'The Last Dance' writers' roundtable: Michael Jordan the flawed guy

Yahoo Sports Staff
·11 min read

The Yahoo Sports NBA staff watched the latest episodes of “The Last Dance” like the rest of you, and here were their responses to a few burning questions.

Do we talk enough about how the Bulls lost the supposed greatest player of all time and then won 55 games in 1993-94 and went to seven games in the Eastern Conference semis?

Vincent Goodwill: We talk plenty about the Bulls’ 1993-94 season. So many use it as ammo in the GOAT argument because when LeBron James leaves his teams, they fall apart compared to the Bulls, who had a two-win drop-off after Michael Jordan’s retirement. You’ll hear ad nauseam about Scottie Pippen deserving the MVP despite the fact he couldn’t create his own shot late in games and there was some guy named Hakeem Olajuwon winning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year for a Rockets team that would win back-to-back titles. Never mind the ’92-93 Bulls were coming off two titles and with their two best players coming off an Olympic run, meaning they were going to ease their way into the season and ramp it up later going for a three-peat. The ’93-94 Bulls added Toni Kukoc and underwent some roster changes that gave it new blood. You win some games you shouldn’t, you play in an Eastern Conference that had the Atlanta Hawks as the No. 1 seed (after trading Dominique Wilkins at the deadline), and it’s easy to see that adding up to some overachieving. Think of it this way: The 1990 East All-Star team was nothing but Hall of Famers. Every. Single. Player. In 1994? Horace Grant. Charles Oakley. John Starks. Mookie Blaylock. Solid players but nowhere near game-changers. What we don’t talk about is the Bulls barely being .500 in 1994-95, when Pippen realized the logo on the bottom of his shoe was better fit as a centerpiece.

Chris Haynes: This comes up a lot in debates when there is a counter argument to MJ being the GOAT. The way I see it, the Bulls garnered so much valuable experience competing for championships all those years, and Jordan was the catalyst in elevating everyone’s game. You don’t just lose all of that when the lead dog goes on hiatus. Players actually got better, confidence surged and they now knew what it took to win. It’s very similar to the season Toronto was having this year with Kawhi Leonard playing for the Clippers. Are the Raptors a better team without Kawhi? Of course not. MJ and Kawhi elevated those franchises in such a way that it just doesn’t dissipate overnight.

Seerat Sohi: The low point of Pippen’s best individual season — refusing to enter the game after Phil Jackson opted to entrust Toni Kukoc with the game-winning shot in Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals — gets more attention than the season itself. “The Last Dance” dwelled more on the second season without Jordan, when Horace Grant left and the Bulls started to fizzle out before Jordan stepped in to save them.

It’s unfortunate because Pippen was in most ways the opposite of the guy who turned on his teammates. Hell, Pippen was such a good teammate that his name became canonized in the pop-culture lexicon. Who’s your sidekick? Your Pippen.

When Jordan left, Pippen eased the tension of a team at its boiling point, freeing up the Bulls and showing that there’s more than just one way to achieve success. His scoring average increased, but he was really starting to find himself as a primary playmaker, getting the Bulls to whip the ball all over the floor and, in his words, win “by committee.”

The 1993-94 season provides a glimpse of the self-actualization Pippen sacrificed — despite enormous athletic and perceptive potential — for the team. He was also, it bears repeating, underpaid and undermined by the front office. As Draymond Green put it, a hallmark of dynasties is an underpaid star.

For the Bulls to win, Pippen constantly had to take the short end of the stick. Let’s focus more on that and less on the moment he snapped.

CHICAGO, UNITED STATES:  Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls (L) looks to make a basket as Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton (R) defends in the fourth quarter of the 18 March game at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Supersonics 89-87 in overtime. AFP Photo by Vincent LAFORET (Photo credit should read VINCENT LAFORET/AFP via Getty Images)
Michael Jordan didn't want to give Gary Payton any credit for the Sonics' wins in the 1996 NBA Finals. (VINCENT LAFORET/AFP via Getty Images)

Let’s just discuss MJ talking about the commitment, dedication and the cost of winning and tearing up at the end of Episode 7.

Goodwill: It’s easy to see why Jordan retired both times because his way is exhausting. He goes all out, be it with how he plays or how he handles his off time with golfing and gambling or even Air Jordan promotions. He doesn’t know anything other than full speed. That mindset also applies to practice and endlessly riding teammates. In his mind, there was a method to it, not wholly dissimilar to Jackson’s riddles and methods in practice. Jordan justified in his mind that the only way to get things done was to push teammates to their limits and to set this example of working so hard that everyone would follow. Sometimes his jokes had a little bite to them but seemed harmless enough in nature. Dorm-room discussions, if you will. But he was at another level. Some people love competing, even if they don’t win. Jordan loved winning because of the benefits it afforded him when there was no competition. I could posit a theory that Jordan didn’t want Isiah Thomas on the Dream Team, and it was borne out of insecurity. Being the best player in the world, or of all time, wasn’t good enough for him. While he could verbally assault every player on that roster during those card games and kick-back nights because he beat them, he couldn’t do that with Isiah in terms of the head-to-head game. And that would’ve eaten him alive, that someone got the better of him and would’ve stood up to him in those conversations. Those tears weren’t about love for his teammates or being misunderstood. It was the deep passion of wanting to win, wanting to dominate to feel whole. He couldn’t operate any other way, so his performances reflected his deep feelings of needing to do it all, better than anyone.

