The 1990's Chicago Bulls: The Team and Its Competition

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The 1990's Chicago Bulls: The Team and Its Competition
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The Chicago Bulls won their 6th title of the decade in 1998

The 1990s Chicago Bulls won six NBA Championships while they were being led by Michael Jordan. Many try to diminish this great accomplishment because they believe the 1990's era was weak and that the Bulls were stacked. They think Jordan had it easier. The Bulls were a great team and Jordan had a great supporting cast. No one can deny that: He didn’t win by himself. But how great were the Bulls? Did Jordan ever face true competition? Let’s answer these questions.

The First “Three-Peat” (1991-1993)

The Bulls starting center was Bill Cartwright. During these three seasons Cartwright averaged 7.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG and 0.2 BPG. In the playoffs he wasn’t any better with averages of 7.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 0.2 BPG.

The starting power forward was Horace Grant. He was a 6'10" player, but he wasn’t a dominant big man. He wasn’t even an All-Star during this time, nor was he a player that could dominate the post, but he was a good rebounder.

Scottie Pippen, the small forward, was in his prime during this time, but people overrate him. When the Bulls won their first title in 1991, Pippen didn’t even make the All-Star team. Yes, he was an All-Star in the 1990 season, but his stats were actually better in 1991.

The point of the All-Star argument is not to prove that Pippen wasn’t a great sidekick, but merely to prove that Jordan didn’t have the best small forward of his generation—as many people claim. The All-NBA team is another way to prove this. Pippen didn’t make the All-NBA team (not even the third team) in the 1991 season.

So Jordan won the 1991 NBA championship with teammates that didn’t make the All-Star team or the All-NBA team. Pippen didn’t even make the All-Defensive first team in 1991. He made the All-Defensive First team and the All-NBA second team in the 1992 season. He again made the All-Defensive First team in 1993, but he proved that he wasn’t the best at his position when he barely made the All-NBA team when he was selected to the third team.

John Paxson was one of the Bulls’ starting guards. In the regular season he averaged 6.9 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 3.1 APG and in the playoffs he averaged 7.0 PPG, 1.1 RPG and 2.5 APG. He was a good three-point shooter, but his shooting percentage can be misleading. During the three regular seasons of 1991-1993, he attempted 96, 44, and 41 three-point shots, respectively. Combining those three seasons, Paxson averaged just 0.8 three-point shot attempts. In the playoffs he averaged 1.1 three-point shot attempts. Those numbers are too low to really give him credit for his high three-point percentage. Paxson is not the shooter people claim he was when the Bulls were winning titles.

The remaining cast includes players such as B.J. Armstrong, Stacey King, Craig Hodges, Will Perdue and Scott Williams, among others. None of them—except for Armstrong—were any better than the starters.

Armstrong is another shooter people tend to overrate. He was a good shooter in 1993, but before that, he was just like Paxson. He had a high shooting percentage, but with few shot attempts. Armstrong also missed a lot of games during this time. In the 1991 and 1992 playoffs he averaged only 0.5 three-point shot attempts. Even with few attempts, he shot 29.4 percent from three-point line in the 1992 playoffs.

This is the supporting cast Jordan had in his first three championships. This was a great group of players, but as you can see, Jordan’s supporting cast is overrated. You may think there was no competition if Jordan won with this group of misfits, but let’s see what this team had to go through.

1991

The Bulls first opponent in the playoffs was the New York Knicks. Patrick Ewing made the All-NBA second team. He also made the All-Star team.

In the Semifinals the Bulls met the Philadelphia 76ers. Charles Barkley was 4th in the Most Valuable Player award (MVP) voting. He made the All-NBA first team to go along with an All-Star team selection. His teammate, Hersey Hawkins, made the All-Star team too.

In the next round, the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls faced the defending champion Detroit Pistons. They were not only the defending champions, they also were the third seed in the East, and had eliminated the East's second seed, the Boston Celtics. That Celtics team still had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. They also had Reggie Lewis. Although they were old and not the same players they were in the 1980s, the Celtics were still good enough to win 56 games, securing the second seed in the East, and the 4th seed in the league.

That Pistons team, known as the “Bad Boys,” is considered one the greatest defensive teams in the history of the NBA. During the '91 season, they were first in opponent points per game and fourth in defensive rating. Joe Dumars made the All-NBA third team and the All-Defensive second team. He made the All-Star team too. Dennis Rodman was a member of the All-Defensive first team. He was also the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY).

In the last round, the NBA Finals, the Bulls faced the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers won 58 games in the regular season, good for third place in the league. They were second in opponent points per game and fifth in defensive rating. Magic Johnson was the runner-up for the MVP award, and was also a member of the All-NBA first team. His teammate, James Worthy, joined him as a member of the All-Star team. In one single playoff run, Jordan beat four all-time greats: Ewing, Barkley, Thomas, and Johnson.

