Off the heels of an impressive 1996-97 season, which saw the team go 64-18 en route to its first-ever NBA Finals appearance, the Utah Jazz came back the following year more determined to not only get back to the big stage, but to win the whole thing. All the key free agents were brought back and while there were bumps along the way, the 1997-98 Jazz were a team on a mission. John Stockton suffered the first major injury of his career and a few players started the season slowly, but by midseason, things were falling into place.
While the team was playing extremely well, the front office approached the February 1998 trade deadline with an active desire to improve the roster in preparation for what was hopefully to be another historic postseason run. With this in mind, the Utah Jazz made a trade to bring in center Rony Seikaly from the Orlando Magic.
But he never came to Utah. And the Jazz moved on.
This could be one of the biggest “what ifs” in franchise history. Most are aware of the circumstances: On February 17th, Utah and Orlando consummated a deal that would send to the Magic center Greg Foster, swingman Chris Morris and the Jazz’s 1998 first-round draft pick to the Magic in exchange for Seikaly.
In fact, Foster and Morris were warming up before the start of a game that evening when they were told of the move. Morris seemed quite pleased about the opportunity, as he had established residency in Jerry Sloan’s doghouse. Foster, on the other hand, was visibly shaken. After a very nomadic career, he had become a very viable contributor and had established roots in the community.
For Seikaly, it seemed like a no-brainer. At least on paper. The talented, offensive-minded big man would have the chance to play alongside two Hall of Famers in Karl Malone and John Stockton. And for the first time, he would be part of a contender.
It never happened. Seikaly never reported to Salt Lake City. Some suggested that he was leery of coming to Utah, especially after playing mostly for teams in warm climates (Miami and Orlando). Other reports insinuated that Seikaly wanted his last two seasons guaranteed–something some said Utah was willing to do. If you ask Seikaly, it was the Jazz who nixed the trade, with concerns about his foot injury. It was a matter of he said, they said. Based on some of the comments coming from Magic officials1. and players2, though, it might have been Seikaly’s call.
Whatever the truth is–and the fans may never know what truly occurred–the pairing of Seikaly and the Jazz did not materialize. Despite reporting to Orlando and participating in a practice, Foster and Morris were brought back to Utah in a very awkward position. Utah’s front office, coaches and the fans did their best to welcome the pair back, but it must have been surreal for them.
What would Seikaly have brought to the team?
Up to that point in the season, Seikaly was averaging 15.0 PPG and 7.6 RPG. While his shooting was a career-low 44.1 percent, he would’ve added a much-needed offensive threat who could shoulder some of the scoring burdens placed on the NBA’s MVP, Karl Malone. Seikaly was a talented player who had a bevy of moves around the basket in his repertoire. For much of his career, he was his team’s focal point on offense, doing so mostly through iso plays. That would not have been in the case in Utah. He would’ve benefitted greatly from Sloan’s dynamic offense that worked efficiently and always made the extra pass (evidenced by the league-leading 49 percent shooting, along with 25.2 assists per outing). Malone had developed into one of the NBA’s best passing bigs and he would’ve done a fine job at setting up Seikaly for easy looks. And Stockton, Jeff Hornacek and Howard Eisley were not too shabby, either.
While his advanced stats were not gleaming, Seikaly was posting a 15.8 PER and 2.8 WS. Those would’ve easily placed him ahead of the troika of Foster (8.9 PER, 1.3 WS), Greg Ostertag (12.5, 2.2) and Antoine Carr (9.8, 1.5). Seikaly essentially would have assumed Foster’s starting role3 and his 18.5 MPG, along with some of Carr’s playing time. That would’ve obviously brought productivity and potential to the table.
Even though his TRB%, 14.1, was quite a bit below his career average, Seikaly was much better off the glass than Foster (11.7) or Carr (7.5).
He would’ve also smoothed out the rotations. A Seikaly/Ostertag tandem would provide a nice offensive-defensive contrast and could even play a bit together when the Mailman needed a spell. It would also allow Carr to be used more prudently, playing to his strengths as instant offense off the bench. The team would’ve had 30 games to acclimate him in and get everyone used to their refined roles.
Would Seikaly have made a difference in the Playoffs and the Finals? Foster, Ostertag and Carr averaged a combined 11.9 PPG and 10.0 RPG in 49.1 MPG in the postseason4. In the Finals? They tallied a total of 44 points and 42 rebounds in 204 minutes. Seikaly would’ve most likely fared much better. At a minimum, he would’ve been someone the Chicago defense would have had to address.
Injuries decimated (and the ensuing controversy behind his not going to Utah) Seikaly’s career. Who knows if he would’ve done better in Utah on that front. Some vets seem to thrive when playing a complementary role for a team that’s winning. At just 32, Seikaly might’ve been a contributor for a few more years5.
So, there you have it–one of the more painful “what ifs” in Jazz history.