With indefinite malaise upon us, we turn back in time again and ask a hypothetical question:
Would anyone have beaten the 1993-94 Bulls if Michael Jordan had not retired?
As a brief recap, the Bulls had two separate three-peats, from 1990-91 to 1992-93 and, again, from 1995-96 to 1997-98. In each case, the Bulls were not as strong by the third year of the three-peat, which suggests that the task of a four-peat (or more) would have been unlikely. To demonstrate the diminishing returns, check out the yearly Bulls teams during each three-peat:
-1990-91 Bulls, 61-21, 8.57 SRS, Playoff Record 15-2 (Won Finals 4-1 against Lakers)
-1991-92 Bulls, 67-15, 10.07 SRS, Playoff Record 15-7 (Won Finals 4-2 against Blazers)
-1992-93 Bulls, 57-25, 6.19 SRS, Playoff Record 15-4 (Won Finals 4-2 against Suns)
-1995-96 Bulls, 72-10, 11.80 SRS, Playoff Record 15-3 (Won Finals 4-2 against Sonics)
-1996-97 Bulls, 69-13, 10.70 SRS, Playoff Record 15-4 (Won Finals 4-2 against Jazz)
-1997-98 Bulls, 62-20, 7.24 SRS, Playoff Record 15-6 (Won Finals 4-2 against Jazz)
The third edition of Bulls title teams were, relatively, gassed in the regular season and ceded home court to the Western Conference both times. Had MJ continued to play at hard intensity for all of 1993-94 and 1994-95 without a break, it seems that the lack of rest would’ve worn him down and that they would’ve stumbled at some point. So, these numbers do indicate someone could’ve beaten MJ at full strength had he not retired. Still, there is an issue to address before we dive in and pick the likely team that might’ve beaten MJ.
Weren’t the Bulls sans MJ awesome in 1993-94? Doesn’t that indicate that adding MJ could’ve made for likely four-peat?
The 1993-94 Bulls, the first year, without MJ, were really good (55-27) and nearly beat the Knicks in the second round of the playoffs in a tough seven-game series. The deeper numbers suggests, however, that the Bulls were not quite as good as they seemed. Their SRS was sixth in the East and had the expected win-loss of a 50-32 team. That the Bulls were not as good as their record is supported by the fact that the only major change in the lineup was MJ for Pete Myers (and addition of rookie Toni Kukoc). Check the stats difference between Jordan and Myers:
-Jordan 92-93: 39.3 mpg, 32.6 ppg, .564 TS%, 6.7 rpg, 5.5 apg, 17.2 WS, .270 WS/48, 11.2 BPM, 10.2 VORP
-Myers 93-94: 24.8 mpg, 7.9 ppg, .507 TS%, 2.2 rpg, 3.0 apg, 3.0 WS, .072 WS/48, -2.2 BPM, -0.1 VORP
Somehow, this swap that yielded only two fewer wins for the Bulls in 1993-94. As expected win-loss shows, the 1993-94 Bulls may have been a bit lucky to win as much as they did without Jordan. The Bulls nice playoff run that year also had some fortunate moments. They first played the Cavs before losing a close seven game series to the Knicks. The Cavs actually rated as better on paper than the Bulls (a slightly better SRS). The Bulls swept the Cavs anyway, as the Cavs were without their good center Brad Daugherty (who would never play in the NBA again due to a chronic back injury suffered late in the season).
The Knicks series was wild but the evidence suggests that the Bulls were fortunate to push it as far as they did. The Knicks went 3-1 against the Bulls in the regular season, with all three wins coming by at least nine points. With the Knicks up 2-0 in the series, the Knicks best point guard Derek Harper was goaded into fighting bench warmer Jo Jo English, removing Harper from most of Game 3, as well all of Games 4 and 5. The Bulls won Game 3 and 4 and nearly won Game 5 but for the infamous Hue Hollins foul call on Scottie Pippen (the call was much reviled at the time but, looking back, Hubert Davis pulled the subtle leg kick that James Harden works so well and is regularly called a foul in current NBA). In Games 4 and 5, Harper’s replacement, Greg Anthony, shot .296% from the field and scored 7.7 ppg. In other words, with Harper in the fold, the series probably should’ve gone 4-1 Knicks.
