Lesson #3: Surround yourself with humble talent for a unified mission
by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)
The biggest fallacy about the 1990s Bulls is that they won six championships. That is, that one team won six.
In reality, two teams won three.
I’ve always found the 28 months between the ’93 Finals and the ’96 season one of the most interesting periods of Chicago sports history. In that time, Jerry Krause transformed one three-peat team into another.
Where you stand on the “Which team would win, first three-peat or second three-peat?” question depends on three factors: which MJ you think was better, which Scottie you think was better, and the other 10.
And while a strong case can be made for the first three-peat (better defensive center, more shooters, a younger roster, more down-low muscle men, traditional low-post scoring), I pick the second three-peat, and not because that group won 18 more regular season games. I pick them because of what I believe to be the main cause of that 18-win bump: hierarchy.
Rebuilding the totem pole
In Jackson’s 2013 memoir “Eleven Rings,” Jackson reprinted two sets of portraits he commissioned by Chicago artist Tim Anderson. The first were the nine guys on all three teams from the first three-peat. The second were the 10 guys on all three teams from the second three-peat. Jackson called them his “totem poles.”
My totem is the imagery of members of the first 3Peat. Hail to their dedication and team spirit. 20 years ago-snap pic.twitter.com/AVixZr4Bi0
— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) July 13, 2013
They are wonderful portraits. Yet when I first saw them, one thing jumped out at me. In the first set, every player is looking on an angle — off-screen, as it were. In the second set, every player is looking straight into the eyes of the viewer.
— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) May 22, 2016
The difference wasn’t intentional. For the first set, Anderson snapped Polaroids of the players during broadcasts, largely when they were at the foul line. For the second set, “I was just trying to get everybody to look like they look, with their attitude,” Anderson told me.
Still, the unity in vision and purpose depicted in those portraits is, to me, the perfect image of the second three-peat. On the first three-peat, Scottie wanted to be Mike and Horace wanted to be Scottie and Stacey wanted to be Horace and B.J. wanted to be Pax and Perdue wanted to be Cartwright and Scott Williams wanted to be Perdue. On the second three-peat, everyone knew their place from 1 to 12.
It started with Jordan. Who was Jordan’s partner in the first three-peat? In a way it was Pippen, his most talented teammate. But Cartwright was his co-captain. And Paxson was his longest running teammate and the man with whom Jordan felt the strongest on-the-floor kinship.
In the second three-peat, all of those partnership roles — talent, captainship, tenure — were filled by Pippen.
The players’ origins were also significant. In 1991, Pippen, Grant, King, Armstrong, and Perdue were recent first-round picks, and expected the treatment that status bestowed. Free agents Levingston and Hopson arrived for the 1991 season thinking they’d be featured players; Levingston played the fourth fewest minutes in the playoffs, Hopson the fewest. Rookie free agent Scott Williams wanted more run too.
The opposite was the case on the second three-peat. That team was crewed by veterans, nearly each of whom already tasted failure and was seeking one last shot at glory. One by one, Krause’s moves built the bricks of the second team, as The Sleuth scratched his “find a gem” itch.
And this is why, despite their mutual antipathy and public discord, Krause and Jackson were a critical and natural duo. Krause was a scout’s scout. Jackson was a coach’s coach.
A scout wants to find new players.
A coach wants to guide them.
To borrow a metaphor from Bill Parcells, Krause bought the groceries, Jackson cooked the meal.
It started with Kukoc. In July 1993, the team ended a four-year odyssey to wrangle the brilliant European to Chicago, signing him to an eight-year, $17.6 million contract.
“I will work every day preparing for a championship,” Kukoc told reporters.
Next came Kerr and Wennington. The Bulls were Kerr’s fourth NBA team, Wennington’s third, with the latter returning to the NBA after two years in Italy. Of the four players the Bulls signed on Sept. 29, the Tribune wrote that Kerr had “the best chance to stick.” He and Wennington each signed for the free agent minimum of $150,000.
In February 1994, Krause sent King to Minnesota for Luc Longley. For Krause, this was an admission of error — Krause picked King sixth in 1989, ahead of Jackson’s choice Shawn Kemp — and a chance for vindication.
