The Biggest 'What Ifs?' in Chicago Bulls History
- The gap from 1976-84 was just horrible, apart from the play of Artis Gilmore. No mere "tweak" can change that.
- There isn't a lot of information available online to evaluate what little nuances could have shifted that part of their history.
Do you ever think, “What if...?” when it comes to reflecting on your favorite sports teams? It’s a fun game, because with a few tweaks to history, you can greatly improve a franchise’s fortunes.
The Chicago Bulls legacy is full of such "what ifs."
An injury that didn’t happen here. A player chooses not to retire there. A slightly different decision is made elsewhere, at another time. Just like that, you have another group of banners hanging from the rafters.
Of course, this is all just fun. Reinventing history is not something that you should do at home. If you’re not a trained professional, there is a danger of blowing your own mind.
In all seriousness, this should not be taken seriously. It is done for solely for the purposes of wishful thinking and reverie.
It does show what a fine line NBA history treads, though. So much can change because of one incident. The butterfly effect is real.
Marching through time, we can rewrite Bulls history with a tweak here and nudge there. There is an admitted emphasis on their more recent history. There are two reasons for this:
With that disclaimer, these are the great “what ifs” in Chicago Bulls history, ranked chronologically.
What If the Bulls Hadn’t Blown It in 1975?
What if the Bulls Hadn’t Blown It in 1975?
The flip side of every great comeback saga is the fallen favorite. Sadly, the Bulls were on the wrong end of this story.
The Golden State Warriors came back from a 3-2 series deficit to the Bulls the 1975 Western Conference Finals. It was great for them but not so great for the Bulls.
The former Chicago great, Jerry Sloan, tells his version of the story here. A couple of excerpts might even remind you of today’s Bulls.
First, they weren’t a flashy offensive team, but they knew how to play defense.
As a team, we were going to give you a hard time. We led the league in defense. We weren’t flashy—none of us made the All-Star team in 1974-75—but Love, Van Lier, and I all were on the NBA’s All-Defensive Team. Everybody knew that if there was one thing our Bulls team would do, it was get after you on defense
And this might seem like a page from today’s headlines.
After the season, many pundits second-guessed that our coach, Dick Motta, rode the starters too hard, and, because of that, we didn’t have the energy to withstand the rigors of the postseason. I’m not sure I believe that; as a coach, you always want your best players on the floor. The Warriors just had a much deeper bench than we did, and that turned out to hurt us.
The Bulls lost to the Warriors in Game 6, and then again by four, 83-79, in Game 7 back in California (a game in which they led by 19 at one point). Until the Jordan era, it was as close as the Bulls ever came to a championship.
Considering the Bulls took Golden State to seven games, and the Warriors went on to sweep the Washington Bullets in the Finals, it’s not unfeasible to think that if the Bulls had held on in Game 6, there could be another banner hanging in the United Center.
What If Michael Jordan Hadn't Retired in 1993?
There isn’t much question that during the last half of his career, Michael Jordan was the best player in the league. That was about as controversial a claim as saying the ball was round.
However, On Oct 5, 1993, Jordan did something no player who was the absolute best in his sport has ever done. The Bulls, ready to mount their defense of their first three championships, received some devastating news.
Jordan announced he was retiring, in his prime, to play another sport. Others had retired at their peak, but they retired from sports, not just their sport.
Rick Weinberg of ESPN recounted the occasion, and Jordan’s words:
I've reached the pinnacle...I always said to the people that have known me that when I lose that sense of motivation and that sense that I can prove something, it's time for me to leave...It was just a matter of waiting until this time, when basketball was near, to see if my heart ticked for it...I went through all the different stages of getting myself prepared for the next year, but the desire...was not there.
After a couple of miserable seasons in minor league baseball, Jordan faxed the Bulls two words—the two most glorious words that any Bulls fan could want to hear—“I’m back.”
He returned to the Bulls midway through the 1994-95 season.
He wasn’t back to his Jordanesque best right away, and the Bulls lost to in the second round of the playoffs to the Orlando Magic, 4-2.
However, once he had a preseason under his belt, the Bulls steamrolled the competition in 1995-96, setting the NBA record for wins in a season, as they went 72-10 and won the championship, the first of their second three-peat.
So, that leaves the question, what if Jordan hadn't retired those two years? Would the Bulls have won those two championships in the middle? In all probability, they would have.
Furthermore, with the two extra seasons, Jordan would have been within spitting distance of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record.
Maybe he sticks around another couple of seasons.
All the blame for the breakup that came after the 1997-98 season is thrown at the feet of former general manager Jerry Krause, and he certainly deserves a lot of it. But even if Krause had been a lot less stupid, the team was probably doomed. Sam Smith of Bulls.com tells the story in detail if you have the time to read it.
To sum Smith up, Phil Jackson wanted no part of rebuilding. Jordan was losing his enthusiasm again. Scottie Pippen wanted out. Dennis Rodman was looking to leave for the Dallas Mavericks.
Essentially, it wasn't all Krause. The team was done in 1998.
But what if they had won eight straight? What if Jordan is chasing the all-time scoring record? Then Jackson's not staring at rebuilding. Maybe Pippen isn't thinking about leaving. Maybe Krause isn't blabbering like a fool.
Does the chance at winning nine straight championships keep the team together?
You have to figure it would.
What If the Bulls Hadn’t Drafted Like Idiots in the Post-Jordan Years?