To evidence that 1993-94 was an anomaly, the Bulls fell to 34-31 in 1994-95 before MJ returned. This is a long way of saying that the Bulls were pretty good but not great in 1993-94. That squad with MJ could have won a title but they were probably another low 60-win team that might’ve run out of gas. This is exactly what happened to the Bulls against Shaquille O’Neal and Orlando when Jordan returned for the 1994-95 playoffs.
Injuries, injuries, injuries
Both Jordan and Pippen were exceptionally healthy during most of the two three-peats (Pippen had back problems in 1997-98, and Jordan missed virtually no time). If you play enough playoff games, however, fluke injuries can happen to anyone at the wrong time (Magic Johnson and Byron Scott both blowing out hamstrings early in the series against the Pistons in the 1988-89 Finals). It is quite possible that, without a break, Jordan might’ve had some sort of minor injury at the wrong time. We can’t account for that in predictions but it is another factor that shows the Bulls might not have won eight straight titles.
Historical inertia against four-peats and several consecutive Finals runs
There is likely a reason that no team in the modern playoff system has four-peated. It is just too hard physically on the team. Only the 2002-03 Kobe/Shaq Lakers were even in the position to do this, when they lost in the second round to the Spurs. Other teams ran out of gas going for three-peats (1988-89 Lakers mentioned above) or just going to the Finals several years in a row (2018-19 Warriors suffered major injuries in the Finals to the Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson).
So, which team was most likely to beat the Bulls?
In 1993-94, depending upon seeding, one would think the Bulls would’ve ended up playing the Knicks and/or the Pacers (the two Eastern Conference finalists that year). Let’s examine them:
-Indiana Pacers: In 1993-94, the Pacers became a title contender under Larry Brown. The Pacers didn’t have a flashy point guard to bother the Bulls (Haywoode Workman was hustling fringe guy) but they did have Reggie Miller (a regular MJ nemesis), a huge front line (Dale Davis and Antonio Davis) and scoring center (Rik Smits). This core team actually came closest to eliminating Jordan during either Bulls three-peat. The 1997-98 Pacers took the Bulls to a Game 7 and were ahead much of the game before losing on some Steve Kerr heroics.
This same Pacers team played quite well against MJ in the future. Indiana actually went 2-2 against the All-Time great 1995-96 Bulls, who went 72-10. Viewed another way, 20% of the Bulls’ losses were to this Pacers team. In 1996-97, the Pacers struggled with injuries and “Larry Brown Fatigue” (which is a very real thing) and the Bulls swept them 0-4 (the Pacers missed the playoffs that year). With Brown replaced by Larry Bird for 1997-98, Indiana was good again and the Bulls and Pacers split 2-2 again in the regular season. The Pacers nearly then won that playoff series (though Indiana’s three wins were by a total of seven points, and included a game winner where Reggie Miller blatantly pushed off).
-New York Knicks: The Knicks bruising squad took the Bulls to the brink a few times (other than the Pacers, the 1991-92 Knicks were the only other team to take the Bulls to a Game 7 during the three-peats). New York always played the Bulls tough in the regular season too. The Knicks core with Ewing and Pat Riley or his protégé Jeff Van Gundy (we’ll exclude the few games with Don Nelson) had the following records in the regular season by year against Chicago:
1991-92: 0-4 (but took Bulls seven games in the playoffs)
1992-93: 3-1 (lost 4-2 to the Bulls in the playoffs)
1995-96: 1-1 (lost 4-1 to the Bulls in the playoffs)
So, the Knicks always gave the Bulls a pretty tough time. Alas, they lacked a really dangerous point guard or natural perimeter scorer like Indiana had in Miller. Also, the 1993-94 Knicks were pretty good team but didn’t exactly blow away the Jordan-less Bulls in the playoffs (as detailed above).
