Think about it: how many times have you gotten into a conversation or an argument with someone about whether or not the Bulls would have won eight straight championships had Michael Jordan not retired to play baseball? For me, it must be a good five to ten times and counting. It was only a few years ago when I got into a heated debate with two Rockets fans about this very topic. Punches were nearly thrown and veins began popping out of our necks and foreheads. Fortunately for me, those punches were not thrown, as I would have easily gotten my ass kicked.
This topic has been debated amongst diehard fans, casual fans, “fans” who think they know basketball because they’ve heard of some guy named Jordan, writers, analysts, and scrubs off the street. It has probably also been debated amongst current players, former players, coaches and even front office personnel. The main argument for the Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon. Of the six championships the Bulls won, they never had to play a team with a legitimate center (Vlade Divac, Clifford Robinson, Tom Chambers, Shawn Kemp/Sam Perkins whom were both true power forwards, Greg Ostertag twice). He averaged 29-11-4-4 during the ’94 playoffs and 33-10-5-3 during the ’95 playoffs. That’s fair. The main argument for the Bulls: Michael Jordan. The Rockets didn’t have him. The best player in the world retired right smack-dab in the middle of his prime after winning three straight championships. No team could have stopped him no matter how hard they tried.
Of course, no one really knows what would have happened had Jordan not retired during the summer of ’93. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop arguing about it. What fun would that be? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion – as long as they can back it up with some sort of logic. For all these years, I’ve always argued just for the sake of arguing – some of it out of bias for my hometown Bulls and my sick obsession with M.J., some of it out of thinking that a Jordan-led Bulls team was truly better all-around than the Rockets. But, being the number-loving guy that I am, I surprisingly never took the time to come up with an answer from a statistical point-of-view. So, after a fellow sports fanatic and buddy of mine, Adam Singer, posed the very question about Jordan’s Bulls beating Olajuwon’s Rockets to me last week, I decided to do something about it. I asked myself, “What are the chances the Bulls would have won championships in 1994 and 1995 with an unretired, cannibalistic Jordan?”
To figure this out, I used a very similar approach (that I learned about in a book called Mathletics) to one of my posts from May, titled By the numbers: Chances the Bulls get to the Finals with a healthy D-Rose. I used Microsoft Excel Solver to power rate each NBA team during every postseason from 1990-1995 using season-long data from nba-reference.com. I calculated the home team’s margin, prediction of each game, and the squared error of each game, which equals (home margin – prediction)^2. The sum of the squared error acts as the “target cell” in Solver and must be minimized in order to come up with accurate team ratings. Assuming that the average NBA playoff team had a rating of 0, you can see below that the Bulls, as expected, received the highest playoff rating during each of their first three championship runs with 15.88, 20.54 and 9.59, respectively. The Rockets, of course, rated the highest during the 1994 and 1995 postseasons with 5.74 and 16.08, respectively.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s take all this in for a second. Based on just the numbers above, it’s no coincidence that the Bulls went from making everyone their bitch from 1991-93 to just above average in the two postseasons that followed. They also ranked first overall in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) during the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons and second overall in 1992-93, then plummeted to 14th overall in 1993-94 and 10th in 1994-95. The impact that MJ had on the Bulls can obviously go without saying. Even without him, though, they finished their first Jordan-less season with 55 wins and the third seed in the playoffs. Had Hue Hollins not made one of the most controversial foul calls in the history of the NBA against Scottie Pippen during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bulls would have likely won the series against the Knicks and could have been one step closer to playing the Rockets without Jordan. But, it clearly didn’t work out that way, and they were sent packing before the Finals for the first time in four years.
Anyways, it’s time to get back on track and calculate the chances that the Bulls would have beaten Houston using Excel’s @RISK. The first step was forecasting the average scoring margin for home and away games. There was no right way to do this, so I had to get creative. I figured the most logical way would be to:
- Take the Bulls’ average playoff rating over those three seasons above (15.34) and put it up against the Rockets’ ratings in their respective championship seasons (5.47 in ’94, 16.09 in ’95).
- Assume the Bulls would have had home court advantage (5.85 points) both years because they finished with only three less wins than Houston in ’94 (55 to 58) and the same amount of wins in ’95 (47 each). I’d like to think that the Bulls would have won at least three extra games each year had Jordan been playing.
