PG: Ron Harper, +2.6 / +4.2
SG: Michael Jordan, +10.5 / +10.7
SF: Scottie Pippen, +6.3 / +7.8
PF: Dennis Rodman, +0.0 / +0.7
C: Luc Longley, -1.6 / -2.1
6th: Toni Kukoc, +5.4 / +2.4
Regular Season Metrics:
Regular Season Record: 72-10, Regular Season SRS: +11.80 (2nd), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +7.6 (4th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -5.8 (19th)
Shooting Advantage: +3.3%, Possession Advantage: +5.8 shooting possessions per game
Michael Jordan (SG, 32): 41 MPPG, 32% OLoad, 33 / 7 / 5 / 3 on +4.0%
Scottie Pippen (SF, 30): 40 MPPG, 25% OLoad, 21 / 7 / 6 / 3 on +0.9%
Toni Kukoc (PF, 27): 29 MPPG, 22% OLoad, 14 / 4 / 4 / 1 on +4.7%
Luc Longley (C, 27): 29 MPPG, 17% OLoad, 10 / 6 / 2 / 2 on -2.7%
Ron Harper (PG, 32): 26 MPPG, 16% OLoad, 8 / 3 / 3 / 2 on -1.4%
Dennis Rodman (PF, 34): 36 MPPG, 11% OLoad, 6 / 16 / 3 / 1 on -4.1%
Scoring/100: Michael Jordan (42.5 / +4.0%), Scottie Pippen (27.9 / +0.9%), Toni Kukoc (26.7 / +4.7%)
Assists/100: Scottie Pippen (8.4), Toni Kukoc (7.2), Michael Jordan (6.0)
Heliocentrism: 39.5% (34th of 84 teams) - Jordan
Wingmen: 39.9% (31st) - Pippen & Kukoc
Depth: 20.6% (61st)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +7.66 (23rd), Playoff Defensive Rating: -9.45 (7th)
Playoff SRS: +16.60 (4th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +2.91 (40th)
Shooting Advantage: +0.0%, Possession Advantage: +9.8 shooting possessions per game
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +1.25 (74th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -3.76 (13th)
Michael Jordan (SG, 32): 46 MPPG, 33% OLoad, 34 / 6 / 5 / 2 on +2.2%
Scottie Pippen (SF, 30): 46 MPPG, 24% OLoad, 19 / 9 / 7 / 4 on -6.9%
Toni Kukoc (PF, 27): 33 MPPG, 22% OLoad, 12 / 5 / 4 / 1 on -5.8%
Luc Longley (C, 27): 27 MPPG, 19% OLoad, 9 / 5 / 2 / 2 on -2.9%
Ron Harper (PG, 32): 31 MPPG, 17% OLoad, 10 / 4 / 3 / 2 on -2.4%
Dennis Rodman (PF, 34): 39 MPPG, 13% OLoad, 8 / 15 / 2 / 1 on -1.9%
Scoring/100: Michael Jordan (41.6 / +2.2%), Scottie Pippen (22.7 / -6.9%), Toni Kukoc (20.4 / -5.8%)
Assists/100: Scottie Pippen (8.0), Toni Kukoc (7.3), Michael Jordan (5.6)
Playoff Heliocentrism: 37.5% (35th of 84 teams) - Jordan
Playoff Wingmen: 40.6% (38th) - Pippen & Harper
Playoff Depth: 21.9% (53rd)
Round 1: Miami Heat (+1.5), won 3-0, by +23.0 points per game (+24.5 SRS eq)
Round 2: New York Knicks (+4.5), won 4-1, by +6.2 points per game (+10.7 SRS eq)
Round 3: Orlando Magic (+8.5), won 4-0, by +16.7 points per game (+25.2 SRS eq)
Round 4: Seattle SuperSonics (+8.1), won 4-2, by +3.8 points per game (+11.9 SRS eq)
Offensive / Defensive Ratings from Opposition Regular Season Average:
Miami Heat: +15.4 / -11.8
New York Knicks: +1.7 / -7.8
Orlando Magic: +11.9 / -13.7
Seattle SuperSonics: +9.2 / -3.6
Shooting Advantage / Possession Advantage per game (unadjusted):
Miami Heat: +7.7% / +8.8
New York Knicks: -3.2% / +11.6
Orlando Magic: +5.2% / +7.2
Seattle SuperSonics: -4.2% / +10.4
Postseason Usage/Efficiency Change adjusted for Opposition:
Ron Harper: +0.8% / +0.6%
Michael Jordan: -0.4% / -0.2%
Scottie Pippen: -2.2% / -6.2%
Dennis Rodman: +2.1% / +3.8%
Luc Longley: +1.2% / +1.4%
Toni Kukoc: -1.4% / -8.9%
June 19, 1984: Michael Jordan, a Junior at the University of North Carolina was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the 3rd overall pick.
May 16, 1985: Michael Jordan is named the NBA Rookie of the Year, leading the league in points and finishing only behind Larry Bird in major composite metrics.
