Dub-Bulls: How the 1996 Bulls led the small-ball revolution by going big

1996 Bulls 2016 Warriors (Jack M Silverstein)

Excerpt from “How The GOAT Was Built: Six Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls

Lesson #4: Think creatively about your shortcomings

by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)

Twenty years later, my number one vision of the Chicago Bulls in the spring of 1996 is 20 limbs and an approximate 35-foot combined wingspan fanned out like a flying octagon — five players between 6’6 and 6’11, four with point guard skills, four who could defend three positions, and a genius on the sideline joining his players in synced consciousness.

In short, they were awesome.

It’s no coincidence that the Warriors are too.

While watching Golden State this season, my thoughts have returned time and again to one question and one question only: Why? Why these Warriors? Why after Shaq & Kobe and Duncan’s Spurs and the Big 3 Heat and the Big 3 Celtics — why is THIS the team that finally made a successful run at 70 wins, much less 73?

Part is timing, I’m sure. Injuries and talent and trends. I’d imagine Lakers fans around in 1972 felt the same suspicious curiosity watching Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Kukoc, and Harper creep toward their historic perch. Why didn’t the Lakers of Magic & Kareem win 70, or Kareem and Oscar’s Bucks, or Bird’s Celtics, or the 76ers in 1983?

In some ways, the timing was perfect for Golden State. They are the ideal team for the less physical, analytics-driven, pace-and-space, three-point-happy NBA.

On the other hand, the timing is brutal. They were in a conference with a SECOND team that made a run at 70, a team that won the title two years ago, never mind all the other championship credentials of the San Antonio Spurs.

So the only other answer I can devise to explain Golden State’s historic masterwork this season is that it’s in the genes. These 2015/2016 Dubs are a direct descendent of the second three-peat Bulls, which made their pursuit of 72-10 perfect. As a Bulls fan, I loved it.

Among other traits, the Warriors have become famous for the fluidity of their bodies. They won the 2015 title when they replaced their 7-foot center in the starting lineup with 6’6 Andre Iguodala, giving them five guys from 6’3 to 6’8, each with a multitude of skills. Different heights than the Bulls, but the same approach.

Steve Kerr said as much at the beginning of this season. Asked to compare the ’96 Bulls (for which he played) and this year’s Warriors (for which he coaches), he said the biggest similarity was “the versatility defensively.”

“That was the first team I was ever part of or that I ever saw that would just switch 1 through 4,” Kerr said. “And we could even switch 1 through 5 when we had [Toni] Kukoc out there. So in some ways, that team was like a precursor to the Warriors.”

This was Phil Jackson’s vision — “a new breed of championship team,” as he called it. And it all started with a loss in the playoffs.

The Magic win the battle but start a war

The Bulls’ 1995 playoffs loss to the Magic famously crystallized the team’s need for a power forward.

But Jackson saw another problem.

The Magic had smothered the Bulls with big guards: 6’7 Hardaway at the point, 6’6 Nick Anderson and 6’8 Dennis Scott roaming the wings, and 6’6 Brian Shaw off the bench.

Jackson already had the option of the 6’7 Pippen at point guard. “What would happen, I wondered, if we had three tall, long-armed guards on the court at the same time?” Jackson wrote in his 2013 memoir “Eleven Rings.”

“Not only would it create confusing mismatches for other teams, but it would also improve defense immeasurably because big guards could switch off and defend post players without resorting to double-teaming.”

To make it happen, Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause pulled off a pretty brilliant manipulation of the 1995 expansion draft. Each non-expansion team could protect eight players, and could lose no more than one. The question was whom to protect.

Scottie Pippen (6’7), B.J. Armstrong (6’2), Michael Jordan (6’6), Ron Harper (6’6). Which one is not like the other? (photo by Nathaniel S. Butler, Getty Images)

The Bulls’ first four choices were obvious: Jordan (their best player), Pippen (their other superstar), Kukoc (their supposed future), and Kerr (the league’s best shooter). The team also protected its three centers, Longley, Perdue, and Wennington, because Krause wanted to trade either Longley or Perdue for a power forward and keep Wennington as the backup. And Krause couldn’t risk leaving Wennington unprotected because the expansion teams were in Toronto and Vancouver and might select the Canadian Wennington for marketing.