“It wasn’t a slap at Will (Perdue) when we got Luc,” Krause told Isaacson. “Stacey just couldn’t flourish here. Fans were so down on him that he was down on the whole thing. And you can never have too many big people.”
Longley was the seventh pick in 1991 and an on-again-off-again starter for Minnesota. But at 7-2 he was three inches taller than King, two years younger, and earned nearly the same salary, giving the Bulls a big, young player whom they hoped to develop.
“Tex feels this young man will fit in,” Krause told the Tribune, referencing assistant coach Tex Winter. “All the coaches wanted this young man very badly.”
That 1994 team was the beginning of The New Bulls. Somehow they managed to lose the game’s best player and win only two fewer games than they’d won with him the year before. Part of that was the younger talent — along with the King/Longley swap, the team replaced 33-year-old Trent Tucker, 31-year-old Rodney McCray, and 31-year-old Darrell Walker with the 25-year-old Kukoc, 28-year-old Kerr, and 30-year-old Wennington. Cartwright (36) and Paxson (33) saw their minutes drastically reduce, and saw those minutes taken by Longley (25) and Pete Myers (30).
The pseudo improvement (winning 57 games with MJ and 55 without him) was certainly affected by Phil’s influence and the triangle offense. In 2010, future fivethirtyeight.com writer Neil Paine crafted a nifty breakdown at Basketball Reference on how the ’94 Bulls succeeded as they did without Mike, concluding that the defense improved, the offense remained efficient, Pippen performed better than expected, and Jackson steered the ship.
“I remember one night watching the game, and they were up six or seven,” Francona said in the Jordan documentary. “And Michael said, the way the game was going, ‘They’re not going to win.’ I was just sitting there, kind of half paying attention. And he goes, ‘What they need isn’t there.’ And I didn’t quite follow him, but he was talking about himself.”
The ship starts sinking
Led by six of the ’93 team’s top seven talents, the 1994 Bulls rode the wave of the ’93 championship. But the 1995 Bulls were a team nearing collapse.
In a contentious, elongated departure, Grant left in the summer of ’94. The team gave their Grant money to Ron Harper with expectations of him filling Jordan’s scoring vacuum; Harp ended up out of the starting lineup and averaging under seven minutes per game in the 1995 playoffs. The team’s other big signing was forward Larry Krystkowiak, who ended up on the outs due to injury and uninspired play.
The upside was that by ‘95, the Bulls had six stalwarts of the second three-peat: Kukoc, Kerr, Wennington, Longley, Harper, and Jud Buechler. The team’s character was shifting from guys seeking minutes to guys seeking redemption.
For most of this group — including, later, Randy Brown and arguably Rodman — their careers topped out with the Bulls, not just in terms of team success but in personal bests too. It’s no coincidence: Jackson knew how to use them, Jordan knew how to drive them, Pippen knew how to make them feel safe. They had no aspirations for anything beyond playing their hardest and contributing to wins. They weren’t stars and did not want to be.
The moment that epitomizes that spirit came immediately after championship number six, when Brown found Jordan on the court and hugged him.
“Thanks man,” Brown told Jordan, each man holding the other’s head. “Thanks Mike. I hope everything goes well for you.”
The new Michael learns to co-exist
From his return to hoops until the end of the ‘98 season, Michael Jordan, aged 32 to 35, played in 357 of 358 possible preseason, regular season, All-Star, and postseason games, missing only one preseason game in 1998. He won all three scoring titles, 2 of 3 regular season MVPs, 2 of 3 All-Star MVPs, 3 of 3 Finals MVPs. This was Terminator durability and T-1000 precision.
MJ’s role in driving that second three-peat to wins it had no business winning (including, in a way, the ‘98 title) cannot be understated. He was the trainer and the jockey and the thoroughbred in one.
“Sometimes you have to be an asshole,” Jordan told Jackie MacMullan in her astounding profile of Kobe Bryant upon Bryant’s retirement. “Sometimes your teammates are going to hate you, but all the guys I went after — Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler — they won multiple championships, so I’m pretty sure they understand.”
Jordan wasn’t nearly as prickly though in his second go-round. After his famous “double nickel” against the Knicks in March 1995, MJ told Jackson in private, “You’ve got to tell the players they can’t expect me to do what I did in New York every night. In our next game, I want them to get up and get going — to play as a team.”
