In 1990-91 some of the less obvious aspects of Phil Jackson's coaching philosophy began to draw attention-and began to produce unprecedented results. Although the Bulls had the most creative offensive force in the history of the game in Jordan, they also stressed defense and teamwork.
Chicago lost the first three games of the year, then never dropped more than two in a row the rest of the way. On December 4 the Bulls set a regulation-game team record by scoring 155 points against Phoenix, a total topped only by a 156-point, four-overtime game in 1984. They had two seven-game winning streaks, in December and January, while building a 30-14 record. Then the team went on a tear in February, winning 11 straight, losing a single game, then winning nine more, to stand at 50-15 on March 20.
Finishing with a 61-21 record, the Bulls won their second division title and became just the ninth team in NBA history to win 60 or more regular-season games. They swaggered through the postseason, sweeping the New York Knicks in three games, eliminating the Philadelphia 76ers in five, and reaching the NBA Finals by winning four straight against the defending NBA-champion Detroit Pistons.
The 1991 NBA Finals matchup between the Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers was billed as a confrontation between two of the game's most charismatic figures, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson; however, the drama never unfolded. Los Angeles won the first game on a last-second three-pointer by Sam Perkins, but then Chicago ran through the Lakers in four straight contests. Jordan scored 30 points and handed out 10 assists in a 108-101 Game 5 victory, which clinched the first NBA championship in the Bulls' 25-year history.
The title capped a memorable season for Jordan. He was voted the league's Most Valuable Player for the second time, won his fifth consecutive scoring title, reached the 15,000-point plateau, and was named to the All-NBA First Team and to the NBA All-Defensive First Team. He was also voted MVP of the Finals.
1991-92: Two Rings Are Better Than One
In 1991-92 the Bulls came roaring back. They dominated throughout the year and threatened the league record for victories in a season before ending up at 67-15, the best mark in franchise history. Chicago was slow out of the gate but then ran off a team-record 14-game winning streak for a 15-2 record by early December. The Bulls put together a 13-game streak in January to sit at 37-5, then coasted in with a 30-10 second half. Chicago equaled its best home record at 36-5 and set a new club mark with 31 road victories.
The playoffs, however, were tougher than the previous season's. Chicago had a rugged conference semifinal confrontation with New York, finally subduing the Knicks in seven games. In the Eastern Conference Finals they went to six games against Cleveland before prevailing.
Chicago faced a high-powered Portland team in the 1992 NBA Finals. After the Bulls notched a Game 1 victory at home, the Blazers gave Jordan and company a jolt by stealing Game 2 at Chicago Stadium. But Chicago managed to win two of three contests in Portland, bringing the series back home with a one-game lead after five. When the Blazers took a 15-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 6, a seventh game seemed assured. The Bulls' bench turned the game around, however, igniting a 14-2 run at the start of the final period as Chicago logged the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in Finals history. The Bulls won the game, 97-93, and took home their second consecutive championship, becoming only the fourth NBA franchise to win back-to-back titles.
Jordan eclipsed his regular-season average of 31.2 points per game by averaging 35.8 points per game in the six contests against Portland. He repeated as Most Valuable Player for both the regular season and the Finals, becoming the first player since the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird to take both honors in successive years. He also captured his sixth straight scoring title, was a starter in the All-Star Game, and was named to the All-NBA First Team and to the NBA All-Defensive First Team. Scottie Pippen was an All-Star starter and made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. In the summer of 1992 Jordan and Pippen both played on the United States Dream Team, which won a gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.
The Bulls finished the 1992-93 regular season at 57-25, the team's fourth straight 50-win campaign. For the second consecutive year Chicago never lost more than two games in a row. On January 16 against the Orlando Magic, Jordan scored 64 points, his second-highest total ever. He won his seventh straight scoring title at season's end and joined Pippen on the NBA All-Defensive First Team. B. J. Armstrong, a fourth-year guard from Iowa, moved into the starting lineup and led the NBA in three-point percentage at .453.
