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The Bulls Dynasty (1990-1998)

Bulls Dynasty Part I - (1990-1993)

The Chicago Bulls finally broke through in the 1990-91 season. For years, the Bulls were always beaten up in the Eastern Conference playoffs by the Boston Celtics or Detroit Pistons who had physical teams to intimidate Michael Jordan and his teammates. At this time, there was probably no player more celebrated for individual talent then G-Michael "Air" Jordan. He had was undoubtedly a scoring machine, but had been dogged with a reputation of being a ballhog, whose individual accomplishments wouldn’t transfer to wins in big games. He was well aware that no team with the league-scoring champion had won the NBA title since C-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title way back in 1971.

The Bulls (61-21) were the class of the East this season with a conference-leading 61 wins, and in the playoffs were on a collision course with the 2-time defending champions, the Detroit Pistons (50-32). In the Eastern Conference Final, many people were stunned at how easily Chicago dismantled the Piston team, defeating them in four straight games. The Bulls, and Michael Jordan, had finally reached the NBA Finals for the first time.

In the Western Conference, the Portland Trailblazers were looking to return back to the NBA Finals following their disappointing defeat to the Pistons last season. The Trailblazers (63-19) had the best record in the league and were the favorites to win the title this season. The Los Angeles Lakers (58-24) would have to say about that. The Lakers still had the core of the team with G-Magic Johnson, G-Byron Scott, and F-James Worthy, but under new rookie head coach, Mike Dunleavy, had changed their game to be more defense-orientated from the run-and-gun Showtime offensive game. The Lakers and Trailblazers met in the Western Conference Finals with the Lakers upsetting the Blazers in six games.

The 1991 NBA Finals was billed as a matchup between two larger-than-life superstars, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. But the series showed that the deeper Bulls team was more superior. The Bull’s patented defense, which was often overshadowed by the presence of the high-scoring Jordan, held the Lakers in check. Jordan and Pippen played suffocating defense on Johnson who was the engine of the Laker team, to win the NBA title in five games. Jordan was magnificent in the series averaging 31.2 points, 11.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He was awarded the NBA Finals MVP award to go along with his second NBA MVP award.

The biggest news of the 1991-92 season came only a few games into the season. Laker superstar, Magic Johnson retired after he shockingly announced that he had contracted the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Disease (AIDS). Johnson was easily one of the game’s most recognizable and popular players. He had played for just 12 seasons where he won 5 NBA titles and 3 MVPs. The end of the season would also see the retirement of Larry Bird, another popular player on par with, and synonymous with Magic Johnson. Bird had won 3 NBA titles and 3 MVPs himself over his 12-year career. Bird’s chronic back problems were the reason for his retirement.

While Magic and Bird were leaving the game after their significant contributions, the Chicago Bulls and their superstar G-Michael Jordan were just beginning on their path to greatness. The defending champion Bulls (67-15) continued to steamroll over their opponents on their way to the best record in the league. The Eastern playoffs would be a tough for the Bulls who had to get past the bruising New York Knicks (51-31), led by C-Patrick Ewing and new coach Pat Riley, in the Eastern Semi-Finals in 7 games. After getting by the Knicks, the Bulls beat the Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25) in six games to return to the NBA Finals.

In the Western Conference, the Portland Trailblazers (57-25) once again had the best record in the conference, and were looking to redeem themselves after a disappointing playoffs result last season. The Blazers made short work of the Los Angeles Lakers (43-39), a shell of its former self after Magic’s retirement and Phoenix Suns (53-29) before beating a tough Utah Jazz (55-27) squad led by the dynamic duo of PF-Karl Malone and PG-John Stockton in 6 games in the Western Finals, to make it to the Finals again.

The Finals matchup saw two of the games most electric players - Chicago’s Michael "Air" Jordan and Portland’s Clyde "the Glide" Drexler. After 5 games the Bulls were up in the series 3 games to 2. Portland had a 15-point lead after 3 quarters in Game 6, and looked sure of pushing the series to a deciding Game 7. That was not to be as the Bulls went on a 14-2 run to start the forth quarter led by Bull’s bench players. Jordan and Scottie Pippen then took over, scoring the team’s final 19 points to shock the stunned Blazers, and win their second consecutive NBA title. Michael Jordan became the first person to win back-to-back NBA Finals MVP, to go along with another NBA MVP award.

