Would the Chicago Bulls have won ring No. 7 if they stayed together?
Between 1991 and 1998, the Chicago Bulls owned the basketball world.
They won six championships consisting of two separate 3-peats, becoming the only team in professional sports history to accomplish such a feat.
Still, the close of The Last Dance made it clear that the Bulls were left wanting more — specifically, a seventh championship.
Jordan himself openly stated as much in the final episode of the docuseries on Sunday, and he believed his squad could have gotten the job done.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 18, 2020
But they were denied the opportunity, as Chicago’s dynasty came to an end, for reasons beyond Jordan’s control.
A multitude of things led to the Bulls disbanding after their sixth ring. Before that season, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause let it be known that Phil Jackson would not return regardless of the Bulls’ success, which effectively pushed Jordan out the door, considering he said he would only play for Jackson.
Phil Jackson has won 13 of the 73 total NBA Finals…
Which is good for a ring every 5.6 years 🤯👏 pic.twitter.com/CSUe1iiGqg
— The Association on FOX (@TheAssociation) April 21, 2020
Jackson, as it turns out, was offered a chance to return to the Bulls for the 1998-1999 season, but turned it down, a fact Jackson had previously written about in his book but that many people learned for the first time on Sunday. So if the Zen Master was out, His Airness was out.
Yet the rift between the front office and head coach wasn’t the only issue that the Bulls faced after the 1998 season.
There was also the Scottie Pippen conundrum.
After being underpaid throughout his career, Pippen was ready for a big pay day — and chances were he wasn’t going to get it in Chicago, considering he was the sixth-highest paid player on the Bulls roster and the 122nd highest paid player in the NBA, and up until that point, Krause refused to renegotiate Pippen’s contract.
Pippen was instead traded to Houston, where he would ultimately sign a five-year $67 million deal with the Rockets, in the 1998 offseason.
Lastly, Dennis Rodman was released after the 1997-98 season; he played just 35 games the rest of his career, wrapping up in Los Angeles and ultimately, Dallas. With that, the four major pieces of the Bulls’ most recent championship run – Jordan, Pippen, Jackson and Rodman – were gone.
And all of that, given the way 1998 came to a close, was all but inevitable, according to Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Here’s his full quote: pic.twitter.com/X0QS2n76zJ
— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) May 18, 2020
Fair enouh, Mr. Reinsdorf. But let’s imagine that, like Jordan said in The Last Dance, the key players were willing to come back on one-year deals, and that Jackson let bygones be bygones and returned as coach. In that perfect world, if the Bulls were able to return all of their pieces, was a seventh title in their sights?
Chris Broussard believes that the Bulls could have competed for a title in 1998-99 – which would have been the Bulls’ fourth straight – if not for the front office serving as a roadblock.
“There are only two reason a dynasty should break up. One, you are beaten on the court, or two, your superstar player leaves the team, just gets old and decides to step away. It should not be the front office, deciding when you are still the best team in the world with the best player in the world, that you are going to rebuild.”
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) May 18, 2020
Former Bulls guard Scott Burrell believes so, as well, telling NBC Sports he thinks his role would have increased and the Bulls would have brought in fresh legs in order to balance out their veteran roster.
“No. 1, from my point of view, I would have felt more comfortable coming back since I’d been in that situation before. So I thought I would have played better. I would have helped a lot more than I did. But I also think they would have brought in more free agents – younger guys that would do the job that needed to be done – that some of the older guys couldn’t do or just needed a little more energy.”
Rodman himself said recently that Chicago “easily” would have won ring No. 7 if not for disbanding, and Michael Wilbon feels the same, simply due to the circumstances of the 1998-99 season.
Of course the Bulls could have won a seventh championship in that ensuing 1999 season. The conditions were ideal, relative to the state of the league. Remember, because the players were locked out, the ’99 season didn’t begin until the first week of February. Only 50 games were played in that regular season. After winning in June ’98, Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Jackson would have had seven full months to recharge, the kind of break that very well could have prevented burnout. Krause was worried that too many players on the roster were too old. More than half a year off might have worked wonders for Jordan, Pippen, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, Bill Wennington and Steve Kerr.