- Assume they would have beaten every Eastern Conference opponent because it just makes my life easier.
For home games, I took (Home Edge + Bulls Rating – Rockets Rating). For away games, I took (Bulls Rating – Home Edge – Rockets Rating). The projected margin was then calculated using the average forecast and standard deviation (Mathletics states that ”12 points is the historical standard deviation of actual scores about a prediction from a ranking system”). If that number was greater than 0, then the Bulls were given a 1 (indicating they won) and were given a 0 if the number was less than 0 (indicating they lost). If the sum of the wins was greater than or equal to 4, then the Bulls would have won the series. With that being said, take a look at the 1994 Finals simulation results:
After running 1000 iterations, the Bulls won the series a ridiculous 966 times, meaning they would have had a 96.6% chance of beating Houston with Jordan playing. In other words, had the Bulls played as well in the 1994 postseason as they did the previous three seasons, the Rockets would have stood virtually no chance of winning. Seven championships instead of six? Yes please.
The 1995 playoffs were a completely different story. Houston played with much more of an edge after finally winning a championship the year before, and Hakeem Olajuwon was simply unstoppable, as he solidified himself as the best center in the game. Jordan also came back and played in the playoffs, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Check out the 1995 Finals simulation results:
This time, the Bulls won the series only 504 times – you can’t find a more even matchup than that. The split was nearly dead even at 50/50 so, based on numbers alone, it’s very hard for me to argue for any one side. However, I will say this: I understand that Jordan came back near the end of the season and played in the playoffs, but he wasn’t quite the same player that everyone was accustomed to watching until the playoffs actually started. He was very rusty in a majority of the regular season games he played in and shot a career low 41% from the field.
Yes, Jordan’s numbers against Charlotte and Orlando that postseason prove that he finally got his mojo back (31.5 points per game), but the team’s chemistry wasn’t even close to where it once was during their three-peat. The Bulls had added Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Ron Harper and Steve Kerr since Jordan left, and they lost Horace Grant and John Paxson. It was probably very difficult for Jordan to adjust to playing with a completely different group of players and vice versa. Imagine playing two years with Scottie Pippen leading your team and then watching him hand over the reigns, just a month before the 1995 playoffs, to a legend who takes about 22 shots a game and approaches every play, every set and every opposition unlike anyone you’ve ever seen. It takes longer than a month to get used to, so the Bulls entered the playoffs during a honeymoon period, and Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic took advantage. Needless to say, they went on to win a NBA-record 72 games the next season and obliterated everyone en route to their fourth of six championships (finished the postseason with a 15-3 record). Surely, a little chemistry, as well as a little Dennis Rodman, never hurt anyone. Well, except for any women who claim victim to Rodman’s misdemeanor and domestic violence charges. But that’s besides the point.
Look, I don’t want to take anything away from the Houston Rockets. They were an incredible team led by two Hall of Famers in Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and supported by Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, Robert Horry and Mario Elie. After Jordan, Olajuwon may have been the best player in the ’90s and is widely considered the greatest defensive player of all time. Coming up with probabilities is fun and all, but it’s not a final indicator of who would actually win the series. The games would still have to be played. Maybe the Rockets weren’t going to lose that year no matter who they went up against, but I still can’t help but think about what could have been.
From Charles Barkley to Karl Malone to John Stockton to Patrick Ewing to Reggie Miller to Dominique Wilkins to Shawn Kemp to Brad Daugherty to Tim Hardaway, the list of Hall of Famers or great players that never won a ring because they couldn’t beat M.J.’s Bulls is endless. Had Jordan never retired to play baseball, who’s to say that Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler wouldn’t have joined that list as well?
Coming up with the five biggest “steals” in Chicago Bulls history may sound easy, but let me tell you, it was quite a difficult task. If you think it’s because there are too many of them, you’re wrong. There are too few. Because of that, there was no choice but to pick some players who were drafted high and were even highly touted coming into the NBA. Don’t freak out though – you and I both know that my picks will be justified, and you probably won’t even think twice about disagreeing (except for the order, maybe). So, let’s get started.
5) Clifford Ray, 5th pick (40th overall) of 3rd round in 1971, PF/C, University of Oklahoma: Clifford Ray was a rebounding machine while playing for the Bulls in the early ’70s. He was named to the 1972 NBA All-Rookie Team and led the NBA in rebounds per minutes played in each of his first two seasons. His third and final season with the Bulls was his best, as he averaged 9.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game and helped lead the Bulls to the Western Conference (yes, Western Conference) finals for the first time ever.
