The NBA season has passed the middle mark and teams are now starting to scratch and claw for every win, board battle and possession possible, with the end goal hopefully being the last team standing.
One team that went from being the king of the mountain to just a kind of contender were the Chicago Bulls from 1993 to 1995.
When Michael Jordan retired to fulfill his (and his father's) dream of playing professional baseball, Chicago lost a player who won those possessions and games almost single-handedly. At the time of his departure, MJ was averaging a robust 32 points, 5.5 assists, six rebounds and nearly three steals a game.
Not only is that hard to replicate for one player, but that one player was the main piece of a championship team.
The Bulls had no choice but to take a step back.
Scottie Pippen, one of the best players in the league at the time, became the new "it" guy and was still working with solid/serviceable players like B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, John Paxson and most of the team that won three straight titles.
With all that in mind, what would the Bulls have accomplished if His Airness never took off?
Hypotheticals are fun. Not only is a hypothetical based on stats and "what if's," but it never accounts for injury, chemistry and all the fun distractions one could get caught up in.
The biggest question mark, if Jordan had stayed on the hard court, would have been whether or not he would be completely there to continue to lead the only team he had played for.
The change to baseball was for his father, not just him. Would staying with the Bulls be considered a dishonor to MJ, especially with the esteem he held for his father?
Well, let's assume the switch never happened and Jordan was OK with never picking up a bat. The competition in the Eastern Conference, let alone the entire NBA, was nothing short of fierce: 10 teams won at least 50 games, with one (Seattle SuperSonics) winning over 60.
The Bulls, minus Jordan, won 55 games, two behind Atlanta for the Central Division title. With Jordan, one could think 60 wins would be in the realm of possibility.
Chicago lost to to New York in the Eastern Conference Semifinals that season. New York went on to lose in the NBA Finals to Houston, which had seemed due to win a championship with great players like Hakeem Olajuwon, a young, clutch shooter in Robert Horry and and a cast of solid players, similar to the Bulls of the 1990s.
Similar to the 1993-94 season, teams like Houston, Chicago, New York, Indiana, San Antonio and Phoenix were in the mix in the spring. Chicago took a step back to only 47 wins, missing MJ for all but 17 games.
No surprise that the Bulls only lost a fistful of games after his return. They lost to Orlando in the Conference Semifinals.
The big if of this entire listing is whether or not Chicago could have made a run to the NBA Finals for eight consecutive seasons. Orlando, New York and Indiana were the biggest threats, as two of those three teams made it to the big dance.
You could say having MJ as the head honcho would have taken some pressure off of Pippen, but producing was never an issue for No. 33 without No. 23. Could having Jordan have helped develop or take pressure and higher expectations off of newcomers like rookies Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley, or former Knicks guard Ron Harper? Maybe Harper would have never been a Bull if Jordan stayed.
It appears that Chicago would have easily been the team to beat with Jordan around for those two seasons. His presence sparked the Bulls to play well toward the end of the 1994-95 season.
Do the Bulls make eight straight trips to the NBA Finals? In all honesty, no.
New York and Indiana could not keep losing to Chicago. New York lost three out of four playoff series from 1991 through 1995 before Chicago went on to their second three-peat. John Starks, an all-time pest and grinder, made life for Jordan and Chicago miserable. Patrick Ewing was a top-three center in the league and showed his experience and underrated moves against generally weaker big men that Chicago put out on the floor.
Chicago managed to not face Indiana until the 1997-98 season, when they beat the Pacers in seven to get to the NBA Finals. Despite the absence of playoff matchups, Reggie Miller, Rik Smits and company were the ultimate rival and headache during the regular season.
Every game was a war, period.
If MJ gets the Bulls more wins in his absent seasons, the Bulls could have faced either of those teams and lost. Do not forget that Houston had a killer instinct for their brief run at the top. Their 1994-95 record was a drop-off from their previous season, but it did not stop them from making waste of the West before stomping the Magic.
The final verdict: Chicago maybe gets to one more final, but loses.
Too many variables. Too many good teams. Too much for a Bulls team that had a lot of drama away from the United Center floor.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference