After almost 10 hours of “The Last Dance,” the director Jason Hehir asks Michael Jordan the question of the documentary: “Was it satisfying to leave at your peak? Or was it maddening?”
Jordan gave a real and in some ways vulnerable answer.
“It was maddening,” Jordan says, “because I felt like we could’ve won seven. I really believe that. We may not have. But, man, just to not be able to try. … That’s something that I just can’t accept for whatever reason. I just can’t accept it.”
Jordan truly believed the Bulls had another run in them, and should have been given the opportunity. When you think about it, the Bulls dynasty is the only entity that ended because of suits, and not because they were surpassed on the court. There was no passing of the torch, something the NBA has seen from the Lakers and Celtics to the Bad Boys, to Jordan’s Bulls. There is an honor of going out on your back in defeat.
So when Jordan says he can’t accept it, it is understandable because there was no closure. He was essentially forced out while at his peak, with more to give to the game.
Let’s give Jordan the closure he needs by going down the rabbit hole of “What if the Bulls ran it back?”
Recap of 1998
No one goes out when they are far and away the best player in their sport. Usually a natural passing of the torch occurs on the court or field. But Jordan went out while still sitting on the throne.
In 1998 Jordan won the regular-season MVP award, the All-Star MVP, the Finals MVP, and a third straight title. In Game 6, in the last minute of the last playoff game of his last title, Jordan delivered arguably the best sequence of his career:
The last image of Jordan in a Bulls jersey is the iconic game winner over Byron Russell, to give the Bulls their 6th title. Jordan just capped off one of the best seasons of all time, and after the title celebration, it was over. The dynasty, his career, everything was over despite being at an all time high just days ago.
In the documentary, the Bulls owner asked Phil Jackson if he wanted to come back. Jackson said no because it would be unfair to Jerry Krause who had been pushing for a rebuild for years now. To me this was the first domino to fall in putting the nail in the coffin for the Bulls. If Jackson gets convinced to come back, then Jordan comes back. Then one by one the roles players come back.
The only wild card in all of this is Scottie Pippen, who Jordan said in the documentary that would be a tough one to sell on coming back. But in this scenario we are going under the premise that everyone returns.
Despite the greatness of Jordan and Pippen, the Bulls roster was old. Rodman was on his last legs, and his mind was drifting further away from basketball as the days passed. They would have really benefited from the lockdown shortened season that featured just 50 regular season games. With less training camps and time to build team chemistry, the Bulls would have had a one up on most teams.
The playoffs would have been the real test for the Bulls. Just a year prior the Pacers pushed the Bulls to their first Game 7 in years. If the ball bounces a few different ways the Pacers end the Bulls dynasty and there is no need for this what if scenario as it would have played out the year earlier.
The original matchup in the NBA Finals was the New York Knicks vs the San Antonio Spurs. The Western Conference representative does not change, as the Spurs still navigate through the West. But with the Bulls back in the picture do things shake up?
The Knicks made the NBA Finals as the 8th seed, in an improbable run of upsetting the 1 seed Miami Heat, the 4th seed Hawks and the 2 seed Pacers. The ironic thing about the Bulls core running it back is the Eastern Conference Champion Knicks don’t even make the playoffs as they go from the 8th to the 9th seed.
This sets us up for the salivating rematch of the 1997-98 Conference Finals between the Bulls and Pacers. The Pacers pushed the Bulls to the limit the previous year, and there is no reason to think the ’99 Conference Finals would be any different. The Pacers had another year of experience, and team chemistry under their belts, while the Bulls were running on fumes.
But out of respect to Jordan and the Bulls, I don’t think he could live with getting taken out by Reggie Miller’s trash talking self. So I have the Bulls reaching their 7th NBA Finals to take on the San Antonio Spurs.
1999 NBA Finals: Bulls vs Spurs
Another what if scenario that we could intertwine with this one is what if the Bulls faced Olajuwon’s Rockets? The Bulls never faced a team with a dominate center in any of their 6 NBA Finals. They missed Olajuwon’s Rockets and retired before prime Shaq in Los Angeles. So how would they have fared against David Robinson and Tim Duncan in a hypothetical NBA Finals?
The Spurs won 37 games that season and had the best record, which means they would have home court advantage. They would also have fresher legs and younger roster. The great shot blocking of Robinson and Duncan could have caused problems for the Bulls, particularly Jordan and Pippen who attacked the rim.
Phil Jackson’s defensive tactics always allowed Rodman, Luc Longley and Bill Wellington to defend elite post players straight up. Jackson never sent double teams he focused on locking down the perimeter. This worked during the Bulls elite days where Rodman and company were at their peak, but I don’t think it works against two dominant post scorers like Duncan and Robinson.
On the flip side, Jordan and Pippen should have their way with the Spurs wing defenders. So it really comes down to two things. who will be more effective and efficient, the Twin Towers or MJ and Pippen? Then how much will the fatigue, both mentally and physically impact the Bulls?
I have to go with the Spurs as the winners of the series. Jordan would have done GOAT things all series, but it wouldn’t be enough. Pippen’s body began to betray him in the ’98 season and continued to do so in 1999. Rodman was also finished and would be no match to stop either Duncan nor Robinson.
Whether this would have actually happened, any of it, we will never know. And that is what has irked Jordan every day since June 14th, 1998. At least in this scenario there would be nothing left in the tank for this dynasty. They would have gone out on their backs, passing the torch to the next generation. Duncan and Kobe would go on to carry the torch throughout the 2000’s and then pass it off to Lebron James. It would allow the tradition of passing the torch to live on naturally, rather than disrupted by a front office.