-Houston Rockets: There were plenty of good teams in the Western Conference in the 1990s but if we are to assume 1993-94 was replayed with Jordan on the Bulls, we’ll also assume that the same team won the Western Conference. The Rockets were built similarly to the Pacers and Knicks but had a better center (Hakeem Olajuwon) and pretty good point guard in Sam Cassell (he was only a rookie but played well and was instrumental in beating the Knicks in the Finals).
Because they were in different conferences, the Bulls and Rockets didn’t play more than twice per year. In addition, the Rockets weren’t always great in the late 1980s and early 1990s (they turned the corner when they drafted Robert Horry in 1992-93 and became a title contender again that season). Still, I thought it would be interesting to see how the MJ did versus Olajuwon head-to-head over the years:
-1984-85: Rockets 2-0
-1985-86: N/A (Jordan Injured)
-1986-87: Rockets 2-0
-1987-88: Rockets 0-2
-1990-91: Rockets 2-0
-1992-93: Rockets 2-0
-1993-94: N/A (Jordan retired)
-1994-95: N/A (Jordan retired until after they played Houston)
-1995-96: Rockets 0-2
-1997-98: Rockets 0-1 (Olajuwon missed the other game with injury)
So, Hakeem is 12-9 in his career against Jordan. This is not a large sample size and the teams did not peak simultaneously (beating the Bulls in the mid-1980s was not nearly as an impressive as beating them after 1988). Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the good Olajuwon teams gave the peak Bulls pretty good competition.
Given the toll of going deep into the playoffs for three straight years and the demonstrable downward trend in the team performances, it seems more likely than not that the Bulls would’ve finally been tripped up in the 1993-94 playoffs. Of this group of possible contenders, we rank the likely team to the beat the Bulls in reverse order:
3. Knicks: A great team and a tough team but, other than Ewing, they just didn’t have enough other pieces to beat the Bulls. The lack of athleticism elsewhere was too glaring and Jordan was always able to find that extra gear to beat them. The 1993-94 Knicks might’ve beaten the Bulls but they are least likely of the three teams. Off the cuff/unscientific odds of beating 1993-94 MJ Bulls: 45%.
2. Pacers: The Pacers pieces seem to fit better against the Bulls. Reggie Miller wasn’t better than Jordan but could certainly play him to a standstill at times. Smits wasn’t as good as Ewing but good enough to be a tough matchup for the Bulls plodding centers. Lastly, the Pacers matched up better against Pippen because they played an actual small forward (Derrick McKey) while the Knicks attempted to play power forward-types all the time. The Pacers were also good enough to beat the 1995-96 Bulls twice and nearly beat the 1997-98 team. Off the cuff/unscientific odds of beating 1993-94 MJ Bulls: 50%.
1. Rockets: The Rockets were a better version of the previous teams. They had the best center of era in Hakeem, they had an athletic point in Cassell, and an athletic versatile small forward defender to counter Pippen (Horry). The one thing they lacked was the volume scorer like Miller. The Rockets two guard was volume shooter in Vernon Maxwell (but he was very much not a volume scorer). This combination of player plus Olajuwon’s demonstrated history of being competitive against the Bulls, and the negative inertia of the Bulls attempt at a four-peat, indicate that the Rockets likely would’ve beaten them. Off the cuff/unscientific odds of beating 1993-94 MJ Bulls: 55%.
This is not to say that the Bulls would not have repeated or that the 1993-94 Rockets were better than most Bulls teams, but sometimes, timing matters. If the Bulls did somehow win in 1993-94 after a brutal playoff run, I assume they would’ve run out of gas in 1994-95. The Knicks and Pacers were still really good, and the Shaquille O’Neal Orlando Magic were at its peak (they did actually beat a rusty MJ in the playoffs anyway). If the Bulls did run this gauntlet, the Rockets would’ve been waiting for them again. This all would’ve been glorious to see but all we can do now is speculate in our heads.