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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Phil Jackson: Zen and the Art of Winning Championships

Phil Jackson headlined the 2007 Basketball Hall of Fame class, speaking last at the enshrinement ceremony--and for good reason: it is impossible to write the history of the NBA over the last 20 years without prominently mentioning his name. Before looking at the methods and philosophies that led to his success, here are the raw numbers that delineate his greatness:

* Ranks first in career regular season winning percentage (.700; 919-393)
* Ranks first in career playoff winning percentage (.699; 179-77)
* Ranks first in career playoff wins (179)
* Set record for most wins in one regular season (72 in 1995-96)
* Has coached four different teams to at least 67 wins in a season; no other coach has done this more than once
* Set record for best playoff winning percentage in one season (.938; 15-1 in 2001)
* Tied for first with Red Auerbach for most championships won as a coach (nine)
* Ranks ninth in career regular season wins (919)
* Named to the list of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history (1996)

Jackson's critics are quick to say that he was fortunate to coach Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in their primes in Chicago and then to coach Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in their primes in Los Angeles. During his speech, Jackson himself mused, "Who could have been more fortunate than I am, to have stumbled into this success?" The reality is that few people ever truly stumble into success and no one does so nine times at the highest level of his profession. Before Jackson became the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1989, Michael Jordan had amassed a playoff record of 14-23 in five seasons. Chicago went 10-6 in the playoffs in Jackson's first campaign and then won three straight titles. Before Jackson became the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999, Shaquille O'Neal was a seven year veteran who had made one trip to the NBA Finals when his Orlando Magic were swept in 1995. O'Neal's teams were also swept out of the playoffs in 1994, 1996 and 1998. The Lakers went 67-15 in Jackson's first season and won the franchise's first championship since 1988 and followed that up with two more titles and a run to the 2004 Finals.

Jordan and O'Neal have become so popular and iconic that it is almost considered sacrilege to even suggest that neither of them is perfect but under Jackson's tutelage both players corrected flaws in their approaches to the game. In Jordan's case, he needed to trust his teammates more fully and not try to do everything himself on offense; O'Neal needed to get into better shape, become more of a defensive force and function as the hub of the Triangle Offense (O'Neal's blocked shots, rebounds and assists all soared in Jackson's first year in L.A.). Jordan and O'Neal had already proven that they could have great individual success but Jackson helped them to channel their skills into transforming their teams into championship squads.

Here's an interesting quote: "He's the greatest athlete I've ever seen. Maybe the greatest athlete ever to play any sport. He can do whatever he wants. It all comes so easy to him. He's just not a basketball player." Who do you suppose is the subject of those remarks? None other than Michael Jordan. The speaker was his teammate Bill Cartwright, as recounted in Sam Smith's 1992 book The Jordan Rules (p. 249). Cartwright uttered those words after a 1991 loss versus Detroit when Jordan, according to an unofficial count by one courtside observer, failed to pass to Cartwright on nine separate occasions when the center was wide open. This was during Jackson's second season with Chicago and, though the Bulls won the championship that year, Jordan had yet to completely accept what he derided as Jackson's "equal opportunity offense." After Jackson first became the team's head coach, Jordan said, "He's the coach. I'll follow his scheme but I don't plan to change my style of play. I'm sure everything will be fine if we win, but if we start losing, I'm shooting" (p. 67, The Jordan Rules).

Doug Collins, Jackson's predecessor at the helm in Chicago, had tried unsuccessfully to get Jordan to play differently. Once, after Collins upbraided Jordan for shooting too much during a playoff series, Jordan attempted just eight shots in the next game. Jordan always wanted to win but he did not always know how to accomplish this at the NBA level. "I thought of myself first, the team second," Jordan once admitted of the mindset that he had early in his career (p. 66, The Jordan Rules). "I always wanted my team to be successful. But I wanted to be the main cause."

The difference between Jackson and Collins is that Jackson better understood how to convey his message to Jordan in a way that Jordan would--begrudgingly--respect. Jackson knew when to be confrontational and when to defuse situations with humor (after the game when Jordan refused to pass to Cartwright nine times, Jackson's whimsical response was, "Well, at least he was under double figures"). Jackson had not been an All-Star player like Collins nor did he have any NBA head coaching experience but he found a way to not only get Jordan to buy into his system but to convince the rest of the team that Jordan would do so and that they must be ready to step up their games.

It is easy to simply give Jordan the lion's share of the credit for Chicago's success but it is possible that Jordan may have never won a championship if Jackson had not put into place a system that allowed the whole team to shine. Interestingly, during the 1991 championship season, Pippen said, "We know that everyone says that the Bulls would be nothing without Michael, so there really isn't much respect for the other 11 guys, even after I made the All-Star team. You take Michael off this team and give us a consistent two (shooting) guard and we'd still be a top, contending team." Of course, when Jordan retired just prior to the start of the 1993-94 season the Bulls had a very successful season without him--and his spot was taken not by a "consistent two" but rather by Pete Myers, a career journeyman. Jackson did a masterful job coaching that team and Pippen finished third in the MVP voting that year, becoming the leader of the team but not substantially increasing his shot attempts.

By the time Jackson arrived in L.A. he had already won six titles and earned acclaim as one of the greatest coaches ever, so he had a pedigree that commanded instant respect. Still, Jackson faced a daunting challenge: melding the skills and egos of dominant center Shaquille O'Neal and budding star Kobe Bryant into a championship quality dynamic duo. Regardless of whatever drama took place off of the court, under Jackson's leadership the O'Neal-Bryant tandem emerged as one of the best one-two punches in NBA history, winning three straight titles and enjoying the best single-season playoff run in NBA history (15-1 in 2001).

Yes, the old cliche is true: you cannot win the Kentucky Derby with a mule. Phil Jackson has had the "horses"--but he has also driven those horses to achieve their maximum potential. There is a quite lengthy list of Hall of Fame players and talented teams that never won championships; it takes much more than just assembling a lot of talent in one place to win a title. Jackson imbued each of his teams with his philosophical approach to the game, a mindset that was shaped by his upbringing by parents who were both ministers, his readings about Zen and Native American thought and the wisdom of his New York Knicks Coach Red Holzman. In Sacred Hoops, Jackson details how each of those elements influenced his thinking.

Jackson places value on the printed and spoken word and is renowned for giving his players books that he thinks will have special meaning to them, so it is only fitting to revisit some key quotes/phrases that Jackson has employed during his coaching career:

* "Go down as you live." This was the "rallying cry" of Jackson's New Jersey Nets' teammate "Super" John Williamson. Jackson explains (p. 112, Sacred Hoops): "Don't hold back. Play the way you live your life, with your whole heart and soul." This attitude is second nature to Jordan and that type of fierce competitiveness created a bond between player and coach even when they did not see eye to eye on everything else.

* "For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack." Jackson placed this quote from Rudyard Kipling's The Second Jungle Book at the top of the scouting reports that were distributed to the Bulls' players before the first round of the 1991 playoffs (p. 262, The Jordan Rules). Jackson thought that his players sometimes snapped at each other like wolves but needed to develop that Pack mentality to survive the playoff grind.

* Perhaps the signature moment of the 1991 Finals--and the final hurdle that Jordan needed to clear to emerge as a great team player--happened in game five. The Bulls needed just one win to take the championship and Jordan was determined to carry the team there single-handedly if necessary. Of course, that approach was a good recipe for defeat. During a fourth quarter timeout when the Bulls trailed the Lakers 91-90, Jackson looked right at Jordan and barked, "Who's open?" When Jordan did not answer, Jackson repeated the question and Jordan finally relented, "Paxson." Jackson said simply, "Let's find him." John Paxson scored 10 of his 20 points in the last four minutes of the game and Chicago wrapped up the championship. Jackson knew when--and how--to challenge Jordan in ways that led to a constructive response. Jackson did not berate Jordan and did not deliver an expletive filled diatribe. All he said was, "Who's open?" Jackson knew that Jordan had the court sense to understand how the defense was checking him; Jordan just needed a little reminder. Real coaching has nothing to do with ranting and raving during timeouts; real coaching is done in practice, in private moments on the plane or on the bus, so that a simple "Who's open?" leads to the desired result during a pressure-packed Finals game.

