Wrapping Up MJ’s Last Dance

Have we discussed Michael Jordan enough?  Subjectively, it certainly feels like a resounding “yes.”  So far, we’ve dug into a bunch of MJ issues over the years:

Sam Bowie v. MJ

The colorful, but bad, early MJ Bulls

The MJ and Isiah Feud

Doug Collins’ firing

Craig Hodges’ attempts to get MJ to be more socially active

Would MJ have won in 1993-94?

 –Jordan’s time with the Wizards

MJ v. the LBJ Heat

MJ v. the Curry Warriors

Still, there are a ton of things we can discuss, even if they are a bit more obscure.  For example, maybe we can investigate whether Will Perdue felt his title with the Spurs in 1998-99 felt less satisfying without being perpetually insulted by Tim Duncan.  For now, we can take time to deal with some of the miscellany from the conclusion of “The Last Dance” that people have been discussing and we haven’t previously examined. 

Doug Collins v. Phil Jackson

Jackson was a great coach with a lot of strengths.  He has always touted the Triangle Offense as one of the factors that made the Bulls better.  Jackson’s theory was that it created better ball movement and made the supporting players better.  Collins’ offense leaned too heavily on MJ but was the Triangle a huge factor in getting to a title?  Let’s look at Bulls yearly rankings on offense and defense:

-1986-87: Off. Rating, 12th, Def. Rating 11th (Collins’ first season)

-1987-88: Off. Rating, 9th, Def. Rating 3rd

-1988-89: Off. Rating, 12th, Def. Rating 11th (Collins’ last season)

-1989-90: Off. Rating 5th, Def. Rating 19th (Jackson’s first season)

-1990-91: Off. Rating 1st, Def. Rating 7th (Bulls’ win first title)

Jackson’s offense was much better than Collins’ from the prior two seasons (though the defense somehow regressed).  Everything clicked in 1990-91.  Was this the Triangle Offense jelling?  Perhaps.  Another way to look at it to see if MJ’s shots actually declined from Collins to Phil.  Check MJ’s usage numbers from his time with Collins versus with Jackson:

Under Collins

-1986-87: 38.3 (led league)

-1987-88: 34.1

-1988-89: 32.1 (lead league)

Under Jackson

-1989-90:  33.7 (led league)

-1990-91:  32.9

-1991-92:  31.7 (led league)

-1992-93:  34.7 (led league)

-1995-96: 33.3 (led league)

-1996-97: 33.2 (led league)

-1997-98: 33.7 (led league)

The Triangle didn’t exactly limit Jordan’s usage.  MJ’s usage did dip slightly for the first two title teams but Jordan shot plenty under Jackson.  It seems the offense did improve but the offensive improvement buries the lede…namely that Jackson moved the defense to the next level and helped develop Scottie Pippen into a star (these facts are obviously related).  Check the jump that Pippen made in Jackson’s first two seasons:

-1989-90: 38.4 mpg, 6.7 rpg, 5.4 apg, 16.5 ppg, 16.3 PER, 5.7 WS, .087 WS/48, 1.8 BPM, 3.0 VORP

-1990-91: 36.8 mpg, 7.3 rpg, 6.2 apg, 17.9 ppg, 20.6 PER, 11.2 WS, .179 WS/48, 5.8 BPM, 5.9 VORP

Pippen had improved a bit in 1989-90 but the leap in 1990-91 cannot be attributed solely to the change in offense.  Jackson’s presence probably was a factor in this improvement.  On the other hand, Pippen was turning 25 in 1990-91 and had steadily improved every year before.  It is possible that the same arc of development could have occurred with Collins but the evidence is clear that Jackson tended to have a better relationship with younger developing stars than Collins ever did.  Collins was a pretty good coach and would’ve won a title if he had stayed but Jackson was an upgrade. 

It is fair to question whether Collins’ temperament (very high strung) could’ve made it through some of the pressures that the more laid back Jackson did.  Jackson’s greatest coaching performance shows the difference between the two.  When Scottie Pippen refused to enter the end of a playoff game in 1993-94, Jackson could’ve written him off as a selfish bretayer.  Instead, Jackson rallied around Pippen and got him playing well the next day.  In that same situation, Collins would likely have been unable to move past Pippen’s clearly bad decision.  Just ask Otis Thorpe.  Therein lies the difference.  Jackson was detached enough to manage stars through the long haul.  That was his best asset and likely helped Pippen continue to develop into the second star Jordan needed.

