Pete Myers had chosen to spend a day early in October of 1993 on a Chicago court, hitting balls rather than dribbling them. He wasn't expecting anyone to interrupt his friendly tennis match to serve up an opportunity. And even when he paused to take a call from his old acquaintance Jerry Krause, the general manager of the three-time champion Bulls, Myers didn't anticipate that it would impact his autumn plans.
Krause had drafted Myers in the sixth round in 1986 and waived him the following November, making the Bulls the first of six NBA organizations to do so over a five-year period.
The men stayed in touch, especially during the previous two years, since Myers had spent those in Italy. Krause would bounce names off Myers, probing for information about prospects the latter had played with, or against.
This time, Krause's inquiry was more personal.
"Listen, are you going back to Europe this year?" Krause asked him.
Myers wasn't sure. He'd verbally committed to attend Sacramento Kings camp but considered himself a long shot to stick there. He also wasn't sure why it mattered. The last thing Krause would seem to need, considering the current composition of his roster—and the presence of the game's premier player at Myers' spot—was another 6'6" shooting guard.
"Look, Pete, I can't say anything to you yet, but I think there may be a position open in Chicago," Krause said.
Myers finished his match and returned home to pack some things for the short drive to the Berto Center, the Bulls' practice facility.
"Then I got the news that Michael Jordan is retiring," Myers, now 50, told Bleacher Report last week. "I'm like, 'Are you serious?'"
Who would have guessed, with a journeyman filling in for Jordan, that the Bulls could still be serious contenders? That they could pull together to win 55 games, just two fewer than the season before? That, if not for one of the NBA playoffs' all-time questionable calls, they might have even had a chance at a championship?
"I think they can do what we did," Myers said of the current Heat.
What the 1993-94 Bulls did was rally their way into relevance, by playing to their strengths, playing within the system, playing hard and, with one infamous exception, playing together. It's worth playing that surprising season back now to examine some ways in which the Heat can now move forward.
Will Perdue had played five seasons—and won three championships—when everything changed in Chicago.
"Initially when Michael retired, we were like, 'What are we gonna do?'" said Perdue, who is now an analyst for Comcast SportsNet Chicago, ESPN Radio and Westwood One.
"When we started practice and we started playing games, we realized, 'Hey, we're still a pretty damn good team.' As much as he did for us, we're still pretty damn good. And as soon as there was any lost confidence, the coaches did a good job of jumping on top of it."
That would prove necessary at times. The season didn't start all that well.
"It was kind of rocky," Myers said.
After 11 games, they were 4-7.
So why didn't it stay that way? How did the Bulls start, and stay, rolling, winning 50 of the next 67 games and nearly stealing the Central Division before sliding into the third seed?
Well, personnel played a part. The Bulls did return four starters from the previous, championship season.
"The nucleus was still there," Myers said. "Just the greatest player ever wasn't there."
Right. Just that guy. The guy who had led the league with 32.6 points per game the season before. The guy Myers—who had averaged 3.8 points per game to that point of his career—knew he couldn't possibly replace, at least not in a scoring sense.
To their credit, the Bulls brass didn't expect him to try. They had a good handle of what Myers could do—not just Krause, but also Phil Jackson, whose close confidant Charley Rosen had coached Myers in the CBA.
"We still had probably the best coach ever in the NBA," Myers said of Jackson. "And we still had two of the top assistant coaches, Johnny Bach and Tex Winter. And we still had Jim Cleamons, who was an expert as well."
Collectively, they saw Myers the way he saw himself. He recognized that he wasn't an elite offensive player, largely because of his shooting limitations, but he felt he fit well with the triangle offense's two-guard front, because he could handle, slash and make plays off the bounce with the pass.
"We always used to joke about [how] the one thing Pete didn't lack was confidence," Perdue said. "But at the same time, he truly understood what his role was. He didn't do a lot to hurt you, he knew what his strengths were and he didn't try to go beyond that."
"Pete was still a pretty good defender," Perdue said.
And so, Myers put that first.
"I never went into it thinking that I had to score as much as Michael Jordan at that position," Myers said. "But defensively, if I can hold Reggie Miller to 17 or 18 instead of 22 or 23, and maybe score nine or 10, that would be a great situation. The system was still in place, just the main piece was missing. I had to fit into the main piece. It was crazy, but it was a great opportunity. Because we played as a team, because we played in a system that was team-oriented, it made it much easier."
So did the Bulls' depth. Over the offseason, they'd added Toni Kukoc, the versatile European star who Krause had long coveted; dead-eye three-pointer shooter Steve Kerr; and a serviceable, big Bill Wennington, who, like Myers, had just spent two seasons overseas. This allowed Jackson to avoid overusing any of the role players and exposing their weaknesses.
In exchange, they largely bought into the system, one that forced them to play multiple positions, play together and trust each other—one that was actually closer to its truest form, without Jordan around as a singular talent. They did that, even as some saw Jordan's absence as an opportunity to prove they could provide more.
Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong made the All-Star team for the only time in their careers.