* "Don't leave Michael alone here. It's not time yet." As I wrote in my post about my 10 favorite coaching soundbites, "Phil Jackson's exhortation to Jordan's teammates served as both an acknowledgment of how much the team depended on Jordan to carry the day in the fourth quarter and as a reverse psychology tool to goad/shame the other players into performing better." Jackson could have criticized Jordan for shooting too much or lambasted his teammates for shrinking under pressure but he instead delivered a powerful message with a few simple words. It cannot be emphasized enough that the ability to communicate this way is set up by all the work that is done in practice during the course of the season; that is when great coaches earn their pay. When I see a coach spend an entire game prancing up and down the sidelines ranting and raving I assume that one or more of the following is true: he loves to be on camera, his players are too stupid to know what to do no matter how many times he has told them or he is too stupid to know when to sit down and let his players do their jobs. Anyone who mocks Jackson for his generally placid demeanor during games and his reluctance to call timeouts simply does not understand what coaching is all about.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:01 AM



At Sunday, September 09, 2007 5:17:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I've never been a big fan of Phil Jackson, maybe because he comes off as arrogant and condescending to me. However, you can't deny his greatness as a coach.

It's not easy to win when you are expected to, and it's not easy to deal with big egos. Jackson has proven to be as good as anyone in these areas. Another thing I like about Jackson is he doesn't seem to over-coach. He lets his players play through many tough situations and realizes that trying to control every aspect of the game from the bench just doesn't work.

It's funny how selective people's memories can get when trying to prove a point. As you said, Jackson showed in 1994 and in 2006 that he wasn't just a beneficiary of Jordan or Shaq. Fortunately for Jackson, he has such great numbers that his critics haven't been able to deny him his deserved place in history. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the same can be said for Pippen. In my opinion, Pippen was usually as good or better than the best player on the teams the Bulls faced (Ewing, Miller, Malone, Barkley, Drexler, etc.). Still, many people like to act like Scottie was just a decent forward who Michael Jordan turned into an All-Star in order to give MJ all the credit.

At Sunday, September 09, 2007 5:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson is arrogant and condescending at times but it seems like few people get all the way to the top without having "rough edges" of some sort.

Although he and Red Auerbach publicly traded barbs a few times I think that they are actually very similar in their approach: masters of psychology who were not overly reliant on Xs and Os and who developed very close relationships with their star players (although Jackson has had more cross words at times with some of his stars than Auerbach seemed to have with Russell). I consider them the two greatest coaches in NBA history and find it hard to select one over the other because their eras and obstacles were so different.

People forget that Jackson won a CBA title and did well in Puerto Rico. Granted, success at those levels does not automatically translate to NBA success but since Jackson had NBA success as well I look at the body of his coaching work and conclude that he would have done well in almost any coaching situation. Greg Anthony likes to point out that Jackson's teams rarely if ever underachieve: they tend to equal or surpass any reasonable expectations. As you mentioned, that was true in 1994 with MJ out and that has been true since the Shaq trade.

I agree that I would take Pip in his prime over the main guy on most of the teams that the Bulls beat (though I realize a lot of people would prefer Barkley and Malone). Pip, Magic and Kidd are the only three guys I have seen (as opposed to researching players or seeing highlights) who could dominate a game without scoring a point. The playoff game when Pip shut down Indy's Mark Jackson and barely let him dribble the ball up the court was amazing and I think Pip finished with four points. Pip could guard anyone except for legit fives who played with their backs to the basket (i.e., he could not guard a Shaq or an Olajuwon but he was often matched up with lesser fives or fours when the Bulls went small).

MJ did help Pip to hone and polish his skills but Pip also pushed MJ in practices in a way that no one else could. The partnership was very good for both players. I think that students of the game appreciate Pip's value much more than casual fans do. The one area that was not Pip's strength was spot up shooting, which made him a less versatile clutch scorer than MJ. Still, Pip hit his share of big shots late in games and was just as apt to deliver a big play by passing or defending (just ask Charles "Stripped!Blocked!Stripped Again!"--thank you, Marv Albert-- Smith about that).

At Sunday, September 09, 2007 6:10:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I'd also throw Pat Riley into the greatest coach discussion with Jackson and Auerbach.

I agree with your take on the similarities between Auerbach and Jackson. Like Jackson, I think Auerbach knew the different ways to deal with different players to get the most out of them. Perhaps Red felt that criticizing Russell was the wrong way to approach him. I also think that appointing Russell as player-coach when he quit was an ingenious move. It seems like it fed Russell's fire and reinvigorated the team enough to squeeze those last two titles out of them. When you look at Auerbach's accomplishments as coach, GM (the best, by far), and ambassador, he's got to be the greatest non-player in NBA history.

Pippen did so many little, yet crucial things for the team. The stripping of Charles Smith is probably my enduring memory of Pippen. I also remember during a playoff game (I think it was against the Knicks), Pippen was inbounding the ball, and instead of passing it to someone else, he bounced it off a player who had his back turned and got the ball back and scored.

I was shocked by how good the 1994 Bulls team was. I couldn't believe how they nearly beat the Knicks (and maybe should have, if not for the infamous Hue Hollins call). In 1993, many observers felt the Bulls had been a one-man show. I think SI's Jack McCallum wrote, while comparing MJ to Magic and Bird, that the Bulls were an average team beyond MJ (in contrast to the supporting casts of Magic and Larry). After all this, I find it strange that not more was made of the 1994 Bulls and how much better Pippen, Jackson, and Jackson's system were than most of us thought.

At Sunday, September 09, 2007 1:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yes, Riley could be thrown into that group with Auerbach and Jackson as well but Auerbach and Jackson have the lead in championships won and I probably would place them slightly ahead of Riley.

I think that Jackson once said that Pip has a genius level basketball IQ. His teammates loved playing with him and speak very highly of him.

I was not shocked by how good the 1994 Bulls were but that is because I've been on the Pip bandwagon for a long time; I've always thought that he was underrated, so I expected him to have an MVP-caliber year in '94. David Dupree of USA Today wrote at the end of that season that Pip should have won the MVP and I agree with that, though Hakeem and Robinson also had fine seasons.

I think that there are three reasons that Pip and the '94 team are not better remembered:

1) The Hollins call robbed them of a chance to go the ECF and probably the NBA Finals. If they had made it to the Finals without MJ, win or lose, that team would always be remembered.

2) The Pip/Kukoc incident versus the Knicks. A lot of people--meaning fans and media members--don't like Pip, so they use any excuse to not give him his just due. Unfortunately, Pip has done a few things over the years to provide ammo for his critics and one of them was sitting out the last play of the playoff game versus the Knicks. It all began when Kukoc was in the wrong place, enabling the Knicks to double-team Pip, who was supposed to run a clear-out. That play never went anywhere because Kukoc's man was able to spy Pip and Kukoc. On the ensuing out of bounds play, Jackson wanted Pip to throw it in to Kukoc for a catch and shoot but Pip sat out. Kukoc of course made the game-winning shot. Jackson later explained that with 10 seconds left he would run the play for Pip to create for himself or a teammate but in a catch and shoot Kukoc was better suited to be successful due to his height (and superior shooting skill). Even after Pip helped lead the Bulls to three more titles the image of him sitting out that play was still brought up.

3) The Bulls won three titles after that year.