April 20, 1986: Michael Jordan had broken his foot three games into the season. When he came back in March he was put on a minutes restriction to protect his foot. Chafing at the restriction, Jordan routinely posted usage rates north of 40% in his limited minutes. In the first round Jordan was turned loose against the All-Time Great ‘86 Celtics, and in Game 2 he scored 63 points and dragged the hapless Bulls within four points of victory. Interviewed later Larry Bird (a man with no reputation for giving easy praise) gushed that they hadn’t played Michael Jordan, they’d played God pretending to be Michael Jordan.
1987: Michael Jordan led the league in points, Win Shares and VORP. The Bulls win 40 games and exit in the first round.
1988: Michael Jordan wins the MVP, leading the league in points, Win Shares and VORP. The Bulls win 50 games and make the Semi-Finals before losing to the Pistons 4-1.
1989: Michael Jordan leads the league in points, Win Shares and VORP. The Bulls win 47 games and make it to the Conference Finals before losing to the Pistons 4-2.
1990: Michael Jordan leads the league in points, Win Shares and VORP. The Bulls win 55 games and make it to the Conference Finals before losing to the Pistons 4-3.
1991: Michael Jordan wins his second MVP, leading the league in points, Win Shares and VORP. He leads the Bulls through a dominant playoffs and whips the Showtime Lakers in five games. The Bulls have won their first championship.
1992: Michael Jordan wins his third MVP, leading the league in points, Win Shares and VORP. He leads the Bulls through a dominant playoffs and whips Clyde Drexler and the Blazers in six games. The Bulls have won their second championship.
1993: Michael Jordan leads the league in points, Win Shares and VORP (and should’ve won the MVP). He leads the Bulls through the playoffs and defeats Charles Barkley and the Suns in six games. The Bulls have won their third championship.
October 6, 1993: Michael Jordan announces his retirement.
1994: Michael Jordan wins his fourth MVP, leading the league in points, Win Shares and VORP. He leads the Bulls through the playoffs and defeats . . .
Wait, what!? He retired!? What the heck!?
I don’t think there’s any way to overstate this story. Nowadays it kind of gets swept under the rug. “Yeah Jordan retired early. Twice. Everybody knows that.” But look at that narrative arc. It’s perfect. I mean, literally perfect. If he’d won earlier he’d be open to the Magic Johnson criticism that he got drafted by a strong roster out of the gate. That his team got better every year, even has his own performance was unflaggingly brilliant. That they lost to the Pistons three years running and each year won one more game (seriously, that alone is incredible). Once they broke through the Bulls won three straight, the first team to do that since the league had nine teams. It’s like Jordan was climbing Mount Olympus with the Bulls on his back and we got to see him do it one step at a time.
And then the second he could be said to have hit the top he put the team down, stretched, turned to the nearest scribe and said “Well, that was fun, I’m out.”
How unthinkable is that? It’s . . . there’s literally no frame of reference. When it came out that he had retired to go play in the baseball’s minor leagues . . . It’s like if Randy Johnson retired after the 2001 season (having won three Cy Youngs in a row and a championship) to star in a remake of Road House in the Sam Elliott role. Completely out of nowhere, juuuuuuust close enough to their identity not to be insane (Jordan as an athlete, the Big Unit as a . . . well, you know), with results smeared somewhere between cringeworthy and “not as bad as it should have been”.
Does it surprise anyone that the two champions while he was retired were a +4.19 team and a +2.32 team? It’s like nothing mattered anymore. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes! Human Sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass Hysteria!
I’m overselling it (slightly). After all Jordan's father was murdered not too long before the retirement (though Jordan later admitted that he'd been considering the decision in '92). But it was like Louis XVI simply decided to step down one day, and suddenly Versailles was overrun by Jacobins. I mean, the second part actually happened (every king falls sooner or later, but rarely do they initiate that process of their own volition). And even weirder, Jordan was obsessive about basketball and winning. It wasn’t like this was particularly foreseeable. If Shaq had retired from the NBA after 2002 to go into hip hop and Hollywood . . . I mean, everyone would have been surprised, but would they have been that surprised?
But the one person whose commitment nobody ever doubted was Jordan. Which made his decision so inexplicable. If he’d quit after 1990, the narrative would no doubt have been about how Jordan just couldn’t handle the effort that it took to win, that he was a scorer first and winner second, that unless winning was easy he didn’t have the stomach for it.
But after 1993?
It was almost like watching divine will come to pass (whether that will was from Jordan or not depended on the fan). It’s remarkable how sympathetic the spin on this story has been. When Jordan’s retirement (first) is written of, people often speak of the wear of carrying three straight teams to the Finals, playing for the Dream Team and dealing with the controversy of the Jordan Rules book. Yet when Jordan is compared to LeBron (who played in a brain-melting *eight* straight Finals and two Olympics during that span, without retiring even once) Jordan is the one considered to have the killer instinct, the Eye of the Tiger. Does this make any sense?
In 356 BC an heir was born to Phillip II of Macedonia. Alexander took power in 336 BC. He was dead only 13 years later, at the age of 32. When he had inherited the Kingdom it included Macedonia, parts of Greece and had influence over much of Thrace. But when Alexander died he left an empire that included all of Greece, Egypt, the Middle East minus Arabia, and expanded through modern Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 13 years he built an empire bigger than the Roman Empire would get in five centuries.