After the 1973-74 season, Ray was traded to the Golden State Warriors for Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond. Although Thurmond was pretty washed up and nearing the end of his career, his debut with the Bulls was one for the ages, as he became the first player in NBA history (at the time) to record a quadruple-double (22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks). He ended up averaging 8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in one season with the Bulls before being traded. Still, that’s pretty solid value that the Bulls got for Ray.
Ray eventually ended his career in Golden State and became one of a handful of players to have played at least ten seasons in the NBA and record more rebounds than points for his career. In 784 games, he swallowed up 6,953 boards for an 8.9 average and scored 5,821 points for a 7.4 average. Pretty fascinating if you ask me.
4) Horace Grant, 10th overall pick in 1987, Power Forward, University of Clemson: It wasn’t until his second season in Chicago that Horace Grant became one of the better players ever to put on the red, white and black. Enforcer Charles Oakley was traded to the Knicks during the summer of 1988, thus paving the way for Grant to show what he was really capable of doing.
In six seasons as the starting power forward for the Bulls (obviously not counting his rookie season playing behind Oakley), Grant shot 53.2% from the field and averaged 13.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.1 blocks in over 35 minutes per game. He became the Bulls’ main rebounder and established himself as their third scoring option after MJ and Pippen to form one of the league’s best trios. He was a phenomenal defensive player and was selected four times (two with the Bulls) to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. Three championships and Jordan’s first retirement later, Grant became Pippen’s right-hand man, and the two of them led the Bulls to a 55 win season and pushed Patrick Ewing’s Knicks to a seven-game series in the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated. Grant then left the Bulls as a free agent to join the Orlando Magic in the summer of 1994 and ended up playing in the NBA for 17 seasons.
Although Grant was drafted tenth overall in 1987, guys like Dennis Hopson and Reggie Williams, who ended up becoming huge busts, were drafted ahead of him. In fact, only three players selected ahead of him would be considered on his level or better, and those players are David Robinson, Scottie Pippen and Kevin Johnson. They were decent. Most importantly, the Bulls would not have won their first three championships without Grant. Period. He qualifies as a steal.
3) Toni Kukoc, 2nd pick (29th overall) of 2nd round in 1990, SF/PF, Croatia: Toni Kukoc is a legend in Europe. That’s for damn sure. He was a three-time Euroleague Final Four MVP, nine-time European Basketball Player of the Year, and he became one of FIBA’s 50 greatest players ever. But it was because of his contributions to the Bulls during the mid-to-late 90’s that earns him the 3 spot on this list.
Although Kukoc was drafted in 1990, he didn’t actually report to the Bulls until 1993, right after they had finished up the Phoenix Suns for a three-peat and Jordan had retired for the first time. During his rookie season, Kukoc made the All-Rookie Second Team and hit a game-winning buzzer beater against the Knicks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The next season, he took over the starting power forward position after Horace Grant bolted for Orlando in the offseason, but he became the NBA Sixth Man of the Year during his third season (1995-96) after Dennis Rodman was acquired (of course, Jordan had been back since the middle of the 1994-95 season by then).
As the sixth man that year, Kukoc was the Bulls third-leading scorer and helped catapult them to the best record in league history at 72-10, as well as their fourth championship in six years. He remained the Bulls’ sixth man and third-leading scorer for the next two seasons as they won two more championships to finish off their second three-peat. During the 1999-00 season, Kukoc was traded to Philadelphia and eventually found a home for a few years in Milwaukee. Before that, though, he provided some great excitement for Bulls fans and was always a fan favorite in Chicago. And yes, I had his #7 jersey, and it was absolutely a part of my weekly outfit cycle (along with a combination of six other basketball/football jerseys and “And One” shirts). No shame in admitting that. Here is a look at Kukoc’s career numbers as a Bull:
436 games, 29.5 minutes, 14.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.8 three-pointers made, 45.8% FG
Rarely ever do second-round draft picks develop into anything more than a role player in the NBA, much less become an extremely valuable piece to a team that wins three consecutive championships. But Kukoc did exactly that, thus solidifying his position on this list.
