The Chicago Bulls have won just one playoff series from 1998 to 2009, and from 1976 to 1988 they made it through the first round only one time. Overall, they have lost 50 or more games 11 times in 44 years, haven't had an All-Star in more than a decade and didn't win a conference title in their first 24 seasons.
Of course, I left out the decade from 1988 to 1998 for a reason. The Bulls were so good in that era that they rank fourth on the franchise list, despite doing almost nothing of consequence in their other 34 years of existence.
Led by the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan, the Bulls won six NBA championships -- and might have had more if Jordan hadn't taken off nearly two full seasons to pursue a minor league baseball career. People forget, but the supporting cast around him wasn't too shabby either. Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc and company were good enough to win 55 games without Jordan in 1993-94, and were beaten by eventual conference champ New York because of a dubious foul call on Pippen late in Game 5.
And with Jordan? Forget it. Chicago steamrolled the league in 1995-96, when Jordan came back full-time and defensive pest Dennis Rodman joined the mix. Chicago set a record with a 72-10 season in which it led the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Bulls started the season 41-3, didn't lose a home game until April 8 and had one double-digit loss the entire regular season. It goes without saying that they won the title, and this is generally considered the greatest team in league history.
That season marked Jordan's fourth championship. All of Jordan's first four championships came in an era when teams were allowed to partake in much more physical defense than today, making it easier to defend quick guards like Jordan. It didn't matter. Neither the Pistons nor Knicks -- two of the best defensive teams of all time -- had an answer for Jordan, who went through Detroit in four games en route to his first title and the Knicks each of his next three.
The Bulls get 100 extra intangible points for the fact that they had the greatest player ever, and the countless moments he delivered. Anyone who watched the Bulls for that decade walked away having seen more etched-in-stone, all-time moments than fans of most teams would see in a century.
It should be pointed out Jordan's was not the only Bulls team to be a contender. Early in the 1970s, Dick Motta led Chicago to four straight 50-win seasons and back-to-back trips to the conference finals. The Bulls had the misfortune of being in the same division as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but got within a game of the promised land before falling to eventual champion Golden State in the 1975 Western Conference finals -- after the Bulls blew a Game 6 clincher on their home court, and dropped Game 7 by four points. That team had four key players in their 30s and faded to irrelevance once Chet Walker and Jerry Sloan hung up their sneakers a season later, eight years before the Bulls drafted Jordan.
And the 1996 team was the best Finals team ever -
1. 1996 CHICAGO BULLS SCORE: 327.9
Regular-season record: 72-10
Postseason record: 15-3
Avg. scoring margin: +12.2
Avg. scoring margin, playoffs: +10.6
Finals result: Beat Seattle, 4-2
LEADERS (regular-season stats)
Scoring: Michael Jordan, 30.4 ppg
Rebounds: Dennis Rodman, 14.9 rpg
Assists: Scottie Pippen, 5.9 apg
Coach: Phil Jackson
Finals MVP: Michael Jordan
Hands down, the greatest team of all time. How can you choose another when these guys won 72 regular-season games and 14 of their first 15 in the postseason? The Bulls were so good they were first in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and outscored their opponents by 12.2 points per game.
With names like Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Toni Kukoc, not to mention a coach like Phil Jackson, this team was pretty much unbeatable -- in fact, seven of its playoff wins were by 17 points or more. The only nit to pick was the Bulls' consecutive losses to the Sonics in the Finals, but they were up 3-0 by then and seemingly bored with how good they were.
Things we should have heard about (instead of Kobe) in the Finals -
Not the 2009 Lakers. Take Gasol, who shot 62 percent from the field in the last two rounds. You know how many shots he attempted in those 11 games? 120. You know how many big guys would have been happy with a situation in which their coach said, "I know you score six out of every 10 times we get you the ball, but you're going to have to live with 11 shots a game because we can't win a title unless Kobe's happy?" Not many. Shaq didn't like the arrangement and got shipped out of town. Gasol came from NBA Hell (Memphis), and he was willing to sacrifice to make the Lakers better. He's a big reason they won. He crashed the boards, killed himself on defense and reinvented himself as a complementary sidekick of the highest order.
Did you hear about Gasol's sacrifice during the playoffs? Not really. Just like you didn't hear about Odom's willingness to give up minutes and touches during a contract year (a rarity in the NBA these days), or Ariza's red-hot shooting and the irony of Orlando giving him away last season. We always heard about Kobe sacrificing, but really, the key to the 2009 title was that he finally found three talented sidekicks willing to sacrifice for him. Big difference.