That '94 team was fun to watch and some observers will tell you that the Bulls never ran the triangle better--purely from an execution standpoint--than they did that season. The one thing Pip could not do as well as MJ, of course, was bail the team out at the end of the shot clock if the triangle broke down.

The '95 team got off to a slow start without the departed Grant and due to some injuries but they were on a winning streak even before MJ made his late return.

At Sunday, September 09, 2007 4:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

it's all about mike and shaq jordan either number 1 or 2 player with wilt all time. phil a good coach but so would i with those guys. he came at perfect times both times, when both teams were on the cusp shaq won a ring without him and got to the game 7 of the conference finals with stan vna gundy and got to finals with brian hill. in 93-94 it was impressive to win 55 gmaes with no jordan but the next year they were 34-31 jordan come back 13-4 and then they losed in the second round jordan played 25 games including playoffs next year. they win 72 games jordan first full season 69 the next and 3 straight rings. they were alright without jordan but they were the bulls becasue of jordan.

as far as shaq kobe hasn't seen the second round since his departure and the beat has gone on for shaq except last year period. shaq and jordan was 60% phil was 40%. but phil got to win something without them 2 not 42 games like last year something real like a ring.

At Sunday, September 09, 2007 10:01:00 PM, Blogger element313 said...

wow, when you stay off of the topic of your adoration of Kobe, I agree with your analysis

who knew?

At Monday, September 10, 2007 1:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Jackson himself emphasized that the game is about the players. Obviously, if a team does not have talented players then it cannot win a championship--period. On the other hand, the presence of talented players does not guarantee a championship regardless of who the coach is. In retrospect it is easy to say that Jackson arrived in Chicago and L.A. at the perfect times but there were certainly many people who believed that--for various and different reasons--MJ and Shaq could not or would not ever lead teams to titles. Jackson dealt with those stars--and their teammates--in a different manner than their previous coaches did and he utilized different philosophies not only on offense (Tex Winter's famous Triangle) but also on defense.

As for the '95 Bulls, they lost Horace Grant and had a lot of injuries early in the season but once those players got healthy they started to turn things around even before MJ returned, winning 8 out of 10, including three in a row prior to losing in MJ's comeback game. The '94 and '95 teams showed that both Jackson and Pip were a lot better than some ill informed observers had thought. The Bulls won 72 and then 69 games after not only adding MJ but also adding Rodman.

Shaq got to the Finals and the Conference Finals before Jackson arrived, too, but he and his teams had their best years when Jackson was his coach, including a 67 win regular season and a 15-1 postseason. He has never approached those numbers at any other time. It is also worth noting that Shaq's coach on his non-Jackson championship team was Riley, who ranks either with or just below Jackson and Auerbach in the pantheon of NBA coaches; Stan Van Gundy never got that team over the top, though injuries may be said to have played a factor in that.

Kobe and Jackson have not gotten the Lakers out of the first round because that team would win about 20 games without Kobe. Seriously, take Kobe's name off of the 2006 or 2007 roster and compare what remains to the Grizzlies and try to make a case that the Lakers would be any better than Memphis was last year. Jackson's a great coach but he is not a miracle worker. This gets back to Greg Anthony's comment: Jackson's teams do not underachieve. Look at any reasonable expectations that people had for the Lakers in 2006 and 2007; the Lakers matched or exceeded them, especially considering all of the frontcourt injuries the team had last year. The idea that Jackson or Kobe (or Pip before them) need another ring to "validate" the previous ones is ridiculous. There are plenty of Hall of Famers who have no rings.

Also, the idea that anyone could have coached MJ or Shaq to championships is flat wrong. If that were true, then those guys would have won rings every year (except when their teams faced each other, of course). It takes a special coach to lead highly talented and highly egotistical players while at the same time also guiding the lesser talented players on the roster. Auerbach, Jackson and Riley mastered that, which is why they have won so many rings.

At Monday, September 10, 2007 8:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

he was a good coach but it was jordan and shaq that made that go period. auerbach won because of russell check his record without russell medicore coach. without shaq and jordan phil jackson is not as great a coach period. jordan and shaq started on terrible teams so it was going to take sometime to get to the top.

and they were coming for jordan aginst great celtics team 86 and 87 and the pistons 88-90, once he had got by them it was smooth sailing. and dennis rodman averaged 2pts a game i know he was a good rebounder but that aint gonna improve your roster 25 games 47-72 then 69 it was mj my friend that did that period he had to put up 30 pts a game still for them to win rings. yeah they were better than people thought but not champions without mike.

as far as shaq he had to deal with hakeem young ewing etc then the bulls before he get finally broke through it would of took time for both guys becasue of the teams in front of them. phil always came to situations that were on the cusp before the lakers job never starting from the beginning shaq and jordan went through all the hard stuff before phil got there he just help a little bit to guide them through.

as far as the lakers most observers though they were barely a playoff team the last two years and they won 45 and 42 games wheres the overachieving? they were the 7 seed twice so theres nuthing great about that. and you take kobe off they win 20 games take lebron james off of the cavs they win 12 games any superstar player off a team gonna hurt the team. he got too much credit for shaq and jordan sucess period they made him he didnt make them.

At Monday, September 10, 2007 3:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

In Red Auerbach's first season he led the Washington Capitols to a 49-11 record. He had the Celtics in the playoffs every year even before Russell arrived. As I said in my post, obviously you have to have the horses to win titles. When Auerbach and Jackson had the horses, they won titles. There are coaches who have had the horses but never won any titles.

Rodman not only led the league in rebounding but he was one of the top defenders in the league. The Bulls needed a replacement for the departed Horace Grant, who was the decisive factor when Orlando eliminated Chicago in the 1995 playoffs. Again, when Jackson had the horses he not only won titles but led Chicago to record-setting heights. I'm not taking anything away from MJ and the other players but Jackson's contributions should also be recognized.

There are always top teams and great players that have to be beaten to win titles. The Bulls beat a 64 win Seattle team in the 1996 Finals and a Utah team that had two sure-fire Hall of Famers in the 1997 and 1998 Finals. Part of the reason that MJ and Shaq's teams fell short prior to Jackson coaching them is that MJ and Shaq did not always do the right things (MJ did not trust his teammates, while Shaq was not always focused and in shape and he did not always play championship-level defense).

The Lakers were considered to be barely a playoff team and came within one defensive rebound of beating Phoenix in the 2006 playoffs. The 2007 squad also did better than could be reasonably expected.

I'm not saying that Jackson should get most of the credit for the success of the Bulls and the Lakers--but he deserves credit for providing a system and a structure that lifted those teams to a championship level. Coaching absolutely makes a difference.

At Tuesday, September 11, 2007 7:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

amnymous reggie

red got way too much credit for those teams his teams before were never contenders till rusell came and he had cousy and others. as far as rodman he was good defender and rebounder but jordan is the reason they went from 47 to 72 wins not his 2 ppg.

as far as him taking them to record setting height that was mainly cause of jordan. really phil helped smooth things over and tell jordan to trust teamates, once jordan did that he took off period. shaq proved once he got in shape and won the titles that he could win without kobe and phil. and riley won nuthing for 18 years.

the teams fell short because they played aginst better teams also. and the lakers came within one rebound against the suns without stoudamire and they still lost anyway up 3 to 1.

they helped lift him more than he helped lift them is my whole pint a genius is the great bill walsh he built a team from scratch and made a dynasty. jackson came in and smooth things over to teams that was just on the cusp.

