“Six!” Michael Jordan bellowed.
“Six!” Scottie Pippen followed.
“Six of them,” Jordan repeated with the same satisfied smile on his face in the aftermath of triumph. “You can say whatever you want. They can’t win until we quit.”
It was as perilous of a Finals series Jordan had endured over the decade even though it finished in six games. He was facing the prospect of a seventh game on the road without Pippen, who would’ve been unavailable because of a back injury.
That “0” on the ledger might’ve had to go if the Bulls had to play one more game against a Jazz team that wasn’t historically great but could’ve been good enough to take advantage of a tired Jordan.
But Jordan and the Bulls remained perfect with history remembering them as an unblemished outfit with the breakup coming. A third straight title and sixth in eight years would not stop owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause from completing their mission of breaking up the team to start an ugly rebuild.
The Bulls’ brass had no idea how history would smile on the team compared to future championship reigns that weren’t undefeated.
But they saved the Bulls, and by proxy Jordan, from themselves, even if the undefeated mark is a prop used in the Jordan as GOAT argument, particularly against LeBron James, who is 3-6 in the Finals.
Had Jordan carried a less-than-stellar Bulls team to the Finals in 1995 or 1990 but came away a loser, it wouldn’t have made him any less of a great player. He’s not the GOAT because he was perfect in the Finals, but because he was a better basketball player than everyone else.
And he would’ve remained that way had circumstances conspired to see him return to basketball in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, when it seemed unlikely a “four-peat” would occur.
The hyper-competitive Jordan had just turned 35 and won his fifth regular-season MVP in 1998, but it wasn’t his best season by his monumental standards. And it was easy to see by the end of this championship run, the man was exhausted.
He hadn’t missed any games following his baseball sabbatical, with 246 games played in the regular season during the three-peat and 58 additional in the playoff runs. Other teams were catching up, even in the less-than-stellar Eastern Conference.
The Bulls’ supporting cast was weakening by the end of the three-peat, although it was certainly good enough to win. The star power was where things would’ve been waning, even if Reinsdorf would’ve ignored Pippen’s petulance over his unhappiness with his contract.
Pippen’s star days were over, and he was approaching a drop-off in production after being traded to Houston in 1999, and then to Portland. He was definitely effective in Portland, helping lead a deep Trail Blazers team to the doorstep of the Finals in 2000, but was a key culprit in a blown 17-point lead in a Western Conference finals Game 7 in Los Angeles.
The Portland team was built for him to be one of many contributors, but not the superior end-to-end player that would’ve been required if the Bulls were to continue their championship quest. Dennis Rodman had already shown signs of wavering in the 1998 season, as evidenced by his Las Vegas trip in the middle of the season.
He turned 37 in the Bulls’ last Finals run and was battling torn ligaments in his hand, a factor that certainly affected his renowned defense and rebounding. He only played 35 total games the next two seasons to finish up his career with stops in Los Angeles and Dallas, and even if the Bulls wanted to replace him, there weren’t many players who could understand the triangle offense and take care of the intangibles alongside Jordan and Pippen.
Perhaps it would’ve been too much for Jordan to watch over Rodman and monitor Pippen while picking up all the slack.
It’s certainly possible the Bulls would’ve been able to muster a good enough regular season through continuity if Phil Jackson had patched things up with Krause.
It often goes unsaid, but Krause did a solid job from the end of the first three-peat to the start of the second run. Only Jordan and Pippen were constants, as Rodman, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley were swapping in for some aging pieces.
Doing that one more time on the fly, in one cash-strapped offseason, likely would have been too tall of a task with Jordan and Pippen wearing down.
The 1993 Bulls team was on fumes at the end, similar to the 1998 version. Both teams faced difficult matchups in the conference finals, with the ’93 Bulls going down 0-2 to the Knicks before rebounding. The 1998 team went the full seven games with a solid but unspectacular Indiana Pacers squad.
Both teams went up 3-1 in the Finals and squandered chances to finish things at home, and it took some fortuitous bounces to beat the Phoenix Suns and Jazz in six games.
Championship fatigue was real, with Jordan revealing in a hotel room in 1998 that he was ready to walk away.
And remember, Jordan’s index finger on his shooting hand was severely injured in the 1998 offseason due to a cigar-cutter accident, and it would’ve likely needed surgery before the sloppy, lockout-shortened 50-game sprint in ‘99.
No one knew a looming juggernaut would find its way in the heart of Texas that next season, either. The San Antonio Spurs were certainly not anyone’s choice as dynasty dethroners, but Tim Duncan was not Charles Barkley or Karl Malone. Malone routinely came up short in the 1997 and ‘98 Finals, while Barkley admittedly didn’t have the Suns ready to play in 1993.
Duncan was emerging, guided by David Robinson and coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs were not going to beat themselves the way the Jazz did.
That version of the Spurs weren’t nearly as seasoned or confident in their championship approach as they’d be in the next decade or so, but the Bulls could’ve been ripe for the taking had they found the right pieces to reach the Finals.
If Jordan wasn’t tired.
If Pippen had some prime left.
If Phil Jackson had returned.
If, if, if …
The bottom line is age, injury and time catches every proud champion, from Magic’s Lakers to Bird’s Celtics to Isiah’s Pistons, and, yes, even to Jordan’s Bulls.
Chicago was just lucky enough to exit the stage under the shroud of mystery rather than removing all doubt like everyone else.
And history is better for it.
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