Pippen’s Contract

The initial conflict of the documentary was Pippen’s decision to get surgery at the start of the 1997-98 season, instead of in the summer before.  Pippen waited to get the surgery because he was angry at the organization for not extending his expiring contract.  Pippen’s beef with management was more complex than merely not getting the extension and a little background is in order. 

Pippen had signed a long term deal in 1991 right after winning the first title.  The 1991 contract also came after an acrimonious negotiation.  This was, in part, due to the Bulls’ style of contract negotiation.   As Sam Smith wrote in “The Jordan Rules,” GM Jerry Krause would “offer ridiculously low contracts just to make [players] fume….Krause would compare a player unfavorably with others around the league and tell him the Bulls fully intended to enforce his contract.  There was no bargaining with Krause.”  Thereafter, owner Jerry Reinsdorf would come to the negotiations as the good cop and deals would be made. 

In the summer of 1990, Pippen was frustrated and wanted a new contract (he made about $750,000 per year on his rookie contract that was in place through the 1992-93 season).  Krause had already given Pippen a hard time.  Jack McCallum wrote in “Dream Team,” that Krause “went so far as to not extend Pippen’s contract because he wanted to save money to offer $3.7 million to [1990 European draft pick Toni] Kukoc….You must understand this about the NBA: You can insult a player, even insinuate that someone is better than him, and maybe throw an insult about his mama.  But when you mess with a man’s wallet, you’re asking for serious trouble.”

Pippen told Reinsdorf he was done dealing with Krause and Pipp threatened to hold out for a new contract.  Smith wrote that “Reinsdorf was stunned….[Pippen] was under contract.  He’d be taken care of, but he had to be there.  It was an obligation.  This was a contract, for God’s sake.  You live up to contracts.  That’s the way it was.  Pippen said it was a bad contract and he had no intention of honoring it.”

In the end, Pippen’s agent convinced him that it would be a bad move to hold out, particularly since his last game was the Migraine Game where Pippen had played poorly.  Pippen had a great season and was finally offered a five-year $18 million extension.  At the time of the extension, things seemed fine.  Pippen told the UPI: “it makes me feel great that Bulls management was so gracious and felt I deserved the contract I now have.”  The deal then became almost instantly obsolete with the growing NBA revenues. 

In “Blood on the Horns,” Roland Lazenby wrote that “Pippen made the egregious error of signing a long-term contract with the team, despite being cautioned against such a move even by team officials.”  Why did Pippen take a deal that was likely to be below market quickly?  Smith wrote that “Pippen remained deathly afraid of dying young, as his father had just a year ago, or being crippled like his brother.  He played with a constant fear of a crippling injury.”  This led to Pippen taking a deal that aged poorly.  By 1997-98, Pippen was the sixth highest paid player ($2.75 million) on the team behind Kukoc, Ron Harper, and Luc Longley.

Some blame for this situation falls to Pippen himself.  Take, as a contrast, Pippen’s teammate and fellow 1987 draftee Horace Grant.  Grant also was peeved by the Bulls’ overly aggressive negotiations.  They shared an agent but Grant’s decisions worked out a bit better.  Instead of taking a long deal, Grant took a shorter three-year $6 million deal, which permitted him to hit the free agent market at age-29 in 1994. 

In the summer of 1994, Grant signed a short term deal with the Magic (which was designed to circumvent the cap), with an opt out.  In the end, Grant was rewarded with a five-year $50 million deal in 1996.  According to Basketball-Reference.com, Grant made about $48.4 million over that date (or about $8 million per season from 1994-95 through 2000-01).

Pippen had to wait until 1998-99 to get a huge deal from the Rockets (5 years and $67.2 million).  If Pippen had gone the Grant route and took only a three-year deal, he would’ve been a free agent in 1995ish.  The top free agents, A.C. Green and Danny Manning were landing deals of over $6 million per season.  Pippen was better than both of them and probably would’ve gotten $7 to 8 million on the open market for as many years as he wanted (if he returned to the Bulls, they could’ve exceeded that number to keep him but they didn’t typically roll that way). 

