With Michael Jordan and the Bulls the focus of The Last Dance documentary series, a secondary spotlight has once again been shone on the many high caliber teams and players #23 vanquished over the course of his career.
Among his Finals foes, few had more promise and potential than Shawn Kemp, the mercurial power forward who led the now-defunct Seattle Supersonics to the promised land in 1996.
Kemp’s Sonics came up short in winning the championship, but the “Reign Man” put on a performance that will never be forgotten.
The Final MVP voting for the 1996 Finals went as follows, according to a new article from NBA.com:
MJ: 6 votes
Kemp: 3 votes
Dennis Rodman: 2 votes
Jordan finished with 27.3 points per game over the course of the series, but shot less than 42% from the field.
The athletic and savvy Supersonics, led by Kemp and fellow All-Stars Gary Payton and Detlef Schrempf, made life tough on Jordan for much of the series, while Scottie Pippen averaged just 15.7 points on 34.3% from the field.
Meanwhile, Kemp was a force for the entire series, averaging 23.3 points per game on 55.1% shooting, 10 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.0 blocks.
Watch Kemp throw down a barrage of dunks and make a ton of other big plays in the five-minute highlight video below:
While Kemp’s stats and highlight reel dunks were impressive, perhaps the most important thing to note from this video is Kemp’s demeanor on the court.
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He’s focused, in shape, and has the look of a perennial championship contending player…Only his career didn’t quite turn out that way. The downward spiral began shortly after his 1996 Finals appearance.
Kemp spent just one more year with the Sonics, turning in another successful season in 1996-97 during which he averaged nearly 19 points and 10 rebounds on nearly 52% shooting. But the Sonics lost in the 1997 Western Semis to a stacked Houston Rockets team with Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler.
Kemp’s Top 50 BEST Career Plays
His status as arguably the top pure athlete in the league at the time allowed him to make the game look easy.
But Kemp fell back to Earth even more quickly than he burst onto the scene as a top flight player.
After signing a massive contract with the Cavs the following year, Kemp continued to stuff the stat sheet, but his field goal percentage plummeted below 42%. Cocaine, weight, and alcohol problems ultimately derailed his career, but what a career it was (see his top 50 career plays below):
Shawn Kemp: The Biggest “What If” in 1990s NBA History?
While much of the talk lately has centered around Jordan and Pippen, with even Rodman chiming in by saying that Pippen would have been better than LeBron James if “The King” had played during that decade, Kemp may have had just as much potential.
He didn’t have the playmaking ability of James, the overall court savvy and defense of Pippen, or the killer instinct of Jordan.
But watching a focused, in-shape, and in his prime version of Kemp running up and down the court alongside Gary Payton is evidence enough of just how frightening of a player the former Trinity Community College standout really was during his heyday.
Even at 6-foot-10, Kemp excelled during a time when athletic, physical seven-footers were the norm in the league, and the action in the paint was as rough and tumble as ever before.
He would he have fared if he had avoided the temptations of life in the fast lane, avoided going to the NBA purgatory that was Cleveland at the time, and stayed with his running mates in Seattle?
The world will never know, but thankfully he left us with one of the best collections of highlights any player ever has in this league, and the 1996 Finals as reminders as to what could have been.
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