Charles Barkley Was Not as Concerned About a Travesty of Joining Dream Team Members in 1996

By Jason Lisk

Last week, Charles Barkley railed against the travesty of a potential Carmelo Anthony to Miami scenario. “I just don’t understand why today’s players don’t want to compete against each other,” Barkley bemoaned. This is a case of do as I say, not as I do … or say, 18 years ago.

Lost amidst the comments about the travesty: Where Barkley was asked about the differences between the Rockets acquiring Scottie Pippen. “We were all at the end of our careers, I think it’s a little different being a guy in your prime. In your prime, you want to do it against the best competition,” Barkley said. He also added, “first of all, I never wanted to go to the Rockets, even though I enjoyed my time with the Rockets, I never wanted to go there.”

Let’s fire up the old archive search. To put the Barkley criticism of a potential (and in reality difficult to pull off) Carmelo move to Miami in perspective, it’s probably more appropriate to go two years before Scottie Pippen went to Houston, to a time when Charles Barkley changed teams to make a trio of Hall of Famers . . . and potentially engineer putting together a foursome.

In the summer of 1996, the rumors were hot that not only would Barkley be traded to Houston, but that Gary Payton of Seattle could also sign with the team in an organized plan to build a power. “If the rumored dealing becomes reality and the Houston Rockets can squeeze Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley and Gary Payton under the salary cap, owner Lee Alexander should be drafted to help manage the national debt,” wrote Barry Horn of the Dallas Morning News at the time. “That’ll be a good lineup, Barkley, the Dream (Hakeem Olajuwon), Clyde (Drexler) and myself,” Payton told the AP in early July. “That’d be a nice little lineup and we’d win a few ballgames.”

A few weeks later, in an article noting that Payton had decided to re-sign with Seattle, Barkley was not happy about the situation.

"Barkley told NBC Sports that the NBA had quashed a proposed three-team trade because the teams involved had violated the moratorium on negotiations that expired last Thursday. “One of my agents said the league wouldn’t let the deal [to Houston] go through because too much tampering had been involved,” Barkley said. “I think that’s gutless on the part of the NBA because everybody has tampered. To hold me hostage because they’re trying to prove a point is unfair.” [“Heat gives Mourning $105M Sonics re-sign Payton for $85M,” Associated Press, July 15, 1996]"

Do those sound like the words of a poor little soul who did not even want to go to Houston? He re-iterated it to Larry King in an interview later in the month, while the Dream Team – of whom Barkley was a member – was preparing for the ’96 Atlanta Games.

"BARKLEY: But you know, the NBA disappoints me. Everybody breaks the salary cap, and they choose who they want to make blame. They accused me and the Houston Rockets of tampering and voided out my deal to Houston. Number one: everybody tampers, and everybody breaks the salary cap. So I think they are hypocrites for picking and choosing who they want to discriminate against."

A month after the three-way deal fell through, the Rockets successfully traded for Barkley on August 20, 1996. “Well, if you can’t beat ’em, you have to join ’em,” Barkley said at the press conference. In a television interview, he said, “I’m very excited. Obviously, it’s something I wanted to do. Houston was my first priority.”

Okay, so the old reports and quotes don’t support that Barkley just ended up in Houston and did not want to go there. What about the position that it’s different if you are older? Well, that’s a personal opinion, I suppose, but we can distinguish between over-the-hill veterans who add on as a late career move as a role player, and veterans who are still considered at the top of their game.

It is true that the Barkley/Olajuwon/Drexler core, plus potentially Payton, would have been a little older than any LeBron/Wade/Bosh plus Carmelo combination. As far as how “in their prime” they were, though, that can be debated. If they would have successfully orchestrated a Payton and Barkley move to Houston, the Rockets would have had 3 of the 12 Dream Team members in 1996. LeBron was the only Miami Heat U.S. Olympic team member at the last Olympics, and will be the only one at the next one as well, unless joined by someone like Carmelo.

I’m not sure why LeBron gets singled out for the quality of his teammates. Great players have won titles by playing with other great or at least very good players. LeBron’s teams have been toward the bottom when compared to other Hall of Famers to which he is compared. For comparison, here is the “win shares” (via basketball-reference) of the next 3 teammates for all title seasons for Jordan, Bird, Magic, Kobe, and Duncan, in a chart that shows how color coordinated I am. I also included two versions of the Heat, this year’s team that lost the title, and a hypothetical that includes the win shares of Wade, Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony.

Oh, and just for comparison, the Rockets trio of Olajuwon, Drexler, and Mario Elie, that Barkley joined in 1996-1997 accounted for 26.1 wins. If you substitute in Payton’s win shares from that season for Elie, as was first rumored in early July, then that team would have jumped to 30.1, near the top of this list and way ahead of any group of teammates for LeBron.

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Charles Barkley . . . the 1996 version. But plenty of past stars have tried to orchestrate “travesties” of the game without catching as much criticism for trying to stack the deck.