At Tuesday, September 11, 2007 7:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Celtics made several appearances in the Division Finals (i.e., one round before the NBA Finals in the playoff format at that time) prior to Russell's arrival, so they certainly were contenders; they went from being contenders to being champions after getting Russell. It should be noted that Russell played a radically different game than previous centers did; he was not a great scoring threat but he was a tremendous shot blocker. Auerbach had the foresight to envision how Russell would fit in perfectly with the roster that he already had in place and Auerbach made the deal to acquire Russell. Not everyone understood at that time how great Russell would be--and some people did not understand it at first even after Russell was playing in the NBA: Tom Heinsohn, not Russell, won Rookie of the Year. Part of that was because Russell did not play the entire season but Russell has said that Auerbach pulled him aside early in his career and told him that he was the best player in the league even though other people did not realize it yet. So Auerbach deserves credit not only as a bench coach but also as a talent evaluator.

Rodman was not a big scorer but he was a very good offensive player; he led the league in offensive rebounding in two of his three Chicago seasons and he was an excellent passer in the triangle offense. His defense was extremely important. In the '95 playoffs, Horace Grant torched the Bulls and in the '96 playoffs the Bulls swept his Magic. MJ was on both of those Bulls teams--yes, he had some rust in '95 but the addition of Rodman was very important, particularly to win that series.

I don't consider this to be an "either/or" issue. In other words, by saying that Jackson is a great coach I am not in any way diminishing the fact that MJ and Shaq were the dominant players of their respective eras. Being a dominant individual player does not guarantee that you will win a title. Jackson brings out the best in all of the players on his roster.

Auerbach and Walsh carried the added responsibilities of not only coaching but also having executive positions and being involved in drafting/acquiring talent.

At Tuesday, September 11, 2007 9:13:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Interesting point alternaviews.

Jackson is great but being a great coach deals with timing just like anything else. He had great timing being on those Knicks teams and having Jordan and Shaquille.

At Tuesday, September 11, 2007 6:17:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I agree whole-heartedly about Rodman's importance to the Bulls.

However, in the 1996 ECF, I believe Grant missed Games 2-4 with an injury and hardly played and was a non-factor in Game 1. So it wasn't a matter of Rodman coming in and neutralizing Grant, but rather the Bulls gaining Rodman and the Magic losing Grant.

At Tuesday, September 11, 2007 6:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In game one versus Chicago in 1995, Grant had no points and one rebound in 28 minutes, while Rodman had 13 points and 21 rebounds in 32 minutes. Chicago won, 121-83. You are of course correct that Grant got hurt and did not play in the rest of the series but Rodman definitely had a significant impact during the season and during that series. He not only solidified the power forward position but he even played center at times when the Bulls went to a small lineup.

In game two versus Orlando, Rodman contributed 15 points and 12 rebounds, in game three he had nine points and 16 rebounds and in game four he had nine points and 14 rebounds.

Rodman was the leading rebounder in every game of the 1996 Finals and you could make a case that he was the most valuable player in that series, though the official honor went to Jordan.

At Thursday, September 13, 2007 4:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once looked up those Celtic teams before Auerbach.

They had fine coaches, so they did. They had some good players. But they lost, and they lost big. Meanwhile, people was saying how lucky was Red at having lucked into great players at Washington.

Well, he moved to Boston, and suddenly he got lucky again and was riding somebody's coattails again, while the poor Caps somehow got unlucky and floundered.

Same thing applies to Phil Jackson. Coach Maljkovich likes to say "I am a great coach because I win with good players - nobody wins with bad players".

Riley's big card is the way he rebuilt different teams which were in disarray or not challenging, and the way he had them playing at different styles. His versatility cannot be denied.

At Thursday, September 13, 2007 4:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I don't think that anybody--including Auerbach and Jackson themselves--would deny that you win with players. In the recent special about Red and Russell, Russell said that what Auerbach did was create unity, put a system together and then get out of everyone's way (I am paraphrasing). That sounds simple but there are plenty examples of teams that had talented players and did not win anything (early-mid 90s Seattle, early 2000s Portland to name just two). Yes, you have to have players to win but having the players is no guarantee if you do not also have good leadership.

I don't know what you mean when you say that Boston "lost big" before getting Russell. The Celtics were in the playoffs every year and on several occasions came within one series of making it to the Finals.

It is interesting that both Auerbach and Jackson's players speak very highly of their contributions to their teams' success. That is a powerful message. Russell said that Auerbach was the first coach who stood up for him and believed in him. Keep in mind that Russell won two NCAA titles and an Olympic gold medal with previous coaches.

I don't believe in luck when it comes to winning games of skill. Auerbach maneuvered to acquire Russell when others did not completely understand the value of having a dominant defensive center and then Auerbach designed a team around Russell's strengths. Auerbach had a lot of Hall of Famers but the Celtics were also drafting last every year because they were winning titles; he made a lot of shrewd draft picks and trades to keep the dynasty going. His acumen as a personnel guy is the reason that he and his supporters believe that Auerbach is a greater figure in basketball history than Jackson--but I don't think that Jackson should be shortchanged, either. Jackson coached in a completely different era and proved to be a master at getting superstars to sublimate their egos--at least a little bit--in order to win.

At Thursday, September 13, 2007 5:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post on PJ; It is nice to see his name among the all time greats.

In your article you quoted Sam Smith's book a few times. Another good source--as you may already know--for Jackson/Jordan information is David Halberstam's book "Playing For Keeps." I believe that the most insightful passages from this book into Jackson as a coach are times such as Pippen refusing to re-enter the game or Jordan asking him if he should attempt baseball: He handled the situations in such a way that the players would still trust him as a leader, which aided int the future championship seasons.

At Thursday, September 13, 2007 6:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yes, Halberstam's book is also a good source for Jordan/Jackson information and an excellent read.

I cited Smith's book because the examples he provided show how Jackson provided leadership at a critical time in the development of the Bulls when many people were not at all convinced that MJ would evolve into a championship level player. It could be said that the Lakers--or even the second three-peat Bulls team--listened to Jackson because of his resume but Jackson got MJ and the Bulls to follow his lead even when he had no resume as an NBA head coach, which indicates that his success stems from his abilities and not "luck."

The two instances that you cite from Halberstam's book are good examples of Jackson's leadership but they came from a time when he was already established as a top coach.

At Friday, September 14, 2007 7:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did not mean that the Celtics lost big without Russell. They lost big without Red Auerbach, despite having coaches with great reputations like Honey Russell or Doggie Julian, and players like Big Ed Sadowski plus the pick of a host of promising college players from the Massachussets area (Tony Lavelly, George Kaftan and others - by the way, I still don't know why they drafted Kaftan *after* one season with the team).

Auerbach came along and suddenly their win total simply doubled. Luck always plays a part, as in the way he got Cousy, but somehow luck only helps those who already were on their way to win.

The funny thing is, had Charlie Share not jumped leagues, maybe Auerbach would never have drafted Russell at all. What-ifs and all that.

On Jackson and Jordan, I've often thought that after his first comeback, Jordan could understand the psychological side of the game better. Compare the "who's open" scenario in 1991 with Kerr's famous "bailing Jordan out" in 1997. Jordan was aware that he could use Kerr's need for redemption to win the game; in previous seasons, he never went beyond the "what can I do to win". Jordan was using Jackson's technique to win by proxy.

At Friday, September 14, 2007 8:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I went back and looked at your previous comment and realized that I misunderstood your point regarding Auerbach. You meant that they lost big before Auerbach--not Russell--arrived and then started winning once Auerbach became coach. Somehow, I got that a bit garbled; sorry about that.

It does seem like MJ understood psychology--and winning--even better the second time around then he did before he retired. Getting back to an earlier comment in this thread, that is why I cited examples from the Jordan Rules; that reminds people that MJ was not an instant legend and icon in the NBA, at least in terms of winning championships. Phil Jackson played a key role in his development. Sure, MJ was blessed with great talent and he worked very hard but he also had a somewhat self-centered view of what it takes to win. It's funny to hear how Kobe's critics talk about him, because Jackson had a similar impact on Kobe's career and the result was that Kobe won three rings at a younger age than MJ won even one (yes, Kobe did start out three years younger than MJ was but this is still impressive any way that you cut it).