1992

In the first round the Bulls faced the Miami Heat. The Heat had a member of the All-Rookie First team (Steve Smith).

The Bulls second round opponent was the Knicks. That Knicks team is considered one of the greatest defensive teams in NBA history. They were second in both opponent points per game and defensive rating. Ewing was 5th in MVP voting. He also made the All-NBA second team and the All-Star team. He was a member of the All-Defensive second team.

In the Eastern Conference Finals the Bulls met the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers had won 57 games, which was the second most victories in the NBA. Brad Daugherty and Mark Price made the All-NBA third team and the All-Star team. Larry Nance made the All-Defensive second team, and Terrell Brando was a member of the All-Rookie Second team.

In the NBA Finals Jordan and the Bulls faced Clyde Drexler and Portland Trail Blazers. Just like the Cavaliers, the Blazers had won 57 games. The Blazers were also third in defensive rating. Buck Williams had made the All-Defensive second team, and Drexler was the runner-up for the MVP award—he also made the All-NBA first team and All-Star team. 

1993

The Atlanta Hawks were the first team the Bulls played in the playoffs. Dominique Wilkins was 5th in MVP voting. He was also a member of the All-NBA second team and the All-Star team.

The Bulls faced the Cavaliers in the semi-final round. This Cavaliers team was fourth in opponent points per game and sixth in defensive rating. Price was a member of the All-NBA first team, and Nance made the All-Defensive second team. The Cavaliers also had three members of the All-Star team (Daugherty, Price and Nance).

The Bulls would then meet the Knicks for the third straight time in the Eastern Conference Finals. This time the Knicks had won 60 games, which was good for first in the East and second overall in the league. This means that for the first time in their championship runs the Bulls didn’t have home-court advantage. The Knicks, already considered one of the greatest defensive teams in NBA history, were first in both opponent points per game and defensive rating. Ewing was 4th in MVP voting. He again was part of the All-NBA second team and the All-Star team. John Starks was a member of the All-Defensive second team. Knicks coach, Pat Riley, was Coach of the Year.

When the Bulls eliminated the Knicks, they met the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. For the second time during the postseason the Bulls didn’t have home-court advantage. The Suns had won 62 games during the regular season, which was good for the most wins in the NBA. They were 9th in defensive rating. Charles Barkley, who was now playing for the Suns, was the league’s MVP. He was also a member of the All-NBA first team and the All-Star team. Dan Majerle made the All-Defensive second team and the All-Star team. Keep in mind that Majerle was guarding Jordan, and that the Suns were the first seed in the league, yet Jordan averaged 41.0 ppg in this series. The Bulls were the third seed in the NBA, and in their path to their third straight championship, they beat the first (Suns) and second (Knicks) seeds, making one of the greatest championship runs in NBA history.  

You can see the domination the Bulls had against the tough competition. Before we move on to the second “three-peat” Bulls team, let’s clarify something here. I’m not saying Jordan had a weak supporting cast, just that it’s overrated. People use the 1994 season to prove Jordan did have a great supporting cast or that he wasn’t that important. The Bulls won 55 games without Jordan that season, just 2 less wins than in 1993, when Jordan was on the roster.

How did the Bulls win 55 games without Jordan?

First of all, the only important piece that was missing from the championship team was Jordan. The Bulls still had Pippen, Grant, Cartwright, Paxson, Armstrong, Williams, King and head coach Phil Jackson PLUS newcomers Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr and Luc Longley. Not only the Bulls were able to keep their head coach, second best player, and all of the role players, but they also added THREE role players that would later become important in the second “three-peat”. The reason why the Bulls won 57 games in 1993 was because they were two-time defending champions. Teams always want to beat the defending champions, so they would throw everything at the Bulls. Also, teams and players wanted to beat Jordan. In 1994 teams didn’t have the same approach because Jordan was retired. So the 1994 Bulls didn’t have to carry the burden the 1993 Bulls had to. Combine all this with the great coaching of Jackson, and you have 55 wins. I don’t understand what the big deal with this is. The Bulls didn’t even win the NBA championship after they had won it the previous three seasons with Jordan on the roster. What about the 1995 season? The Bulls were struggling for a playoff berth. They were 34-31 before Jordan made his return. With Jordan, they finished the season 13-4.

Now let’s take a look at the second “three-peat” Bulls team.