“This was the new Michael,” Jackson wrote in his memoir. “In the past he would have reveled in his triumph over the Knicks — and most likely attempted a repeat performance the following day. But he’d returned from his baseball sabbatical with a different perspective on the game. He wasn’t interested in going solo anymore; he longed for the team harmony that had made the Bulls champions.”
Jordan’s post-baseball self empowered the bench, even when it seemed otherwise. Talking to Lazenby, Jackson recalled a conversation with Tex Winter in 1995 in which the two men wondered if Jordan would still work to fit into the triangle offense. Winter asked Jackson to run it past Jordan. Jordan was unequivocal.
“The triple-post offense is the backbone of this team,” he told Jackson. “It’s our system, something that everybody can hang their hat on, so that they know where to go and how to operate.”
This was a massive change in perspective from Jordan, who once dubbed the triangle the “equal opportunity offense.” What Jackson saw was a man accepting his limitations. Jordan still won scoring titles, but averaged under 30 points per game and shot under .500. He still schooled defenders but with a fadeaway instead of flight. He still had his killer instinct, yet he was newly vulnerable, professionally and personally, and spent his summer scrimmaging with fellow NBA stars, including Rodman, during the “Space Jam” shoot. When he returned for training camp, he was uniquely focused.
“He was out to prove a point and get his game back in order,” Kerr told Lazenby. “So every practice was like a war.”
Kerr got it the worst — his famous training camp fist fight with Jordan started when Jackson left practice to take a media conference call, leaving MJ as the unchecked alpha male. The practice grew physical between Jordan and Kerr, MJ threw a punch, a fight ensued, and Jordan stormed out.
“It made me look at myself and say, ‘You know what? You’re really being an idiot about this whole process,’” Jordan recalled in “Eleven Rings.” “I knew I had to be more respectful of my teammates.”
Respect on the second three-peat came from all corners. One could argue Grant was a more valuable player from ’91 to ’93 than Rodman was from ’96 to ’98. Grant played more minutes per game, more games total, and never lost his starting spot in the postseason.
Yet I take Rodman due to, of all things, his personality.
“Dennis was like subservient to Michael in an emotional way, not a physical way,” Kerr told Lazenby. “He never did anything for Michael that he didn’t do for the rest of us, but there was just this understanding that Michael is the ‘greatest’ and I’m below him, and so I’m not going to mess with him, and vice versa. It was really interesting.”
Rodman, in other words, embraced the team’s hierarchy. During the first three-peat, Grant wanted equal treatment with Jordan and Pippen. Grant’s feelings were totally understandable, and it’s not like he was alone on the team in his aspirations. He wanted offensive opportunities and respect. Rodman sought neither.
“I’ve been around great players before,” Rodman said in 1996. “And these two guys are pretty much in a class by themselves.”
So which group was better? Based on minutes played — that is, how many players were trusted to play big minutes — the first three-peat appears to be deeper, with more players logging at least 20% of possible playing time, while the second three-peat was more top heavy.
Of the nine players over the six titles who played in at least two postseasons without being a regular starter, Kerr averaged by far the most minutes, but Wennington, Buechler, and Brown were way at the bottom:
Steve Kerr: 58 games, 19.2 minutes per game
Scott Williams: 53 g, 14.9 mpg
Craig Hodges: 34 g, 10.2 mpg
Cliff Levingston: 39 g, 9.8 mpg
Stacey King: 44 g, 9.7 mpg
Will Perdue: 48 g, 9.5 mpg
Bill Wennington: 34 g, 8.5 mpg
Jud Buechler: 51 g, 6.5 mpg
Randy Brown: 47 g, 6.0 mpg
Yet with the second three-peat, you always felt you knew the exact purpose of each man on the playoff roster, making guys like Buechler and Brown feel more valuable than, say, King and Perdue, despite the latter two playing more minutes. By the start of the 1996 playoffs, the only trump card the first three-peat bench had over the second three-peat bench was the jewelry.
“There was always that lingering thing with Michael, where unless you won a championship with him you weren’t part of the club,” Kerr told Sam Smith. “We needed to win that title first before we all felt like we had his seal of approval.”
Next chapter: “Lesson 4: Think creatively about your shortcomings” AKA “Dub-Bulls: How the 1996 Bulls led the small-ball revolution by going big”