But unlike the Roman empire, which endured (in varying degrees of effectiveness) for those five centuries, Alexander’s empire fractured almost immediately. It was divided between his followers and slowly succumbed to the ravages of time. Not that it didn’t have lasting impacts (Cleopatra, for example, is a Macedonian name because the rulers of Egypt in Roman days were still the Macedonian descendants of Alexander’s followers (specifically Ptolemy, hence, Ptolemaic Egypt)). But it still fell to pieces fairly quickly.
What is Alexander remembered as?
Alexander the Short-Lived?
Alexander the Overreaching?
Alexander the Ephemeral?
Alexander the Overambitious?
All of these would be fairly apt names.
But he’s remembered as Alexander the Great.
Julius Caesar is only remembered by his name. Augustus Caesar is only remembered by his name. Alexander’s father (a great general in his own right, who bequeathed to his son a unified empire) is remembered as “Phillip II of Macedonia”.
But Alexander is “the Great”.
Do you know who else is considered a great commander, mentioned in the same breath as Alexander or greater?
Napoleon conquered almost all of Europe and much of Western Russia, lost almost no battles and it took a unified force of the rest of the continent to stop him. And military historians whisper his name in reverential tones.
But, like Alexander, Napoleon totally overreached and France was forced to contract to a fraction of its winnings. But like Alexander this fact became part of his mystique. The idea that Napoleon was so driven to win, and so talented that none could withstand him, created a chain reaction that even Napoleon could not control. I firmly believe that had Napoleon brought himself up short and established a lasting French empire in Europe his legacy would have been objectively greater, but his reputation actually weaker.
You know the story of Daedalus and Icarus? They have to escape some dungeon or another and Daedalus (who’s a fairly clever chap) makes wings for them out of bird feathers and melted wax. He proposes that they fly out over the sea to safety. But he warns his son not to fly too low to the sea or his wings will get wet and he’ll fall and drown, and not to fly too close to the sun or the wax on the wings will melt and he’ll fall to his death. Icarus, being a headstrong youth, flies too close to the sun and perishes. Daedalus flies to safety and goes on to live a long and productive life (he was such a good sculptor that for generations later, in Greece, a great sculptor was known as a Daedalus).
And you know who we remember today?
It’s worth mentioning that the biggest figure in Christianity was on Earth for a short time, did some amazing things and then freaking left (or was killed, but either way he was off the mortal coil). That Christianity at that time was a flyspeck on the Roman Empire when he died, but thanks to the effort of Paul and the Apostles Christianity would spread through and ultimately consume the Roman Empire. Yet it isn’t called “Paulianity” or “Epistlianity” or even “Universalist Judaism with Buddhist influences”. It’s Christianity. Because the short life of Christ was so densely wondrous that it captured hearts and imaginations in ways that Paul’s decades of labor never did.
This is a long way of saying that, after Jordan had done something never done before (lead his team to a three-peat as the league’s leading scorer each of those years), his retirement became an Icarus moment. Even though from an objective Career Value standpoint those retired years are pretty big losses, for his legacy they cement him with the trappings of myth. A brilliant peak and then sudden disappearance pushes the buttons in our mind synonymous with almost superhuman greatness.
So when Jordan started showing up to practices late in the 1995 season . . . it was a little weird. If Christ had walked back in on the disciples a year and a half later and said, “Look, I know I said to watch for my coming, but honestly you guys are taking forever to get anything done and it’s time to get this ball seriously rolling” . . . it would have upset everything.
And it doesn’t help that when he came back he was . . . a little off. He actually shot four points below league average in the remainder of the regular season, even as he took pre-retirement levels of shots. It was like he remembered being a god, but his newfound mortal flesh was betraying him. In the playoffs he played closer to form, though still finishing fourth in OBPM among players with at least 10 playoff games (behind Kevin Johnson, Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley). When they were dumped unceremoniously in the semi-finals by the Orlando Magic nobody was really surprised.
So going into the ‘96 season Jordan was officially back with the Bulls.
But what did that mean?
The ‘95 Bulls had been decent enough, 34-31 before Jordan had come back. Scottie Pippen had developed into a superstar in his own right (or perhaps had always been one, eclipsed by a brighter sun), finishing 3rd in VORP. And international pick Toni Kukoc provided strong floor-spacing, scoring with efficiency and some volume and also passing well. The team had strong shooters in B.J. Armstrong and Steve Kerr. The team had strong coaching with Phil Jackson. But the team was still feeling its way at some positions; both Ron Harper and Luc Longley played less than 60 games. Under Pippen they had been a decent offense, but the 2nd best defense in the league. When Jordan came back the team shifted into overdrive and they made a respectable run.
With Jordan back into the fold, Jerry Krause knew that they had a legitimate shot at competing. Dennis Rodman was very much available after his very public set of . . . frustrations with the Spurs during their loss to the eventual champion Rockets. Rodman at the time was considered something of an untouchable, with his flamboyant hair colors and occasionally destructive interpersonal behavior. But Rodman was also an obsessive competitor, was nearly tireless and was perhaps the best rebounder ever. And Jordan had the opportunity to play with Rodman repeatedly during the legendary “Jordan Dome” games, the pickup games featuring the best of college and the NBA that took place on the lot where Space Jam was being filmed. Jordan already knew Rodman’s mettle (having played against him in the playoffs for years), but after first-hand experience he came to feel that the two could work together. One thing led to another and Rodman was traded to the Bulls.