Entering the 1993 NBA Playoffs, the defending champs were still the team to beat, but not the clear-cut favorites. Many, in fact, were picking Coach Pat Riley's New York Knicks to emerge from the Eastern Conference, and still others felt Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns, who notched the league's best record at 62-20, would take the crown. Undaunted, the Bulls swept Atlanta in three games and Cleveland in four in the first two rounds of the postseason. They met the Knicks in a much-anticipated Eastern Conference Finals and rallied from a two-game deficit to win four straight and take the series.
As expected, Phoenix was waiting in the NBA Finals. Chicago was looking to make short work of the series after stunning the Suns with two victories in Phoenix, but Barkley carried his team to two improbable wins in Chicago, sending the series back to Phoenix for Game 6. The Suns took control of the contest in the fourth quarter and seemed on their way to forcing a decisive Game 7, but then the Bulls' John Paxson provided one of the greatest moments in Finals history. With Chicago trailing, 98-96, Paxson hit a dramatic three-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining, giving the Bulls a 99-98 victory and their third straight NBA title.
Michael Jordan averaged 41.0 points against the Suns to break Rick Barry's previous record for the highest scoring average in a Finals series. He was named Finals MVP for the third straight year. With the victory the Bulls became the first NBA team in 27 seasons to win three consecutive championships. (The Minneapolis Lakers, led by George Mikan, won three in a row from 1952 through 1954, and the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics won eight straight titles from 1959 through 1966.)
1993: Jordan Announces His Retirement
The Bulls seemed poised to go as far into the record books as Jordan would carry them, but then, prior to the opening of training camp for the 1993-94 season, Jordan dropped the bomb. He retired at age 30.
Jordan had won a slew of awards and honors during his nine-year NBA career. He was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1984-85, then went on to win seven straight scoring titles, three regular-season Most Valuable Player Awards, three NBA Finals MVP Awards, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and two NBA Slam-Dunk Championships. He was also an All-Star in each of his nine campaigns. Most importantly, however, Jordan owned three championship rings.
Basketball aficionados will argue that the game, at its improvisational best, is poetry and jazz, and that is how Jordan rewrote the book every day. He shocked the basketball world with his high-flying grace and beauty, building on the legacy of Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving with jaw-dropping variations. He created a breathtaking illusion with his leaning, one-handed slam, in which he would tip toward the horizontal in midair, appearing to level out for flight before cramming the ball through the hoop. He developed into a deadly three-point shooter, and was never more accurate than in the crucible of championship play. And above all, Jordan was a winner.
Needless to say, his departure would have an impact. He had been surrounded by fine players, including Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and B. J. Armstrong. But at the end of the 1992-93 season the question looming over the franchise, and over the league, was whether they (or anyone, for that matter) could fill the vacuum left by the departure of the player who was arguably the greatest in the history of the game.
1993-94: There Is Life Without Jordan?
However, the 1993-94 Bulls proved there was life without Michael Jordan. Although Chicago didn't win its fourth straight championship, it posted a 55-27 record (for second place behind the Atlanta Hawks in the Central Division) and advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But for the first time in four consecutive playoff matchups, the New York Knicks eliminated the Bulls, though it took them seven games to do it.
Scottie Pippen had a tremendous season in all facets of the game. The leading vote-getter for both the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team, he ranked eighth in the league in scoring (22.0 ppg), 23rd in rebounding (8.7 rpg), 19th in assists (5.6 apg), and second in steals (2.93 per game). Pippen also won MVP honors at the 1994 NBA All-Star Game, in which he was joined for the first time by teammates Horace Grant and B. J. Armstrong.
Toni Kukoc had a solid rookie season and gave the Bulls confidence in their future. The former European star found some aspects of the NBA difficult, but as a versatile sixth man he made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team and scored 10.9 points per game. He hit several game-winning buckets during the year, including a last-second three-pointer against the Knicks in Game 3 of the conference semifinals. Kukoc looked to be one of the team's focal points in 1994-95, especially after Grant left the team to sign with the Orlando Magic as a free agent.
1994-95: “His Airness” Returns
The 1994-95 season opened with the Chicago Bulls in a new arena, the United Center, and with Michael Jordan as a memory. The team played close to .500 ball for much of the campaign. Scottie Pippen was one of the league's best all-around talents, finishing among the league leaders in steals (2.94 per game, 1st), scoring (21.4 ppg, 12th), rebounding (8.1 rpg, 23rd), and assists (5.2 apg, 23rd). Pippen started in the All-Star Game and was named to the All-NBA First Team at season's end. Toni Kukoc was inserted into the starting unit about 25 games into the season and averaged 15.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists for the year. Most nights Kukoc and Pippen formed a formidable duo.
