MJ and the Pre-Pippen Bulls

With no new basketball to watch, the new ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” has brought a lot of attention, again, on the Michael Jordan Bulls.  The documentary is ostensibly about the 1997-98 Bulls and Michael Jordan’s final title run that ended with an amazing shot over Bryon Russell and a clutch strip of Karl Malone to cinch the game.  (It will probably focus less on that one playoff game where B.J. Armstrong and Dell Curry lit the Bulls up).  So far, the documentary is not making assumptions that the viewer would be familiar with MJ’s background in this 10-part epic.

The first two parts that have been aired to date have focused on MJ’s early years with a bad Bulls team and how the organization was ultimately able to build a team around Jordan.  From what I’ve seen so far, the the documentary has been entertaining but breaks no new ground information-wise.  In fact, nearly everything I’ve seen has been documented years ago by Sam Smith and Roland Lazenby in their comprehensive books on the MJ Bulls (there were a bunch of other books also written that were of varying utility).  The documentary definitely still has value.  The Bulls’ run is now morphing from recent past to more distant past and there are new generations of fans who did not see this happen live.  It also, for the first time, catches the principals talking on camera about these events, which is fun too. 

Having said all that, television/video, as a medium, rarely can dive as deeply as books/writing.  With that in my mind, I thought we could go back and take another look at the pre-Pippen Bulls and add a little more detail to those seasons…

Bulls Pre-MJ

The 1983-84 Bulls were 27-55 and had the second worst record in the NBA.  By point differential and SRS, though, the Bulls were the worst.  The team was filled with guys who could put up points like Orlando Woolridge, Quintin Dailey, and Mitchell Wiggins but were known as erratic (both on and off the court) and not great at passing or defense.  Despite having these gunners, the Bulls were fairly decent on defense (10th out of 23 teams) and horrid on offense (22nd).  The advanced stats strongly credit journeyman center Dave Corzine and David Greenwood for the passable deense.

Drafting MJ

This was a terrible team and it needed help.  1984 was the last draft that the NBA held before the lottery system was instituted.  Instead, the “lottery” was a coin flip between the worst team in the west (Houston) and the worst in the east (Indiana, which had actually traded the pick to the Blazers for the rights to Tom Owens back in 1981). 

The well-known story is that Hakeem Olajuwon was the clear top pick but the Blazers took injury-prone Sam Bowie over MJ.   The Blazers were 48-34 (second best team in the west) and felt they needed a center to overtake the Lakers (and they already had a bunch of wingmen, including a young Clyde Drexler).  They took Bowie, who was never healthy and Portland infamously missed the shot at Jordan.  This was obviously the wrong decision but let’s pause for a moment and consider that no one ever gives the Pacers crap for trading an unprotected pick in 1981 to Portland for a 32-year old Owens (who had two years left in his career).

As for the merits of Portland’s decision, we did an extended look at this issue a few years ago.  The short answer was that MJ’s college stats were nice but not otherworldly, while Bowie’s stats did not show the same dominance of other contemporary centers, particularly after breaking his foot in college.  Portland should have seen Bowie had an issue but there was no way to know Jordan would be anywhere near as good as he was.

Would the Bulls have taken Bowie second? 

This left the Bulls with the third pick in the draft to take whomever Portland passed on.  The question we all want to know is whether the Bulls would have taken Bowie over MJ too.  Rod Thorn has always maintained Jordan was his pick over Bowie and that he would’ve taken Hakeem over both of them.  But would Thorn admit it if he had preferred to take Bowie?  Who among us would admit that we would’ve whiffed on the best player ever?  I did some searches of the contemporary reporting to see if we could glean any evidence as to which way Thorn was leaning and found three reports:

-Sam Goldaper of The New York Times indicated that Bowie was obviously going to the Blazers:  “[t]he next two, and possibly three picks, will provide little mystery. The Portland Trail Blazers are expected to use the second choice for 7-1 Sam Bowie of Kentucky, and the Chicago Bulls will follow by selecting 6-6 Michael Jordan of North Carolina. The pro scouts have tabbed Jordan, the college player of the year, ‘’a certainty to become a superstar.’”  Goldaper does not comment on the wisdom of taking Bowie over Jordan, only that it was a forgone conclusion.

