Depending on one's opinion, either the 1993 or 1997 New York Knicks lay claim to being the best version of the Blue and Orange to never make the NBA Finals.
The 1993 New York Knicks were a 60-win team that couldn't overcome Michael Jordan's heroics and a block party on Charles Smith in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The 1997 Knicks were close to meeting the Bulls in a long-awaiting rematch, but when Miami Heat forward P.J. Brown flipped New York Knicks point guard Charlie Ward head over heels in the midst of a chippy Game 5 of the 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals, those dreams slowly began to die.
Charlie Ward (who, let's admit, wasn't totally innocent because of his low boxout on Brown following a Tim Hardaway free throw), Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston were suspended for Game 6, the latter two for leaving the bench. Larry Johnson and John Starks received the same bench penalties as Ewing and Houston, but sat out Game 7 instead.
Losing four starters and the backup point guard was the death blow. The Knicks led the series 3-2 going back home for Game 6, but despite winning in the fourth quarter, could not seal the game, losing 95-90. A few days later, Tim Hardaway's 38 points led the Heat to a 101-90 win and series win.
It certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility to think that the Knicks win Game 6 at home with Hall of Fame Patrick Ewing and the team's second-leading scorer in Allan Houston playing, leading to a rematch with the vaunted Bulls, who had knocked the Knicks out of the playoffs five times in eight seasons.
What if the Charlie Ward-P.J. Brown fight never happens, and the Knicks finish the Heat in six? Would they have been on their way to a Finals matchup with the Utah Jazz, or was a series win against the Heat only going to lead to more disappointment against Michael Jordan?
It's an honest question to ask. The Knicks won two of four games against the Chicago Bulls during the regular season and lost the other two by a combined six points. Furthermore, this Knicks team was light-years ahead of the 1996 version, which was four points away from tying the Eastern Conference Semifinals at two against the 72-win Bulls.
So, how would it go down?
Note: Stats and box scores from Basketball Reference.
Coach: Phil Jackson
Starters: PG Ron Harper, SG Michael Jordan, SF Scottie Pippen, PF Dennis Rodman, C Luc Longley
Key Bench Players: G Steve Kerr, F Toni Kukoc F Jason Caffey, F Bison Dele
Record: 69-13, First in Eastern Conference
The 1997 Chicago Bulls' accomplishments are obscured by the 1996 team's 72 wins and Michael Jordan's Flu Game in the 1997 Finals, which can lay claim to being the best individual playoff performance in NBA history.
Why aren't the 1997 Bulls listed as one of the greatest teams of all time, when they went 69-13? In fact, the Bulls were 68-10 with four games left in the season, grasping for the chance to match the 1996 unit's 72 regular season wins? That dream crashed and burned with losses to the Heat, Knicks and Detroit Pistons, but that Bulls team was remarkable in its resiliency to overcome injuries.
Granted, the only two players who the Bulls really needed to play full 82-game slates, Jordan and Scottie Pippen, accomplished those feats, but Steve Kerr was the only other Bull to do so. Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley, arguably the three best Bulls not named Jordan or Pippen, missed a combined 75 games. Bison Dele, he of the 16 points per game the previous season, only played nine regular season contests.
Not that this affected Michael Jordan, as he averaged 29.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists en route to the NBA M...wait, Karl Malone won? The announcement was made during the Bulls' 4-1 Conference Semifinals win over the Atlanta Hawks, meaning his next two opponents would feel his wrath.
Meanwhile, Scottie Pippen averaged over 20, five and five, and Dennis Rodman grabbed 16 boards per game. Steve Kerr shot 46 percent from three-point range off the bench, and Kukoc pitched in over 13, four and four when healthy. Of course, the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, still ran the show.
This team was probably a small step behind the 1996 version, but its excellence shouldn't be understated. The Washington Bullets and Atlanta Hawks certainly knew this, as the Bulls went a combined 7-1 against them before heading to the Conference Finals.
Coach: Jeff Van Gundy
Starters: PG Chris Childs, SG Allan Houston, SF Larry Johnson, PF Charles Oakley, C Patrick Ewing
Key Bench Players: PG Charlie Ward, SG John Starks, PF/C Buck Williams
Record: 57-25, Third in Eastern Conference
Meanwhile, the New York Knicks reaped the benefits of a mini-reformation in the 1996 offseason, leading to their 57-win year. Out went Anthony Mason, Derek Harper, Hubert Davis and Charles Smith, and in came Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Chris Childs and Buck Williams.