Likely, this hypothetical mid-1990s contract would’ve allowed Pippen to hit the market in the late 1990s when the markets exploded and he would’ve gotten a similar deal to the one that the Rockets gave him. In other words, Pippen’s desire for an early long-term extension cost him about $30 million.  Granted, it is hard to turn down $18 million but Pippen should’ve looked inward a bit when lamenting his bad deal.

This is not to absolve the Bulls of creating an environment where they could lose players because the negotiation process was needlessly toxic.  Reinsdorf ran the Bulls like a local mom-and-pop business and fought (through his proxy Krause) with his best players.  It’s fine to let Krause play bad cop but there is a cost to being too hard ass in a business where there are a finite number of All-Star players. 

The weird post-script to the story is that the Bull re-signed Pippen at age-38 in 2003 for two years and over $10 million.  Pippen played only 23 games due to injuries and the Bulls did not get their monies worth that time.

MJ’s Contract

The less reported story was that Jordan also signed a below market with the Bulls and his dealings with the Bulls were a bit less contentious.  In 1988, MJ signed an eight-year, $28 million deal.  The deal made him the highest paid player in the NBA and locked him in through 1995-96.  Jordan’s contract was a vestige of the prior era where the NBA was a tenuous business and the only way to protect the stars was to give them very long deals.  In “Playing for Keeps,” David Halberstam wrote about the extension that Reinsdorf “told friends he was scared—had he paid too much and for too long a period?….He remembered telling Jordan at the time that if he was a player he would have serious reservations about signing on for so many years.  But Jordan seemed to want the contract and he gave Reinsdorf his word that he would never come back and try a renegotiation, a promise he kept.”

The deal also became obsolete quickly.  In 1990-91, Jordan was eighth in the NBA in salary (tied with Robert Parish and just below Danny Ferry).  By the last year of that deal, Jordan made $3.85 million and was 32nd in the NBA in salary, just above Chris Dudley and just below Kenny Anderson.

Reinsdorf recognized this was a bit crazy.  Halberstam reported that when Jordan first retired to play baseball, Reinsdorf told MJ that “’[e]ven I have to admit I had too good a deal, ’and suggested paying him for the year he was in baseball.   (Later that day, Jordan called [his agent] David Falk and told him, ‘I just made four million dollars.’)  In Reinsdorf’s mind, it was something he owed Jordan.”

Jordan was making much more in endorsements than salary anyway but his relationship with Reinsdorf was better than Pippen’s.  Nevertheless, after 1995-96, Jordan kept signing one-year deals to return and he was not bound by the salary cap.  Reinsdorf gave him an astounding $30.1 million for the 1996-97 season and $33.1 million for the “Last Dance” season.  MJ’s final salary would have placed him tenth in NBA in salary in 2019-20.  Adjusting that salary for inflation, MJ’s last year with the Bulls clocks in at about $52 million in today’s dollars. 

Why break up the dynasty?

The prevailing theory was that Krause was pumped up to show people he could build a title team without Jordan, who always mocked the short, frumpy GM.  But it was clear from looking at the contract history detailed above that the issue was money.  Reinsdorf was required to commit huge amounts of salary to aging players in Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, as well as Jackson.  Eventually, this would fall apart with age and Reinsdorf did not want a situation where he had a bloated payroll and a team that crumbled from cumulative age issues.

If Jordan was coming back for 1998-99, he would want a raise.  A new CBA was enacted before the 1998-99 season which would have limited MJ to a raise of “only” $34.65 million.  Considering the revenue MJ brought in, this doesn’t sound like a risky deal.  Jordan likely would’ve been able to play near his 1997-98 ability.  But there is a rising injury risk for an older player.  In addition, without Pippen (who was not coming back under any circumstances), the Bulls would not be a great team, which could affect ticket sales.

Realistically, the goodwill built up over the years would probably mean that, even if the Bulls tanked with MJ, they would’ve gotten sellouts in 1998-99. In fact, the Bulls were first in attendance without Jordan in 1998-99 anyway and a very bad team.  I guess Reinsdorf found the capital investment an annual rollercoaster that he no longer wanted to have to ride.  Ironically, within a few years, the Bulls would be begging middling players like Ron Mercer and Tim Thomas to take overpriced contracts.

