How the Bulls' 90s dominance reshaped the NBA's Western Conference and the league forever
MANILA, Philippines – During their 1990s heyday, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls took down one top contender after another.
They ended the NBA champions Detroit Pistons’ run and sunk them for the next seven seasons. They did not allow the Cleveland Cavaliers to fulfill their potential. The New York Knicks only made it to the NBA Finals when Jordan was out. Chicago helped end the Charles Barkley era in Philadelphia. And they did the same to the Orlando Magic in 1996.
The 1990-91 season was the Boston Celtics’ last good run with the great Larry Bird. Bird’s bad back and the Bulls reaching the height of their powers (with some help from the Pistons) tore apart a good Celtics team that was teeming with youth and talent. They had their “kids” — Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, Kevin Gamble and Reggie Lewis — as their grizzled veterans of Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish called them. It also didn’t help that Lewis died way too young while Shaw seized the opportunity to leave as he never really wanted to play in Boston, preferring his hometown of Los Angeles.
And yet, they were left by the wayside, along with so many other Hall of Famers. We mentioned Barkley, and there’s New York’s Patrick Ewing, Indiana’s Reggie Miller, and Utah’s tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone, who were unable to complete their careers with a chip. The Bulls also stopped cold terrific players in Seattle’s Shawn Kemp and Cleveland’s Mark Price. They also stymied those late 1990s New Jersey Nets that had Sam Cassell, Jayson Williams, Kendal Gill, Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn. In fact, those Nets had to retool to make it to two NBA finals appearances behind Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson, Luscious Harris, Kittles and Van Horn.
What happened during the 1990s was that many of the stars from the Eastern Conference fled to the West, thinking it would also be easier to make the NBA Finals since Jordan wasn’t on that side.
Who did? Barkley left in 1993 for Phoenix and then Houston.
Shaquille O’Neal bolted the Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers after the 1996 season.
Kenny Anderson and Chris Dudley left the New Jersey Nets along with Stacey Augmon, who was previously with Atlanta for Portland in their post-Clyde Drexler incarnation. However, they took off once more when they assembled a lineup that included the Bulls’ Scottie Pippen, Greg Anthony from the New York Knicks, Dale Davis from the Indiana Pacers, Steve Smith from Atlanta, and Rod Strickland and Rasheed Wallace from the Bullets.
Chris Webber left the promising Washington Bullets for Sacramento. Vlade Divac, who the Lakers traded to Charlotte for Kobe Bryant’s draft rights, went back to the West to play for the Kings, who became a power as they were joined by Jason Williams, Doug Christie from the Toronto Raptors, and Peja Stojakovic.
The post-Bulls champions, the San Antonio Spurs, featured two prominent players from Chicago’s six title teams in Steve Kerr and Will Perdue.
The Lakers, who bagged the 2000-02 titles, had Rick Fox and Brian Shaw from Boston; Horace Grant, Ron Harper and John Salley from Chicago; Glen Rice from Charlotte; and of course, the entire coaching staff of the six-peat Bulls.
Not every player who left for the West at that time did so for an opportunity to go to the finals. It’s either a contract, playing time or an opportunity to win. Sometimes it is one or two or even all three.
However, Chicago’s 1990s dominance was telling, and even after the Last Dance of the 1997-98 season, many thought that they would all be back for the next. The lockout took a while before the fates of Phil Jackson, Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kerr, Jud Buechler, Luc Longley, and Bill Wennington were revealed. But that too reshaped the NBA.
As we saw in episode eight of The Last Dance documentary, Jordan was down for another season – a strike-shortened one albeit – for a chance for title number seven. And do you really think they wouldn’t have won it with all that ample rest?
The Bulls team, as revealed by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern, changed the league forever. Salaries picked up and the league just became a global brand. Kukoc’s success in the NBA was bigger than the impact of his Croatian compatriot, the late Drazen Petrovic. He won three NBA championships and was an integral part of those squads. He was the NBA’S Sixth Man of the Year for 1995-96. In fact, prior to Jordan’s return in 1995, Toni hit what – four game winners for the Bulls?
How many international players did Kukoc influence? The Spurs’ Manu Ginobili made no bones about his constantly watching Jordan’s Come Fly With Me video. Ditto with the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki. On the distinguished list are two players who are always in the Greatest of All Time conversation in Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Throw in JR Smith and Chris Paul among many others. If you are looking at today’s generation, there’s Utah’s Donovan Mitchell (who wears Jordan’s other No. 45) and the Kings’ Kyle Guy, who used to fall asleep watching Michael Jordan to the Max every night.
That is how those Jordan and the Chicago Bulls reshaped the West and the NBA.