The Portland Trail Blazers were defeated in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals by the Los Angeles Lakers who eventually went on to win the NBA title. Portland had come close to defeating Los Angeles but ultimately faltered down the stretch in what has become known as one of the greatest collapses in NBA playoff history. Portland saw their fourth quarter 15-point lead vanish in the matter of minutes as they kept missing one shot after another on their way to elimination.
Consequently, the Trail Blazers decided to add some big men to the roster for two reasons:
- Defend Shaquille O’Neal
- Force the Diesel to play defense
And thus Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp joined the team.
At that point in time, Kemp was a 31-year old power forward that was past his prime. Although he should have been playing some of the best basketball of his career, such was just not the case because he was carrying far too much weight to be as effective as he had been in prior seasons.
Consequently, some people will remember Kemp as an overweight big man that did little to help Portland in their quest to win a title. Indeed, in his two seasons with the Blazers, the team was swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers as the holes in his game became all that more obvious.
Kemp was often caught rotating late on defense, which caused him to constantly foul opponents. In addition, the big man blocked shots based on athleticism as opposed to timing, which meant that you could get him in the air with pump fakes or simply take the ball right at him and expect to draw contact.
On offense, the former Cleveland Cavalier was sloppy with the ball and also could be fooled into throwing passes into traffic, which in turn caused turnovers and gave opponents the opportunity to get out in transition.
And yet, despite these shortcomings, Shawn Kemp was one of the best power forwards in the NBA during the 1990s; in a league that featured the likes of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone , Chris Webber and also some young up and coming stars in Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
Kemp displayed good ball handling skills for a big man, good footwork and was typically quicker than the players guarding him, which allowed him to do some damage when matched up one-on-one against a defender. Also, the Reign Man was physically strong enough to convert at the rim despite contact, thus making him a terrific finisher, and he could keep defenders guessing given his decent midrange jumper. As a result, he managed to convert over 50 percent of his shots in six of the eight seasons he played in Seattle (his best years).
Mind you, as terrific as Shawn Kemp’s gifts were, they were often overshadowed by his best skill: dunking.
We had seen big men throw it down before, but we had never seen a big man that did it with such violent power all the while combining it with such beautiful grace. Indeed, Kemp could grab a rebound, dribble the length of the court while evading defenders, take off from inside the free throw line, avoid contact while in the air and dunk the ball ferociously all in one sequence.
Many have compared Blake Griffin to Shawn Kemp, and although the comparison has some merit, it’s not totally on point. Griffin has terrific explosiveness and leaping ability, but does not have the body control of the former Supersonic.
Kemp could glide through the air and avoid defenders and then finish with authority whereas Griffin will either dunk on an opponent and draw the foul or get hacked and be forced to earn his points at the line. Make no mistake though, the former Trail Blazer did not make it habit to avoid people at the rim; he was perfectly content to lay it on a defender and let him know about it after the fact. Just look at what he did to Chris Gatling here.
Shawn Kemp was a highflyer that put fear in the eyes of his opponents when he took off inside the paint. Indeed, the forward would at times warn his opponents that he would put them on posters and then go out and do it.
Kemp’s high wire act was worth the price of admission and often left fans completely amazed but his status as a leaper unfortunately overshadowed the rest of his game.
The former slam dunk participant was selected as an All-Star six times during his career and also made the All-NBA 2nd team on three separate occasions.
Kemp was a terrific offensive rebounder and also scored quite efficiently during the 1990s. Furthermore, he averaged a double double six times during his career and turned himself into a solid low post scoring option that routinely had to be fouled in order to be stopped.
In addition, one can make the argument that Shawn Kemp was the best player during the 1996 NBA Finals, in a series that featured Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan. During the championship series, he averaged 23.3 points, 10 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 2 blocks per game on 55.1 percent field goal shooting.
With Chicago winning the 1996 NBA Finals, Kemp’s performance as well as the best years of his career were seemingly swept under the rug. He may not have been the absolute best power forward in the league at any point in his career; but he was definitely in the upper echelon.
The former Sonic was one of the greatest dunkers the league has ever seen, but let’s also remember he was a terrific player in his own right as well.