People just assume that if a young MJ played with a young Shaq that everything would have gone smoothly but, as MJ indicated in a quote that I cited from Smith's book, when MJ was young he not only wanted to win but he wanted to be the reason that the team won. I'm not so sure that the MJ who averaged 37.1 ppg would have been any more thrilled to average 25 ppg and feed the ball to Shaq than Kobe was--and MJ would have had the same conflicts with Shaq that Kobe did concerning Shaq's poor conditioning and questionable dedication to defense. Where MJ would have been way ahead of Kobe was his effectiveness in presenting his "case" to the public; he would never have allowed Jackson and Shaq to make him the "bad guy" the way that Kobe did as the Lakers unraveled.

At Sunday, September 16, 2007 2:38:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Jackson did get MJ to trust his teammates more during certain key situations. Overall, however, Jordan's field goal attempts per game and ppg were pretty much the same after Jackson became coach as they were before. Jordan indeed displayed a noticable difference in trusting teammates during the clutch, but overal he was still carrying the same load as before. This wasn't like Wilt Chamberlain going from scoring champion to chopping nearly ten points off his average, or Chamberlain going from the focus of the offense to the fourth option.

I think it is very surprising that the Bulls were so successful despite the fact that Jordan was accounting for such a high percentage of the team's offense. If I recall correctly, other than the Bulls, only Kareem's Bucks won the title while featuring the scoring champion. It's more incredible when you consider that Jordan was taking even more shots during the playoffs, a time when team balance is supposed to prevail.

Why do you think the Bulls were able to win like this?

Here's what I think:

First, the Bulls' perimeter defense was incredible, certainly as good as any I've ever seen. That, coupled with the fact that the Bulls hardly ever faced dominant centers, enabled them to win mostly with their defense. They usually didn't need a bunch of offensive weapons to outscore the other teams.

Second, during their run, a strong rival with the personnel and gameplan necessary to exploit the Bulls' weaknesses never emerged. If you look at it, the Bulls never had a consistent "second best team" they had to get past. As evidence, the Bulls faced 5 different teams in their 6 Finals appearances, and 6 different teams in their 6 Eastern Conference Finals appearances. I'm not trying to take anything away from the Bulls, who I feel rank right up there with the best teams ever. However, they came of age during favorable circumstances as far as their competition is concerned (they were not alone in this respect, Russell's Celtics enjoyed similar advantages).

At Sunday, September 16, 2007 3:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mikan also won scoring titles and championships in the same seasons (1948, 49, 50, 52; he played in the NBL and BAA--NBA forerunners--respectively in the first two of those seasons). Julius Erving won scoring titles and championships in 1974 and 1976 in the ABA. Shaquille O'Neal won a scoring title and a championship in 2000.

Overall, though, you are right that the scoring title/NBA title duo is rare if one discounts MJ, who obviously adds to the count since he did this six times.

One of the changes that Jackson instituted was to get the ball out of MJ's hands at the start of the play. MJ wanted to handle the ball all of the time but Jackson thought that it would save wear and tear on MJ--and lead to at least a little more ball movement--to have Pip advance the ball up the court. MJ could then operate off of the ball in the triangle. Obviously, MJ also ended up bringing the ball up the court a lot but at least with the triangle the Bulls ran something other than the "Messiah" offense of giving MJ the ball and praying for deliverance. In theory, any player in the triangle can receive the ball in a scoring position but obviously in practice certain players end up taking more shots. Jackson's theory was to get everyone on the Bulls involved early--making the defense have to guard everyone--keep MJ rested and then ride MJ in the fourth quarter if the game was close.

I have not charted this but my memory/impression is that one of the ways that MJ maintained a league-high scoring average throughout is that Jackson would enable MJ to stay in games long enough to get his points even if the Bulls were winning handily. Compare MJ's minutes played to someone like Duncan's. My recollection is that there were games when MJ would have 15 or 20 at halftime and the Bulls would have a pretty good lead. MJ always seemed to stay in the game until he had at least 30 points or so; in other words, it seemed like he was not staying in long enough to ensure the win but to make sure he got his numbers. I've never seen anyone explicitly talk about that but I've always thought that was one way that MJ differed from Erving. Dr. J played on a lot of 55-60 win teams and when the game got out of hand he was on the bench. I asked him about that and he expressed no desire to have stayed in the game to rack up points; he also said that the bench players work hard in practice and deserve an opportunity to play. I'm not saying that one way is right or wrong but this is a difference between MJ and Erving.

So, even though MJ was averaging 30+ ppg for Jackson one could say, to borrow an old cliche, that MJ was working smarter, not harder; Pip was doing more ballhandling, MJ was able to conserve his energy until the end of the game or else tack on a few points in the third quarter of routs before sitting out.

I completely agree with your observations about the Bulls' defense. That was of course largely a product of the greatness of MJ and Pip, though Grant, Harper and Rodman also made notable contributions.

The competition that the Bulls faced could be looked at a couple different ways. You could say that they never faced one great rival or you could say that they had to battle several different teams that each presented unique challenges; the talented ensemble of the Blazers led by Drexler, the Stockton-Malone Jazz and the other teams each were formidable in their own right. The 1996 Bulls did sweep the Magic, who had Shaq and had made it to the Finals the year before. Patrick Ewing is almost certainly headed to the Hall of Fame and the Bulls beat his Knicks several times in the playoffs. It is not entirely accurate to say that the Bulls never faced a dominant center. The matchup that I think we all would have liked to see was Hakeem's Rockets circa 1993-1995 versus a fully loaded Bulls team (either the 1993 version or the 1996 version).

The Seattle and Utah teams that the Bulls beat each won well over 60 regular season games and could be compared favorably--from a statistical standpoint--to some teams that won championships. We don't think of them that way because they never won a title. It would be like if Magic and the Lakers beat Bird's Celtics and Doc's 76ers but Bird and Doc never won rings. Then it might look like Magic never faced anybody (well, not exactly, but I think you see what I mean). The titles that each of those stars won against each other kind of "validate" all of their accomplishments. Roger Federer made a similar point recently about this era in tennis: he dismissed the idea that he is facing weaker competition than existed in previous eras by saying that the competition only looks weak because he and Nadal are winning all of the Slams. Roddick and some other players may very well have won Slams in other eras and only look relatively weaker because of Federer's dominance. I'm not sure that I completely agree with Federer but he makes a point that has to at least be considered and that also applies to some degree to the competition that MJ faced in the Finals.

At Sunday, September 16, 2007 4:20:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

My mistake about overlooking Shaq, Mikan, and Dr. J. It must be late.

I think your points about the differences in ball movement and the "work smarter, not harder idea" make a lot of sense and have a lot of merit.

I never really considered the possibility of MJ staying in during routes to pad his stats. You could be right. I don't have Sam Smith's Jordan Rules handy, but I think it was mentioned somewhere in there that Phil Jackson asked MJ to give up the scoring crown and cut his average down to the low or mid 20s, but MJ still wanted the scoring title. MJ averaged substantially more mpg than Dr. J did with the Sixers. Without doing any calculations, it looks like MJ averaged about a minute more per game than Pip during their title years. I don't know whether or not that is consistent with MJ staying in during routes while Pip wasn't.

I think Ewing was a notch below the Shaqs and Olajuwons of the league. In any case, the Knicks seemed to have a good philosophy of how to play the Bulls, but they simply didn't have the horses. There was no reliable second option after Ewing (who, as I've said before, was not even as good as the Bulls' SECOND best player, IMO). (This is a bit off topic, but it would have been interesting to see how the Knicks would've fared if Mark Jackson and Xavier McDaniel hadn't departed after the 1992 season.)