The Bulls spent the early part of the post-Jordan years drafting like morons on a near annual basis. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but players that were available shortly after picks the Bulls used could be compiled into a championship-caliber team.
In 1998 they chose Corey Benjamin with the 28th pick. Rashard Lewis was taken four picks later by the Seattle SuperSonics.
They had No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft, and it was the only one when the Bulls chose wisely, taking Elton Brand, who went on to share NBA Rookie of the Year honors with Steve Francis.
The year 2000 was the true disaster. With six of the top 34 picks—three of them in the first round—the best they managed was Jamal Crawford. And who can forget the great Marcus Fizer? They could have had Michael Redd.
The year 2001 landed them Eddie Curry. Jason Richardson was the next player taken. Zach Randolph was available. Then they chose Trenton Hassell with the 28th pick. Gilbert Arenas was chosen 29th.
If they had drafted better, they could have had a starting five of Gilbert Arenas, Michael Redd, Rashard Lewis, Zach Randolph and Pau Gasol. That might not seem like a lot now, but in the mid-2000s that could have been a contending team.
What If the Bulls Hadn’t Traded LaMarcus Aldridge?
If there’s a recent trade that will get in the craw of every Bulls fan, it’s the team shipping off LaMarcus Aldridge on draft night for the legendary Tyrus Thomas. At the time, it wasn’t deemed a bad move.
Chad Ford of ESPN (insider) said in his analysis, “Another great draft for Bulls GM John Paxson. I had Tyrus Thomas ranked No. 1 on my board for the past two months, and the Bulls got him at No. 4 and picked up Viktor Khryapa in the process."
So, that’s what we call a swing and a miss from both Ford and Paxson.
Some postulate that if the Bulls had taken Aldridge, they would have never gotten Rose, though. I’m not sure that’s true. After all, the Bulls just got lucky and won the lottery. They didn't get Rose because they were a horrible team.
In fact, they were only the ninth-worst team and only had a 1.7 percent chance of winning the lottery.
They also had a glut of bigs when they won it. Aldridge wasn’t that great during his first two seasons, averaging 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds. He might not have distinguished himself from the crowd enough to make a difference.
He was certainly better than Thomas, but the Bulls had a massive contract tied up in Ben Wallace. They were juggling Thomas, Wallace, Andres Nocioni and P.J. Brown in 2006-07. They added Joe Smith and Joakim Noah to the mix in the 2007-2008 season.
Obviously, Aldridge is volumes better than Thomas, but for the first two years, I’m not sure he would have made a significant difference on Chicago in terms of the team's record.
How good would a team with Rose, a pre-meltdown Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Aldridge and Noah have been? Maybe good enough to win a title.
What If the Bulls Had Chosen Michael Beasley?
Remember when there was a controversy over whether the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose? Rose has gone on to have a better career, even if you factor in the fact that he’s barely played for the last three seasons. It's one of those things the pro-Beasley crowd is ashamed to admit.
Beasley has been a bust, and there’s no two ways around that.
Still, what would have happened if the Bulls had taken him over Rose? It’s always been considered a dodged bullet. But could they actually be better off now if they'd taken him? It’s not impossible.
First, with Beasley added to Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, the Bulls’ fetish for long twos in the Vinny Del Negro era would have been even worse. Instead of giving us one of the greatest first-round series in NBA history against the Boston Celtics, they would have ended up in the lottery again. Let's say they win 28.
Then, the following year, with the seventh pick of the 2009 draft, they select Stephen Curry.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat, with their dynamic backcourt tandem of Rose and Dwyane Wade would tear through the Eastern Conference. They would play so well, in fact, that they wouldn't disband the team to pursue LeBron James and Chris Bosh in free agency.
The Bulls would end up securing the services of those two, instead. They would also still add Kyle Korver to play the 2 and Tom Thibodeau as their coach.
All of this happens because this is pure fantasy, and you can't argue with fantasy.
With a starting five of Curry, Korver, James, Bosh and Noah, the Bulls rip through regular season and go on to win three consecutive championships.
Okay, maybe it’s unrealistic, but that’s the fun of dreaming.
What If Derrick Rose Didn’t Get Injured in 2012?
Outside of the Michael Jordan era, it’s possible that the best chance the Bulls had at a title came in the 2012 season, although, the 1975 team has an argument too.
Even though Derrick Rose had been injured for a third of their games, the Chicago Bulls still managed to steamroll their way through the strike-shortened season, tying the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the NBA, 50-16.
The Bulls came out in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers looking for all the world like they were intent on marching towards the Eastern Conference Finals and exacting revenge on the Miami Heat. Everything was clicking for the Bulls.
They were up by a dozen with 1:22 left in the game when Rose went up for a shot, passed it off to Joakim Noah and came down clutching his knee.
In one instant, the Bulls' championship hopes were destroyed. They dropped four of their next five games. That was “helped” along when Noah also suffered a sprained ankle in Game 3 after stepping on Andre Iguodala’s foot.
Rose has played in 10 games since.
Some call it making excuses. I call it acknowledging reality. Injuries matter.
But what if those injuries don’t happen?
No one can say for sure if the Bulls would have beaten the Heat in a seven-game series that year with a healthy Rose. But it was certainly in the realm of possibility. If they're 100 percent, do they win the title? Does Miami break up the Big Three? Are the Bulls, and not Miami, chasing a three-peat right now?
We can dream...and lament.