The team was ranked #1 going into the year . . . but not by much. They were at +350, just barely ahead of the Orlando Magic at +400. You’ve got to understand, +350 is a fairly low odds favorite going into the season. Here are some comparisons from the post-Jordan era:
1988: The Lakers were +350, the Pistons were +400
1989: The Pistons were +300
1990: The Pistons were +350, the Lakers +450
1995: The Suns were +350, the Rockets, Knicks, Magic and Sonics were all +450
1999: The Lakers were +300, the Jazz +350, the Spurs and Pacers at +450
2000: The Blazers were +350, the Lakers +400
2005: The Spurs were +400
2007: The Mavs were +400, the Spurs were +450
2008: The Mavs and Spurs were both +450
2009: The Celtics and Lakers were both +350
2020: The Clippers were +425 and the Lakers +450
Odds like +350 are what you get when nobody really knows what’s going to happen. It’s the betting equivalent of “Honestly, not sure, but that team is pretty good so why not?” (the 2009 numbers may be surprising in that context, but you have to remember that those two were basically splitting the vote).
So the 1996 Bulls, one of the greatest two teams ever, #1 or #2 on almost every top teams ever list, fell into the category of “probably the best team in the league, but I guess we’ll see”.
Thing is, the team had a lot of question marks. Harper and Longley weren’t able to post a lot of minutes in ‘95 (and hadn't played well in their limited minutes). Rodman was a mystery to everybody and it was anyone’s guess what he would do on the Bulls. On one hand, his addition to the Spurs had seen (anecdotally) a +3 SRS jump during his time there, but on the other hand the team also seemed to implode repeatedly in the playoffs (and Rodman’s antics were a convenient explanation).
And Jordan hadn’t played professional basketball for a year and a half.
That’s a long time.
Paul Arizin wrecked the league when he joined. He served two years in the Marines and when he came back he was only really good. Lots of comeback tours (Cousy and Cowens leap to mind) went south hard when they happened. Jordan came back shooting 4% under the league average for crap’s sake!
Now, nobody really thought that Jordan was going to keep shooting that badly. After all, in the playoffs he’d shot more like 70% of the player he had been, which was still damned good. And perhaps that was the Jordan the Bulls would have going forward. But here’s the question: are Pippen, Kukoc, Rodman and a Top 5 player enough to guarantee a title? Probably not, and the odds reflected that.
And this team really hadn’t played together much. You may be saying “Sure, but Jordan was coming back to the Bulls and they all knew him”. Guess again, the roster was 100% turned over from the 1993 team, except for Pippen. The experience with Jordan at the end of ‘95 was all they had. Rodman was completely new.
So you’ve got a slightly better than average team with a few reliability issues, they get a former multiple MVP-winner who hasn’t played seriously in multiple seasons and a completely new player who’s known for being something of a head case. You’d be optimistic . . . but how confident could you really be?
So, of course, the Bulls go 72-10 and destroy the prior record for most wins in a season. They post the second highest regular season SRS ever (juuuuuust behind the ‘71 Bucks). They post both the best offense *and* the best defense in the league. It may well have been the best regular season in league history.
So what the snausage happened?
Not unlike the ‘71 Bucks, pretty much everything came together perfectly.
Here are Jordan’s seasons from ‘91, ‘92, ‘93 and ‘96 (not in order). Can you tell which is which?
3090 minutes, 33.3% usage, +4.0% shooting, 10.2% TReb, 21.2% Ast, 8.4% TO, 8.3 OBPM
3034 minutes, 32.9% usage, +7.1% shooting, 9.5% TReb, 25.2% Ast, 8.7% TO, 8.9 OBPM
3067 minutes, 34.7% usage, +2.8% shooting, 9.8% TReb, 25.2% Ast, 8.4% TO, 8.7 OBPM
3102 minutes, 31.7% usage, +4.8% shooting, 9.5% TReb, 25.7% Ast, 8.8% TO, 7.2 OBPM
I don’t think it’s obvious at all. I mean, there are hints. ‘91 was an unusually efficient campaign, so that’s the +7.1%. And I know that ‘93 is the one where he carried a really heavy load, so I’d guess that’s the 34.7% usage season. So that leaves the top and bottom seasons. Given that there’s an OBPM dropoff the last season is the intuitive guess for ‘96, with usage numbers more in line with our guessed hypothetical ‘91 and ‘93 seasons.
But, of course, the top one is the ‘96 season. The ‘92 season was his oddly down year. The only real outlier is his assist rate; second threepeat Jordan passed less because the team didn’t need him to do so as much with Kukoc on board. The only other weird indicator is that his drop percentage dropped from around 1.5% to 1.0% pretty consistently for his last three years.
