“Playing Phoenix and Charles Barkley in the 1993 Finals was like playing against your little brother and knowing you’re well-equipped. Your little brother might beat you one or two out of seven. But you know he’s going to get beat in the end. The Suns didn’t know how to win. They knew how to compete, but they didn’t know how to win. There is a difference”.
– Michael Jordan
The nineties Chicago Bulls are without doubt the most celebrated and widely-recognisable dynasty of the modern NBA era thanks to the coinciding technology boom that gave us the Internet, DVD’s and Marv Albert. Of course, having the G.O.A.T on your team doesn’t hurt either. Thanks to Michael Jordan the Bulls were simultaneously the most dangerous offensive team and the most relentless defensive team in the league. That is an extreme rarity. The eighties Lakers and Celtics never had that kind of defensive capacity and the Duncan Spurs certainly aren’t renowned for their high scoring. Only the Shaq-Kobe Lakers come close to that offensive/defensive dominance, and only for a season or two before Shaq got fat and Kobe realised he could score 40 whenever he wanted (which officially started here). I have never seen a team so ruthlessly active on the defensive end as those Bulls – there was nothing “defensive” about it really, it was all out in-your-face attack. It’s what made me appreciate that good defense doesn’t have to include a 7-foot centre predictably swatting away shots (see any Olajuwon/Mutumbo/Robinson game) or a five-man commitment to physical intimidation (see Pistons in 1986-91 or the Oakley/Mason/Ewing Knicks). This was a team with three of the top five defenders in the league and that isn’t just my opinion; Jordan, Pippen and Rodman all made the All NBA Defensive First Team in 1996. That is insane. Even if you put Ben Wallace, Ron Artest and Bruce Bowen in their primes on the same team (which is a scary thought) they wouldn’t be half the defensive core that Bulls team possessed (not to mention one-tenth of the offensive firepower).
In retrospect we shouldn’t be surprised by the Bulls success. When you put the G.O.A.T (MJ) together with the best perimeter defender of all time (Pippen, and if anyone tells me there’s been a better perimeter defender I’ll fight you), the best coach of all time (Jackson), and arguably the best rebounding power forward of all time (Rodman, again, I’ll fight you) you end up with what most agree is the single greatest team in NBA history – the 72-10 record for the 95-96 season can attest to that. And in perhaps one of the most understated achievements in recent times, the Bulls only fell one win short of reaching 70 again the next season (that’s an 86% winning percentage over two seasons). I still have to pinch myself to realise it was not even ten years ago when these guys completed their second three-peat. Think about how inconceivable that kind of dominance is in today’s NBA game… how on earth could any NBA team today even dream about winning six titles in eight years? As good as San Antonio have been over the last decade and as much as I keep hearing that “most successful franchise in all pro sports” crap, their four titles in nine years pales in comparison to those Bulls.
The Bulls easily pass all three of the dynasty commandments. I mark the beginning of their reign at start of the ‘89 season when realistically they had all the tools for a championship but were eventually outlasted by the Pistons in a gruelling seven-game Conference Finals. That was the year they thought they could win it all – 1990 was the year they knew they could win it all. This tops out their dynasty at ten years in my book (ignoring the two-year MJ baseball break in between) and so easily passes the Robert Horry rule. Other teams have won three-straight titles – Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54), Boston Celtics (1959-66), Los Angeles Lakers (2000-02) – but the Bulls are the only team to do it on two separate occasions, something that I believe will never be repeated again. It’s this that seperates them from their only real dynasty contender of the past thirty years – the Magic/Kareem Lakers – who appeared in more Finals, and dominated over a longer stretch of time (see the Dynasty Chart), yet couldn’t reach the lofty heights of three-straight championships. The Bulls have to be number #1 on the dynasty list. To argue otherwise is a smack in the face of history.
Interestingly, no other NBA dynasty can claim to have ceased close to the peak of their powers like these Bulls did. The Lakers and Celtics dynasties slowly crumbled as their superstars dealt with age and injury, the halo of invincibility surrounding The Garden and The Forum fading season by season. By stark contrast the Bulls dynasty vanished so suddenly that Chicago fans surely must have thought they’d awoken from some kind of dream. Scottie went on to play a couple more decent seasons with Portland, Phil Jackson had success with the Lakers, and Michael eventually came back as a Wizard three years later… it all begs the question, could they have kept winning titles if they had stayed together? The answer is probably “no”. After achieving a second three-peat there was little motivation left for the team or their leader. Michael Jordan was an intensely competitive man driven by the chase and the challenge; he considered retiring in 1992 but admitted “the only reason I came back was to win a third straight championship, which was something neither Larry nor Magic had done”. But after six titles in eight years and more individual accolades than most could dream of, he’d run out of challenges. The Bulls had run out of challenges.
This is a more significant result than it seems. A hallmark of the Chicago dynasty was their mental toughness and resilience; four times they successfully defended their title, four times they were the targeted prey of the entire league and four times they crushed the contenders. They are worlds apart from the Bird Celtics or Duncan Spurs who couldn’t defend their title once. This Bulls team epitomises everything about the commitment and drive needed to win back-to-back titles – they are true disciples of the second dynasty commandment. For the Bulls the game of basketball was a battle of wills, it was psychological warfare. It didn’t matter who was hurt, who was sick, who was getting beaten up. It didn’t matter when Michael almost had his bones broken by Laimbeer and the Pistons through the late eighties. It didn’t matter when the Knicks bullied them into an 0-2 hole in the 93 Conference Finals. It didn’t matter during the Flu Game. It didn’t matter when Reggie’s heroics had them on the brink of elimination in ’98. It didn’t matter when Scottie’s back kept him from barely walking during the Jazz in the 98 Finals. None of it mattered, because the game was in their head. So when it came to stepping down from power it was a mental obstacle, not a physical one, which presented the road block for this Chicago team. Michael Jordan finished the season as the league’s Most Valuable Player, and both he and Scottie were All-Defensive First Team members. Does that sound like a dynasty on the brink to you?
Those Bulls were different. Unlike the Lakers and Celtics they had mastered winning, and they would leave the game as winners. They weren’t always the flashiest team in the league, they weren’t Showtime, and one-through-five they weren’t any more talented than the Blazers, Suns, Sonics or Jazz teams they went through. Those teams knew how to compete but like MJ said, they didn’t know how to win. There is a difference. And nothing has ever made that clearer than those Bulls.