Unrestricted free agents could not be protected — for the Bulls, Jud Buechler or Pete Myers.

That left Krystkowiak, the forward whose 1995 was marred by injury, performance, and poor interaction with Jordan; Blount, whom Jordan and Jackson deemed unfit to master the triangle; Harper, whose bad knee, advanced age, and fat contract made him not ideal for an expansion team; rookie power forward Dickey Simpkins, who’d won Jordan’s favor; and fan favorite and 1994 All-Star B.J. Armstrong.

Armstrong was the answer. When word got out that B.J. would be available, Bulls fans were despondent, but that’s only because we didn’t know the logic. The team was providing the expansion pool’s highest scorer and only recent All-Star. By dangling an absurdly talented player by expansion standards, the Bulls were guaranteeing themselves that Armstrong would be their lone expansion draftee.

This left one potential weakness.

“I asked them point blank, ‘Who’s going to guard Kevin Johnson?’” Jackson told Sam Smith in October 1995, referencing a conversation with Jordan, Pippen, and Harper about Johnson, the Phoenix Suns point guard who typified the league’s small, explosive ball handlers.

“They said given their three abilities and given our counter players like Steve Kerr off the bench, we’ll be able to cover smaller guards,” Jackson told Smith.

Armstrong gave up five inches to Penny Hardaway (left) and four inches to Dennis Scott (right), Nick Anderson, and Brian Shaw. (Hardaway photo by NBA for Getty Images; Scott photo by Andrew D. Bernstein for Getty Images.)

The plan was set. Like clockwork, the Raptors picked Armstrong number one. That freed Harper to start alongside Jordan, Kerr to be the team’s shooting specialist, and the Bulls to use Armstrong’s $2.8 million salary on a power forward.

“We decided to go in a little different direction,” said Krause (who declined an interview request for this story). “We know we have to combat big guards. This is not a slap at B.J. in any way, shape or form. Obviously, if we had not been prepared to lose B.J., we wouldn’t have put him on the list.”

How the ’96 Bulls and ’16 Warriors embrace fluidity

It’s called small ball.

The ’96 Bulls could have called it “big ball.”

But the best term to describe the strategy behind the player combinations most frequently used by either the Warriors or the Jordan/Pippen/Rodman Bulls is “position-free ball.” This is what the Bulls were seeking in the summer of 1995 — a fluid lineup with multi-skilled players at every position and nobody hampered by size, either too much of it or too little.

Every piece was in place except power forward. Phil Jackson wanted Derrick Coleman. Michael Jordan wanted Coleman’s teammate Jayson Williams, whom he tried to recruit in June at a New York night club. Krause probably knew the team didn’t have the pieces to acquire one of the league’s premier 4’s: Phoenix’s Charles Barkley, Seattle’s Shawn Kemp, or Charlotte’s Larry Johnson.

That’s when assistant general manager Jim Stack pushed his boss Krause to reconsider San Antonio’s Rodman, a man Krause had long called “not our kind of person.”

In the early 1990s, Stack — who could not be reached for comment but whose history with Rodman is brilliantly recounted in this 2011 Daily Herald story by Mike McGraw — was the Bulls’ advance scout, responsible for scouting upcoming playoff opponents. While scouting the Pistons, Stack grew enamored of Rodman.

“What was compelling about Dennis is after he would play 45 minutes in a game, he would go in the weight room for an hour-and-a-half,” Stack told McGraw in 2011. “I’d see Dennis in there and he’s working himself into a lather riding the exercise bike, lifting weights. That always stuck with me.”

After an intense vetting process, the Bulls dealt Perdue for Rodman on the eve of the ’95-’96 preseason. Jackson talked Kukoc into embracing the 6th-man role, Longley became the clear-cut starting center, and the Bulls became uniquely malleable — a squad that could shape shift with the situation.