"With the system that we run, we try to have equal opportunities," said Cleamons, who was a Bulls assistant from 1989 to 1996 and later rejoined Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers. "And Michael had been the bail-out guy, make no bones behind that. But we're trying to spread the wealth and have touches for everyone. And because of Toni's size and ability to go into the low block, we could give him more touches down there.
"Toni's nickname coming into the league was The Waiter—he loved passing the ball too. We could take advantage of his ability to share the ball too, not to score points, but to use as a focal point, or as a hub to cutters. And if nothing was there, still have an opportunity to play one-on-one."
And while they didn't have Jordan, they did have a gold medalist and, to that point, three-time All-Star.
"Pip stepped up," Cleamons said.
"Scottie took his game to the next level," Perdue said.
"He carried us that year," Myers said. "I still can’t say enough: I thought Scottie was phenomenal. The pressure was on him. You coming to the park, you don't have the big dog with you, you don't have the dog with you. But having him and Horace kept us together as a team too, because they took on the pressure. We had to let Toni grow into the pressure."
Scottie Pippen carried the Bulls in plenty of ways other than scoring, even as his shot attempts increased from 16.4 to 17.8 per game, and his scoring average spiked from 18.6 to what was and would remain a career-best 22.0.
"As a coaching staff, we would say if Scottie got from 18 to 22 points, we were in great shape," Cleamons said. "Because he didn't dominate the ball, the ball still moved. He would still have between seven and nine rebounds, he would have between six and eight assists. He would have three or four steals, deflections, tipped balls and playing outstanding defense.
"The thing we wanted with Scottie was to continue to fill up that stat sheet, and that got everybody else involved. He didn't have to go out looking for points to validate his value to our team. When he played his well-rounded game at both ends of the floor, that was the contribution we needed from him, as far as floor play and leadership, the other guys had a comfort zone that they just had to be themselves."
Which makes it a shame that Pippen's 1993-94 brilliance, which included an All-Star Game MVP award and a third-place finish in the regular-season MVP voting, is most remembered for what occurred with 1.8 seconds left in a tied Game 3 of a second-round series against the New York Knicks, who were then coached by Pat Riley.
After Jackson called a play for Kukoc, Pippen refused to re-enter the game, forcing Jackson to call a second timeout and eventually insert Myers as the inbounds passer in Pippen's place. Myers found Kukoc, who swished a turnaround 22-footer for the win.
|Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets||66||889||27.3||11.9||3.6||1.6|
|David Robinson, Spurs||24||730||29.8||10.7||4.8||1.7|
|Scottie Pippen, Bulls||7||390||22||8.7||5.6||2.9|
|Shaquille O'Neal, Magic||3||289||29.3||13.2||2.4||0.9|
|Patrick Ewing, Knicks||1||255||24.5||11.2||2.3||1.1|
"When you're in the moment, and you're trying to win," Myers said, "and it's all about winning, sometimes you might do something that may not be right at the right time. I don't think he was doing anything to show anybody up. He just had a suggestion and it didn't go well in the huddle. I think he was on a mission to prove what he could do without Mike as well."
Cleamons chuckled at the memory.
"Toni was used to doing certain things with his history [in Europe]," Cleamons said. "He was the man at the end of the clock. And Scottie had waited patiently, and he felt it was his turn to be the primary player at the end of the clock. Just through miscommunication, things like that happen. But the wonderful thing is, we ended up winning the game. Not that the ends justified the means."
And not that everyone recalls the result. Just the tantrum.
"I think it's very unfortunate, because he had moments where [he handled being the top guy] very well, and he had moments where he didn't handle it well at all," Perdue said. "There was a moment he threw a chair on the floor, because he got kicked out of the game. But it's the opposite of Michael. Everyone remembers everything great that Michael did. He missed more game-winners than he made, but you'd think he made 85 percent of his game-winning shots.
"With Scottie, there's always that word 'but.' He was a great player, but he had Michael, but he threw his stuff on the court, but he wouldn't go in the game. Even though he was a top-50 player, and still is."
Even though, as it turned out, Pippen recovered well in that series, recording 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the Bulls' Game 4 win, and 23 points, four rebounds and four assists in Game 5. Of course, the latter contest is best known for the fourth of his four fouls. Pippen ran at Knicks guard Hubert Davis and appeared to make contact after Davis released a missed shot.
Davis made two free throws, Myers' inbounds pass was broken up and the Knicks went up 3-2 in a series they'd ultimately win in seven.
"You can hem and haw about it: Was it a foul, was it not a foul?" Perdue said. "According to the letter of the law, it is a foul. Did it affect the shot? Honestly, I don't think so. But the way I look at it is, if you made every call to the letter of the law, this game is going to take three, three-and-a-half hours."
Myers said he still thinks about that call "all the time, man," especially because the Bulls had dominated the Indiana Pacers in the regular season, and the Pacers would be waiting for the Bulls or Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Maybe those Bulls would have been known as more than merely survivors without the great Michael Jordan—they all would have been known as champions in their own right.
Still, Myers, Cleamons and Perdue remain proud of what that group accomplished.