The summer prior to the 1992-93 season saw the creation of the U.S. Dream Team. It was the first time that professional athletes could compete in the Olympics and the NBA responded by sending its best to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. The team assembled is regarded by many as the greatest team ever assembled. The team consisted of future Hall-of-Famers PG-John Stockton (Utah Jazz), SG-Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls), SG-Clyde Drexler (Portland Trailblazers), SF-Chris Mullin (Golden State Warriors), SF-Scottie Pippen (Chicago Bulls), PF-Karl Malone (Utah Jazz), PF-Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers), C-Patrick Ewing (New York Knicks), C-David Robinson (San Antonio Spurs), and the special return of PG-Magic Johnson and F-Larry Bird to complete the player roster. The Detroit Piston’s Chuck Daley coached the team. There was simply no competition for the US as they cruised to the gold medal beating the opposition by an average margin of 44 points. The Dream Team played a large part in popularizing basketball and the NBA to the world.

Other than the Dream Team, two other major headlines were made. The first was the entrance of a much-hyped rookie destined to become a dominant player in the same mold of the great centers of the past. That rookie was a 7-1, 350 pound mammoth named Shaquille O’Neal and he was selected first overall in the NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic. Shaq, as he was known, led the Magic (41-41) to a 20-game improvement from the previous year. He averaged 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds a game on his way to the Rookie of the Year honors.

The other major headline was a trade that saw F-"Sir" Charles Barkley going to the Phoenix Suns from the Philadelphia 76ers. The Suns had won 50 or more games fro four straight years, but failed to make a dent in the playoffs succumbing to traditional Western Powers, Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers. With the addition of Barkley, the Suns were confidant that had just added the final piece of puzzle that would see them advance further. Sir Charles didn’t disappoint, leading the Suns (62-20) to the best record in the league. His inspired play led to him winning the NBA MVP award. The Suns had a tough road through the playoffs managing to just edge the L.A. Lakers (39-43) in the decisive fifth game, then did away with the David Robinson-led San Antonio Spurs (49-33) in six games, before beating a young and energetic Seattle Supersonics (55-27) in the Western Finals. The Suns had made the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

In the Eastern Conference, the Bulls were looking to win back-to-back-to-back championships. With a target on their back, they knew it would be a tough objective to accomplish. Nevertheless the Bulls (57-25) finished the regular season strong and swept past the Atlanta Hawks (43-39) and Cleveland Cavaliers (54-28) before meeting their nemesis, New York Knicks (60-22), who had finished with the best record in the conference. Head coach, Pat Riley, had built a team that was in stark contrast with his Showtime Lakers. The Knicks were built around a half-court offense that went through star C-Patrick Ewing. Their trademark however, was a tough and physical defense which fueled a rivalry with the Bulls. Riley’s strategy was to be extremely physical with the Jordan and the Bulls, similar to the Piston’s style when they were the NBA Champions. It would prove unsuccessful as the Bulls beat the Knicks in six games to advance to the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns.

The NBA Finals showcased Air Jordan vs. Sir Charles. The Bulls jumped out winning the first two games before the Suns won two of the next three games. In a heart-stopping Game 6, the Bulls emerged victors thanks to a G-John Paxon 3-pointer which sealed the victory in the final seconds. The Bulls had accomplished something not seen since the great Celtic Dynasty of the 1960s - they had won three consecutive championships. Jordan was a unanimous choice for his third consecutive NBA Finals MVP award, scoring 40 or more points in four straight games, including 55 in Game 4 to match the second highest Finals total ever.

Intermission: Hakeem’s Rockets Turns Championship Dreams to Reality (1993-1995)

The next two seasons was a brief hiatus for the Chicago Bulls Dynasty. Before the 1993-94 season began, Michael Jordan surprisingly announced his retirement at age 30 after nine seasons, three championships, 3 of both NBA and NBA Finals MVPs, and 7 consecutive scoring titles. Jordan cited that he had accomplished everything he set out to do in basketball and would pursue his dream of playing in the Major Leagues (baseball). He left at the pinnacle of the game, and was undisputedly the best player in the NBA. His departure, well sad for the game, opened many opportunities for other teams to have a better chance of winning the championship.

