The Houston Rockets and Clutch City had just won back-to-back titles, but there were a great deal of questions to be answered by the 1995-96 NBA season. The obvious question of can the Rockets three-peat was one of them. However, most every basketball fan was mainly asking about whether Michael Jordan was going to be Air Jordan or the grounded Jordan from the 1995 Playoffs. Michael Jordan had retired abruptly at the age of 30 in October of 1993. However, in mid-March 1995 he returned with a simple statement, “I’m back”. Although Jordan had flashes of his past greatness, he did struggle at times. Most of the struggles dealt with his shooting percentage and turnovers and there were just glimpses of Air Jordan for NBA fans. The Chicago Bulls were even eliminated by the Orlando Magic in six games in the second round. Since Jordan only played 17 games in the regular season in 1995, no one knew if Michael could return to his high-flying form.
Beyond the Jordan issue, the 1996 Chicago Bulls had been re-tooled. Horace Grant, John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, Stacey King and Will Perdue were gone. Horace Grant had left for the Orlando Magic as a free-agent for the 1994-95 season leaving a huge hole at the power forward. In came Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, and Jason Caffey. Oh, and one other key addition in a 6-8 rebounding and defensive tornado known as Dennis Rodman.
Chicago Bulls fans were pondering whether the addition of Dennis Rodman was a good idea or not. Rodman had a troubled couple of seasons with San Antonio, although playing very well at times. It was a very strange coupling with Rodman joining his sworn enemy from Pistons days past. However, Dennis prospered under head coach, Phil Jackson, and Rodman added an edgy side that the Bulls needed. During Chicago’s incredible season, Rodman’s tattooed persona was a huge hit with Chicago fans. The Bulls fans seemed to embrace him which could have gone a long way to this risk-reward move paying off big time.
Rodman wasn’t the only player on the move. Alonzo Mourning’s agent, David Falk, forced a trade of the all-star center from Charlotte to Miami. Pat Riley had left New York for South Beach to take over as the coach/part owner of the Heat and made the Alonzo Mourning trade his first big move on the way to 42 wins for Miami.
Utah’s John Stockton led the league in assists for the ninth consecutive season to surpass Boston Celtic legend Bob Cousy’s NBA-record streak. Dennis Rodman won his sixth rebounding title (14.9 per game), while Michael Jordan re-claimed his scoring throne at 30.4 points per game. Seattle point guard, Gary Payton, led the league in steals at 2.9 per game, while Dikembe Mutombo, once again, led the NBA in blocked shots at 4.5 per contest.
The Chicago Bulls would dominate from the start as their pressure defense, which featured three first-team All-Defensive performers in Pippen, Jordan and Rodman, simply destroyed opponents. The Bulls would finish with a new NBA record 72 wins which topped the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers with 69. The Orlando Magic would win 60 games themselves, and it would become apparent to most that it would be Chicago or Orlando who would represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals.
In the West, the Seattle SuperSonics had their best year in franchise history with a 64-18 record led by Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins. San Antonio won the Midwest Division with 59 wins closely followed by the Utah Jazz with 55 victories. The Los Angeles Lakers were even starting to rebuild from their loss of Magic Johnson in 1991 and pulled off 53 wins for the season. Magic Johnson attempted a comeback with the Lakers during 1996, but he would come off the bench and although played well did not look like the Magic everyone knew before.
The Bulls swept Miami in the first round, handled New York 4-1 in the second round, and blasted the Orlando Magic in a 4-0 sweep that most feel helped influence Shaquille O’Neal to leave the Magic for the Lakers in the off-season. The Western Conference Playoffs were led by Seattle who defeated Sacramento 3-1 in the first round, swept the champion Houston Rockets in the second round, but ran into a buzz saw against the Utah Jazz in the Conference Finals. It took Seattle seven games to dispatch the pesky Utah Jazz who gave the league a preview of what was to come (Utah lost in the NBA Finals against Chicago in 1997 and 1998).
The Chicago Bulls seemed to just play with the Sonics like a cat with a mouse the first three games and took a commanding 3-0 lead in the Finals. However, Seattle would circle the wagons to win the next two games at home. The Bulls closed out the Sonics for their fourth championship when the series returned to the Windy City for game #6, however. “All we do is go out and play hard and play smart,” Dennis Rodman told reporters, “and everyone thinks there’s something special going on.”
Despite Rodman’s quote, there was something special going on. Chicago had taken the risk that Rodman would not disrupt the Bulls chemistry and, in doing so, set the road map for another three-peat. The 1996 Chicago Bulls team are viewed, by most, as one of the best teams ever. It wasn’t just their 72-10 record, but the way they played together and their absolutely suffocating defense that would not let teams back into games. Then there was Jordan and Pippen who had become one of the best duos in the game. Michael Jordan proved he wasn’t washed up and was still the dominant finisher that he always was. Yes, he had changed his game some, but was also even smarter than ever before. The legacy of the 1996 Chicago Bulls will always live on. Maybe they couldn’t win every game against the all-time greatest NBA teams? However, they were definitely a team that I wouldn’t bet against in a series against any team in history.