What if? If you are a sports fan, this has to be the biggest burning unanswered question ever. I’ve often thought about what might have happened in 1994, 1995, and 1999. There are really no other good examples of a healthy elite player just walking away at 30 years old. It was and still is unprecedented. There have always been conspiracies about a gambling suspension that I don’t believe at all. It doesn’t even make logical sense to ban the biggest cash cow in the NBA. Occam’s razor applies here, and I think what is obvious is the role the death of his father being a traumatic event. That alone makes it understandable. If his father hadn’t been murdered, I don’t think he ever retires or pursues baseball.
In this alternate history, I am skeptical that he would have played until 40 if he had never retired the first time. He would probably have still walked away around 35 to 37 similar to his 2nd retirement anyway given the Last Dance circumstances. I could even see the last dance going down the same way and him coming back again as well, with Washington no different.
That part of his story with the Bulls getting cheap and dismantling the dynasty is the most annoying to me as a fan at the time. I think you want to see a natural end to something and just how far they could take it or held on to it. We will consider how that could have gone here.
I have thought of one other team that I think would have been a very viable team for Jordan to join in 1998-99 he may have if nudged. Watching the last dance, he actually said he didn’t want to retire at 35, so I believe he could have been talked into returning at least another year or 2 in 99-00. We will talk about that later in this article, as well as the other landing spot in a later addition to the series. Let’s start in 1994.
The roster in 1994 was very similar to the 1993 Champions. The only real changes were that Stacy King was traded for Luc Longley in a season, which was an upgrade. 30-year-old journeyman Pete Meyers was dug up from Italy in October after being completely out of the NBA for 2 years. He was tasked as the starter to replace Jordan and was the best they could do for the unexpected departed. Meyers started 81 games and averaged 7.9ppg. Toni Kukoc finally came over from Europe as well.
I was 15 years old at the time, and my recollection before really digging back in was Kukoc was good that first year and helped offset the loss of Jordan. He was good eventually, and much of my expectations were likely predetermined about reading this “6-11 Point Guard” from Europe in SI a few years prior. They made him sound like the next big thing. There was also the shot buzzer beater in the playoffs where Pippen was on the bench pouting that likely made him seem better.
The reality was he wasn’t that amazing even as a 25-year-old rookie as he adjusted to the NBA in year 1. He averaged 10.9ppg, shot under .500% True Shooting, and had a 15 PER, including 8.6ppg in the 7 game Knick series. He was playable, but not someone that is making up for Jordan’s usage, playing 24 minutes off the bench. Meyers was straight trash, as you would expect a guy out of the NBA to be averaging 7.9ppg with a 10 PER and a -4 net rating. Obviously adding Jordan to this team would have been a massive improvement with those two making up most of his minutes.
Pippen as we all remember had a career year finishing 3rd in the MVP voting, and picked up a lot of the slack as an offensive engine, but his statistics didn’t really jump much more than H. Grant’s who doesn’t get enough credit. Grant really stepped his game up over the previous year as well and was a big part of maintaining a contender. Armstrong was a non deserving all star and his statistics and impact were pretty static. He basically played 3 more minutes a game. Longley was a lot better than King at that point, and the addition of Steve Kerr would make up for the major decline of John Paxon who would barely play that year.
The Bulls won 57 games in the regular season on the way to the championship in 1993. They would go 15-4 in the playoffs, including 4-2 vs the Knicks that season. In 1994, they would win 55 games in the regular season and lose to the Knicks in the 2nd round in 7 games. The Knicks would go on to the finals, where they would lose to the Rockets in 7 games. These Bulls without Jordan were still very close, and it was interesting to see them without Jordan and Pippen as the leading man I have to admit. It certainly helps Pippen’s legacy.
Obviously, this was still a capable contender that season but they were also a bit of an overachiever in the regular season. They had the net differential of a 50 win team while the 1993 team had that of a 58 win team so the gap in the fundamentals was more what you would expect losing Jordan. Their net Differential in 1993 was 2nd best in the NBA and 11th best in 1994.
This was still a dangerous and experience Bulls team that SHOULD have beat the Knicks. They were within a controversial “Phantom Call” with 2.1 seconds away from beating the Knicks. You can judge for yourself here.
Even without Jordan that year, if they had beat the Knicks as they probably should have, they would have had a solid opportunity to get to the Finals. The Pacers were led by Miller, Smits, and Derrick McKey at that point and this was their first deep run. They were also only the 10th best team in the net differential. Back in those days it usually took a couple of times advancing and getting the playoff experience to reach the finals, and the Bulls were certainly hardened vets of the playoffs by that point. I think containing Hakeem that year and the Rockets might have been a bigger task than Ewing for the Jordanless Bulls. Ultimately, even if they got the call and to the finals, I think this version of the Bulls without Jordan was going to lose to the Rockets. This version of the Rockets was not unbeatable, though. They were 6th in the regular season that year in the differential. This was before they traded Thrope for Drexler as well.