The moves worked, leading to a 10-win improvement from the previous year, but Allan Houston and Larry Johnson needed to adjust to a team that revolved around Patrick Ewing. Both players suffered down years, with Allan Houston scoring 14.8 PPG on 42.3 FG% (down from 19.7 PPG and 45.3 FG%) and Larry Johnson posting 12.8 PPG and 5.2 RPG (down dramatically from 20.5 PPG and 8.4 RPG).
Still, they both served their new roles in the Knicks' system well. Meanwhile, John Starks also needed to adjust, as he was now the team's sixth man. Still, by averaging 13.8 points in under 27 minutes per game, Starks won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award in a 77-point landslide over Toni Kukoc.
Starks' newfound excellence off the bench was sorely needed, as the Knicks lacked the scoring punch needed from the outside (both from the starters and reserves) to be elite during the team's glory days of the 1990's.
Meanwhile, the team's other parts synced into Jeff Van Gundy's slow-paced system well. Buck Williams was a wily big man off the bench. Chris Childs, prior to his immense weight gain in Toronto, and Charlie Ward both served their roles as gritty, hard-nosed point guards. Lastly, Charles Oakley proved he still had it at 33, pitching in 11 and 10 per game.
The team's chemistry led to a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division behind the 61-win Miami Heat, who excelled behind the two-man All-Star tandem of Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. (Of course, Shaquille O'Neal leaving the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1996 offseason helped the Knicks' cause too.)
Still, with the Knicks enjoying some newfound glory beyond the arc, anything was possible against the Bulls, right?
Regular-season matchups can sometimes act as excellent predictors for eventual postseason contests. For example, the Boston Celtics swept the New York Knicks in the regular season and postseason last year. Other years, the regular season and postseason are polar opposites. Using the Knicks as another example, the 1997 unit lost to the Glen Rice and Anthony Mason-led Charlotte Hornets three out of four times in the regular season but swept them easily in three games by a combined 8.66 points per contest.
Let's take a look back at the split season series between the Knicks and Bulls from 1996-1997 to see if we can grab some clues here.
Game 1: @ Bulls 88, Knicks 87
All Bulls not named Michael Jordan score 37 points combined. I don't have the play-by-play from this game, but given Jordan's 51, I'm guessing he scored that amount in three quarters.
With Dennis Rodman out, Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley dominate the boards with 27 combined. With John Starks out, the Bulls outscore the Knicks 16-10 off the bench. With Ron Harper out, Chris Childs posts 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.
The Knicks trailed by 14 going into the fourth, but could not pull off the rally.
What We Learned: Who else in the NBA had an on switch like Michael Jordan? His team needed him desperately, and he posts 51 with ease.
Game 2: @ Knicks 97, Bulls 93
All the starters are back for this one, but Toni Kukoc is now sitting with an injury. Jordan posts 36, but he can't overcome the other team's best star (Ewing's 32 and 14) and his right-hand man putting up a dud (Pippen shot 4-for-18 on 14 points). The Knicks win this one by only four despite shooting 10 percent better from the field.
What We Learned: This is as close to full strength the teams got in the regular season. Some anomalies: the aforementioned Pippen's terrible game, Allan Houston's and Larry Johnson's cold nights (6-for-15 combined) and Charlie Ward and Buck Williams each scoring eight. No fluke victory here though, as the Knicks played a tough game for the win.
Game 3: Bulls 105, @ Knicks 103
Toni Kukoc is still sitting, but now Dennis Rodman is out. Meanwhile, Bison Dele returns from his season-long injury, though he only goes 2-for-11. The latter's loss hurts the Bulls on the boards, with the Knicks winning the rebounding margin 45-37. The Knicks keep their rotation to just eight players (all of their best from that season).
The Knicks were up eight going into the fourth quarter, but Michael Jordan (34 points) and Scottie Pippen (33) were too much to overcome here. For the Knicks, the top six players all score between 12 and 20 points, with Chris Childs also dishing 12 assists.
What We Learned: Not a good sign for the full-strength Knicks to lose at home to the hurt Bulls, but the game also proved that New York call on six players to score points, a luxury the team did not have throughout the 1990's.