The Bulls did beat Shaq's Magic in 1996, but that only gave them a split. Yes, MJ was not at his very best in 1995 and the Bulls were missing the PF they needed. However, the Magic in 1996 were missing Grant for most of the series and they had some other issues which I think took away from their focus. The point is, all teams have to deal with issues from time to time which leave them at less than their peak form. I still think it's no coincidence that the one loss the Bulls had between 1991-98 with MJ was to a team anchored by one of the best centers ever.

Here's the problem I have with the notion that the Bulls kept the teams they faced from "validating" their places as great teams and worthy adversaries. If a team the Bulls beat would normally have been good enough to be champions but were only held back by the abnormal greatness of the Bulls, wouldn't this team have validated such a status by consistently being #2 only to the Bulls? No such team emerged. Think of how many times the Sixers and Celtics and Lakers faced each other in the 80s. Hypothetically, if one of those teams always won, at least they would have had consistent challengers.

I think the 80s featured 3 teams on the same general level as the Bulls: the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers. The Pistons would be just a notch below. I don't think the teams the Bulls beat were as good as any of those teams. They would be more comparable to the "second rate" teams of the 80s that could never get to the finals such as Moncrief's Bucks and Aguirre's Mavericks and Gervin's Spurs.

At Sunday, September 16, 2007 5:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't know that Jackson or MJ ever had some spoken agreement to let MJ "pad his stats" but watching those teams I got the impression that Jackson expected MJ to play a certain way early in the game and that once matters were in hand he would give MJ some second half minutes to kind of get his numbers before just pulling all of the starters. Obviously, it still takes a very great player to be able to just go out and score almost at will and MJ had a good shooting percentage during those years, so I don't mean to say that he was hurting the team. Just remember the quote from Jordan Rules: MJ always wanted to win but he wanted to be the reason. To me, that also means that he wants everyone to clearly see that he is the reason and that is signified by leading the league in scoring. Jackson did talk at first about MJ not winning any more scoring titles but, as I've indicated, I think that the two of them forged a compromise position on that one, whether or not they explicitly discussed the matter.

Bobby Jones told me that Doc could have averaged 30 ppg in the NBA if he cared about his stats but I know from talking to Doc that he did not care at all about that. If you look at interviews he gave as a young player, he was always talking about reducing his scoring and getting everyone else involved, which is the exact opposite of what MJ was saying at a similar age.

I agree that Ewing was a notch below Hakeem and Shaq but he still was an All-NBA center. My point in bringing him up is that I don't necessarily agree that the Bulls would not have been able to beat teams from previous eras strictly because those teams had great centers.

The 1996 Bulls swept Orlando and the biggest victory came in game one when Grant still was able to play. The 1995 series turned on a couple key errors by MJ, who was noticeably rusty. The '95 Bulls were greatly handicapped not only by losing Grant but by losing him to the team that turned out to be their biggest rival. Pip had to play power forward for extended stretches in that series as the Bulls went with a small lineup because their bigs were not getting the job done and the added strain of playing the "4" took away a bit from some of the things that Pip usually did as a "3." It was interesting to see Jackson coach against Shaq and then to see him later coach Shaq. When he coached against Shaq his approach was often to let Shaq score a lot early and kind of wear himself out, which was basically the opposite of what he wanted his star MJ to do. When Jackson coached Shaq he implored him to get in better shape (so such strategies by the other team would not work) and he deployed Shaq in the triangle in ways that made him not have to work so hard to get the ball (a variation on what he did with MJ in the triangle, as I mentioned in an earlier comment in this thread). These subtleties of the game are not often noticed or discussed but they are why I reject the idea that "anybody" could have coached MJ and Shaq to all of those titles.

I see your point about a legit #2 not emerging but one thing that was happening is that the contenders for that status were beating each other. Seattle beat Utah in seven games in the 1996 WCF or the Jazz would have made three straight trips to the Finals. Does this mean that the Bulls had no worthy contenders or a plethora of equally worthy contenders? I'm not taking a hard stand either way; I'm just pointing out that the facts of this case could be interpreted two different ways.

I think that the '96 Bulls going against the best of the '80s would be a very hard fought, competitive series. Which rules' interpretations would be used regarding hand checking, illegal defense, etc.? Teams are built to win in their own eras against their rivals and under the current rules, so it is really tough to pluck a team out of its environment and project how it would do.

At Tuesday, September 18, 2007 4:53:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

It seemed to me like the only year Dr. J was paying any kind of attention to his scoring was in 1980. That came on the heels of a disappointing 1979 season when Doc didn't make any All-NBA teams and critics were not really considering him an elite player. From his interviews given during the time, it seemed like Dr. J took offense to this and set out to re-establish himself as one of the league's best.

It's interesting how philosophies about winning have shifted since MJ. It used be thought that you couldn't win with one guy dominating the offense. Now, critics expect star players to always carry a huge load offensively and seem to question the star's ability/heart in any losing game in which he's not taking a huge amount of shots (see the criticism Lebron got during the playoffs). In the 80s, the top players on the best teams (Bird, Erving, Jabbar) were usually averaging in the low or mid 20s on teams which averaged well over 100 ppg. Now, most top stars are averaging close to 30 or more ppg on teams which are scoring less than 100 ppg.

At Tuesday, September 18, 2007 6:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

By 1980, Doug Collins was hurt and McGinnis and Free had been traded away. Coach Billy Cunningham said around that time that previous Sixers teams had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians," noting that in the ABA Doc was clearly the number one offensive option and he led his team to two championships. Doc told me--and I know that he said this in previous interviews as well--that when he got to Philly that the GM and the coach told him that they did not need him to average 28-30 ppg like he did in the ABA, that they thought that the team's best chance to win was to have three guys averaging around 20 ppg each. Doc had no problem with that. The Sixers made it to the 1977 Finals but lost in earlier playoff rounds the next two years, more so because of injuries/shortcomings affecting the other players than anything that Doc did wrong.

Even in 1980, though, when Doc averaged an NBA career-high 26.9 ppg, he had fewer field goal attempts than MJ had in any of his complete seasons with the Bulls: 1614 in 78 games. Doc shot .519 from the field that year, his best mark in the NBA to that point in time (he would exceed that in each of the next two seasons) and he attempted 534 free throws, an NBA career-high to that point (he also exceeded that number in each of the next two seasons). Doc averaged 36.1 mpg and, even though he was clearly the focal point of the offense, he was not chasing the scoring title the way that MJ did every year. In Doc's three highest scoring NBA seasons (1980-82) the Sixers made it to the NBA Finals twice and missed a third appearance after blowing a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Doc won the 1981 MVP and was second in the 1980 MVP voting and third in the 1982 MVP voting. I think that the Sixers would have been better off in the earlier years if they had not put so many shackles on Doc's game. We know that a player like MJ would certainly have resisted the idea that his team would be better served by him averaging 20-22 ppg--and maybe MJ is right about that, to a point.

You are right that the perceived role of a superstar has changed over the years. Doc, Bird and Magic did not score the way that Kobe, LeBron and today's young stars do, even though overall scoring was higher back then. I thought that the criticism of LeBron for passing the ball was absurd. One difference is that the league has expanded a lot since the 1980s and talent is a bit more spread out. A lot of teams have one star and a bunch of relatively limited players, so the one star monopolizes the ball to a great extent. Doc spent most of his NBA career playing with one or two guys who legitimately could average 20 ppg and score 40 on a given night. LeBron does not have a teammate like that.