So what if Jordan was on the 1994 Bulls? This one is easy, and I think they win the championship, even if Jordan was burnt out and was less focused and 1993. Grant and Pippen were so good that year and the supporting cast with Kukoc, Longley, and Kerr got better. They would have won more games in the regular season for sure with Jordan starting over a barely NBA level player in Meyers and have had a better seed and home court. I think they easily dispatched the Knicks that season again. While Olajuwon would have posed more problems, Jordan is still the best player on the court, and they would have had a home court with Jordan back Safe bet they win their 4th title.
This is the year I’m sure will get the Jordan stans riled up. This one is the easiest for me, and there is no way they win the championship this year. Why do I believe this when so many other articles/video’s/commentators etc say they would have won 8 straight? Because I watched the Bulls lose with Jordan on the court. It’s a fact, not only did they lose, they were handled easily, even with him scoring 32ppg on similar True Shooting to multiple other series. It actually already happened even though all these people like to pretend as if #45 Jordan never existed much less came back, was good, and still lost.
Let’s start with the argument they would make that if he never retired, Jordan is in better form, and they just keep winning. If he had gone through 1994 and won the championship again like I believe they would have, and he never took time off in 1995 and played his normal 75+ games. I still don’t think that team was good enough to win. There wasn’t much more Jordan could do either, 5 to 10% better form wouldn’t do jack IMO. Well go over the team later, but let’s just look at Jordan first.
Jordan obviously was already burnt out by 1993 and less motivated to play anyway, that’s a big reason why he quit along with his father’s death. By this point, he would have had an accumulation of even more burnout and trying to find something to motivate him to prove and likely going more going through the motions. Steve Kerr said it best when he stated they wouldn’t have won 8 in a row. The grind was to tough and he would know being around multiple dynasties and in the middle of that one.
I would argue what you actually got in 1995 with Jordan coming back from baseball was a fresh, reinvigorated, and highly motivated Jordan after taking a year and a half mental break off, and it still wasn’t nearly good enough. Even a motivated, refreshed Jordan and the Bulls, and a 3 point line moved in to just his range he went nuts on, and they were still handled easily.
I’m sure these same people will try to argue not playing for that year and a half and being rusty was the reason the Bulls lost. I don’t believe that argument first off when lots of guys miss a year with injury and comeback fine in similar time frames. They do that despite in most cases not being able to walk or run and then having to rehab just to get their atrophied muscles and physical bodies back up to speed.
Jordan was still active and playing baseball, running, working out etc. He never lost any of that physical aspect and was healthy. His game at this point was still athletic based and getting by players and to the rim. You don’t just lose that in 500 days. I also don’t believe for one minute he never picked up a basketball in that time, especially when the baseball lock-out happened in August of 1994 and he had nothing to do all winter sitting at home in the cold with a warm gym attached.
That time Jordan missed most of a season
Let’s rewind to 1985-86 when Jordan played 3 games and broke his foot and would miss from October 29th to March 15th. When he came back he was on a minute restriction as well and averaged 22 minutes a game that year coming back and had 18 games to kick off the rust and recover before the playoffs. He averaged 43.7ppg in the playoffs vs the eventual champion Celtics by April 16th and still put up the highest scoring playoff game ever. Time off even on crutches and with a weak leg didn’t matter.
Why do I mention this, well Jordan who was completely healthy and fresh and undoubtedly ramping up long before March came back nearly the exact same time in the season on March 19th in 1995. He played 17 games. It’s almost identical to the time frame he came back in 1986.
People will pretend #45 Jordan wasn’t Jordan but he dropped an efficient 55 points on by his 5th game back on March 28th vs one of the best teams in the Knicks. Not only that he had already dropped a 27 point game on 17 shots in only 26 minutes by game 2. He averaged 29.5ppg, 5.3rpg, 4.5apg on .525 True shooting in the 6 games in March. The Bulls were 34-31 before he came back and 13-4 after to close the regular season.
This was the real Jordan from pretty much the moment he stepped on the court, he was good, and his presence allowed the Bulls to be a contender. For me, you don’t get to drop games as he did from day one and the first two weeks, and then get to claim you were rusty a month later. Not when he played that well in March and was the freshest physically and mentally of any player in the NBA going into the playoffs. I think Jordan just didn’t play as well in April and slumped, as many players ebb and flow at times. The fact he was good in March undercuts any rust argument, IMO.