Yet the Bulls became much stronger late in the year. Jordan, who had been toiling without much success as a minor league baseball player attempting to make the majors, realized that he missed basketball. So on March 18, amid much fanfare, Jordan declared, "I'm back," unexpectedly rejoining the Bulls in what was certainly the most memorable return of a player in NBA history.
Although he was not quite the same player who had left the NBA in 1993, Jordan was still better than most guards in basketball and made the Bulls a feared team. In 17 regular-season games he averaged 26.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 5.3 assists. He sparked the team to a 9-1 record in April. His 55-point performance against the rival New York Knicks on March 29 showed that he could still conjure up the old magic. That game, his first at Madison Square Garden since his return, was one of the most anticipated regular-season games of the year and ended with Jordan dishing off for a Bill Wennington dunk that gave Chicago a last-second win.
Chicago finished the regular season at 47-35, in third place behind the Indiana Pacers and the Charlotte Hornets but only five games off the lead. The Bulls blasted past the Hornets in the first round of the playoffs and threatened to seize a fourth championship. But even with Jordan, the Bulls could not overcome their own glaring weakness: the lack of a solid inside player. Power forward Horace Grant had left the team in the offseason to sign with the Orlando Magic; he came back to haunt the Bulls in the conference semifinals as his Magic took the series in six games. Jordan averaged 31.5 points in the playoffs.
1995-96: Greatest Ever? Bulls Win 72 Games and The Title
After hearing for an entire offseason that he wasn't quite the same player as he had been when he abruptly retired in 1993, Michael Jordan was driven to lead the Bulls to the NBA championship for the fourth time in six years. His supporting cast included Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, acquired in a preseason trade. Though a talented collection of players, no one could have predicted what the team would accomplish.
After losing to Seattle to fall to 10-2 in late November, the team won 31 of its next 32 games, including 14 during an undefeated January. Although they lost back-to-back games at Denver and Phoenix to avoid becoming the first team in NBA history to play an entire season without consecutive losses, their failures were few and far between.
They were nearly invincible at home, going 37-0 (extending their home winning streak to 44) before losing to the Charlotte Hornets on April 8. At Milwaukee, on April 16, they achieved what many experts never thought possible - 70 wins - with a 86-80 decision over the Bucks. They finished 72-10, breaking the 69-13 record of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. Only the Indiana Pacers were able to beat the Bulls twice.
In doing so, the Bulls won many of the postseason awards: Jordan was named the league's Most Valuable Player and was the All-Star Game MVP. He led the league in scoring (30.4 ppg) ranked third in steals (2.20 spg), and 11th in three-point field-goal percentage. Pippen, long regarded as perhaps the best all-around player in the NBA, averaged 19.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 5.9 apg, and finished 12th in the NBA in steals.
Rodman, who added an element of intrigue with his unique antics and unparalled rebounding ability, led the league in rebounds (14.9 rpg). Rodman, Jordan and Pippen were all named to the league's All-Defensive Team. Toni Kukoc won the NBA Sixth Man Award, and the supporting cast included Steve Kerr (second in three-point field goal percentage), Luc Longley (9.1 ppg) and Ron Harper (7.4 ppg).
In the playoffs, the Bulls kept rolling, losing only one playoff game in series wins over Miami, New York and Orlando. In the Finals, the Bulls beat the Sonics in six games, finishing with a postseason record of 15-3, and an overall record of 87-13, the best in NBA history. Jordan was named the Finals MVP for the fourth time as he cemented his legend in the Windy City and in NBA annals.
1996-1997: Five Times A Champion
Coming off of a record-breaking 1995-96 season, what could the Chicago Bulls do for an encore? How about 69 wins and a second consecutive NBA title, the fifth for the Bulls in seven years? That's exactly what the Bulls accomplished in 1996-97, posting a 69-13 record and winning the championship with a memorable six-game triumph over the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals.