With Jordan gone, there was remarkable balance in the league. In the Eastern Conference, four teams had won at least 50 games. The best record in the conference belonged to the New York Knicks (57-25) and Atlanta Hawks (57-25). Surprisingly, the Jordan-less Bulls (55-27) were contenders with F-Scottie Pippen taking on more responsibility. The Orlando Magic (50-32) was a young team to watch with Shaquille O’Neal establishing himself as a dominant force. In the playoffs, the New York Knicks felt confident in their experience to win the conference. They had rolled over the New Jersey Nets (45-37) in the opening round and just edged the Chicago Bulls in seven games. The Indiana Pacers (47-35) surprised the Magic by sweeping them in the opening round. They continued to beat the Hawks in the next round in six games, before meeting the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. This series would be one of the most entertaining and dramatic series in NBA History. The Pacers were led by G-Reggie Miller who put on an entertaining offensive display, while taunting New York fans - notably director, Spike Lee, in the process. The Knicks would have the last laugh though beating the Pacers in the decisive seventh game to advance to the NBA Finals.

In the Western Conference, the Seattle Supersonics (63-19) had the league best record led by the electrifying highlight-reel combination of PG-Gary "The Glove" Payton and PF-Shawn "Rain Man" Kemp. The Sonics fell prey in the opening round of the playoffs, losing to the Denver Nuggets (42-40) - the first time a number 1 seed lost in the first round. Denver would fail in the next round though, losing in seven games against the Utah Jazz (53-29). The second best record in the league belonged to the C-Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets (58-24). The Rockets defeated the Portland Trailblazers (47-35) in the first round and then just edged the Phoenix Suns (56-26) in seven games. In the Western Finals, the Rockets made short work of the Jazz, beating them in 5 games and advancing to the NBA Finals against the New York Knicks.

The Finals was an afterthought as the first Gulf War had just been initiated as US forces went to war against Iraq. Nevertheless, the Finals continued to become one of the closest, most intensely fought Finals in NBA history. Defense was the name of the game as neither team reached 100 points in any of a seven-games - the first time this occurred with the advent of the 24-second shot clock. And not since 1975, when the Golden State Warriors swept the Washington Bullets, had there been a Finals series in which the margin of victory in every game was less than 10 points.

The Knicks had a chance to win the championship in Game 6 after leading the series 3 games to 2. G-John Starks had a 3-pointer attempt deflected by C-Olajuwon, to preserve an 86-84 Rocket victory. In the decisive Game 7, Olajuwon came through with 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks as the Rockets posted a 90-84 victory, to win their first NBA Title. Olajuwon would win the NBA Finals MVP to go along with the NBA MVP title.

The biggest news of the 1994-95 season occurred near the end of the season.  Seventeen months after announcing his retirement, and after a failed baseball attempt, Michael Jordan announced that he would return to play for the Chicago Bulls.  This was a big boost for the NBA that was starved of an established superstar.  Jordan returned to play the final 17 games for the Bulls (47-35).  It was clear that his game was rusty, as the Bulls were defeated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in six games by the Shaq-led Orlando Magic.  A couple of milestones were broken this season:  Atlanta’s coach Lenny Wilkens    The 1994-95 season saw two major records fall. Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens passed the legendary Red Auerbach on the list of all-time coaching victories with win #939, while Utah’s PG-John Stockton replaced Magic Johnson as the NBA’s all-time assists leader. 

The Magic (57-25) had the best record in the Eastern Conference, and showcased two young rising stars in C-Shaquille O’Neal and G-Anfernee ”Penny” Hardaway.  Shaq led the league in scoring with 29.3 points per game.  The Magic was able to roll past the Boston Celtics (35-47) and Chicago Bulls in the playoffs, and then squeezed past the Indiana Pacers (52-30) in the Western Finals in seven games.  The Orlando Magic, in only their fifth year of existence, were going to the NBA Finals.    