The slump he was in by late April probably had more to do with how teams were guarding him differently as they saw how he fit in with the new Bulls team around him that season and adjusted their gameplans to stop him since he started so well. For one the team wasn’t as good but just having Jordan on the court occupying the defensive game planning opened up the rest of the team, and they would finish the season 13-4 with Jordan on the court and 9-2 in April even as he slumped offensively. Jordan found other ways to impact the game, upping both his rebounds and assist in his “slump”. He would average 25.5ppg, 7.7rpg, 5.7apg still helping them get to 9-2 in April to close the regular season.
The 1995 Playoffs
Jordan by the Playoffs had come out of the slump and the Bulls were riding high, going 13-4 with him on the court since the return. They would add to that and dispatch the #4 Seed Hornets in 4 games that season 3-1. Jordan would average 32.3ppg, 6.5rpg, 5.8apg. 2.0spg on a .585 True Shooting. This was Jordan all the way. If there was any rust people claimed even after he was good start in March at the end of the regular season, there was none by this point. He was as good as ever in the playoffs vs a top 4 seed Alonzo Mourning led team and the Bulls as a team were still rolling. Now to 16-5 since the return. There is no way you can come back and cry rust the next series, for sure, when you have a series like this and averaged what he did on .585 true shooting. Remember, the games were much lower scoring then as well. The Bulls averaged 96ppg so it just as well have been like scoring near 38ppg today. It was big time.
Round 2 the Bulls faced the #1 seed Orlando Magic who were likely always going to be the #1 seed that season and meet the Bulls in the playoffs at some point with homecourt. Jordan averaged 31.5ppg, 6.5rpg, 3.7apg, 2.5bpg, 1.8spg on .539 True Shooting vs the Magic and they just lost in 6 games. It happened, and I do not understand how people can claim he wasn’t Jordan for the matchup. It’s almost an identical stat line to the last time he lost a playoff series to an equally talented team in the Detroit Pistons when they were the #1 seed and Eastern Conference, finalist.
Jordan even had other series that were similar by Jordan standards vs lesser teams in the first playoff run. Worse true shooting vs the Knicks in 1993 for example. I think the Magic deserve the credit for being wonderful that year, beating the Bulls and Jordan. This was a real Jordan led Bulls, there is no asterisk. He came back with plenty of time, put up Jordan-like numbers, he was healthy, and the team wasn’t good enough.
The Bulls 1995 Team
I think we need to recognize that the Bulls team that season just wasn’t as good without Horace Grant who went to the Magic. Going 34-31 before Jordan came back is a good indication they weren’t what they were in 1994. Pippen was still playing at a similar level and Tony Kukoc would become a much better player that season averaging 15.7ppg with a 19.8 PER making up for a lot of offense in place of Grant but he couldn’t replicate the defense and rebounding Rodman would provide in place of Will Perdue the following year (what a steal of a trade BTW).
Ron Harper had been signed in the offseason of 1994 to fill the SG void Jordan had left, and you could argue he was a luxury when Jordan game back and Armstrong was still on the team before the expansion draft in 1996. He would go on to be such a big part of the following 3 peat replacing Armstrong at PG you wouldn’t want those resources directed elsewhere though and if they were with a Jordan there it could have potentially disrupted the makeup of the 2nd three-peat. It was very good he was signed longterm even if it didn’t help the 1995 team as much with Armstrong still on the team.
So the Bulls would have lost in 1995 regardless if burnt out Jordan was playing vs the fresh Jordan we got still putting up 32ppg on .556 TS in 10 playoff games IMO. There isn’t really a question in my mind about 1995. No title this year.
I do think we would have still got a reinvigorated Jordan in 1996 as the new challenge arose for him to meet. He had his foil again now, and I believe 1996-1998 would have played out almost exactly as it did, with the Bulls trading for Rodman and winning 3 more championships. There are a few calculations that changed when Jordan came back in 1995 from what they would have if he never left in 1994. The only one is maybe they don’t sign Ron Harper in 1995 and tried to sign a PF instead, but that would have been negative IMO.
After watching the Last Dance I certainly think it’s possible even if Jordan never retired the first time that he likely would have likely still walked away in 1998, but with 7 championships. What was also pretty apparent is if he had really pushed the Bulls to stay together another year, he likely could have made that happen. He said he didn’t want to retire in 1999 and would later come back, indicating that was actually the reality at the time and not just lip service 20 years later.
Scenario 1: What Jordan came back to the Bulls in 1998 and they ran it back
There are several factors to consider in 1999 including the regression of an aging Bulls, the lockout season impacts, and Jordan’s injury situation after a cigar cutter incident.
#1 The Cigar Injury
Jordan severed a tendon in his right index finger in the summer of 1998. He had surgery that kept him out for 2 months. Jordan would say that it lingered for a year and would cause him to have trouble palming the basketball and picking it up off the dribble as he did before. He said it didn’t affect his shooting, though.