-David Dupree of the Washington Post wrote that it was clear the Blazers were taking Bowie and that: “[t]he addition of [Kiki] Vandweghe and Bowie could make Portland, already one of the top teams, one of the most improved next season.”  As for MJ, Dupree called him “a dynamic junior who some say is the second coming of Julius Erving…”  The Bulls already told Dupree they were taking MJ: “Chicago Bulls Coach Kevin Loughery said he will use the third pick to take Jordan, a 6-6 swing man. ‘How can you not take a Michael Jordan?’ he said.”

So, it seemed Thorn didn’t even get the opportunity to contemplate the issue, since Bowie would be gone before they could pick.  But wait.  There was one more article I found that suggests Thorn might’ve taken Bowie.  Right after the draft, Bernie Lincicome of the Chicago Tribune wrote a snarky article about the Bulls disappointment in getting MJ: “[t] hey tried to avoid Jordan, tried hard. But nobody wanted to trade with them, swap some big fossil of a center for the third pick in the draft. It was like they were under quarantine or something. So, they were forced to do the intelligent thing Tuesday.” 

Lincicome did quote Thorn as saying: “[i]f we had our choice between Bowie and Jordan, we would still have taken Jordan.  But Olajuwon was the big prize.”  Lincicome doesn’t seem to be buying this spin and also quotes Thorn as saying that MJ is “a very good offensive player, but not an overpowering offensive player.”  More tellingly, Thorn said “[w]e wish [Jordan] were seven feet, be he isn’t.  There just wasn’t a center available. What can you do?”

It seems unfair to try to say Thorn would’ve missed on Jordan.  His direct statements from June 1984 were mostly consistent with what he told reporters over the last 35+ years but his other comments from 1984 make clear that he wanted a good center and that he did not regard MJ as a superstar, for whatever that’s worth.

MJ Bulls: 1984-86

That Coke Party?

One of the notable moments from the documentary is Jordan laughing about an incident when he was a rookie where he went to a teammate’s party in a hotel room and seeing most of the team and tons of drugs.  MJ left immediately.  Sam Smith actually covered this incident in “The Jordan Rules,” noting that MJ was hyperaware that drug abuse had hurt the careers of other stars from North Carolina, David Thompson and Walter Davis, and that Jordan knew to stay away from this lifestyle.

Smith quoted Jordan about his first Bulls team: “I’ve always said, the best talent I ever played with was my first year with the Bulls.  But I call them ‘the Looney Tunes.’  Physically, they were the best.  Mentally, they weren’t even close.”  (MJ’s assessment on the talent part was probably overly generous but they did have a few scorers). 

As for the infamous party, Smith tells the story: “[Jordan] popped into a teammate’s room and saw loads of white stuff that definitely wasn’t baby powder.  Two of his teammates, Quintin Dailey and Orlando Woolridge, would eventually go into drug rehabilitation, and others like Steve Johnson, Jawann Oldham, Sidney Green, and Ennis Whatley would fade into lesser roles.  Actually, the dismantling of that team when [Jerry] Reinsdorf took over became general manager [Jerry] Krause’s greatest achievement.  He liked to call it ‘addition by subtraction’ combined with the search for ‘OKPs’ (our kind of people).”

Jordan: Rookie of the Year

In 1984-85, Jordan was an immediate star.  The Bulls beat the Bullets in the debut, though MJ shot poorly (5-16) but racked up six boards, seven assists, and four blocks.  By this third game, MJ scored 37 points and broke out with 45 points against the Spurs in the ninth game of the season.  MJ would score 40+ points seven times that year.  The Bulls jumped to 38-44 and greatly improved on offense (11th), though defense fell to 20th.  The Bulls made the playoffs and looked like an interesting team.  MJ would win the Rookie of the Year unanimously over Hakeem.  Did MJ deserve the award or did he get it because he blew away expectations?  Let’s run the tale of the tape against Olajuwon:

-Jordan: 38.3 mpg, 28.2 ppg, .592 TS%, 6.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.4 spg, 0.8 bpg, 25.8 PER, 14.0 WS, .213 WS/48, 7.3 BPM, 7.4 VORP

-Hakeem: 35.5 mpg, 20.6 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.2 spg, 2.7 bpg, 21.1 PER, 10.2 WS, .168 WS/48, 2.1 BPM, 3.0 VORP

Yup, Jordan blew away The Dream that year. 