So Jordan came back good as new, give or take. How did the rest of the team adjust to playing with him? These are stats from the 1995 games pre-Jordan for everyone besides Pippen:
Kukoc: -1.3% Usage / +2.0% shooting, -2.7% AST, +0.6 BPM
Harper: -3.5% Usage / +6.5% shooting, -0.3% AST, +3.6 BPM
Longley: -5.8% Usage / +2.5% shooting, +1.2% AST, +4.5 BPM
Kerr: -1.7% Usage / +4.0% shooting, +2.2% AST, +3.1 BPM
There’s a super-consistent pattern. Each of these players dropped usage and jumped in efficiency. It looks like somewhere between being able to be more selective with shots and having Jordan distracting defenses, each of these players saw considerable improvements in shooting and value. So Jordan coming back didn’t just make the team better because Jordan himself was really good, but his blend of reasonably efficient high-volume scoring and shot creation seems to have made every single one of the satellite scorers much better. But note that the former #2 option (Kukoc) doesn’t seem to have gotten a ton of value from this transition, only increasing his BPM slightly. This suggests (but hardly proves) the idea that Harper, Longley and Kerr weren’t very effective shot-creators and really benefited from outsourcing their creation to Jordan. But Kukoc, capable of scoring at some volume (low 20s in usage), didn’t see the same gains.
On that note, let’s check Pippen:
Pippen: -2.8% Usage / -1.2% shooting, +1.7% AST, -1.8 BPM
Oof. Pippen dropped in usage too (like everyone) but his efficiency dropped too. How is that possible? Playing alongside Jordan actually saw Pippen score *less* efficiently! Assuming these things are connected, there are two credible causes:
1) Pippen’s skillset is better suited to creating looks for itself than having looks created for it;
2) The shots that the Bulls’ offense had been designed to create for Pippen it started creating for Jordan instead.
I’d guess that it’s both of these things. Please remember that in ‘95 before Jordan came back, Pippen was averaging the following:
26.7% Usage, 56.6% shooting, 23% AST, +7.9 BPM (probably around +4.9 OBPM)
That doesn’t sound amazing, but those are actually pretty solid numbers. They’re reminiscent of:
1984 Larry Bird: 26.7% Usage, 55.2% shooting, 26.2% AST, 5.6 OBPM
1989 Clyde Drexler: 27.2% Usage, 55.5% shooting, 22.2% AST, 5.4 OBPM
1984 Alex English: 27.9% Usage, 57.0% shooting, 20.9% AST, 4.7 OBPM
1994 Charles Barkley: 26.5% Usage, 56.3% shooting, 20.0% AST, 4.5 OBPM
1998 Mitch Richmond: 27.8% Usage, 56.9% shooting, 20.2% AST, 4.4 OBPM
1984 Julius Erving: 27.2% Usage, 56.2% shooting, 19.3% AST, 4.3 OBPM
I know that Pippen’s reputation is built around being a second banana and defensive stopper. And rightly so; he was a #2 on some of the best teams ever and an ATG defensive wing.
But the above numbers paint a slightly different picture. They suggest that (within the limited framework of the ‘95 season pre-Jordan) that Pippen was *actually* a completely legitimate #1 option. None of the above guys are monsters. You’ve either got studs off their primes (pre-prime Bird and Drexler, post-prime Barkley and Erving and then strong seasons from strong (but not ATG) #1s in English and Richmond. And unlike the above players, Pippen may have been the best non-big defender in the game. It's not an exaggeration to say that #1 option Scottie Pippen may have been a Top 5 player.
I’m not trying to say that that Pippen was close to a Jordan-level #1 option. He wasn’t. But I think that pre-Jordan ‘95 suggests that he may have actually been a completely viable strong #1 option on most teams, who downgraded himself (in both role and scoring value) to play behind Jordan. To some extent (it seems), the LeBron/Wade thing happened with Jordan and Pippen; we were just so used to Pippen playing as the #2 that we didn’t notice that Pippen was actually a more valuable player as a #1, and that he had to leave some value on the table to give Jordan room to operate.
Small sample size alert, but I still think it’s super-interesting.
Speaking of interesting players and funny situations . . . let’s talk about Dennis Rodman’s teams transitioning to the playoffs. Here’s the defensive ratings (regular season and playoff) for every team he’d ever played at least 2000 minutes for before joining the Bulls (the number in parenthesis is how many playoff series they played):
‘88 Pistons: -2.7 -> -8.7 (4)
‘89 Pistons: -3.1 -> -6.2 (4)
‘90 Pistons: -4.6 -> -8.8 (4)
‘91 Pistons: -3.3 -> -0.1 (3)
‘92 Pistons: -2.9 -> -1.2 (1)
‘94 Spurs: -1.7 -> +2.0 (1)
‘95 Spurs: -2.9 -> -6.2 (3)
All three of the first Pistons teams saw big jumps to their defensive ratings in the playoffs. The ‘91 Pistons don’t look great here, but part of that is them getting completely trashed by the ‘91 Bulls. Both the ‘92 Pistons and the ‘94 Spurs were surprisingly bad playoff teams. And the ‘95 Spurs again were really good on defense and got even better in the playoffs. It’s not a perfect pattern, but the trend (really good regular season defense gets even better in the playoffs) seems fairly repeated. The average (weighted by series) for Rodman in this stretch is:
-3.2 Regular Season, -5.6 Playoffs -> a 2.4 point per hundred improvement on defense
Out of sheer, idle, curiosity, let’s look at the offenses:
‘88 Pistons: +2.5 -> +0.2 (4)
‘89 Pistons: +3.0 -> +5.7 (4)
‘90 Pistons: +1.8 -> +1.7 (4)
‘91 Pistons: +0.3 -> +3.8 (3)
‘92 Pistons: -0.7 -> -6.6 (1)
‘94 Spurs: +4.1 -> -3.0 (1)
‘95 Spurs: +3.4 -> -0.1 (3)
Almost the opposite trend if not as pronounced. The ‘89 Pistons should be taken with a grain of salt (since their opponents were all quite injured) but there’s still a general trend of offenses moving backward in the playoffs. Weighted by series, his teams averaged:
+2.2 Regular Season, +1.6 Playoffs -> 0.6 points per hundred worse on offense
And if you took out the ‘89 Pistons it becomes +2.0 -> +0.6 = 1.4 points per hundred worse on offense.
