Michael Jordan has recaptured the imagination of the sports world again. ESPN’s 10-part docuseries, The “Last Dance” chronicles the Chicago Bulls’ run at their sixth and final title during the 1997-98 season. The documentary has been the No. 1 topic among sports fans around the world — drawing in an average audience of 5.9 million viewers per week. As expected, the docuseries has sparked several new and old disputes among Jordan fans, but none more so than the endless debate between His Airness and LeBron James as the undisputed GOAT.
However, this coming Sunday, another age-old debate arise as the documentary will chronicle everything that transpired between Jordan’s first retirement in 1993, which indicates the GOAT debate will take a backseat to an age-old dispute between the Jordan-less Bulls and the Houston Rockets.
When Jordan walked away from the game 26-years ago, the Bulls had just become the first team since the 1960s Boston Celtics to win three consecutive titles from 1991-1993. Due to his dominance during the early ‘90s, Jordan’s 15-month hiatus expanded the championship window of several teams around the league — an opportunity the Rockets took full advantage by winning back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.
Since the Rockets’ route to capture the Larry O’Brien trophy did not include a trip to the Windy City, the narrative surrounding Houston’s championship banners became more known as the time frame that represents Jordan’s absence from the game in the eyes of the general public.
Although only partially true (Jordan played in ‘95 and put up better playoff numbers than he did in ‘96), what plenty of fans and media members fail to realize is the dominance the Rockets had over the Bulls during the early to mid-90s — in what is now viewed as Jordan’s most legendary run from 1991-1993. Had the two teams met in the NBA Finals, the Rockets would have put an inevitable blemish on Jordan and the Bulls’ untouchable dynasty.
During the three-year time span from 1991-1993, the Rockets won five of its six regular-season meetings against the Bulls by an average margin of 12 points. On Jan 3, 1991, Houston recorded their largest win against the Jordan-led Bulls in a 114-92 victory inside the Summit in Houston. Otis Thorpe led the way with 23 points and 11 rebounds, as six players score in double figures during the win. At the time, Houston’s win over the eventual champion was just another victory, as they improved to 17-13 on the season, but 29-years later, their win over the Bulls could be a blueprint on how the Rockets would have defeated Chicago in the Finals.
One reoccurring theme that played a factor in the Rockets’ success over the Bulls was the defensive performance played against Scottie Pippen. In episode one of the documentary, Jordan sheds light on the importance Pippen had on his career stating, “Whenever they speak Michael Jordan, they should speak Scottie Pippen.”
Without Pippin’s contributions, Jordan failed to advance to the second round of the playoffs, and the Bulls did not reach championship contention until the Arkansas prodigy reached All-Star form in 1990. With no way of totally slowing down Jordan, Houston’s perimeter defenders shifted their focus to second most important Bull.
Pippen averaged 19.1 points shooting nearly 50% from the field during Chicago’s first three-peat, but was the sum of his parts when facing the Rockets. During the 114-92 loss to Houston, Pippen played a total of 37 minutes and recorded 11 points on 29.4% shooting on the night. His performance against the Rockets was one of several subpar acts, as Pippen averaged 15.8 points while shooting just 30.0% from the field during the six games the two teams played over three years.
Distinct from their Finals’ contemporaries, the Rockets’ best matched Pippen’s unique playstyle with the defensive physicality coming from either Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell and later Robert Horry (1993). Once Pippen became a non-factor based on Houston’s defensive scheme, the Bulls were vulnerable to fall regardless of the number of points recorded by Jordan.
Adding to the agony of trying to get Pippin going offensively, the Bulls would have endured their most difficult challenge — defending the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon over a seven-game series.
As Jordan once confessed, the Bulls had no answer against The Dream, as Olajuwon averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds during their regular season meetings. Chicago’s Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley had no chance at slowing down Olajuwon, as the 7-foot-0 center dominated every big man standing in his way during the 1990s.
Similar to Jordan, Olajuwon’s killer instinct grew when playing against his counterparts, as he once averaged 26.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 1.2 steals in a Finals series against Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks and then put up 32.8 points, 11.5 boards, 5.5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks against Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic in a four-game Finals sweep.
Unable to send a help defender (Phil Jackson’s philosophy of no doubling), the Bulls would have been forced to play Olajuwon one-on-one down on the low block with Horace Grant assigned to Thorpe. Finals version of Olajuwon vs. Luc Longley, Bill Wennington or Will Perdue? Please.
The NBA and its fans missed out on what would have been one of the most exciting NBA Finals series in history. Arguably, a battle between the top-two players of their generation going head-to-head for a chance to reign superior over the other.
Had the Rockets met the Bulls in the Finals during the early to mid-90s, Jordan’s near-perfect ride on his way to becoming the undisputed GOAT would have sustained a slight dent during a detour route to Houston.