It’s not clear the Bulls would’ve won another title but the East was still not great (the Pacers, Heat, and Knicks were good but clearly beatable) and, if the Bulls had the cojones, they could’ve pitched a partial rebuild to MJ.  Keep Jordan and bring in a good young free agent for him to hand off the reins to in a few years.  Reinsdorf claims that Jordan would only play for Jackson but it’s not clear that they really tested this theory out.  Yes, Pippen would be gone, as would Jackson, but Jordan might’ve seen some appeal to trying to win with a new case.  It’s not my money to spend but it would’ve been worth a shot. 

On Krause

Krause is a complicated figure.  He helped build a dynasty, drafting Pippen and Grant in 1987. He also would never get the credit for winning because Krause took over as GM after MJ was already on the roster.   Krause was easy to antagonize.  He was a short frumpy guy who had sharp personality edges.  He was also a good company man who was willing to take the “bad cop” anger of the players and fans.  

Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader, wrote a profile of Krause back in 1990 that perfectly articulated Krause’s tough lot: “It’s a strange thing, this vilification of Krause. You’d think the public would adore him. They make movies about his kind of rags-to-riches rise….And now, at age 51, Krause stands within reach of greatness. As the NBA playoffs approach, the Bulls have, for the first time in their history, a legitimate shot at the national title…. And no one gives Krause any credit. Instead, fans and writers take an almost malicious delight in knocking him. Mostly they knock him for drafting ‘lousy’ players. But they also knock his weight, his dress, his speech, his mannerisms, and his overall behavior.”

It’s sad to hear Krause’s response to Joravsky, which shows Krause’s continued torment at that time: “I’m a loner.  All those years on the road, I stayed to myself and didn’t make a lot of friends. I had a job to do. I can’t worry about what people say. People are fickle. When we’re winning, I’m skinny. People come up to me and say, ‘Jerry, you look good, you’re losing weight.’ But when we’re losing, I’m the ‘fat little son of a bitch.’ You know something? I weigh the same. I haven’t gone up or down six pounds in years.  That’s just the way people are. I can’t let it distract me from my goal, which is to win a ring.  It would mean something special to me to win a championship ring in this town. I grew up here. I have a father lying in a grave here; I want to win one for him. I want to win one for my wife and family; I want to win one for Karen Stack, my top assistant; I want to win one for all the people in the front office; I want to win one for Jerry Reinsdorf, who gave me a chance; I want to win one for all the old scouts who never got their chance.”

Krause would get several rings but was never able to connect with his players for reasons that he viewed as essential to his job.  This is why Krause was obsessed with rebuilding without Jordan to show people he was a great GM under any circumstances.  Besides Pippen and Grant, Krause did find Kukoc as an early Euro player, and Krause did a great job finding role players to fit in with MJ (Steve Kerr, Trent Tucker, Longley, Wennington, Bison Dele).

Alas, Krause had many whiffs during the Jordan years and in the post-MJ rebuild.  His notable miss in the MJ Years occurred in the 1989 Draft, when he took Stacey King sixth overall when there were a host of better players on the board (Nick Anderson from Illinois would’ve been a natural fit).  The other glaring miss was Krause’s failure to acquire a couple of good available vets in 1993-94.  Both Derek Harper and Jeff Hornacek were very good and very stuck on bad teams and the Bulls had below-replacement level Pete Myers playing major minutes.  Both Harper and Hornacek would’ve been natural fits and huge upgrades.

The Knicks snuck in and got Harper for very little and Harper hurt the Bulls in the playoffs that year.  Hornacek was a younger and better player than Harper and the 76ers were going nowhere.  Sam Smith wrote in “Second Coming,” about Krause’s failure to recognize this obvious move and that: “Jackson was at war with Krause over Hornacek….Jackson was serious about the Hornacek deal.  But Krause wasn’t about to relinquish the team’s first-round draft pick, which is what the Sixers wanted.  It was the philosophical chasm the two could never bridge.”