Look, this is neither here nor there. I’m not a huge believer in this trend. The Pistons were constructed for defense and didn’t have a particularly resilient offense. And the Spurs were notorious for being built around David Robinson being a #1 option and struggling on offense in the playoffs. It could absolutely have been a coincidence.
What were the trends for the first three-peat Bulls?
1991: +6.7 -> +11.0 = +4.3
1992: +7.3 -> +6.0 = -1.3
1993: +4.9 -> +8.9 = +4.0
Average: +6.3 -> +8.6 = 2.3 better
And on defense?
1991: -2.7 -> -5.1 = -2.4
1992: -3.7 -> -5.2 = -1.5
1993: -1.9 -> -3.0 = -1.1
Average: -2.8 -> -4.4 = 1.6 better
So they averaged improving on both sides, but the team overall improved more on offense, and they were always much better on offense than on defense. The ‘96 Bulls in the regular season had a better offense than defense.
Going into the playoffs the Bulls were disgusting -400 favorites to win it all (compare this with the 2017 Warriors at -250 at the same point). Granted that the preseason challengers Magic and Pacers had done reasonably well (60 and 52 wins, +5.40 and +3.11 respectively), they weren’t anywhere near the Bulls. So the playoffs seemed something of a foregone conclusion.
In the first round they faced the Miami Heat (+1.5). The Heat had a weak offense, but an excellent defense led by Alonzo Mourning. But the Bulls completely obliterated them in a 3-game sweep by 23 points a game. The Heat were held to -3.1% shooting as a team and the Bulls hounded them for turnover after turnover (Hardaway and Mourning combined to average over 10 a game, while Pippen, Harper and Jordan averaged 7 steals a game between them). The Bulls dominated the glass and owned possession, while also shooting +4.6% as a team. I mean, it was a 23 point per game victory, you’d better believe the Bulls crushed them in every single metric. Jordan averaged a 30/4/3 on +6.7% while Pippen averaged a 20/11/7 on +9.8% with 3 steals a game. It was as complete a devastation of a slightly above average team as you’ll ever see.
In the second round the Bulls faced the New York Knicks (+4.5). The series was extremely tight. The wins were by 3, 3, 7, 11 and 13 points. And the Knicks outshot the Bulls. By a lot.
That’s not a misprint. The Knicks were held to -1.6% shooting with no Knick above 20% usage shooting above league average. But the Bulls were stifled, shooting only at -4.8%. Jordan averaged a low-efficiency 36/5/4 on -0.6%, but the other Bulls’ starters were even less efficient. Pippen averaged a 16 a game on -12.6% and Harper 11 on -6.6%. It’s almost unthinkable for a team this high on the list to be outshot by 3.2%. But the Bulls were.
They still won the series 4-1 by 6.2 points per game. Because the Bulls absolutely crushed possession, by an estimated 11.6 shots per game. This was on both sides. Charles Oakley got his on the offensive glass (4.4 a game) but no other Knick averaged even 2, while the Bulls’ five starters all averaged above that, combining to average over 15 per game. Pippen averaged another 3.2 steals per game and the Knicks couldn’t hold onto the ball (18.7% TO as a team, with Oakley and Mason both above 25%). In the end the Bulls’ offense struggled against the Knicks’ defense, only performing slightly above the Knicks’ regular season average. But they smothered the Knicks’ offense and pulled out a strong (but not dominant) win over a solid team.
In the Conference Finals they were due up against the +8.5 Orlando Magic. The Magic had been the #2 team in the preseason polls. They had a dominant offense built around young phenoms Shaquille O’Neal (23) and Penny Hardaway (24). And they were anchored by former Bull, Horace Grant. Both Grant and O’Neal had missed regular season time, but the team was looking ferocious in the playoffs. To that point they’d played the +2.5 Pistons and crushed them by 12.7 points a game, and then taken the +2.1 Hawks by 9.6 points a game. Were they looking as good as the Bulls? No, but the Magic were giving every indication that, healthy, they were definitely a contender-level team. The Bulls were favored -500 going into the series, but still.
In Game 1 Penny Hardaway posted a transcendent game with a 38/3/3 on +24.7% with 3 steals. But non-Penny Magic shot 1 of 10 from three while the Bulls shot 7 of 19 from three and +5.5% overall. And they absolutely overwhelmed the Magic on the glass. The entire Magic got 6 offensive boards in the game; Dennis Rodman got 7 by himself. All told the Bulls owned possession by an insane 18 estimated shots and the Bulls won the game by 38. Not exactly an auspicious start for the Magic. And compounding things, the Magic saw Horace Grant injure his elbow; he would miss Game 2 and struggle in the others.