I wish I knew. It was perplexing. In my opinion, the following storylines were more interesting ...
Storyline A: I have written about the "Nobody Believes In Us!" phenomenon many times, but the 2009 Lakers were the first "Nobody Believed In Me!" team. As Washington Post columnist Mike Wise pointed out, the key Lakers were alternately dismissed, dumped by a previous team, pigeonholed as a certain type of player, overlooked for whatever reason or thought to be washed up: Kobe, Odom, Gasol, Ariza, Bynum, Fisher, even Jackson. All of them had something to prove -- not as teammates, but as individuals. Now that's a unique angle. I wish I had thought of it first.
Storyline B: OK, this has nothing to do with anything ... but I can't stop thinking about Joey Buss. Granted, there's a chance I would have been just as tongue-tied on national TV at age 19. But who thought it was a good idea to have him speak extemporaneously in front of a worldwide audience? How did he become the "alternate governor of the Lakers," and what does that mean? Are people in Southern California frightened that two of their governors are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joey Buss? Did they throw him out there to answer the question, "What would have happened if Fredo had gotten control of the Corleone family?" Did they bring him out to make the Maloofs feel better about themselves as overmatched legacy kids? Has he ever been discreetly stared at by a bunch of country club workers and had one of them say, "Fifty bucks says the Buss kid picks his nose." Do I have to retire the Unintentional Comedy Scale now?
Where was Jerry Buss? Where was Jeanie Buss? How did this happen? How can I get more Joey Buss in my life? And why didn't I know about him before Sunday night? More importantly, when are they putting the Buss boys in charge of the Lakers????? I vote for right now. Like, today. This moment. Please. I am begging you. This would be like a cross between the Hank Steinbrenner Era and "Tommy Boy." I never thought there would be a silver lining with a Lakers title, but dammit, there was.
Storyline C: The 2009 Lakers were built the same way someone goes on a three-hour craps run. In other words, don't even think about duplicating it. Seven solid "What if that coin flip had turned up tails instead of heads?" moments shaped the team. Namely, what if Jackson hadn't developed a relationship with Jeanie Buss? (No way he comes back to deal with Kobe again otherwise.) What if Anthony Carter's agent hadn't forgotten to send in his contract in time during the summer of 2003, creating enough cap space for Miami to sign Odom as a free agent, then giving Miami enough pieces to trade for Shaq a year later? What if the Lakers had traded Odom like they almost did about 35,000 times? What if Kobe hadn't blocked the Chicago trade -- and he did -- right before the 2007-08 season because the Bulls were giving up too much? What if Chris Wallace hadn't given them Gasol for 30 cents on the dollar? What if Otis Smith hadn't done the same in giving away Ariza? And what if Fisher's daughter hadn't fallen ill, forcing an unprecedented situation in which Utah released him from his deal so he could play for the Lakers?
(That's seven "what ifs." Seven. Amazing. The Chicago part remains the most incredible. You forget how close that was; I don't think I saw it explored once during the Finals.)
Storyline D: Kobe and Phil. I know, it has been done. Many times. But the story had so many layers that I still don't feel as if we nailed all of them. My favorite image of the 2009 Finals was Phil's face after Kobe went one-on-four at the end of Game 2, something I jokingly called The "Should I point out to him that MJ would have absolutely passed there?" Face in my column.
You know what his reaction reminded me of? Being married. Spend enough time with a person and you accept their strengths and weaknesses for what they are. For instance, I am messy. I leave clothes on the floor. I will make coffee in the morning, mistakenly leave a little coffee on the counter and not clean it up. I'm just selfishly absentminded about little things like that. My wife stopped complaining about it around three years ago. When I do those things now, she just makes the Phil Jackson Face. Crap. I'm stuck with him. It's not even worth getting into it. The plusses outweigh the minuses. Let's move forward. Jackson never made that face with his first wife (Jordan); with his second wife (Kobe), he makes it every so often. You could say they're an imperfect match, and if you want to keep the domestic analogy going, they even legally separated in 2004 after a couple of unhappy years. Now they might go on like this indefinitely.
It's just one more reason why Phil Jackson is the greatest basketball coach ever. He sold the greatest player ever on the benefits of being a good teammate, which wasn't an easy task because Jordan was a demanding, insensitive jerk at the time. Jackson nearly brought the Bulls to the '94 Finals without the greatest player ever, which remains the single most incredible coaching job of my lifetime. He won 72 games. He won 10 titles. Last but not least, he harnessed the talents of the single most difficult superstar not named "Wilt" the NBA has ever seen. He did this gradually, over the span of a solid decade, and he even had to walk away once for effect. You can't credit him for "changing" Kobe, just for nudging him in the right directions and helping him understand the balance between dominating and winning. What Kobe did with that understanding, ultimately, was up to him.