Utah ended up getting Hornacek for a first-rounder that was one pick before the Bulls’ pick (Krause used the pick on the immortal Dickey Simpkins).  Hornacek was excellent for Utah for the next nearly seven seasons.  The Bulls might’ve won another title in either 1993-94 or 1994-95 if they had had him. 

After the MJ years, Krause’s record was mixed.  Here’s a quick review at his drafts for that period:

-1999, Elton Brand and Ron Artest:  Double jackpot!  Artest was not easy to handle but he could really play.  Brand was the possibly best player in that draft.

-2000, Marcus Fizer and Jamal Crawford:  Fizer was a big miss, though there weren’t many great players in the draft.  It’s not clear why Krause took Fizer when a better scoring forward, Brand, was already on the team.  Crawford was (and may continue to be) a nice pro.

-2001, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry:  Chandler ended up being pretty good but Krause gave up Brand for him, which was a big overpay (on top of that, the Bulls should’ve drafted Pau Gasol over Chandler anyway).  Curry had some moments but was not a good pick.

-2002, Jay Williams:  We’ll never know how good Williams would end up being because he ruined his knee in a motorcycle crash after his rookie season. 

Not a bad record of drafting but, on the court, the Bulls were terrible and Krause flinched on the rebuild and, in mid-2002-03, traded Artest and Brad Miller (another good find) for Jalen Rose.  The trade was awful.  Rose was an aging scorer and Artest and Miller were developing into very good players.  Had Krause stuck with Brand, Artest, and Miller AND Williams didn’t get hurt, they might’ve had a good team.  But the Rose trade was surrender.  Krause was reassigned/retired at the end of the 2002-03 season and didn’t get that title he wanted without MJ.

Krause’s unpublished memoir was partially released yesterday to address some of the criticism he got that clearly bothered him.  Krause wrote that it stung that he was perceived as the guy who broke up the Bulls.  His response was that fans didn’t realize that MJ’s supporting parts were shot: “[c]an Michael continue his greatness without a center, power forward and possibly Pippen? Could Bill Russell, the greatest team player ever, have won without great players around him?”  Krause also noted that he did not tell the Suns that Luc Longley was aging rapidly and that the Bulls agreed to do a sign-and-trade to enable Pippen to get a bigger deal from the Rockets. 

These counterarguments strike me as weak.  Starting backwards, why would Krause tell the Suns that Longley was injured?  It would be weird to call up a rival and tell them not to sign a former player.  Who does that?  Even so, Longley was not shot.  Longley’s 1998-99 season in Phoenix was almost identical to his 1997-98 year with the Bulls.  He declined a bit and was injured in the final year of the deal in 2000-01.  But it’s hardly a secret that slow 32-year old centers are a bad investment.  As for Pippen, Krause received assets in the sign-and-trade.  Why wouldn’t he get assets for Pippen instead of losing him for nothing?  It’s nice that Krause wanted his ex-players to land well but this hardly seems magnanimous.

Tthe real question was breaking up the core.  Yes, Jordan needed good players around him but Longley, Steve Kerr, Jud Beuchler, and even, Rodman were fairly fungible.  Krause was very good at finding decently active bigs (Longley, Perdue, Wennington) and three-point shooters (John Paxson, Craig Hodges, Trent Tucker, Kerr, Beuchler) fairly easily.  Krause never addresses what we set forth above, whether they could replace Pippen and try to create a team with a new second star with MJ.

In the end, it doesn’t matter.  It wasn’t Krause’s call.  He was Reinsdorf’s representative and was a loyal company man.  It’s clear that Krause had a burning desire to prove that he could build a winner without Jordan but that’s a normal feeling.  What’s also clear is that Krause got a relatively short straw.  He was a good GM, with some limitations, but he got disproportionate blame for antagonizing Pippen and for breaking up the dynasty.  Reinsdorf could’ve controlled all the acrimony had he wanted to.

Would the Bulls have won again if everyone came back?

I won’t get into this too much and refer you to Kevin Pelton’s nice article on this point.  Short answer…probably not but they would’ve been in the mix.

