And while Seattle president Wally Walker admitted that the deal had been mentioned for a long time, George Karl, then Sonics head coach, dismissed the notion. But now, 25 years later, Karl admitted – Drexler joining Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in Seattle was nearly a done deal. Karl was joined by Bob Whitsitt – the Blazers’ GM that was the one pulling strings on the deal – as the two discussed one of the biggest what-ifs in Sonics’ history.
Whitsitt, who was just hired as Portland’s GM, was asked by the team’s owner Paul Allen to embark on the route of a complete roster overhaul. Clyde Drexler, the face of the Blazers’ franchise, was the first to go, as he went public with his trade request just a few weeks earlier. Bob felt like the organization owed it to Drexler to try to send him somewhere where he would still have the chance to win.
Bob zeroed in on Seattle and tried to make his pitch to Walker – the Sonics GM. The pitch went something like this: you guys are in championship mode, and with Michael Jordan being out of the league, and with a guy like Clyde, you’d have a great chance of winning the whole thing. And so, a straight-up deal was offered – Drexler for Kendal Gill. But Walker backed out of it. The reason – the optics of doing business with your rival.
I said, ‘Wally, it’s a Seattle-Portland rivalry, and the only guy that’s going to get killed is me. I’m trading the most popular player in the history of the franchise to the arch-enemy who is probably going to win the championship, and I’ll probably be run out of town after Year 1. So you have no risk. You’re still going to be great.’ Then finally, Wally just said, ‘I’m not comfortable making a deal with you, so I’ll pass.’Bob Whitsitt, Truth + Basketball
Instead of joining the Sonics, Drexler got traded to the Houston Rockets for Otis Thorpe, Marcelo Nicola, and a first-round draft pick. Along with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde led Houston to their second straight NBA title, as the Rockets maximized Jordan-less two-year window. And according to Whitsitt, that could’ve been the Sonics.
I still believe, to this day, Gill for Drexler, Seattle wins the championship.Bob Whitsitt, Truth + Basketball
And to be honest, it probably does. The trio of Drexler-Payton-Kemp would’ve been incredible and would set the Sonics franchise for years of title contention. And who knows, he may have even been the missing piece for Seattle’s ’96 run, where they made the NBA Finals, but lost to MJ’s Bulls in six.
Drexler joining Seattle would’ve potentially changed the entire NBA landscape of the second half of the 90s. So many legacies would’ve been different, so many organizations would’ve been different. That’s why this is one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history, and without a doubt, the biggest one for the Sonics franchise ever.
A franchise that had won its last championship in ’79. Sixteen years later, they might’ve been one ‘yes’ away from winning another.