This plan was not lost on the rest of the league. While head coach of the Pacers, Larry Brown spoke with Spike Lee for Lee’s 1997 basketball memoir “Best Seat in the House”:

“Spike, what I think, and I’ve looked around the league, is this: when you put Scottie, Michael, Kukoc, and Harper out there, you’ve always got three big guys on the perimeter who can guard a lot of people and create plays for themselves and their teammates. That is so hard to match up with. That’s my problem.”

Brown also told USA Today’s Roscoe Nance around that time that Indiana struggled with the Bulls’ “tremendous perimeter players,” adding, “Our game is changing in that direction. I think we’ve improved ourselves, but only time will tell if we can close the gap on Chicago.”

The Bulls reached this point by going big, a four-inch increase from the 6’2 Armstrong to the 6’6 Harper. But they also went small, routinely subbing Longley in favor of Kukoc. They never dropped Longley from the starting lineup the way Golden State did Andrew Bogut last year, but they regularly closed games with either Kerr or Harper opposite Jordan, plus Pippen and Kukoc at forward and Rodman at center.

During the playoffs in the second three-peat, the Bulls had six games in which they could take the lead in the final minute. Either Rodman or Kukoc was the team’s tallest player on the floor in five of the six. Think of any famous playoffs game-winner for the Bulls, and the team went small: Kerr, Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc, Rodman for Kerr’s Finals winner in ’97 and Jordan’s Finals winner in ’98, or Kerr, Jordan, Buechler, Pippen, Kukoc on MJ’s famous fist-pump winner in Game 1 of the ’97 Finals.

Certainly a lot of teams put shooters on the floor for game-winning possessions, so that’s nothing new. But the Bulls used the Harper-Jordan-Pippen-Kukoc-Rodman starting lineup 17 times in the regular season, finishing 16-1, something the Warriors have never done with their Finals-clinching lineup of Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Barnes-Green. In fact, starting in 1980, every NBA champion until the late-90s Bulls had a center log top-5 minutes in the playoffs.

During the late 1990s, “small ball” was for teams needing to spin a negative into a positive, like the ’97 Suns playing four guards because those were their four best players. But the Bulls had Longley, a center of considerable size and sufficient talent, so when they went small they did so as a radical tactic, not a desperate ploy. The team’s structure presaged the league’s decline in traditional centers, while Kukoc — whom Krause originally planned to groom as the team’s new point guard — was a “stretch 4” before such a term existed.

Simply put, the Bulls were embracing a philosophy of movement and spacing that would not become common in the NBA until 15 or so years later, a game plan perfected by the recent championship incarnations of the Heat, Spurs, and Warriors.

“It was so against the norm,” Jackson said on Chicago Tonight in 2013. “It was a team that broke the barriers of a lot of what was the normal thought process,” adding that the addition of Rodman and the move of Harper allowed the Bulls “to go to an end game” with “a group of guys who were very unique.”

That’s why I love watching Steph and co., and why I was not entirely devastated when they broke the record: they share the Bulls’ DNA. Not the long threes, obviously, but the unity, purpose, and roster flexibility. They win because they have the league’s best player who is also its greatest scorer, one of the league’s best non-Steph scorers, two of its most versatile defenders, a fabulous coach, a respected hierarchy, and a top-to-bottom embrace of a unified mission.

Remind you of someone?

“By midseason,” Jackson wrote in “Eleven Rings,” “it became clear to me that it wasn’t competition per se that was driving the team; it was simply the joy of the game itself. This dance was ours, and the only team that could compete against us was ourselves.”

Excerpt from “How The GOAT Was Built: Six Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls” by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)

Next chapter: Lesson 5: Don’t panic — that bad break today might be the luck you need tomorrow AKA “Chris Dudley, Horace Grant, and the strangest What If of the 1996 Bulls

11 Replies to “Dub-Bulls: How the 1996 Bulls led the small-ball revolution by going big”

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