1985-86:  The Broken Foot

The Bulls looked poised to be a decent playoff team in MJ’s second year.  They had gotten Charles Oakley in the draft and MJ was likely to improve.  The Bulls started off 3-0 but Jordan broke his foot in the third game of the season.  He was supposed to be out for the season but worked hard to get back for end of the season, against the wishes of management.  The Bulls had gone 21-43 and looked like they were going nowhere, so why risk Jordan?  Only MJ never rolled that way.  The Bulls were on the edge of the playoff race (because the competition for the eight seed was so terrible that year).  On March 15, 1986, Jordan returned.  The Bulls played Jordan only about 15 minutes per night for the first six games of his return.  The Bulls lost all six of those games and MJ played poorly (relatively speaking) as well.  He shot a woeful .348 FG% but still managed 13.8 ppg on 13.2 attempts. 

The Bulls unshackled Jordan for the final 10 games of the season and he scored 26.5 ppg in 27.9 mpg, and shot .495 FG%.  The Bulls went 6-4 over that span to eke into the playoffs.  The Bulls somehow made the playoffs at 30-52 and a -3.12 SRS.  On paper, this might be the worst playoff team ever.  In reality, the Bulls were 9-4 in games where Jordan was playing full minutes.  In the playoffs, the Bulls were swept 3-0 by the great Larry Bird Celtics, even though he scored 49 and 63 points in the first two games in Boston.   MJ only shot 18 shots in the last game in Chicago and got to the line three times, though he did nearly put up a triple-double (19 pts, 10 rebs, 9 assists).  I’m guessing he ran out of gas a bit by the end of that series.

After the season, the Bulls hired Doug Collins and they started to improve steadily before he was fired for Phil Jackson.  The firing of Collins is a whole other story that we looked at here.

Iceman Briefly Cometh

Can you name the first Hall of Famer to ever play with MJ on the Bulls?  No….not Mike Smrek.  By the time he got to the Bulls, George Gervin wasn’t a star anymore but, technically, the first Hall of Famer that MJ played with in the pros was Gervin.  The Iceman was a prolific scorer in the 1970s and early 1980s.  He never played defense in the best of times and now he was 33 and was slated for a new contract.  The Bulls traded a relatively good player for Gervin in Greenwood.  It wasn’t clear what Gervin would do with MJ, Woolridge, and Dailey in the fold but the Bulls took a shot that might still have star ability.

On top of his age, MJ and Gervin had a pre-existing beef.  Jordan felt he was frozen out by teammate Isiah Thomas in the 1984-85 All-Star Game and that Magic Johnson and Gervin had gone out of their way to make Jordan look bad.  MJ had a bad game (2-9 from the field) and Gervin scored 23 and made MJ look bad occasionally.  After the game, the Washington Post noted that “Jordan was repeatedly burned by George Gervin” and the article noted that Jordan admitted being nervous (gasp!).

After the game, Gervin talked about Jordan’s poor play: “[w]hen Gervin was told of Jordan’s nervousness, he smiled. Gervin is 32 years old and has been in 13 of these things counting his ABA days; Jordan is 21. ‘I was nervous my first time,’ the one they call the Iceman said. ‘Very definitely I was. Cause we’re human, you know?’ Gervin rolled the collar of his fine suit and said, ‘If I were to talk to Michael about it, I’d say, ‘I expected you to be nervous, because you are a rookie. But don’t worry about it. Because you are doing very well in this league. You are doing very well.’ “

Sounds pretty nice and a humane sentiment from Gervin.  Jordan, though, was just pissed off he was outplayed.  When Gervin was brought to town a few months later, Jordan was still annoyed by Gervin’s presence, telling reporters: “I have no comment on the trade.  Just say I am unhappy.” 

Gervin gave an excellent interview to The Post Game in 2017 in which he talked about his time with the Bulls.  He described Jordan as follows: “[t]he son of a bitch is crazy. He played just as hard at practice as he did in the game. I’ll never forget it, I’m at practice with him one time, I’m lackadaisical going through it and stuff. I say, ‘Dang, young fella.’  He said, ‘Hey, old man, go sit down over there.’ I sat down. I was done. He helped me understand I was done. You’ve only got so long to be on top. I was on top for about 12 years. You only have your turn. My turn was pretty much up. I retired after that.”

As for the All-Star game, Gervin said: “How could I freeze him out when I was guarding him?….I was trying to wear him out.  He was a rookie.  We were in the locker room. I’ll never forget, before the game. All the press came in front of me and they said, ‘How’s it gonna be playing against Michael?’ I said, ‘You talking to the wrong guy.’ I said, ‘You better go over and ask Mike how it’s gonna be playing against Ice.’ They got up and went over and told Mike. I meant it from my heart. You kidding me, man? You talking to Ice. You better go over there and ask that rookie how it’s like playing against Ice. I like having fun with media.”