Despite the gaudy record, defending the title wasn't easy. Led by the dynamic duo of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the Bulls were able to overcome injuries to Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley, suspensions and injuries to rebounding specialist Dennis Rodman and constant public and media scrutiny to win the Central Division by 13 games over the Atlanta Hawks.
Jordan made more NBA history along the way, becoming the first player in league history to record a triple-double at the All-Star Game (14 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists). Teammate Steve Kerr reigned on All-Star Saturday as the winner of the AT&T Shootout.
The Bulls finished one game shy of recording back-to-back 70 win seasons by losing three of their final four games. Jordan led the league in scoring (29.6 ppg) and set an NBA record with 2,000 points for the 10th time in his career.
Despite that late "slump," the Bulls were ready come playoff time. They held off a tenacious Washington Bullets team to record a first-round sweep, then disposed of the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat in five games apiece, setting up the series with the Jazz.
In the Finals, Jordan took center stage once again. He won Game 1 with a buzzer-beater, then posted 38 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists to give the Bulls a 2-0 series lead. After the Jazz won twice at home to tie the series at 2-2, Jordan added another epic to his legacy; playing despite a stomach virus, Jordan poured in 38 points, including a three-pointer in the final minute to give the Bulls a 90-88 win in Game 5. He added 39 more points in the Game 6 clincher and fed Kerr for the game-winning shot with only five seconds to play. For the fifth time in five championship seasons, Jordan was named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player. At season's end, Jordan and coach Phil Jackson signed new one-year contracts, providing the Bulls an opportunity to 'three-peat' for the second time in the decade.
1997-98: Repeat Three-Peat
It wasn't easy for the 1997-98 Bulls. Unlike many of Chicago's prior title runs, this one never seemed like a mere formality. From the very beginning of the season, the Bulls were challenged both mentally and physically.
Scottie Pippen began the season on the injured list, missing the Bulls' first 35 games while recovering from off-season left foot surgery. Despite an opening night loss to the Boston Celtics and a relatively slow start of 12-9, Chicago was back on top by midseason. As Pippen played himself back into shape, Michael Jordan carried the Bulls with an assist from Toni Kukoc and the league-leading rebounding prowess of Dennis Rodman. When the regular season ended, Jordan and company had led the Bulls to a 62-20 record, tying Utah for the top mark in the NBA.
Jordan, still the league's marquee player, enhanced his legend with a plethora of honors, including All-Defensive First Team honors, All-NBA First Team honors, MVP honors for the fifth time and All-Star MVP honors for the third time. His 28.7 ppg led the NBA, giving Jordan his 10th scoring title.
In the postseason, the Bulls met first-time playoff foe Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals after dispatching the New Jersey Nets and the Charlotte Hornets. The veteran Pacers, led by NBA legend Larry Bird, forced a decisive Game 7, a first for the Bulls since 1992. Jordan's 28 points sealed the 88-83 victory for Chicago, and it was back to the Finals and a rematch with the Jazz.
By virtue of their season-series sweep over the Bulls, the Jazz had the home-court advantage this time around. After the Jazz defended home court in Game 1, the Bulls managed to steal Game 2, 93-88. Back in Chicago, the Bulls posted a 96-54 rout in Game 3 and won a close Game 4 to close within one more win of another championship. The Jazz, however, were not ready to bow out gracefully. Led by a game-high 39 points by Utah's Karl Malone the Jazz came away with an 88-86 win, as a last second shot by Jordan missed its mark.
Game 6, back in Salt Lake, was one of Jordan's finest performances ever. With Pippen severely limited by back pain, it was on Jordan's shoulders to deliver another title. It all came down to a Hollywood ending. With the Bulls trailing by one in the final minute, Jordan stole the ball from Malone and buried the series-winning jumper with 5.2 seconds remaining. Chicago beat Utah 87-86, and Jordan added his sixth Finals MVP trophy to his list of accomplishments.
After the Bulls wrapped up their season with another celebration in Chicago's Grant Park, speculation began as to what might happen next. Would the most celebrated sports dynasty be back for another title shot? If so, it wouldn't be under Jackson. After leading the Bulls to six championships, the Bulls' head coach announced he would not return. Meanwhile, Bulls fans were forced to wait out the summer for word as to whether Jordan, Pippen and Rodman would return.