NBA 50 Greatest Players: Shawn Kemp
I knew when I decided to do this feature, I knew there would be some really difficult decisions that I would have to make that not everyone would agree with. Who’s better, Magic or Bird? Who had a better career, Malone or Barkley? Who is ahead in their quest to be greatest of all time, Kobe or Lebron? All those topics were expected to cause some internal debate, but I had no idea that I would experience that kind of conflict at the tail end of the list, and that is exactly what happened here. Shawn Kemp or Chauncey Billups? Yep, be prepared for 1000 + words, because it’s going to happen.
Perceptions, especially in modern day sports, are not always reality, and despite all his entertainment value, it is far too simplistic to label Shawn Kemp as just an athletic juggernaut. Sure, Kemp was extremely explosive and his career montages of dunks and blocks will indeed live on forever. But there was far more depth to his game than those awesome highlights that we see. On the court, he was a very intelligent and complete player who played within the flow of the offense and rarely took bad shots. To compliment his freakish athleticism, he added a reliable jumper along with a polished post game. In addition to that, he was a willing and above average passer and made his teammates better, especially on the defensive end of the floor where his ability to protect the rim, was often overlooked. With Kemp protecting the rim, it allowed Seattle’s guards to play aggressive defence and pressure the ball all the way up the court and their vaunted half-court trap. In his first 7 seasons in the NBA, he improved his scoring average in each. In his first 8 seasons, he only shot the ball below 50% from the field twice (in his rookie season, and his 4th season when he shot 49%). He also averaged 10 + rebounds each season from 91 to 97. When you consider his consistent improvement, it’s easy to see why many considered him a future hall of famer during his peak.
His game was explosive, unpredictable and at times lacked discipline. Only once (the lockout season in 99) did he average over 35 minutes a game. In certain games during the playoffs, he looked like he was the best player in the NBA. At other times, he seemed totally disinterested. On the 93 Sonics team (the one that pushed the Suns to 7 games in the Western Conference Finals), he averaged 16.5 ppg (on 52% shooting) and 10 rebounds a game. That was against the likes of Hakeem, Malone and Barkley. Then the very next year in the playoffs, he put up 14.8 ppg on 37% shooting against the 8th seeded Nuggets who rolled them in the first round. In 95, The Sonics were upset again in the first round but Kemp put up monster numbers in 4 games (25 ppg on 58% shooting and 12 rpg).
So how does Kemp make the top 50 with solid, but not spectacular, numbers and a history of his team underperforming in the playoffs (especially with noted clutch performer, Chauncey Billups, only just missing out on the list)? The deciding factor was his play in the 96 playoffs. In the midst of Michael Jordan’s return season, the Sonics won 64 games and were the top seed in the West. That did not prevent them from dropping game 2 in the first round to Sacramento and losing the home court advantage. This was, as I mentioned before, losing in back to back years in the first round where they had absolutely no right to drop those series. Seattle responded by winning two tough games in Sacramento before moving on to face the two time defending champion, the Houston Rockets. The Rockets were a confident team full of veterans, capable of beating anyone. Seattle crushed them in 4 straight games. In the final game, Kemp poured in 32 points on 13 of 19 shooting and had 15 rebounds and 3 blocks. His defence on Hakeem throughout that series was a significant factor, and is even more impressive when we keep in mind how unstoppable Olajuwon had been throughout the playoffs the previous two years. Hakeem had dominated and embarrassed Barkley and Malone in two playoff series. He made Robinson at times look silly, had outplayed Shaq and destroyed Ewing. To anyone who knows anything about basketball knows what I just said is not hyperbole. Over a span of 4 years, Hakeem and the Rockets would only be eliminated by Kemp and the Sonics (93 and 96, winning championships in 94 and 95).
Next up for Kemp was the aforementioned Karl Malone and Utah Jazz. Seattle jumped out to a 3-1 lead before Utah won the next two games to force a game 7. Malone and Kemp battled each other valiantly throughout this classic series, but throughout the first 6 games, the Mailman was playing better and was more consistent (even in Utah’s losses). Game 7 would come down to the final minute. Kemp would be fouled, he made both free throws. Malone would also be fouled, and he missed his. That was essentially the difference in that series.
The Sonics moved on to the NBA finals and faced the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls boasted Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman, each of whom were all NBA defensive first teamers. The Bulls won the first 3 games, but the Sonics won games 4 and 5 convincingly to push the series back to Chicago. In game 4 (remember, this is against Rodman who is one of the all-time greatest defenders in the history of the league) he posted 25 points on 12/17 shooting and 11 rebounds. Game 5, he put up 22 points on 8/16 shooting and 10 rebounds. In game 6, Chicago would take care of business and win their 4th title in 6 years, but Kemps incredible playoff run should not be forgotten. I have no hesitation in claiming that the 96 Sonics would have won the championship in most other years. They just ran into one of the best teams the NBA has ever seen. Would he have made the list if not for 96? No. But Iverson, Barkley and Dirk all get plus marks for special playoff runs (even if they didn’t always culminate in a championship), and I refuse to contradict myself by deducting grades for Seattle’s failures in the playoffs without rewarding their success. Sometimes in sports, the story will create a perception that is not accurate. Kemp’s career ending in a whimper does not discount the fact that he was a huge part of the Sonics ascension into the NBA’s elite and a revolutionary power forward.
Now we have to ask the question, why Kemp over Billups? It comes down to this: Billups is famous for making the conference finals 7 straight seasons with Detroit and Denver, and earned the nickname “Mr Big Shot” (I couldn’t care less about Billups’ nickname or how professional he was off the court. This list is for how good players were on the hardwood, not how marketable they were.) for his clutch play, but the dude shot 41% from the floor, and if I’m going to label Kemp as being erratic on the basketball court, then Billups was a head case. Chauncey would often take horrific shots, “hero shots” as Mark Jackson would describe them when he was commentating. Kemp was much more laid back, and this would be to his teams’ detriment at times, but he was a smarter player. In addition to that, Kemp’s impact defensively was far superior and was more coachable. Billups had an unbelievable finals performance against the Lakers in 2004, but let’s place that in the right context: Detroit used a high screen and roll with Shaq’s man as the screener and Shaq has never been interested in playing good pick and roll defence. Detroit exploited this heavily, and Billups ended up walking away with finals MVP. Was that Pistons team better than the ’96 Sonics? It’s close, but not definitive, so I have to go by who had the better career, and that is Kemp, and because of this he deserves his spot in the 50 greatest NBA players of all time list. Kemp proved he could be a vital component to a championship contender as well as lead a team full of rookies to the playoffs with Cleveland in the stacked Eastern Conference of the late 90’s. Billups never did that, and that’s the difference.
Next: Carmelo Anthony