In the strong Western Conference, the Houston Rockets (47-35) were not favorites to repeat if their regular season record was any indication.  Going into the playoffs, they were the 6th seeded team but they felt confidant drawing on their experience and the ability of Hakeem ”The Dream” Olajuwon and newly acquired, Clyde ”The Glide” Drexler to elevate their games during the playoffs.  They beat the Utah Jazz (60-22) in the opening round of the playoff in a tightly-contested five game series.  The Rockets then continued the tightly-contested trend by edging out the Phoenix Suns (59-23) in seven games, to meet the San Antonio Spurs (62-20), who sported the best record in the league, in the Western Finals.  The Spur’s leader, C-David Robinson received the NBA MVP award for his efforts.  Hakeem and the Rockets prevailed over David Robinson and the Spurs in six game series that saw a matchup between two of the greatest centers.  Hakeem would now face another dominant center in the young Shaquille O’Neal in the NBA Finals.     

The Finals was a classic youth vs. experience battle.  Experience overwhelmingly won this battle as the Rockets swept the Magic in four straight.  In doing so, the Rockets became the lowest seeded team to win the championship and had defeated the four teams with the best regular season records in the league.  The Dream played like his usual self, and was awarded his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP award. 

Bulls Dynasty Part II (1995-1998)

The 1995-96 season saw the entrance of two new franchises north of the border – the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies.  The summer also saw the entrance of Kevin Garnett, who was drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves.  This was significant since Garnett became the first player drafted out of high school since the Philadelphia 76ers selected Darryl Dawkins with the fifth selection in 1975.  Garnett would be the first of a continuing trend in future years of drafting players out of high school.  

Following Jordan’s lead of last season, Magic Johnson decided to return to the game mid-season, and joined the Los Angeles Lakers after 4 and a half years of retirement.  The Lakers (53-29) would be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by defending champions Houston Rockets (48-34).  Johnson retired again after the season.  

The Rockets were on their campaign to do what the Chicago Bulls previously did – win three consecutive championships.  After defeating Los Angeles in the first round, the Rockets moved on to face the Seattle Supersonics.  The Sonics (64-18) were a perennial regular season power, but always seemed to collapse during the playoffs.  Now more experienced, they sported the best record in the West, and were determined to go far in the playoffs.  They surprisingly swept the Rockets four straight.  The Sonics moved on to play another perennial Western Power, the Utah Jazz (55-27) in the Western Conference Finals.  In a battle of point guard/power forward dynamic duos – the Sonic’s Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp and the Jazz’s John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Sonics prevailed in the decisive seventh game to advance to the NBA Finals.   

With the return of Michael Jordan, the Bulls were confidant that he would be able to regain his rhythm with his teammates, and the team would return to its dominant form that won three consecutive championships.  Right of the block, the Bulls were impressive as they steamrolled over their opposition with team play that seem to gelled so effortlessly.  Their usual strong defense was even tougher with the addition of one of the greatest rebounders ever in F-Dennis Rodman, and of course, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were clicking on all cylinders on the offensive end.  It seemed almost impossible to beat the Bulls as they captivated the sport’s world with their dominance en route to the greatest NBA regular season record – 72 wins and 10 losses.  The previous best was the 1971-72 Laker’s 69-13 record.  Michael Jordan would win his record eighth scoring title eclipsing Wilt Chamberlain’s seven titles, on his way to his forth NBA MVP award.

The Bulls maintained their dominance through the playoffs as they only loss one game to the New York Knicks (47-35) and swept the Orlando Magic (60-22) in the Eastern Finals to return to the NBA Finals.  After winning the first 3 games in Finals, the Bulls were surprised by the Sonic’s tenacity as they battled back to win the next two games.  However, Chicago proved to be too much for the Sonics in Game 6 in Chicago.  The Bull’s Dennis Rodman proved to be the winning factor as he grabbed 19 rebounds, including an NBA-record 11 offensive rebounds, to seal a Chicago victory, and an NBA Championship – their forth in six years.   Michael Jordan averaged 27.3 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 assists a game, despite having the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, Gary Payton, guarding him.  This earned him his forth NBA Finals MVP.        