 The Second “three-peat” (1996-1998)

In the second “three-peat” the Bulls had Luc Longley as their starting center. He was slightly better than Cartwright, averaging stats like 9.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 1.2 bpg during this time. In the playoffs he had 7.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 1.0 bpg. Dennis Rodman was the starting power forward for the Bulls. At 6’7 he was a great defensive player and rebounder, but his offensive game was mediocre. He averaged 5.2 ppg. In the playoffs he wasn’t any different when he averaged just 5.4 ppg. He made the All-Defensive team just once during this time (1996). We know Rodman was a rebounding machine, but few know that he didn’t average 10 boards in the 1997 playoffs. He didn’t even average 9 boards in the 1997 and 1998 Finals. Even Rodman’s rebounding numbers can be misleading. Longley and Rodman combined for just 15 points. This is probably the weakest offensively starting PF-Center duo on an NBA championship team. Pippen was no longer in his prime. We already know he wasn’t the best small forward of his generation. He made the All-Defensive First team in each season but he made the All-NBA First team just once, in the 1996 season. He made the All-NBA Second team during the 1997 and 1998 seasons, but he failed to make the All-Star team (again), but he was selected to the All-NBA third team. So we have Jordan winning another title with his best teammate missing the All-Star team and barely making the All-NBA team.

Another fact about Pippen that people tend to forget is that during these three seasons he averaged 17.3 ppg in the playoffs while shooting 40.8 % from the field. And this was Jordan’s best teammate. Ron Harper was the other Bulls guard. His averages in the regular season were 7.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.7 apg. In the playoffs he averaged 7.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.6 apg. Toni Kukoc was the backup forward. He won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996. Steve Kerr was the backup guard. He’s really the only good shooter the Bulls had for more than 1 season during the championship years, but even his shooting gets overrated. In the regular season he was great, but in the playoffs his shooting wasn’t as great. In the 1996 and 1997 playoffs he shot 32.1 % and 38.1 % from the three-point line, respectively. Those are the numbers from an average shooter. A player like Kerr should be over 40 %, which he was in the 1998 playoffs. But here again we can see how people overrate Jordan’s supporting cast. The remaining supporting cast included Bill Wennington, Jud Buechler, Randy Brown, and Brian Williams, among others.  

Now that we know Jordan’s supporting cast from the second “three-peat”, let’s take a look at the competition.

1996

This season was a little different for the Bulls because they would meet some pretty good duos. In the First round the Bulls played against the Heat. The Heat won just 42 games but they were fifth in opponent points per game and sixth in Defensive Rating.

They had the duo of Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning. Mourning was an All-Star. The Heat were also coached by Riley.

In the Second round the Bulls faced the Knicks (again). The Knicks were fourth in both Opponent points per game and Defensive Rating. Ewing was an All-Star.

In the Eastern Conference Finals the Bulls faced the Orlando Magic. The Magic, having won 60 games during the regular season, were the third seed in the league. They also had a powerful duo in Anfernee Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal. Hardaway was 3rd in MVP voting and he was also a member of the All-NBA First team. O’Neal was a member of the All-NBA Third team. Horace Grant, now with Oralndo, made the All-Defensive Second team. Hardaway and O’Neal were teammates on the All-Star team.

The Bulls’ NBA Finals opponent, the Seattle Supersonics, were the second seed in the league after they won 64 games. They were 8th in Opponent points per game and second in Defensive Rating. This team had swept the defending champion Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Bulls had to deal with another powerful duo in Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Payton was a member of the All-Defensive First team. He had won the DPOY and he led the league in steals. Payton and Kemp were teammates on the All-Star team.

1997

This season was one of the toughest for the Bulls.

Their First round opponent, the Washington Bullets, had an All-Star in Chris Webber.

In the Semifinals the Bulls faced the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks were the 4th seed in the East having won 56 games. They were fourth in Opponent points per game and third in Defensive Rating. Dikembe Mutombo had made the All-Defensive First team and he was also the DPOY. Mookie Blaylock was a member of the All-Defensive Second team and he also led the league in steals. Mutombo and Christian Laettner were members of the All-Star team. The Hawks were also coached by Lenny Wilkins.

After eliminating a tough Hawks team, the Bulls met a tougher team in the Miami Heat during the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat had won 61 games, which was good for the third seed in the league. This team was third in Opponents points per game and first in Defensive Rating. For the second straight postseason the Bulls had to deal with the duo of Hardaway and Mourning. Hardaway was 4th in MVP voting and he made the All-NBA First team and the All-Star team. P.J. Brown was a member of the All-Defensive Second team. The Heat also had the Most Improved Player award winner (Isaac Austin). Heat coach Pat Riley had won the Coach of the Year award. Remember that Riley was the coach of the early 90's Knicks.

It got even tougher for the Bulls in the NBA Finals when they faced the Utah Jazz. The Jazz owned the second seed in the league when they won 64 games. They were 8th in Opponent points per game and 9th in Defensive Rating. This team featured one of the greatest duos in NBA history in Karl Malone and John Stockton. Malone is considered as one of the three greatest power forwards ever, while Stockton is considered as one of the three greatest point guards ever. Malone was the league MVP and was also a member of the All-NBA First team and All-Defensive First team.  Stockton was a member of the All-NBA Third team and the All-Defensive Second team. They both made the All-Star team. For those who say that this wasn’t a competitive era, the 1997 season featured ten 50-win teams, including three 60-win teams.

