The Two Seasons That Impacted Michael Jordan’s Legacy, for Better or Worse
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One of the biggest arguments NBA fans use to support Michael Jordan’s status as the greatest basketball player of all time is his NBA Finals record. It is certainly impressive, as he lost none of his six NBA Finals series. His six championships were won in two three-peats; the first from 1991 to 1993 and the second from 1996 to 1998. Some people argue Jordan could have won some extra chips had he not retired for a second time in 1998, or if he had not quit basketball after his first three-peat in 1993.
As he was aging, who knows what Jordan could have done past 1998; but after winning three more rings from 1996 to 1998 and proving he still had it after his first retirement in 1993, there is a fair argument on how Jordan could have easily returned to the NBA Finals and won eight straight championships had he played in the 1994 and 1995 campaigns. While there are some conspiracies that point to Jordan’s gambling troubles as the reason he was forced to sit out for almost two NBA seasons, His Airness spoke about his father’s influence as a big reason why he stopped playing basketball to pursue a baseball career.
"It began as my father's idea," said Jordan in 1993, according to the New York Times. "We had seen Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders try two sports and my father had said that he felt I could have made it in baseball, too. He said, 'You've got the skills.' He thought I had proved everything I could in basketball, and that I might want to give baseball a shot. I told him, 'No, I haven't done everything. I haven't won a championship.' Then I won it, and we talked about baseball on occasion, and then we won two more championships. And then he was killed."
Jordan’s father was tragically murdered by two teenagers about a month after he won his third straight NBA championship in 1993. Jordan remembered his father every day and had a hard time realizing he was no longer with him. "I talk to him more in the subconscious than actual words," he said. And so MJ decided to pursue success in baseball. "My father used to say that it's never too late to do anything you wanted to do. And he said, 'You never know what you can accomplish until you try.'” And so Jordan did.
By doing so, he left an empty hole in the NBA. After dominating the NBA during the first half of the 90s decade, the Bulls were no longer a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. Sure, they still won 55 and 47 games and made the Playoffs during the two seasons Jordan was gone, but Chicago did not make it out of the second round. It was a weird sight, as the Bulls were no longer a dominant force led by an even more dominant all-time great.
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While the Bulls found little success fighting other Eastern Conference teams in the Playoffs, the Houston Rockets were able to win back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. They did not win those championships in superb fashion, as they played several elimination games on their way to the two only championships in franchise history. And even though the Rockets faced good competition before ultimately winning back-to-back rings, that competition was arguably not as strong as the challenge MJ’s Bulls would have presented to them. To be fair, the New York Knicks pushed the Rockets to seven games before Houston eventually won the 1994 Finals; the following year, the Rockets swept the Orlando Magic to win it all in 1995.
It is important to point out that Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls on March 19, 1995. His Bulls made the Playoffs but lost to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, the Orlando Magic, in a six-game second-round matchup. However, and in this context exclusively, I am not taking this specific season into account, as Jordan played a mere 17 regular season contests plus 10 Playoff games. Still, some members of the championship-winning Rockets teams are convinced the Rockets would have still won their championships even if MJ had not retired and the Bulls faced Houston in the 1994 and 1995 NBA Finals.
"I always wanted to play Chicago in The Finals," said guard Vernon Maxwell, who was a key member of the Rockets’ back-to-back championship teams. "Go ahead, Google it. Look up our record when we played in the early '90s when they won those first three championships." In the six regular season games where the Rockets faced the Bulls between the 1990-1991 and 1992-1993 seasons, when the Bulls won three straight NBA Finals, the Rockets won five of the six outings. "I think we'd have gotten them. No, I know we'd have gotten them," said Robert Horry a couple of years ago, who was a teammate of Maxwell.
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Appearing as a guest in Scoop B Radio Podcast this week, Horry – a seven-time NBA champion – spoke with host Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson about missing out on playing MJ’s Bulls in the 1994 and 1995 NBA Finals. (You can listen to the complete podcast here)
The former Rockets forward agrees with his teammates, saying his team would have beaten the Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan not retired to play baseball. “I know Michael and Scottie have their own opinions, but I truly believe the way that we were playing, and that big dominant force Hakeem Olajuwon that we had down there was too much. I played for [then Chicago Bulls head coach] Phil [Jackson] and he doesn’t like to double team; and you had to double Hakeem or he would have had 50 on you. So I think we would have won, it would have been a good game.”
Horry was certainly not speaking nonsense. Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was a monster, as he averaged 29.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists, three blocks, and 1.8 steals in the 1994 and 1995 Finals series. The rest of the team did great as well during both seasons; the Rockets led the NBA in three-pointers made in that span while being fourth in blocks and playing some very solid defense anchored by the 1994 Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player Hakeem Olajuwon.
Jordan takes a lot of pride in his intact Finals record, but how would his legacy be affected if he did not quit basketball and play in the 1994 and 1995 NBA Finals? Would it be severely damaged if he lost both Finals and his record were 6 – 2? Would LeBron James have an edge over Jordan in the GOAT conversation if those two extra Finals losses were on his résumé? Would MJ be unanimously considered as the GOAT had he won those two Finals series, pushing his record to a perfect 8 – 0 and delivering eight straight championships to the city of Chicago?
As we have seen, the hypothetical scenarios that give answers to these questions change depending on who you ask. “Everybody has their own opinion,” Horry added, “and it would be stupid of me to say ‘No, we wouldn’t have won.’”
All data and statistics obtained from NBA Stats and Basketball Reference.
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