The summer prior to the start of the 1996-97 season – which also marked the NBA’s 50th season, saw one of the biggest free agent signings in recent years.  The Orlando Magic’s C-Shaquille O’Neal had signed a lucrative 7-year, $120-million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.  Shaquille would be joined by G-Kobe Bryant, who was drafted straight out of high school with the 13th pick by the Charlotte Hornets.  The Lakers acquired Bryant in a trade with the Hornets for C-Vlade Divac.

The Bulls (69-13) continued their dominance into the next season behind Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, and their supporting cast.  The team went on to the best record in the league again, matching the second best record in league history.  The Bulls rolled over their competition in the playoffs sweeping the Washington Bullets (44-38) in the first round, then beating the Atlanta Hawks (56-26) in five games, and the Miami Heat (61-21) in five games in Eastern Finals, to return to the NBA Finals for the Drive for Five Championships.

In the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz (64-18) finished with the best record in the Conference, and like the Bulls, steamrolled through the playoffs.  They swept the Los Angeles Clippers (36-46), then beat the Los Angeles Lakers (56-26) in five games, and polished of the Houston Rockets (57-25) in six games in the Western Finals, to finally reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.  In the process, the Jazz’s F-Karl ”The Mailman” Malone was award the NBA MVP award.    

In the Finals, the Bulls proved too much for the Jazz.  After the series was tied too games a piece, Jordan came through in a memorable fashion in Game 5.  Writhing in pain caused by stomach flu, Jordan nevertheless played and delivered a 38-point performance and a game-winning 3-pointer to win Game 5 90-88.  In Game 6 Jordan followed with another magnificent effort with 39 points and 11 rebounds, it was however a jump shot by G-Steve Kerr that capped a 90-86 victory, giving the Bulls back-to-back championships, and their fifth title in seven years.  Yet again, Jordan was named NBA Finals MVP. 

The summer preceding the 1997-98 season saw the entrance of another special player.  The San Antonio Spurs selected with their first overall pick, C-Tim Duncan.  Duncan was a throwback from the increasingly glitzy ways of NBA players.  Armed with a deadly bank shot and amazing footwork for a big man, he was quickly coined the ”Big Fundamental”.  Duncan would team with David Robinson to form another formidable Twin Towers.  Robinson had missed almost all but 6 games of the 1996-97 season because of back injuries and a fractured left foot and his value was evident as the Spurs had a dismal 20-62 record.  Now healthy, Robinson and Duncan combined to lift the Spurs to a 56-26 record.  The Spurs would however fall to the Utah Jazz (62-20) in the second round of the playoffs. 

The Jazz hungry to redeem themselves were hungry to return to the NBA Finals.  They shared the best record in the league with the Chicago Bulls, as they beat the Houston Rockets (41-41), San Antonio Spurs, and swept the Shaq-led Los Angeles Lakers (61-21) in the Western Finals.  They returned to the NBA Finals for a repeat matchup with the Chicago Bulls.    

The Bulls (62-20) who were gunning for an unprecedented three-peat on two occasions, had the best record in the Eastern Conference.  The Bulls breezed past New Jersey (43-39) and the Charlotte Hornets (51-31) in the first two rounds respectively.  They met a tough Indiana Pacers (58-24), who themselves had been an Eastern power for the past few seasons, and wanted to go further.  They had a new coach in legendary Larry Bird and had added veteran F-Chris Mullin to a deep team led by G-Reggie Miller and C-Rik Smits.  The Bulls demonstrated their extensive playoff experience to edge the Pacers in a highly entertaining series in the decisive seventh game.

The Bulls would now have a chance to make history, with the Utah Jazz being their only obstacle in the NBA Finals.   The Jazz felt confidant that they could dethrone the Bulls, but Michael Jordan and crew would have none of that.  With the Bulls up 3 games to two, heading into Game 6 in Salt Lake City, Michael Jordan was in his usual clutch form scoring 45 points and hitting the game-winning basket with 5.2 seconds left after having stolen the ball seconds earlier to win a dramatic 87-86 finale.  The Bulls had done it – three-peating twice, and winning their sixth championship in eight years.  They truly were the greatest NBA team since the Celtic Dynasty of the 1960s.  And with what would prove to be his last game as a Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan captured his sixth NBA Finals MVP, to go along with the NBA MVP, his fifth, where he also won his 10th scoring title.