What if the Sixers had kept Charles Barkley instead of trading him to the Suns?


Charles Barkley wanted out of Philadelphia and got his wish. But what if the Sixers simply hadn’t listened to him?

The team dealt its dissatisfied star to the Suns in 1992 for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry. It’s a trade Jim Lynam, then the team’s general manager, still regrets.

“Charles, from his perspective, he made it known in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to be here,” Lynam said in April on the Sixers Talk podcast. “And I would say in hindsight — this is just me, my own personal opinion — we made a mistake in listening to him. I tell Charles that to this day.”

If Lynam had kept Barkley, a saga like the one that unfolded in 2018 with Jimmy Butler and the Timberwolves is one possibility. We imagine, in an effort to spite then-owner Harold Katz, that Barkley would have sat out practices and preseason games, voiced his displeasure in explosive exchanges with the media and perhaps gained a bit of weight. He would not have silently accepted Lynam telling him that the trade he so desperately wanted was never going to happen.

When such a dispute occurs, money can be one way to ameliorate the situation. But in Barkley’s case, that likely wouldn’t have helped much. Per Spotrac, Barkley made $3.2 million in 1991-92, one of the top salaries in the NBA. According to The Associated Press, Barkley in 1988 said he felt he was underpaid, but he wouldn’t think about asking for a raise unless the Sixers won an NBA championship. Katz had already renegotiated Barkley’s contract before the 1986-87 season, per the AP, and again, it’s not as if Barkley was being paid a grotesquely unfair amount at the end of his Sixers tenure. 

The larger issue is Barkley’s very valid stance that the Sixers hadn’t assembled enough talent around him. In his eight years in Philadelphia, the front office had misfired on many moves. Barkley was surrounded by Hall of Fame players Maurice Cheeks, Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Bobby Jones as a rookie on a 58-win team that lost to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. By the 1991-92 season, he was the Sixers’ only All-Star representative and played with Hersey Hawkins, Johnny Dawkins, Armen Gilliam and Charles Shackleford on a 35-win team. 

In response to the extended monologues Barkley surely would have delivered about how Katz and the Sixers had bungled opportunities to construct a contender, maybe Lynam would have felt the heat and searched for a splashy trade or two, in part to convince Barkley it was worth playing and giving full effort. Would Golden State have listened to an offer for Tim Hardaway? For the right price, would the Pistons have considered parting with Joe Dumars after a disappointing first-round loss?

Though the Sixers wouldn’t have had much of value to deal besides Hawkins and draft picks, we figure they would've been especially eager to explore options. It seems unlikely that such efforts would have been successful. 

Let’s put the front-office machinations and off-court drama aside and say Barkley would’ve stayed in Philadelphia for the rest of his career and given his best. How would the Sixers have fared? With the Bulls, Pacers, Knicks and Magic all looming in the East, an NBA championship — or even a conference title — looks improbable. But instead of having to wait until the 1998-99 season to make the playoffs again, the Sixers would’ve stuck around in the postseason mix. They would have picked lower than No. 2 in the 1993 NBA draft, and therefore not have made the infamous decision to take Shawn Bradley over Penny Hardaway and Jamal Mashburn. 

In the 1995-96 season, Barkley turned 33 years old but still averaged 23.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per contest, making his 10th All-Star Game. The Sixers probably would not have been great that season, but they wouldn’t have lost 64 games and "won" the opportunity to draft Allen Iverson. Nevertheless, in one of the best drafts ever, the team still might have snagged a star in Kobe Bryant (the 13th pick) or Steve Nash (No. 15). 

While it might be fun to picture Barkley in a Sixers uniform slaying Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal in the playoffs during his prime, it’s not a realistic outcome. Unless the Sixers could’ve pulled off a miraculous trade or nailed a couple of their draft picks, he would’ve been in a similar position as he was before moving to Phoenix, stranded on a team that was a rung or two below legitimate contention. 

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