an undersized rebounding and defensive demon from Virginia Union who would go on to win four NBA Defensive Player of the Year trophies and spearhead the '04 NBA champion Detroit Pistons.
To be fair, though, everybody slept on Ben Wallace back then. In a workout for the Boston Celtics, the undrafted 6'9" prospect Wallace was initially told by then-coach Rick Pitino to work out with the guards.
The Sonics passed on Miller twice in the '87 Draft: Once with the No. 5 pick, and again at No. 9 when they chose Derrick McKey. Maybe the team figured they had their designated shooter in Dale Ellis and wanted more offensive balance, but I'm seeing a lineup featuring Reggie and Dale on the wings and I'm seeing more 3-balls than a crowded pool hall.
It stings to know that Seattle could have had Pippen once, but how about two times?
Back in '94, Chicago reportedly offered a disgruntled Pippen as trade bait in front of Seattle. But in return the Bulls wanted an in-his-prime Shawn Kemp, so it's understandable that the Sonics rejected the pitch.
No such excuse in '87, though. After drafting Pippen fifth overall, Seattle traded him to Chicago as part of a package for Olden Polynice. In hindsight, even OP and his fake police badge would have cuffed Seattle's front office for that one.
Revisionist historians often wonder what would have happenend to the NBA had Michael Jordan not been so dominant. But think about what would have happened if Pippen had never joined Jordan. Let's say MJ "only" won three championships without Pippen instead of the six he won with Pippen. Would Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton have won championships? Would the G.O.A.T. discussion still be wide open instead of a landslide win for Mike? Would players like Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have grown up so heavily influenced by Jordan? Would there have been an NBA Finals MVP trophy with "Scottie Pippen - Seattle Supersonics" carved on the front?
See? It's easy to play "What If?" Even when it hurts.