NBA's 72 "Greatest" Moments: Dominique Wilkins Returns to the NBA

This qualifies as one of the 72 “Greatest” Moments in NBA History


Dominique Wilkins is one of the funnest players to ever grace a basketball court. I could talk about it some more in greater detail, or you could watch a highlight reel of the Human Highlight Film.

Let’s go for the latter.

I just love the viciousness of Nique’s dunks. He wasn’t out to hurt anybody, but wasn’t NOT out to hurt anybody. He was going to ram that ball through the basket. You make your decision as to whether you were gonna get made a fool of in the process.

Anyways, after a dozen seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, Wilkins was infamously traded away to the Los Angeles Clippers midway through the 1993-94 season for Danny Manning.

Look, it wasn’t just the dozen years with one franchise that made this hurt. Let’s count the other reasons.

  1. Wilkins was really the only player who brought out excitement in Atlanta basketball fans since the franchise arrived there from St. Louis in 1968.

  2. The man went to the University of Georgia. So a college star in the state to boot.

  3. Wilkins overcame an Achilles injury and returned in the 1992-93 season to average a ridiculous 29.9 PPG. The man just earned a bunch of goodwill and was a feel-good story on that front!

  4. Nique in the 1993-94 campaign was averaging 24.4 PPG for the Hawks WHO WERE IN FIRST PLACE IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE at the time of the trade.

  5. The Clippers wound up finishing with the third worst record in the West (27-55) only because the Timberwolves were absolutely miserable (20-62) and the Mavericks were historically dreadful (13-69).

It’d be one thing to trade Wilkins to a contender in his twilight hoping he’d have a chance for a ring after all he did for the Hawks... But the Hawks were the contender! In fact, this mighta been the best Hawks team in Nique’s career.

Instead they sent him packing. Not only to a worse team. But to the Clippers.

Most disrespectful treatment of a franchise cornerstone in NBA history.


Out in the Wilderness

Now on the awful Clippers, Wilkins bumped his scoring average up to 29.1 PPG for the rest of the 1994 season, but ain’t no way in hell he was staying out there. (As for the Hawks, they justifiably got upset and beat down by the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs).

As a free agent in the ‘94 offseason, Wilkins did the unthinkable—at least for 80s NBA fans—and signed with the Boston Celtics. But it was indeed 1994. Nique’s duels with Larry Bird during the 1980s were well in the past. Plus the Celtics kinda stunk by this point.

Offering Wilkins some cash money gave them some star power, albeit twilight star power.

Wilkins’ stay in Boston went well enough on the court. At age 35, he averaged just under 18 PPG making him the Celtics’ leading scorer that season. Finishing with a mediocre 35-47 record, they did qualify for the final spot in the 1995 Eastern Conference playoffs.

Matched up against the 57-win Orlando Magic of Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Boston was horribly outmatched, but the Celts gave them a scrappy series. After a straight up ass whoopin’ in Game 1 (124-77) by Orlando, Boston stole Game 2 on the road, 99-92. Game 3 was a sloppy 82-77 win for Orlando and Game 4 was a narrow 95-92 win for the Magic.

Wilkins looked mighty alive averaging 19.0 PPG and 10.8 RPG in the series including a beautifully ugly Game 4 where he mustered 22 points and 18 rebounds (eight offensive) in the final game ever played in Boston Garden.

That ‘95 off-season Nique wanted no part in going back to Boston. He and coach Chris Ford had not seen eye-to-eye all season. So even if the oncourt results were good enough all things considered, Wilkins was moving on.

Thanks to an opt-out clause in his Boston contract, Wilkins jumped ship for Panathinaikos Athens, which signed him to a handsome $7 million contract for two seasons. The largest non-NBA contract in basketball history to that point, I believe.

Averaging 20.1 PPG, Wilkins and Panathinaikos wound up winning the EuroLeague in 1996. So not a bad outcome right?

Well, Wilkins once again clashed with a coach. He was fined $50,000 for criticizing coach Bozidar Maljkovic. “I’m tired of being treated like a dog,” Wilkins said of the situation.1

The Greek team released Wilkins, but still paid him most of his contract once that 1996 season was over. Again a free agent, Nique came back to the NBA.


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Delivering San Antonio A Dynasty

In October 1996, the Spurs signed Wilkins to a minimum contract and planned to use him as a gunner off the bench.

THANKFULLY, this was the season where David Robinson was hurt and the Spurs tanked. So you know what that means?

THAT MEANS WE GOT A WHOLE LOTTA NIQUE!

Now 37 years old, Wilkins was still given the green light to score, score, score! Considering his physical decline this only meant an average of 18.2 PPG, but he did so in 30.9 minutes per game. Not bad!

And let me tell ya, no one was happier about this than me! Being able to see Dominique Wilkins highlights once again on SportsCenter was a godsend.

Gettin’ ready for school in the morning and seeing the old man still dunking on people was delightful.

Of course he moved slower, more deliberately, and wasn’t as slithery as he used to be, but you could detect the greatness. His jump shot still had that unique Niqueness: ball placed high and awkwardly out front with the legs kicking like he’s swimming in air.

He still crashed the offensive glass greatly for a small forward. In fact, the 1996-97 season was his best for offensive rebounding when observed through offensive rebounds per 100 possessions.2 Wilkens nabbed 4.8 offensive boards per 100 possessions.

Now make no mistake, Wilkins wasn’t saving the Spurs—at least not in any traditional sense. Without the Admiral they were adrift. And then Sean Elliott up and got hurt for half the year too. So your team leaders were 37-year-old Wilkins, Vernon Maxwell, Vinny Del Negro, and Avery Johnson. Not exactly a murderer’s row that’ll get you to the playoffs.

Not that the Spurs were complaining too much since they weren’t exactly trying to make the playoffs.

Bob Hill was fired as coach 18 games in the year and replaced by… Gregg Popovich, the general manager. The team finished the year with just 20 wins earning their way to the #1 overall pick in the 1997 draft.

The heroic efforts of one #21 (Dominique Wilkins) helped San Antonio draft another #21 (Tim Duncan).

So really when you think about it, the Spurs dynasty of the next decade was thanks to Wilkins.

His one year of useful scoring in San Antonio done, Wilkins returned to Europe for a year of pro ball in Italy. Then he again returned to the NBA for the 1998-99 season playing for the Orlando Magic. Wilkins was now well beyond cooked and averaged just nine minutes a game.

But at least he got to play with his brother Gerald briefly that season.

Anyhoo, that wraps up this look at one of the 72 greatest moments in NBA history.

1

Vancouver Sun, January 19, 1996

2

Not counting the truncated 1998-99 season where Wilkins barely played half the year with the Orlando Magic.