How would the world of basketball have been altered if Michael Jordan was a Sixer? It sounds like a ludicrous question at first, but there is a fascinating alternate reality in which Jordan enjoyed a long career in Philadelphia.
In the book “Pat Williams’ Tales From the Philadelphia 76ers,” former Sixers owner Harold Katz said, “I thought I had a deal with Jonathan Kovler [then the principal owner] of the Bulls for the third pick” in exchange for Julius Erving. Rod Thorn, then the GM of the Bulls, seemed to confirm the essence of Katz’s story in April on ESPN 1000’s Kap & Company Show. He noted the Bulls had “really strong offers” from the Sixers and Mavericks on draft day in 1984, as well as lesser offers from other teams.
Let’s begin by analyzing the clearest implications of this gigantic ripple in time. If we understand Katz correctly, Chicago would’ve acquired a 34-year-old Erving, while the Sixers would’ve owned the third and fifth picks, and the chance to take Jordan and Charles Barkley. With all due respect to Erving, who averaged 18.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists over his final three professional seasons, that’s a lopsided trade for the Sixers. Unless some tangential miracle occurred, the Bulls would not have been the “team of the 90s.”
As a rookie, Jordan would’ve played next to Barkley, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones. The version of that team with Erving on it won 58 regular-season games and fell to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Would a 21-year-old Jordan have been better than an aging Erving that season? What about in the series against Boston? “Yes” seems to be a safe answer to both questions. Erving struggled with his shot in the conference finals, shooting just 32.4 percent. When Jordan got his first playoff opportunity against the Celtics in the 1986 postseason, he scored 49 points in Game 1, 63 in Game 2.
So, the conclusion that Jordan would’ve been better than any player you possibly could have traded him for is not a startling revelation. It is, however, worth considering that he didn’t win a title until his seventh season despite an almost immediate ascent to superstardom. How quickly could he have become a champion with the Sixers?
We’ll first assume that Jordan successfully returns from the fractured navicular bone he suffered in his second season with the Bulls, or that he never has that injury as a Sixer. The timeline in which his career is severely shortened is dark and obviously no fun to contemplate. His “title window” in Philadelphia alongside Barkley would likely have been nearly limitless, at least on the surface. But much of his career would have hinged on his partnership with Barkley, a very different No. 2 compared to Scottie Pippen.
Jordan and Barkley were good friends for a long time in the timeline we inhabit, but their relationship splintered after Jordan took offense to Barkley criticizing him as an executive. Barkley has said Moses Malone told him, “You’re fat and you’re lazy” when he first entered the NBA. We imagine Jordan would have communicated the same message, and that practices would’ve been stuffed with expletives and insults. The on-court fit shouldn’t have been a problem, since Cheeks would've made sure both players got their shots.
The coaching situation is another factor to consider. After Kevin Loughery and Stan Albeck were fired in Jordan’s first two seasons, he only had two other head coaches with the Bulls — Doug Collins and Phil Jackson. During Jordan's time in Chicago, the Sixers had eight head coaches — Billy Cunningham, Matt Guokas, Jim Lynam, Doug Moe, Fred Carter, John Lucas, Johnny Davis and Larry Brown. There wouldn’t have been nearly as much turnover with Jordan around, although one wonders if any coach could’ve handled him as well as the eccentric Jackson.
If Jordan was a Sixer, it's natural to think he never would've been crossed over by a brash, young Allen Iverson. Actually, that might not be entirely true. Iverson may have crossed over Jordan the way he did to so many players across the league, but he wouldn't have done it as a Sixer. There’s no way a Jordan-led Sixers team would’ve had any ping pong balls in the Iverson sweepstakes.
Before we get too deep in the weeds, one final scenario: In the summer of 1994, would fans have flooded to Reading, Pennsylvania, to see Jordan patrol right field for the Fightin Phils? Or, without Jerry Reinsdorf owning both a professional basketball and baseball team in his city, would Jordan have taken his hacks at a lower level in the Phillies system — perhaps Single-A Spartanburg, after a Spring Training circus in Clearwater, Florida — before eventually telling the world he was returning to the Sixers and renewing his single-minded quest for more NBA titles?
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