Ranking the Bulls Rivals

A lot is made of how to compare the Bulls’ main rivals.  There is a circular argument to some of this with the Western foes in particular.  The Clyde Drexler Blazers beat up the Utah Jazz and Sonics who later tussled with the Bulls.  The Blazers, however, aged quickly but they were the first “best” Western team.  It’s fair to say that the teams are all pretty close and arguments can be made for each.

If you rank all NBA teams by SRS from 1990-91 to 1997-98, the Bulls have the top three teams and four of the top five (both the 1992-93 and 1997-98 Bulls, measured out much worse than prior editions, which supports Krause’s feeling that the teams might’ve been due to collapse in trying to four-peat).  Anyway, here is the SRS list of non-Bulls teams from that same time period that exceeded 6.5 during that time period:

-1993-94 Sonics, 8.68 (lost in first-round upset to Denver)

-1990-91 Blazers, 8.57 (lost in Conference Finals to the Lakers on a bad Cliff Robinson pass)

-1996-97 Jazz, 7.97 (lost to Bulls in Finals 4-2, but did have it tied 2-2)

-1994-95 Sonics 7.91 (lost in first round to Lakers)

-1994-95 Jazz 7.76 (lost in first round to Rockets, who eventually won it all)

-1995-96 Sonics 7.40 (lost to Bulls in Finals 4-2, were down 3-0)

-1991-92 Blazers 6.94 (lost to Bulls in Finals 4-2, blew 18-point lead in Game 6)

-1996-97 Sonics 6.91 (lost to Rockets 4-3 in second round)

-1997-98 Lakers 6.88 (lost to Jazz in Conference Finals)

-1990-91 Lakers 6.73 (lost to Bulls in Finals 4-1)

-1992-93 Sonics 6.66 (lost in Conference Finals)

Interestingly, some of Jordan’s more noted rivals (Knicks, Suns, Pacers) were not on the list.  They were not far off but not quite as good:

-1992-93 Suns 6.27

-1997-98 Pacers 6.25

-1992-93 Knicks 6.19 (the 1993-94 Knicks were actually better 6.48)

(The best Rockets team, 1993-94, had only a 4.19 SRS)

The SRS differences are not huge between these teams but Seattle and Utah were consistently better teams than the other rivals.  The Knicks, Suns, and Pacers happened to play the two worst Bulls teams of the six, which may have made them look more impressive in the playoffs than they actually were. 

If forced to choose the best non-Bulls team, I would go with the early 90s Blazers.  Because the Blazers’ peak lasted only a few years, it’s forgotten that they played the Bulls very tough (and they beat Utah and Seattle).  Yes, MJ was clearly better than Drexler but Drexler was really good.  The great forgotten hypothetical would’ve been if the Blazers had convinced Arvydas Sabonis to come over to Portland earlier.  Replacing the limited Kevin Duckworth with Sabonis probably would’ve gotten Portland a title or two.

Summing Up MJ

Let’s end this by trying to briefly answer the obvious questions about Jordan…

-How would MJ play today?

I’ve seen two disparate thoughts.  Some think that Jordan would score 45 a game today, while some question his effectiveness since his three-point shooting was not quite up to current standards of great players.  MJ would be great today, even if his three-point shot was just okay.  Of course, he would not score 45 points per game.  Defenses today do not allow hand checking but they are still pretty good, and probably better than the average defense MJ faced in the 1980s (it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that more teams began to emulate the Pistons’ tougher style).  I figure MJ would play pretty similarly if magically transported into the 2020 NBA but he would step up his three-point shot a bit.

-MJ or LeBron?

I hate this question because comparing players requires us to define terms.  Career value?  Peak value?  Value relative to one’s league?  What rules are we playing under?  Who would win one-on-one?  Who would I want to start a franchise with?  It’s pretty useless to argue unless we are all speaking the same language.

Having said all that, it’s hard to think anyone was better than peak MJ.  LeBron James has a pretty good argument and will likely have better career stats but if forced to choose between the two in the abstract, I would go with Jordan.  His will to win was nuts.

-Was Jordan a good person?

He was definitely a tough person but, relative to most global icons, he comes across as thoughtful, tethered to reality, and a person with meaningful relationships with real people.  So, in context, he seems a likable person and a person of some substance.  Of course, I wouldn’t not call him “nice.”