At Tuesday, September 18, 2007 6:25:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I agree that a team would not be able to defeat the Bulls strictly by having a dominant center. My point was that if the Bulls had an Achilles heal, it probably would have been dealing with physical teams that could dominate inside. The Knicks were able to play well against the Bulls due to their physical presence (of which Ewing was a big part), and their ability to overachieve. However, playing hard is not always enough. You also have to be talented, and the Knicks were not going to beat the Bulls with John Starks as their second-best player. (If Olajuwon took Ewing's place on the Knicks, it would still seem highly unlikely that they could beat the Bulls, but there would always be the possibility of Olajuwon taking it to an unreal level which Ewing just never really played at and pushing them over the top.)

You bring up an interesting possible explanation of the lack of a consistent #2 team to the Bulls. Although consistency shouldn't be ignored as a measure of greatness, perhaps there were a bunch of "equally worthy contenders".

There is some merit to this point. During the Rockets' prime years (1993-1997), they were eliminated by the Sonics twice and the Jazz once. During the Suns' prime years (1993-1995), they were eliminated by the Bulls and twice by the Rockets. On the other hand, during the Sonics' prime (1993-1997) they lost twice to teams who were far from "worthy contenders": an 8th-seed Nuggets team and a Lakers team whose best player was Cedric Ceballos. To their credit, they did beat the Rockets and Jazz twice each.

I am especially unimpressed by the Jazz. Let's look at what they did from 1989 (by which time both Stockton and Malone had established themselves as All-Stars) to 1996. Four first-round exits (three of them coming to teams who had worse records), losses to the Warriors, Suns (pre-Barkley), Sonics (twice), Rockets (twice), and Blazers (twice). Which decent teams did the Jazz actually beat during that time? The Spurs (who hardly ever made noise in the playoffs anyway), pre-Barkley Suns, and the Sonics in 1992 (when GP and Kemp were pups and far from the established all-stars they would become).

Isn't that rather underwhelming? We are talking about a team headlined by two players almost universally considered Top 3 All-Time at their respective positions. These two players played with each other for 11 years, mostly under the same system, before they could reach the finals. Why couldn't they do any real damange in the playoffs before then? Was their supporting cast better in 97-98? I wouldn't say so. Were Stockton and Malone better in 97-98? No, they peaked earlier. Were the 97 and 98 Jazz teams the best of the Stockton-Malone era? There's a good chance they weren't. As Bill Simmons noted in one of his articles, the Jazz were lucky in that they stayed consistent while the other good teams in the west (Sonics, Suns, Blazers, Rockets) faded, and the other talented teams, such as the Lakers, were too young and had chemistry issues. They didn't get to the finals by default, exactly, but it wasn't far from that. Looking at their playoff record, I'd say either the Stockton-Malone Jazz underachieved drastically, or Stockton and Malone just weren't as good as many of us think.

Anyway, let's continue with the idea that there were lots of "equally worthy contenders". I suppose the argument comes down to the question: what is considered a "worthy contender"? If it was just the incredible superiority of the Bulls which kept these second-place teams from validating themselves, an appropriate consideration is: would these teams have been good enough to win titles during another time when they wouldn't have to face the Bulls? Or, simply, would they have been good enough to win titles in the 1980s?

Looking at it from a numbers perspective, let's take all the different teams the Bulls faced in the Finals and ECF, with the exception of the Lakers and Pistons, who were remnants of the 80s era. That makes 9 teams (Blazers, Suns, Sonics, Jazz, Cavs, Knicks, Magic, Heat, Pacers). Adding the Rockets and Bulls, that makes 11 teams in an 8-year period who were hypothetically as good the Lakers, Celtics, Sixers, and Pistons of the 80s? Is that even possible? Probably not, but let's suppose it was. I believe, like you do, that a series between the Bulls and the 80s champions would have been very close and hard-fought. If that were the case, shouldn't facing 9 different teams featuring different styles and personnel, yet all capable of giving the Bulls a very close, hard-fought series have resulted in at least one loss? (I am excluding the 1995 loss since that team wasn't "fully loaded", though I still think it should "count" for reasons I stated earlier.) After all, with more teams rather than few, the laws of probability make it seem likely that at least one of these teams with supposedly worthy talent would also have the appropriate style of play and players to defeat the Bulls.

In any case, I don't think an analysis of the Bulls and their lack of a consistent competitor is very necessary. You can just look at the rosters and the histories and see that the Bulls never faced an opponent in the same class as the 1985 Celtics or 1984 Lakers.

At Tuesday, September 18, 2007 7:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You make some excellent points. As I said before, the MJ-Olajuwon Finals showdown is a dream matchup that I'm sure all basketball fans would have loved to see.

As you probably know, I've mentioned before that the Jazz had a tendency to make a lot of first round exits; I'm also not sold on Malone being quite as great as most people think that he is. Still, I'm not sure that Utah's playoff failures early in his career detract from what the Jazz did from 1996-98 (two NBA Finals appearances and a loss in game seven of the WCF). Again, this can be perceived in one of two ways. The interpretation that you (and Simmons) prefer is that the Jazz did not improve in the mid-1990s as much as the rest of the Western Conference regressed. The other interpretation would be that the Jazz learned from their playoff failures and became better postseason performers. It is worth noting that Jeff Hornacek was the third wheel on the 96-98 teams and he was not on most of the Utah squads that made early playoff exits.

Yes, Seattle also made some early playoff exits but even Doc, Bird and Magic each had something similar happen to them at least once (Bird in '83, Doc in '84, Magic in '81). I realize that there were some extenuating circumstances regarding some of those losses--and none of them is as bad as Seattle losing to Denver in '94--but even truly great players on truly great teams can get knocked out early; Doc, Bird and Magic each won a title either the year before or the year after the aforementioned unexpectedly early exits.

I'm not saying absolutely and definitively that the reason that the Bulls did not have one main rival is that they faced several equally worthy contenders but I do think that this is at least partially true. Overall, I do agree that it does not seem that the Bulls faced quite as strong a field as the '80s teams did. Part of this is because of the overall dilution of talent due to expansion--the compensating influx of talented foreign players did not fully make itself felt until after the Bulls' dynasty, although a few foreign players (Sabonis, Petrovic, Kukoc, Schrempf to name four) made some impact in the 1990s.

My point about the Bulls' challengers is that four of the six teams that they defeated in the Finals won at least 62 games. Unless one believes that the entire NBA fell off dramatically--even at the upper echelon--one has to concede that the Bulls beat some excellent teams, even if one clear rival never emerged.

Another reason that one clear rival did not emerge is that the Bulls won three titles, took two years off (unintentionally), then won three more titles. During that time span the Bulls' roster completely changed except for MJ and Pip and the rosters of many other teams changed significantly as well. Bird, McHale and Parish faced Magic, Kareem and Worthy three times in four years but the timing never worked out for MJ and Pip to face the Rockets in 1994 and 1995. The closest thing is the back to back matchups with Utah which, as I noted, could have been three straight if Utah had beaten Seattle in 1996.

If you think back, circumstances just seemed to "conspire" against the Bulls playing the same team over and over in the Finals (they did face the Cavs and Knicks many times in the Eastern playoffs). Magic's Lakers upset the Blazers in the '91 playoffs; otherwise the Blazers might have made three straight Finals appearances, including two against the Bulls. Magic had to retire in 1992 due to getting HIV, so the Lakers had no shot to make it to the 1992 Finals. The Bulls and Rockets just missed each other's peak years.

The two Chicago-Utah matchups were interesting, particularly the second one, when Utah had the homecourt advantage. If MJ does not get the steal and make that jumper then the Bulls would have had to win game seven in Utah and Pip, who had two ruptured disks in his back that required offseason surgery, may not have been able to play in that seventh game (he barely made it through game six). Karl Malone literally had his own fate in his hands when MJ took the ball and the title away from him. I suppose it is easy to make too much of moments like that but it just seemed like Chicago always found a way to win those games.