Don’t ever think Michael Jordan was ready to stop playing after the end of the 1998 season. He wasn’t. My latest column on @TheUndefeated: https://t.co/fU5NmF0cnR @Jumpman23 #BullsNation #TheLastDance
— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) May 18, 2020
To Wilbon’s point, at the start of 1997-98 season, the average age of the Bulls’ core players – Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc – was 32.8 years old. Rodman would have turned 37 towards the end of the regular season, and both Jordan and Harper would have turned 35 in the middle of the season. Pippen would have entered the season at 33.
If the Bulls were to have returned full-force for the 1998-99 season, conventional wisdom says that the third NBA lockout in league history – which shortened the season to 50 games and got rid of the All-Star Game – would have benefited an aging Chicago squad.
However while the vast majority of those who weighed in on the debate seemed to be #TeamJordan, not everyone is as firm a believer that Chicago could have done it again. Former Bull B.J. Armstrong, for one, thinks Father Time might have had a say, lockout or not.
“When you play that length of time and you go that deep into the playoffs, your body can only do so much. There’s only a certain amount of jumps that every athlete has. There’s only so many bumps and so many hits that a person can take … I can only say what all of us learn as some point in our career: your mind says yes, but your body says, ‘What’s going on here?'”
Could the Bulls have won a 7th title? B.J. Armstrong's take. pic.twitter.com/blUs0MRAB7
— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) May 18, 2020
Beyond that, let’s remember: this conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
A team actually won the 1999 NBA championship, starting a dynasty of their own. And here’s a fun fact: one Bull did accomplish a 4-peat – just not in Chicago.
The '98-'99 Bulls went into a rebuild.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 18, 2020
The San Antonio Spurs finished the strike-shortened regular season with a record of 39-11, before going 15-2 in the playoffs en route to a 4-1 demolition of the New York Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals.
After losing Game 2 of their first round matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves on May 11, 1999, the Spurs reeled off 10 straight wins, sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals and the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio would not lose again until Game 3 of the Finals on June 21.
San Antonio only had three players that averaged double-figures in scoring – Duncan at 21.7, Robinson at 15.8 and Sean Elliott at 11.2 – but defensively, they were a juggernaut that lost just one game in the Western Conference playoffs. If the Bulls had come back for The We Mean It This Time Last Dance and made the Finals, they would have invariably faced those Spurs.
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) May 19, 2020
And that defense-first mentality, established by San Antonio’s Twin Towers, very well could have worn the older Chicago squad into a fine powder.
USA Today’s Scott Gleeson argues the Bulls would not have won a seventh title, partially because the Spurs’ size would have been too much for Chicago to handle.
The Spurs won the 1999 NBA title behind Tim Duncan and David Robinson, two future Hall of Fame big men tabbed “The Twin Towers.” San Antonio’s ring represented a turning point in the league where dominant big men played a prominent role in Larry O’Brien trophies, whether it was Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal for three consecutive titles afterward with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jordan’s Bulls teams lacked a dominant big man. Some of the league’s best teams to never reach a Finals fell to the Duncan-led Spurs teams or O’Neal-led Lakers teams, including a great Portland Trailblazers (led by Pippen) and several Sacramento Kings teams of the 2000s.
Michael Jordan felt the Bulls could have won a seventh ring in 1998-99. Here's four reasons why they would have fallen short. https://t.co/hY58dwArv0
— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) May 18, 2020
There are reasonable perspectives on both sides. All of the arguments about fatigue and discord make a ton of sense. On the other hand, those who believe Chicago would have won another title have Michael Jordan on their side, and that’s never a bad place to be.
Maybe, if things had played out differently, Jordan gets No. 7, and David Robinson has one title instead of two, and newest Hall of Fame inductee Tim Duncan has four instead of five. And maybe, Kerr gets his 4-peat, but with Chicago instead of San Antonio.
Or, maybe the Bulls dynastic run comes to an end due to the Spurs’ front-court as opposed to their own front office.
What we can say is we would have loved to see it play out.