In Game 2, without Horace Grant, Shaquille O’Neal went out to make a statement. He posted a 36/16/4 (7 offensive boards) on +16.3% shooting. And thanks to his efforts the Magic actually commanded a 15-point lead at the half. But the Bulls closed that to a 2-point lead going into the fourth and closed out in style, winning by 5. Jordan put up a 35/5/6 on +8.2% with 4 steals. And the Bulls as a team turned the ball over . . . seven times. The Magic turned the ball over more than twice as often, 17 times, with the help of 2+ steals from Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Harper.
Game 3 saw neither Shaq nor Hardaway play well and the Magic offense collapsed like an M. Night Shyamalan movie with a lame reveal. They shot a worse-than-Barkley-from-three -15.9% (Barkley took two thousand over his career and made them at 26.6%, which would yield a TS% 1.6 points higher than the Game 3 Magic). The Bulls won the game easily by 19.
In Game 4 the Magic once again held a lead at the half (9 points), but trailed by one going into the fourth and the Bulls closed it out. The Magic combined for 5 offensive boards while Rodman got 7 by himself and Jordan threw up a 45/3/5 on +23%. The Bulls closed the series out by 5.
It was a clean sweep by an average of 16.7 points per game. Jordan averaged an outstanding 30/6/5 on +8.3% (2.3 steals a game), while Pippen contributed a comparatively inefficient 19/7/7 on -3.4% shooting and Rodman averaged over 15 boards a game. Did Grant going down cheapen the victory? Sure, some. Grant was a strong player (+4.3 AuRPM in the regular season). But they did get him three games at moderate health. So we probably can’t take the 16.7 points per game at face value . . . but that series wasn’t remotely close. At all. The Bulls dominated both sides of the ball. I don’t think that the ‘96 Bulls’ stomping of the Magic was on the level of the ‘01 Lakers against the Spurs . . . but it’s in that same “You have been put on notice” vein.
Waiting for them in the NBA Finals were the +8.1 Seattle SuperSonics. The Bulls were favored by a grotesque amount, -950 going into the series. And no wonder. The 90s Sonics were probably the greatest tease of the decade. Starting in ‘93 they put up the following seasons (with league rankings):
1993: 55 wins, +6.66 SRS (4th / 1st) -> +4.95 PSRS, Conf Finals loss to Suns
1994: 63 wins, +8.68 SRS (1st / 1st) -> +2.34 PSRS, 1st Round loss to Nuggets
1995: 57 wins, +7.91 SRS (4th / 1st) -> +3.79 PSRS, 1st Round loss to Lakers
That they outscored their opponents in both first round losses (+0.8 and +3.8) is a pretty weak silver lining to that cloud. For three straight years they had led the league in regular season SRS, but instead of improving in the playoffs they seemed to wilt.
1996: 64 wins, +7.40 SRS (2nd / 2nd) -> ?
The Sonics in the 1996 postseason had mysteriously been quite good. They’d posted a lackluster win over the Kings, but blitzed the Hakeem Rockets into a double-digit sweep. In a seven-game series against the surprisingly ferocious Utah Jazz, the Sonics prevailed at the expense of being outscored by 2.6 points a game. So the Sonics (for this one year) were playing well in the postseason . . . but people had reason to be cautious about them. And the Bulls were fresh off making pulling a Third Punic War-level conquest of the Orlando Magic (if you don’t get that reference, I’ll simply say that there was never a Fourth Punic War for a reason - the analogy gets better in that Shaq jumped to the Lakers after that loss). My point is, the Bulls were heavily, wildly favored to win, and the Sonics were expected to put up no real fight.
But they did.
The Sonics’ blitzing defense forced the Bulls into more turnovers than they’d given up at any point in the playoffs to date (still not many) and really slowed the Bulls’ shooters. Jordan averaged a 27/5/4 on -0.4%, Pippen a 16/8/5 on -11.3% (2.3 steals a game) and Kukoc a 13/5/4 on -3.5%. And the Sonics, as the Knicks had done before them, outshot the Bulls. Shawn Kemp averaged a 23/10/2 on +9.1%, Payton averaged an 18/6/7 on -1.0% and Hersey Hawkins averaged a 13/4/1 on +6.0%.
But as against the Knicks, the Bulls dominated possession by about 10.5 shots a game. However good the Sonics were winning the turnover battle the Bulls were far superior, forcing Kemp alone into averaging 4 turnovers a game. And while Kemp averaged 4.3 offensive boards a game, Rodman averaged almost 7. The Bulls shot worse, but they shot so much more than the Sonics that they prevailed in the end. The margin was not significant, a six-game win by 3.8 points a game. It was a respectable win over a very good team.
The Bulls had won. Jordan had proved to everyone that he could do it.
Do you remember my point about how Rodman’s teams seemed to jump on defense but slow on offense on reaching the postseason? Here’s the second threepeat on offense:
1996: +7.6 -> +7.7 = +0.1
1997: +7.7 -> +5.4 = -2.3
1998: +2.7 -> +5.4 = +2.7
And on defense:
1996: -5.8 -> -9.5 = -3.7
1997: -4.3 -> -7.7 = -3.4
1998: -5.2 -> -8.0 = -2.8
Here are the averages for the first three-peat, second three-peat and Rodman’s prior teams, first regular season, then playoffs, then change.