The difference was Gervin was never the assassin that MJ was.   Gervin was just a good scorer and a genial guy.  Jordan probably is still pissed off today about the 1985 All-Star game.   In any event, Gervin overstated that MJ ran him into retirement.  In fact, Gervin had to absorb most of Jordan’s minutes when MJ broke his foot.

In those first three games before Jordan was hurt, Gervin played 15.3 mpg and scored 6.7 ppg.  Without MJ (and Dailey in rehab), Gervin had unfettered minutes and shots and even scored 45 points in a game against Dallas but the minutes disappeared again when Jordan returned.  Here’s Gervin’s stats during each of these three stages of the 1985-86 season:

-First three games with MJ: 15.3 mpg, 3.0 FG, 8.7 FGA, .346 FG%, 1.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 6.7 ppg

-64 games with no MJ: 27.2 mpg, 6.9 FG, 14.5 FGA, .477 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 17.8 ppg

-After MJ’s return: 18.7 mpg, 4.5 FG, 9.8 FGA, .463 FG%, 1.9 rpg, 0.9 apg, 11.1 ppg

Gervin scored fairly well, but did little else, when he got to start.  His total advanced stats for the season: 16.0 PER, 3.0 WS, .069 WS/48, -2.1 BPM, 0.0 VORP.  The stats showed him as still slightly above average offensively but the defense was putrid (-2.6 DBPM).  Gervin played only 11 minutes in two playoff games against the Celtics (he racked up a DNP in the other game) and never played another NBA season.  He then went over to Europe and played pretty well and even attempted a comeback in the CBA in 1989. As for his relationship with MJ, it was strong enough for Jordan to interview him reverentially in 1988.  Goes to show you few things are as simple as we remember them.

Post-Script on the Looney Tunes

Smith not so subtly identified certain players being part of the infamous party in 1984.  Here’s how they ended up:

-Quintin Dailey:  Dailey signed with the Clippers in 1986 and remained a decent offensive player off-the-bench before retiring in 1992.  After the 1986 rehab stint, he never had another public drug incident.  He passed away of a heart attack in 2010 at age-49 (at which time we reviewed his complicated reputation).  When Dailey died, Smith wrote a nice obituary about Dailey and explained that Dailey had been clean for over 20 years and was working as a supervisor at a community center in Las Vegas.   Smith did note that Dailey always lamented that he could never shake his reputation from his youth.

-Orlando Woolridge:  Woolridge was a legit scorer and was signed as a free agent by the Nets in 1986-87, where he continued to put 20 ppg seasons.  Alas, Woolridge also had a serious drug problem.  The Nets put him in rehab in 1988 and he came back mostly as a designated scorer for several teams until leaving the NBA in 1994 at age-34, without any further public drug issues.  Thanks to Paul Westhead’s crazy system, Woolridge even had his highest scoring season post-rehab for the Nuggets in 1990-91 (25.1 ppg).  Woolridge went to been a WNBA assistant coach but then began having health problems (heart attacks and strokes) and passed away at age-52 in 2012.  He expressed regrets about how his career turned out, though, he was a solid enough player and wasn’t any worse player after his rehab stint. 

-Steve Johnson:  Other than his name being mentioned in “The Jordan Rules,” there is not a hint of problems with Johnson, who had a nice career as a high-efficiency/dunking center for Portland.   He retired in 1990-91 and seems to be in private business and is an active member of the NBA Retired Players Association.

-Jawann Oldham:  Oldham had a solid career as a backup center and is best remembered for a crazy fight he got into with Manute Bol.  Oldham bounced around before retiring in 1991.

-Sidney Green:  Green was a solid backup power forward with the Piston, Knicks, and Magic.   He retired in 1993 and went into college coaching in 1995.  After ten years of coaching, he moved into community relations for the Bulls.

-Ennis Whatley:  Whatley confirmed that he dabbled with drugs while on the Bulls.  Whatley went into rehab and became a Born-Again Christian.  In 1992, Whatley told the Chicago Tribune that he had been clean since 1986.  Whatley ended up playing in the NBA as a hustling backup point guard through 1996-97 (with some CBA and foreign stops sprinkled in).  He currently works as a public speaker talking about his life experiences.