Game 4: Knicks 103, @ Bulls 101
The final game of the season for both teams. The Knicks have their top eight intact, while Rodman and Kukoc are out again. Rodman's absence once again leads to a rebounding margin that favors the Knicks (42-34).
Patrick Ewing (27 points), Allan Houston (25) and John Starks (20) combine for 72 points, while Charles Oakley posts 12 and 12 in a game where the Knicks trailed by eight going into the fourth quarter. For the Bulls, Michael Jordan's heroics weren't enough, though he scored 33 on 14-of-22 shooting. Pippen's stat line is well-rounded (12 points, 12 assists and six boards), while Steve Kerr scores 10 off the bench.
What We Learned: Probably less from this game than any others. Unless 70 wins meant a lot to the Bulls, they probably aren't as motivated to win this one, as the No. 1 seed is sewn up. Meanwhile, the Knicks needed a win in the last game to seal the No. 3 seed in order to avoid the Bulls in a potential Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup.
Still, we once again see that the Knicks can outscore the Bulls (or as much as one team could outscore another in the slow-paced mid-1990's) when they call upon their sharpshooters.
What If Sports is a website dedicated to "what if" sports simulations, to be blunt. If you want to see how the 1986 Celtics would do against the 1972 Lakers, you can play that simulation and alter the depth charts to your liking.
Using What If Sports here, I ran the imaginary 1997 playoff series between the Bulls and Knicks five times using the 2-2-1-1-1 home-away format, making some slight alterations on the depth charts. Ron Harper was inserted in the starting lineup for Steve Kerr and then given more playing time (you can fix minutes as well). Furthermore, John Starks was given time at small forward behind Larry Johnson in case the imaginary Jeff Van Gundy wants to go to a three-guard lineup.
The results...predictably ugly.
Series 1: Bulls 4, Knicks 0
Series 2: Bulls 4, Knicks 1
Series 3: Bulls 4, Knicks 0
Series 4: Bulls 4, Knicks 0
Series 5: Knicks 4, Bulls 3 (huh?)
What We Learned: The Knicks and Bulls were never both at full strength when playing each other during the regular season, but the beauty of computer simulations is that injuries are irrelevant. The Knicks were largely uncompetitive throughout the 24 games, sometimes losing to scores like 88-62. Overall, the Bulls won 19 of 24 games here, so this doesn't speak well for the Knicks' chances.
Three factors to consider:
1. No One is Stopping Michael Jordan
The Knicks don't have a Kryptonite for Michael Jordan. Allan Houston was not a good defender in his day, so he has no chance against MJ here. John Starks certainly had success against Jordan in the past, but consider that he's not getting as much playing time anymore. Furthermore, even if Houston and Starks are playing at the same time, enabling Starks to cover Jordan, that means Houston has to cover Pippen, which is another poor matchup.
It'd be surprising if Michael Jordan didn't score above his 30-point average in this mythical series.
2. The Bulls' Top 9 Players Would Be Healthy
The starting lineup of Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley is not only intact, but Steve Kerr, Jason Caffey, Toni Kukoc and Bison Dele would be playing in the Eastern Conference Finals and running on all cylinders. The Knicks never faced all nine in the regular season.
3. Allan Houston + John Starks = Problems for Bulls
Mentioned a few times before, but in the Knicks' previous playoff series against the Bulls, they didn't have two serious outside shooting threats like Starks and Houston. The Knicks scored over 100 a few times against the Bulls in the regular season, which was a tougher (but not impossible) accomplishment in previous years.
I can't believe this Knicks fan is saying this, but I've got the Bulls in five. People underestimate the 1997 Bulls for reasons stated before, and even though this Knicks team held its own, it's hard to knock off legends without some serious firepower. The Utah Jazz were able to hang with the Bulls in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals because they had two future Hall of Famers to match the Bulls' two Hall of Famers.
In what was a classic problem during the Patrick Ewing era, he never had a superstar right-hand man (or a consistent point guard, which also hurt). I can't imagine the Knicks winning more than two games in this series, but based on the fact that the Knicks never played a fully healthy Bulls team, they go down in five, squeaking a win out at the Garden thanks to some John Starks heroics.
Losing again to the Bulls would have been disappointing, but it's certainly a better result than what happened in real life.