Haynes: MJ was the game’s best player and obsessed with winning. There are a ton of players who aren’t obsessed with winning. So if partnered with MJ, there’s going to be some conflict. If he’s giving his all in every facet to improve his craft, he expects that same effort from his teammates. That expectation and confrontational tactic rubbed many of his teammates the wrong way, but that was the only way he knew how to lead. And him tearing up at the end of Episode 7, I saw it as genuinely wanting the praise of his teammates outside of the game and becoming overwhelmed with emotions that some of them didn’t view him as a nice guy. It showed he does value what people think of him as a person.

Sohi: It reminded me of Nike’s “Maybe It’s My Fault” commercial.

Jordan has been selling his idea of what it takes to be successful for a long time, and the closing montage to Episode 7 was no different. “If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way,” modern-day Jordan says, before crying. He sounds passionate, almost defensive, like he was misunderstood. Maybe it’s because the modern era has not been so kind to his worldview.

Maybe it’s too harsh (“or maybe,” Jordan closes in the 2008 commercial, “you’re just making excuses). Over in the world’s tech capital, where the open-space concept has overtaken offices, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors stand as the modern foil to Jordan.

But Jordan has a point. The NBA is ruthless, and the Warriors and Bulls likely share a lot more similarities than the broad strokes suggest. They’re coached, after all, by Steve Kerr — so ruthless a competitor he was lucky enough to get punched in the face by Jordan and thereby earning His Airness’ respect.

The truth is, there’s no one blueprint to winning. We have so few answers that we retroactively justify the behaviors of the victors as the keys to success. That’s how history works: If you win, you get to tell the story of how you did it. Jordan won more than anybody, and this is the story he’s telling us about how he did it.

The excuses for every MJ loss are really mounting (and getting tiring). Father’s Day emotions get the blame for the two losses in the 1996 Finals — three years after Jordan’s father died. Is all this in some way diminishing his legacy? And can he ever just credit an opponent for playing well?

Goodwill: When you’re the best at everything, you need to find any extra motivation or reasoning to justify moments that you’re not at your best. Jordan could’ve very well have been wearing down toward the end of the ’96 playoffs, and I highly doubt he’d use his father’s passing as an excuse for not playing well in Games 4 and 5. But even with that, Gary Payton gave him problems in the only way a defender could: He took away Jordan’s airspace, cut off his legs and played with no fear. So many players were beaten before Jordan made his first move, either in awe or fear of being embarrassed. Payton had zero reservations about such things. And statistically, the ’96 Finals were Jordan’s worst by far (considering his superhuman standards). Averaging 27 on splits of 42-32-84 shows something was happening, but luckily for the Bulls they had Dennis Rodman who very well could’ve won Finals MVP with his work on the boards. It would be too much for Jordan to credit Seattle for even winning those two games, because he hasn’t credited anyone for anything. Not Jerry Krause. Not the Detroit Pistons. Not the Orlando Magic. And losing those two games after coming into the the Finals with an 11-1 record took some shine off the “Greatest Team of All Time” label for the club that won 72 regular-season games in an expansion season.

Haynes: I don’t think this will diminish Jordan’s legacy at all. Typically, the best are unusual creatures who have unorthodox ways of motivating themselves and sustaining an edge. They’re maniacally driven. It’s a fascinating look into how a certain alpha dog thinks. Instead of viewing a loss as someone getting the best of him, he viewed it as he didn’t play to the level he was capable of. Thus, he goes back to training with the goal of revenge. It’s hard to knock someone for continuing to elevate his game. Could he have given credit when due? Sure, but this is all what made him the GOAT, and it’s hard to argue with the results.

Sohi: It’s interesting that a documentary on Jordan, who won more than anyone in his generation, focuses so much energy on relitigating his losses. That he would even think he needs to conjure “excuses” tells you a lot about the guy who literally made up sleights to motivate himself.

You can tell he’s spent more time thinking about the losses in the last 22 years than anyone else has. For the public, six rings eclipse a few missteps. You can understand how for Jordan, playing an NBA game on Father’s Day for the first time could wrestle up emotions. Whether that contributed to the Bulls’ performance, it’s astounding that he would care so much about two lost games in a series the Bulls eventually won.

I wonder how the documentary will tackle the 1998 series against the Pacers, where Chicago lost — Gasp! — three times before taking Game 7.

As far as credit goes, probably not. Jordan took offense to Clyde Drexler being compared to him. He laughed — quite performatively, I might add — at the notion that Gary Payton slowed him down.

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