It would not be a Chicago Bulls story without adding another layer to the mythos of one of the most iconic figures in sports history.
It’s maddening. I felt like we could’ve won seven (titles),” Jordan said in the final episode of “The Last Dance.” “I really believe that. We may not have. But not to be able to try it, it’s something I can’t accept.
That sounds great at first listen after watching a rose-colored take on one of the greatest dynasties ever, but the truth is that the Bulls were crippled and expensive.
Right before Jordan stoked the flames on this conversation we all watched Scottie Pippen practically crawl on his hands and knees for 48 minutes as the least convincing “decoy” of all time. Michael Jordan was physically spent, spending timeouts mustering the last of what he could out of over three decades of basketball. I am not sure they would have survived a potential game 7 in Utah, much less another championship run. I will note that both still had productive years ahead (Jordan would be serviceable a few years later in a victory lap with the Washington Wizards and Pippen played five more quality years after back surgery) but the rest of the core roster was already well on the way downhill.
Dennis Rodman only played in 35 more NBA games after game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Luc Longley, Ron Harper, and Bill Wennington all suffered immediate statistical declines. Between these aging pieces and a thin wallet, Chicago would have been forced to rebuild and would likely not be immediately competitive with only one summer to turn things around.
The most critical part of the Bulls’ dynasty outside of Jordan himself was Scottie Pippen’s contract. The rules that protected players from bad contracts did not exist in the early 90s. Pippen signed a six-year rookie deal in 1987 and cemented himself in one of the worst contracts in sports history when he took a quick extension in his fourth year to provide for his family in Arkansas. Scottie was the 122nd highest-paid player in the NBA in 1998, capping a decade of being criminally underpaid. It was time for Scottie to be taken care of, which resulted in a sign and trade with the Houston Rockets. The only scenario for Pippen staying in Chicago after years of being bitter about his contract would have been for Michael Jordan to take a pay cut. I have a magic rock to sell anyone who believes that was going to happen.
The best route to seven (eight?) banners in Chicago would have been for Michael to forgo his load management season playing baseball and stick around to knock off young Penny and Shaq instead. The Bulls were at the height of their powers while robbing Pippen blind and enjoyed great success even without Jordan. Adding Michael into the fold would likely get them over the hump during each of those gap years.
Jordan was on-brand adding some juice about the possibility that he could have added to his resume, but Phil Jackson knew differently.
“This was a good time to go,” Jackson said. “It was a great run. We had a wonderful run. Great team. Time to go.”