Anyway, I could have listened to people explain the Phil-Kobe relationship all day. Frankly, I still don't understand it myself. But if a coach spends enough time with a player, they really do start to feel like a married couple. Russell and Auerbach were like the Cleavers. Havlicek and Heinsohn were the Bunkers. Magic and Riley were the Huxtables. Jordan and Jackson were the Simpsons. Duncan and Popovich were the Barones. Phil and Kobe? They were definitely the Sopranos. And I don't need to tell you who was Tony.
[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesIf you want to remember anything about Kobe '09, remember his remarkable ability to bring it every night.
Storyline E: I'm all for appreciating Kobe's greatness; it's just that my colleagues sold the wrong angle. Since he squashed the Chicago deal, Kobe has won MVP, All-Star MVP and Finals MVP awards; he played in two straight Finals and won a title; he starred on an Olympic gold medal team, took over as its alpha dog down the stretch and handled business in what was shaping up to be Spain's version of the 1980 USA-USSR hockey game; and most amazingly, he played in the maximum 164 regular-season games and 44 playoff games without getting a summer break because of the Olympics. And he did it despite turning 30 in August 2008 and passing the usually dangerous 1,000-game mark last season.
You know what? We just witnessed one of the great two-year stretches in the history of professional basketball if the determining factors were durability, consistency, individual success, team success, statistical excellence and degree of difficulty. Kobe's 2007-2009 stretch ranks alongside these post-shot-clock efforts (in no particular order): Bill Russell (1961-63), Jerry West (1964-66), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68), Bill Russell (1967-69), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970-72), Larry Bird (1985-87), Magic Johnson (1986-88), Michael Jordan (1990-92), Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-95), Michael Jordan (1996-98) and Tim Duncan (2001-03). Not a fraud on the list.
I would rather see Kobe linked with everyone above and not just Jordan, if only because the MJ comparisons are tiresome. We're never seeing another Jordan, just like we're never seeing another Brando or Lennon. It's just not happening. They might compare statistically and stylistically, but Jordan could command a room of 10 people or 20,000 and get the exact same reaction: Every set of eyes trained on him for as long as he was there. His personality, his charisma, his aura, his passion ... indescribable. Like nothing I have ever seen. Nobody remembers this now because he hasn't played in awhile, but Jordan was always the coolest guy in the room. Without fail. He was like Doctor J. crossed with Sinatra. Remember those dopey ads when somebody said, "My broker is E.F. Hutton," and everyone else in the room froze? That was what happened to an arena when Jordan walked in. You would freeze, and you would hear screams, and then it would be a sea of lightbulbs. And everyone was saying the same thing, "I get to say I watched Michael Jordan."
Kobe always wanted people to feel that way about him. He shaved his head, made music videos, jumped cars for viral videos, changed his number, stole MJ's fist pump, created that creepy face where he stuck his bottom two teeth out ... none of it worked. He will never command a room like Jordan did. Sorry. But he does share one crucial trait with Jordan: He's a professional of the highest order. He shows up every single night. It's just ingrained in him. Since they acquired Gasol 17 months ago, the Lakers have not lost three games in a row. Why? Because of Kobe. He will always try hard. Always. It's the best thing about him. And really, that's what made Kobe's performance special this spring: The degree of difficulty for someone maintaining that intensity for 20 months -- without missing a single game or getting a summer break -- is absolutely off the charts. It's remarkable.
At this specific point in his career, Kobe Bryant shouldn't have been able to play as consistently well as he did. He shouldn't have been able to survive overtime periods in Game 2 (his 205th straight game in 20 months) and Game 4 (No. 207) and thrived in Game 5 like he was playing Memphis in mid-January. Basketball might be a team sport, but in this specific case, an individual's will stood out and made the accomplishment of the group seem ancillary.
Look, I don't know how much of Kobe's personality is contrived. I don't know if this is the same selfish guy we watched five years ago, only with a freshly polished veneer that hides every demon lurking inside. I don't know if he learned how to play the part of a leader, almost like a trained actor, to throw everyone off his selfish scent. I don't know if he's sitting there tonight thinking, "I won my fourth title!" instead of, "We won the title!" Odds are, we will never figure these things out.
But I do know this: What Kobe Bryant accomplished over the past 20 months ranks up there with anything that ever happened in the National Basketball Association. He walks among the NBA gods now. Like it or not.