2) Scottie Pippen, 5th overall pick in 1987, Small Forward, University of Central Arkansas: I’m going to make this short and sweet. I’m sure some of you are thinking “Scottie Pippen was the 5th overall pick in the 1987 draft. How in the world does that qualify as a steal?” Well, I bet those same people also don’t realize that the Bulls traded the 6’11 Olden Polynice (I repeat: Olden Polynice), whom they drafted three picks later, to the Seattle SuperSonics straight up for Pippen on draft night. Here’s a quick recap of Olden Polynice’s 15-year career:
23.5 minutes, 7.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 50.6% FG, and zero career highlights/accomplishments/awards whatsoever
Now, take a look at Pippen’s 12-year career with the Bulls (his career numbers after leaving Chicago are irrelevant):
35.8 minutes, 18.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.9 blocks, 0.8 three-pointers made, 48.3% FG
Considering the fact that Pippen had played limited minutes backing up Brad Sellers his entire rookie season, I’d say those numbers alone show how big of a steal the Bulls got by trading a role player at best for a hall of famer. As for his career accomplishments and awards… well, now I’m just being mean to Mr. Polynice:
6x NBA Champion, 7x NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star Game MVP, 3x All-NBA First Team, 2x All-NBA Second Team, 2x All-NBA Third Team, 8x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 2x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, #33 jersey retired by the Bulls, 2010 Hall of Fame Inductee, NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Pippen’s list of accomplishments can go on and on, so I will just say this: without him, the Chicago Bulls would have never become the dynasty that they became. He and Michael Jordan formed one of the greatest 1-2 combinations that the game of basketball will ever see. None of this would not have happened without a little homework done by the Bulls front office before the 1987 draft as well as a little (actually, who am I kidding? A LOT OF) stupidity by the Seattle brass. Pippen became arguably the greatest perimeter defender, and one of the greatest all-around defenders, ever to play the game (Jordan is right up there with him), and he currently holds the record for career steals by a forward (2,307), as well as in the playoffs (395). I’d say that trade worked out quite well, wouldn’t you?
1) Michael Jordan, 3rd overall pick in 1984 draft, Shooting Guard, University of North Carolina: I don’t need to explain to you how great of a career Michael Jordan had and what he accomplished. We all know by now that he is, and will always be, the greatest player to ever live. Anyone who feels differently is clearly arguing just to argue. So with that, I’m briefly going to explain why exactly MJ qualifies as a steal.
Had the Portland Trailblazers selected Jordan over Sam Bowie, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But, they didn’t. The 7’1 Bowie played a total of 511 games in the NBA and averaged 10.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 45.2% field goal. He never managed to stay healthy due to a variety of severe leg injuries, playing in only 63 games total during his final three years in Portland before they shipped him off to New Jersey. Bowie is widely regarded as the biggest draft bust in NBA history.
Portland’s decision to draft Bowie over Jordan is, without a doubt, the single most colossal blunder in the history of basketball. He accomplished next to nothing (besides a NCAA All-America Second Team) while playing at the University of Kentucky, missing two full seasons in a row because of terrible injuries to his shinbone. Jordan, on the other hand, was a two-time NCAA All-America First Teamer, one-time NCAA champion, and a recipient of the Naismith College Player of the Year Award, Oscar Robertson Trophy, John R. Wooden Award and the Adolph Rupp Award (all of which are awards given to the top player in men’s Division I NCAA Basketball). Bowie’s injury history, in itself, should have been a sign to Portland that they should stay away. But with Jordan’s college accomplishments on top of it, no one will ever live down that horrible decision to draft Bowie over him.
The Bulls completely stole Jordan during the 1984 draft, and it truly altered the lives of all Chicago sports fans, and even sports fans worldwide, forever. My entire childhood revolved around the Bulls and trying to impersonate Michael Jordan on the playground, in the gym and even in my basement. It was cool to be like Mike, and it was because of him that I am the way I am when it comes to sports. MJ belongs number one on this list. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Duhon, Point Guard (I told you this list was thin); Trenton Hassell, Shooting Guard (Now I’m just forcing the issue); Norm Van Lier, Point Guard (Even though the Bulls traded him on draft day, they reacquired him three years later, and he was great. Plus, he was a great TV analyst for the Bulls. I’m leaving him on this list.); Taj Gibson, Power Forward