At Monday, September 24, 2007 7:49:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Sorry for the late response. It seems that blogspot has been down a lot recently.

It is quite possible that the Jazz matured into better playoff performers by 97-98. However, it still seems odd to me that it took Stockton and Malone to reach their mid 30s to do so. I can't think of any other great basketball players who peaked as pressure performers so late. It is true that Hornacek wasn't with the club as long as Stockon and Malone. Still, the Jazz usually had role players of comparable talent to their 97-98 cast: Jeff Malone, Thurl Bailey, Mark Eaton, Blue Edwards, and so on (not saying they were great players, but certainly comparable to Hornacek, Russell, Eisley, etc.).

The notion that the Jazz benefitted from a decline in the West is not only based on the numerous times the Jazz previously underachieved, but also from observing the strength of their Western opponents in 97-98. The Suns and Blazers had been broken up, Shawn Kemp was pouting about his contract in Seattle and was then traded, and Houston was basically a 3-man team whose stars were all on the downsides of their careers. The Lakers obviously had chemistry issues and were less than the sum of their parts. It's interesting to note that every Western contender from this era, except for the Jazz, defeated other Western contenders at their full strength a few times.

To be fair to the Jazz, it should be pointed out that Stockton and Malone were able to maintain their usual standards while other stars of the same age (Barkley, Drexler, Hakeem, etc.) were declining. That is certainly a notable accomplishment.

To summarize, I do think it is possible the Jazz may have improved as playoff performers, but I certainly think a decline in their Western competition helped them.

Like you, I don't consider Malone as great as most people do. While there is certainly a small but noisy group of Malone critics out there, no one really seems to hold Stockton accountable. I find this strange. I understand that Stockton was a "pure" PG type who wasn't looking to take over games. Still, I think Stockton didn't do quite as much as may be expected of a Top 3 All-Time PG. To me, Stockton and Malone both have somewhat inflated reputations due to their considerable longevity. Longevity is impressive, but peak value should also matter. If I want to win an important playoff game, I'll take Walt Frazier or Isiah Thomas over Stockton and Tim Duncan and numerous small forwards over Malone.

As for great teams and early playoff exits to inferior teams: it happened once in a decade to the Lakers and Sixers, not nearly as bad as the two times in five years it happened to the Sonics. It's the difference between an anomaly and a trend. I don't think the Celtics 1983 loss should count. The Bucks team which beat them would stack up well with any of the Western contenders of the 90s.

I do agree that circumstances seemed to "conspire" against the Bulls getting a great match-up. In addition to the examples you noted, I'd add the Knicks in 1997 (suspensions) and Spurs in 1998 (Duncan's injury).

Getting back to the main point, consistency aside, I'm not sure the Bulls ever beat a team as talented as they were. The only team which may count would be the Shaq-Penny Magic (I guess you can't blame the Bulls that they played in an era when free-agency ruined their greatest potential rival). People might try to argue that Barkley-KJ, Malone-Stockton, or Payton-Kemp were duos close to or on the same level as Jordan-Pippen, but I'd strongly disagree (and lets not get into the lack of star power of the Knicks, Pacers, and Heat). I think it's telling that the Rockets were able to win a championship with only one All-Star (a very rare feat) while going through most of the great duos I mentioned in the process. This can be contrasted with the 80s, when the Lakers, Celtics and Sixers were all arguably as talented as each other.

I'm not trying to take away from the Bulls, who were unquestionably one of the greatest teams ever. I just think that this may explain why they were able to be so successful while relying so much on one scorer. I think it's easier to just give the ball to Michael down the stretch and expect him to come up with enough points to win when you don't have to worry about matching baskets with the other team's offense. I'm not sure this strategy would have been as succesful in a time when guys like Andrew Toney, Bob McAdoo, and Kevin McHale were coming off the bench, and the top teams usually had 4-6 guys who could go out and get you 20+.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I wish I could find some reasonable explanation of why the Bulls, and only the Bulls, were able to be so successful with one guy dominating the offense.

At Tuesday, September 25, 2007 7:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't have a serious disagreement with most of what you wrote. As I said before, some of this has to do with how one interprets what happened--does one believe that Utah improved or that everyone else got worse? The reality may in fact be a combination of both.

I would add just three more thoughts:

1) Another reason that the Bulls could primarily rely on MJ as the fourth quarter "finisher" is that they consistently played great defense, meaning that they were almost always in striking distance. Could they have played defense with that kind of success against the great teams of the 1980s? Obviously, there is no way to definitively answer that question but they did dethrone a Detroit team that had multiple weapons and had gotten past 80s champions L.A. and Boston in previous years.

2) I think that Stockton was a much better playoff performer and clutch player than Malone was. In fact, in most late game situations it was Stockton, not Malone, who was the first option. Perhaps this was because Stockton had the ball in his hands but Malone was the team's big offensive weapon in the first three quarters. To give just two examples, Stockton hit the three pointer that knocked out Houston and sent Utah to the Finals and Stockton attempted a three pointer that rimmed out near the end of one of the Chi-Utah series. Utah's best late game play was a screen/roll that ended up in a shot by Stockton. Don't forget that MJ stole the ball from Malone just before MJ hit the game-winner in the '98 Finals. If Stockton had kept the ball and taken the shot himself that series might have gone seven.

3) It is hard to say whether or not the Bulls faced teams that were more talented. MJ was clearly the best player of that era and many would say that he is the greatest player of all-time. Pip is a Top 50 player and I would put him in the top 25 (closer to 25 than 10). They were the two constants on the six championship teams. Rodman was also a great player, in my opinion--but after those three, you have guys like Grant, Cartwright, Paxson, an old Ron Harper, etc. Were those guys more "talented" than their counterparts on other teams? Or did they just mesh their skills very well in Jackson's system? I would expect Terry Porter or Kevin Johnson to beat Paxson one on one. The Bulls had two absolute studs--and three in the second three-peat if you include Rodman--but their overall talent was not necessarily exceptional. So when you say that the Bulls never faced a more talented team are you talking about players 3-8 or are you heavily weighing the importance of MJ and Pip? I would agree that the Bulls never faced a duo that was as good as MJ and Pip but they faced some teams that were at least as talented in the 3-8 spots (which is not the same thing as saying that those teams in fact played better, of course).

At Tuesday, September 25, 2007 1:52:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Yes, I think the Bulls' superior defense was a huge part of their ability to win with one guy dominating the offense. Maybe the reason we haven't seen any other teams win with one guy shooting so much is there has never really been another team which had the combination of a perimeter defense as great as the Bulls and a scorer as capable as Jordan.

Stockton certainly has a srong strack record of taking and making clutch shots (more than Malone). I guess my main criticism is that he didn't really go out and grab games by the throat enough. For instance, Stockton averaged in single digits in the 1998 Finals. I suppose it comes down to a philosophical question of whether or not a "pure" point guard should be expected to take over a game on offense.

You're right, the Bulls faced many teams which had more talent from 3-8 (though the contributions of the Bulls' role players, especially on defense, were huge). I just think that the outcomes of games are most often determined by the superstars, and the Bulls always had a very clear edge in that department.

At Tuesday, September 25, 2007 2:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


One other factor that worked in the favor of the second three-peat team is defensive interchangeability: the Bulls could put a lineup on the court consisting of one big (Longley) and four guys who were 6-6 to 6-8 (MJ, Pip, Rodman, Harper). Against that team, pick and roll plays did not accomplish much because the Bulls could pretty much switch everything without having a disadvantage, since the four 6-6 to 6-8 guys could guard most players from point guard to power forward--not necessarily for a whole game, but they could do so effectively with the shot clock winding down; moreover, if there was a mismatch after the switch, MJ or Pip could trap and force a pass.


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