"Looking back on it now, I was like, how did we win 55 games that year?" Myers said.
That was more games, incidentally, than the Heat won last season, with LeBron James.
"Yeah, I'm proud of it, because we could have folded our tents, Michael's not here, be a .500 team, that's what a lot of people expected from us," Perdue said. "But we didn't. That's a credit to a lot of people, but a lot of credit also goes to Michael, because that just shows you how hard we used to practice back then.
"We were scrimmaging; we went hard. That work ethic from Michael, his willingness to compete, carried over to everyone else, even though he wasn't there. Everybody truly understood and was very professional about raising our game to next level, and that started with our practice habits in the years prior. None of that changed."
In Cleamons' view, "It gave some validation, if you will, to the fact that basketball is still a team sport. And the sum of the players will ultimately determine the value of a team. The guys, they embraced the challenge of playing hard, playing with purpose and playing together. And when teams do that, it shows heart and character, and that's what a lot of sports is based on."
So what about the Heat?
Will they be left behind without LeBron?
Well, there's one critical difference between what the Bulls faced then and what the Heat face now that has made it easier for Miami to recover.
"We didn't realize we were losing Michael until right before camp started," Cleamons said. "The Heat, they know now that he's gone. That itself gives them more time for planning. Plus the fact, Riley already got [Josh] McRoberts, [Danny] Granger, re-signed [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh, they are going to be pretty competitive right off the bat. They are going to be well ahead of the curve in roster moves and management than we were when Michael decided not to come back."
But what about the other elements?
Miami doesn't have a system as embedded as the Bulls' triangle offense, especially since much of Erik Spoelstra's pace-and-space concepts were predicated on James' unparalleled versatility. That will make it a challenge to just plug and play; some significant tweaks are required.
They do have plenty of other things that Myers believes will help: "Good culture, good coaches, and they've been there before. I played for Pat Riley—I know his mindset as far as a competitor. Trust me when I tell you this: He's still going to win. They are going to win. That's what he breeds. In saying that, I still think they're going to be a pretty good team.
And, as Myers noted, Pippen did.
But can Wade still? And can Bosh? After all, the latter never got out of the first round as the lead star for the Raptors.
This is where Perdue has some questions.
"Do they have a Scottie Pippen, a top-50 player?" he asks. "They have one who in his prime was a top-50 player, in Dwyane Wade, but you ask yourself, 'Does he have less in the tank, and can he do it for 82 games?' He hasn't done that for several years now.
"And can Chris Bosh regain the form that he had in Toronto, when he was their first option? People say, 'He disappeared in games.' You know why? Because he could. Not that he was looking to disappear, but he had that luxury. But now that he has re-signed an unbelievably generous contract, can he go back to being the No. 1 option and carrying the load? That has yet to be determined."
For the Heat to challenge the current upgraded Chicago and Cleveland squads, Perdue thinks Bosh needs to consistently produce 25 points and 12 rebounds, with no nights off. And he'll need to do it while taking more of the leadership burden. Perdue points to Pippen as someone who struggled with that pressure more than with anything else on the floor.
"For Scottie, it was about handling being The Guy," Perdue said. "When I say go-to guy, when you lose a game, everyone is coming to you for an answer, 30 guys outside your locker. Now you are accountable not only for yourself, but for everybody on the roster. It's just a totally different mindset. Chris isn't going to be able to just come to practice anymore. Chris isn't going to be able to just play a game. Chris is going to be the guy they want to talk to every single day. Now he's got to watch everything he says, how he says it."
Bosh is popular with the media for his accessibility and honesty, once winning a Magic Johnson Award and being nominated for another this past season.
"So Chris is a little more adept at being able to handle that," Perdue said. "But from the day training camp starts until April, May, however far they go, it's on him. People have accepted the fact that Dwyane Wade is on the back side of his career. Will give you moments where he will give you 30. But everyone assumes that he can't do what he was able to do on a consistent basis. So everything that goes up will come down into Chris' lap. When he was signing that new contract, he knew what he was getting himself into."
Just as when Wade, McRoberts, Granger, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Luol Deng signed their Heat contracts, they had to know what they were getting into.
They'll be widely doubted now. Already they've been assigned many fewer national television games, since few fans, media or even television executives think they'll be anywhere near as exciting, or successful, without James. Few see Chalmers as an Armstrong in waiting—or McRoberts, with his strong passing skills, as capable of offering some of what Kukoc did.
But Myers looks at Miami through a different lens, the one colored by his own experience. He especially approves of the Deng acquisition after serving as an assistant on the Bulls staff for the first six seasons of the latter's career, before the Duke product made two All-Star teams. Myers thinks Deng, at age 29, can still score 16 points, grab seven rebounds and play strong defense in support of Bosh and Wade.
"LeBron James is the best player in the game," Myers said, laughing. "Trust me, you are losing the best player in the game. I'm not afraid to say that. But they got an NBA starter at that position. I wasn't an NBA starting player when I started in Chicago. Let's be honest, Luol Deng is a better fill-in for LeBron James than Pete Myers was for Michael Jordan."
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.