1st 3Peat: +6.3 offense / -2.8 defense
2nd 3Peat: +6.0 offense / -5.1 defense
Rodman: +2.2 offense / -3.2 defense
So the second three-peat looks halfway between the two. Rodman’s teams were more defensively slanted and the first three-peat is way offensively slanted.
1st 3Peat: +8.6 offense / -4.4 defense
2nd 3Peat: +6.2 offense / -8.4 defense
Rodman: +1.6 offense / -5.6 defense
Obviously the second three-peat Bulls had way better offenses than the pre-Bulls Rodman teams did. But they were way more defensively slanted than the first three-peat, if not by quite as much as the Rodman teams.
1st 3Peat: 2.3 better on offense / 1.6 better on defense
2nd 3Peat: 0.2 better on offense / 3.3 better on defense
Rodman: 0.6 worse on offense / 2.4 better on defense
The first three-peat is the only version here that improved markedly on offense in the playoffs. All three of these got better on defense in the playoffs, but the second three-peat the most so. Is it possible that adding Rodman transformed the team, such that they ended up swinging stronger defensively in the playoffs than they had in the first three-peat?
Look, these could all be coincidences. I’ll happily agree that the pattern is questionable.
But I’ll admit that I was pretty unprepared for watching the Bulls’ offense, specifically its shooting, struggle with some frequency in these playoffs (they were still really good, but the story of these writeups quickly became the Bulls’ defense dominating, not the offense). Fresh off of writing up the ‘91 Bulls (the best offensive Bulls team) the entire feel of these teams seemed totally different. The ‘91 Bulls won with dominant offense, and their shooting vs possession was about even. But the ‘96 Bulls won with dominant defense, actually shot about even with their playoff opponents and dominated possession exclusively. And, being curious, I looked into it and found that the ‘97 and ‘98 teams had similar patterns. Thinking through the roster the real change that leaped out was the Grant for Rodman switch, how Grant was used as an efficient low-volume scorer (while Rodman wasn’t, at least not with the Bulls) while Rodman was the best rebounder in the game (and Grant, despite being an excellent rebounder, wasn’t). And I was wondering if the offense making that swap (and perhaps downgrading Paxson’s/Armstrong’s spacing for Harper’s midrange game) changed the nature of how the team played in the playoffs.
I don’t think this is open and shut (my personal estimate is that this is about 40% truth and 60% garbage), but I thought the pattern was interesting enough to mention.
Anyhow, here’s the stem and leaf:
14 | Bulls
10 | Jazz
8 | Sonics
6 | Magic
5 | Knicks
4 | Spurs
3 | Lakers
2 | Pacers
1 | Hawks, Rockets
0 | Cavs, Pistons, Blazers
-0 | Bullets, Hornets
-1 | Heat, Suns, Kings, Warriors
-2 | Nuggets
-3 | Celtics, Clippers
-4 | Nets, Bucks, Mavs
-5 | TWolves
-7 | Raptors
-9 | Sixers, Grizzlies
Not unlike the ‘71 Bucks, the ‘96 Bulls benefited from expansion watering down the bottom of their league. We’re not talking a huge swing or anything, but taking out those expansion teams would have been worth a -0.63 SRS swing for everyone else (estimated). So that’s a factor in how insane the Bulls’ regular season was. It would have been insane in any era, but the expansion definitely gave it a little push.
So. How do I feel about this ranking?
Well, without thought, this is where they should be. I mean, most rankings put this team either #1 or #2. So this should hardly be controversial.
Their regular season is unimpeachable, to be sure. But I was weirdly turned off by their playoffs. Yeah, the win against Miami was flipping dominant, but Miami wasn’t also really any good. And their destruction of Orlando was top shelf. But the wins against the Knicks and Sonics were both a little . . . lacking. I know they’re both +10 SRS eq wins. Wins at that level are excellent for a #75 team, quite good for a #40 team but for a team in the Top 5 they’re kind of entry-level. Unlike the ‘71 Bucks (who vaporized everybody equally) I guess the ‘96 Bulls having some teams that they struggled with a bit kind of neutered them in my mind.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know who I’d put here instead. The ‘71 Bucks had an even more expansion-fueled record than the Bulls did. And the Bulls played two very strong teams in the Magic and Sonics, both teams far better than anyone the ‘71 Bucks played.
Ultimately it all washes out probably. My expectations for the Bulls were probably too high. And again, there’s no other team I’d put here instead. I’m just thrown by the #2 all-time team winning their Finals by a comparably low margin.
But never forget that a team this good still took everybody by surprise (going from +350 before the season to -400 going into the playoffs is a hellacious swing in public opinion).
In a weird way, ‘96 Jordan is like ‘91 Jordan redux. Each time people had reason to doubt him and each time he took it personal, leading his team to historic levels of greatness.
One wonders if it was overcoming those doubts that drove him, that fueled the engine of his soul. And that with each championship those doubts slowly became unquestioning faith in his abilities. And when his victory was all but certain, when there were no more doubters, Jordan’s engine seemed to run empty and he'd walk away.
“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds left to conquer.”
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