1998

In the First round the Bulls faced the New Jersey Nets. The Nets had an All-Star in Jayson Williams and a member of the All-Rookie First team (Keith Van horn).

Their second round opponent, the Charlotte Hornets, had a member of the All-NBA third team (Glen Rice).

In the Eastern Conference Finals the Bulls faced a tough Indiana Pacers team. This team was fifth in both Opponent points per game and Defensive Rating. Reggie Miller had made the All-NBA Third team. His teammate, Rick Smits, joined him on the All-Star team. Pacers coach, Larry Bird had won the Coach of the Year award.

For the second straight time, the Bulls met the Jazz in the NBA Finals. This time the Jazz had home-court advantage after they secured the first seed in the league with 62 wins. Although the Bulls had won 62 games too, the Jazz held the tiebreaker. So for the second time in the NBA Finals the Bulls didn’t have home-court advantage. They had to deal with the powerful duo of Malone and Stockton (again). This Jazz team had swept a Lakers team that won 61 games and featured four players that made the All-Star team that same season (Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel). Malone made the All-NBA First team and All-Defensive First team. He was the runner-up for the MVP award.

The 1998 season also featured ten 50-win teams, including four 60-win teams. 

Now that we have learned the competition Jordan and the Bulls had to face, we can get to some conclusions. In his path to 6 titles, Jordan beat the likes of Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley (twice), Patrick Ewing (four times), Reggie Miller, Dikembe Mutombo, as well as the duos of Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning (twice), and John Stockton and Karl Malone (twice).

With Jordan on the roster the Bulls faced seven 60-win teams and twelve 55-win teams in the playoffs since the 1991 season (1995 excluded) and defeated all of them. Their playoff record against 60-win teams was 28-11 (.718), and their record against 55-win teams was 48-20 (.706). They defeated two of the top three teams in the league in four of their six championship runs: 1992 (Cavaliers and Blazers), 1993 (Knicks and Suns), 1996 (Magic and Sonics), and 1997 (Heat and Jazz). They won two Finals series without home-court advantage (1993 & 1998) and three of their six titles have been clinched on the road (1991, 1993 & 1998). In just six years the Bulls defeated ten teams in the playoffs that were either the first, second or third seed in the entire league, including all six of their Finals opponents. Their playoff record against these teams was 40-16 (.714). Jordan averaged 32.6 ppg while shooting 46.1 % from the field against top three teams.

Furthermore, in just 6 postseasons the Bulls had to face 14 top-ten teams in Defensive Ratings. Two of those were first, four were top-three, and eight were top-five. Of those 14 teams, five were in the Finals. Against these 14 teams, Jordan averaged 30.3 while shooting 47.0 % from the field. The Bulls were also 55-24 (.696) against these teams.

To the people that say Jordan never faced a defensive team like the 2004 Pistons or the 2008 Celtics, let me tell you that he did. The “Bad Boys” Pistons of the late 80's and early 90's is considered one of the greatest defensive teams in NBA history. The Bulls faced this team only once in their six title runs (1991), but they had met them in three previous postseasons (1988, 1989 and 1990). The 90's Knicks is another team that is considered as one of the greatest defensive teams ever. The Bulls beat them four times (1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996). Also, guarding Jordan was one All-Defensive First team member (Payton), three All-Defensive Second team members (Dumars, Starks and Majerle) and one DPOY (Payton). Even Rodman, who won the DPOY and made the All-Defensive First team in 1991, guarded Jordan on some spots. So in the series with the Pistons in 1991 Jordan had to go against TWO All-Defensive team members.

Unlike any other team with multiple titles, Jordan’s Bulls lacked two important pieces: A dominant big man (or a center) and a point guard. The only other team to win a title without a dominant big man is the Golden State Warriors in the 1974-75 season. Every other team in NBA history has won the NBA championship with the help of a dominant big man, and some of them had a point guard too. It’s not like there weren’t any dominant big men in the NBA. The Bulls had to deal with Laimbeer, Ewing, O’Neal, Mourning, Kemp, Daugherty and Mutombo. Another impressive fact is that since the 1988-89 season, Jordan NEVER had a teammate averaging a double-double in the playoffs, and just once he had a teammate averaging a double-double in the regular season (Horace Grant, 1992). The 1993 Finals is the only Finals series in which Jordan had a teammate averaging a double-double.

We can see Jordan had a good supporting cast that helped him win six NBA Championships. But we saw they tend to get overrated. We also saw that the Bulls did face great competition.

The 1990's Chicago Bulls are the greatest dynasty in NBA history. They have shown they can compete in any era.

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