Jordan’s massive hands and his legendary ability to palm fake were a big aid to his game, but we saw him 3 seasons later still average 25.6ppg, 6.3rpg, 5.4apg for the Wizards who were 26-21 and had won 7 straight before he tore his meniscus. Even as a 3 years older and diminished player, he was highly effective before his knee injury.
The finger movement would have likely been similar in 2001-2002 to what it would have been in 1999. The surgery would have corrected it, about as good as it would be. I think we could expect some minor impact to his game that season, but not much if you look at how good he was with the repaired finger and much older. The season also didn’t start until early February 1999 after the lockout, so he would have been back if he had the surgery in a more expedient time frame and certainly by the playoffs.
#2 The Lockout
The season starts in early February after the lockout, with a compressed 50 games in 3 months. I think this actually would have given Jordan more time to heal, to the point he likely wouldn’t have missed any significant time. He and all the other aging Bulls would have been given essentially an extra vacation to refresh as well. I think it would have helped significantly to give an aging team a break overall and more months off. Only having to play 50 games instead of the normal 82 grind, I think is an overall win for them even with the compressed 50 games. As long as the Bulls had been together, they didn’t need a preseason or the regular season to build chemistry like others teams. I think they would have gone into the playoffs as a good seed and even fresher than 1998.
#3 Individual Regression
Here is the biggest problem I see for a hypothetical 1999 “Second” Last Dance. A lot of the players just weren’t as good. Scottie Pippen’s scoring average dropped from 19.1ppg to 14.5ppg on the Rockets, and his overall PER from 20.4 to 16.8. That’s a pretty substantial step back for a 2nd banana, and there are questions if he was capable at that point. Being in the Bulls ecosystem, playing with players they knew so well would have probably helped Pippen, but there are still question if he could be the same player. He did have a 37 point explosion in the playoffs that year but also had 3 points the game before, it’s not clear.
If Pippen could no longer be a secondary scoring option, Kukoc would need to step up. It was a task he was trying to fill as a 30 year old with the Baby Bulls and not very well. In a lead role, his true shooting took a big hit and dropped under .500. With Jordan taking the pressure off it’s possible he could have still looked better upping his role to take some of the load off of Pippen.
After the last dance, Rodman pretty much came off the tracks. He would play 23 games for the Lakers that next year before being waived. He would play another 12 with the Mavs before being out of the league 2 years later. He actually was still fairly effective at what he did which by this point was only rebound. His rebound rate was just about the same, but he provided zero offense now. For a lot of teams that didn’t have a Jordan that was an issue so he really only fit a few places.
Whereas he might have a 12 PER with the Bulls he was down to an 8 PER in those final 2 seasons, so there were some clearly diminished aspects for a 38 year old Rodman to that would show. If the Bulls had stayed together, I think they keep him in line for another 2 seasons maybe and he looks somewhat better in the Bulls ecosystem too. They would have certainly needed him to guard Tim Duncan and David Robinson to have any hope if they wanted to win the 1999 championship.
The Role Players
As cheap as the Bulls were, if they did agree to run it back, I think there would have likely been a different supporting cast of role players. Krause and ownership were cheap and clearly didn’t want to pay any of them. If Jordan could have got them to agree to hold their nose and pay Pippen they seem adamant they wouldn’t pay Longley which actually turned out to be the right move. Guys like Longley, Kerr, and Buchler used that used the 3 peat fame to get overpaid at their age and likely would still get moved or let walk as they were in the actual timeline, especially if they paid Pippen. From a front office perspective, that probably was the right move, but it would have negatively impacted the team continuity even if their was natural regression.
Letting Longley walk was likely the most problematic, with Duncan and Robinson waiting in the finals. His big body and defense was still needed. He would have likely been replaced by 6-9, 245lb 33 year old Mark Byrant who played with the Baby Bulls. Mark Bryant, Dickey Simpkins and Bill Wennington at center and the mental stability hanging by a thread of 37 year old Rodman vs Tim Duncan and David Robinson doesn’t bode well.
The Bulls post players are the leverage point I believe the Spurs would exploit their weakness to beat them. They would have little answer for Duncan and Robinson, and the twin towers could affect the game on both ends in a big way. Jordan and Pippen were still good defenders, but they couldn’t do a lot to stop them and there greatness is wasted guarding Sean Elliot and Mario Elie. Those guys I think would do enough to slow Jordan and a diminished Pippen down. You’d have to expect it would be harder for a 36 year old Jordan to rescue the Bulls as well with his greatness. Possible but more unlikely. If the Bulls doubled on Duncan and Robinson I think Eliot and Elie shot well enough to make them pay. It’s just a bad match up for the Bulls IMO with the Spurs strengths aligned with the Bulls weakness.
The Conclusion of the Bulls Dynasty
I do think the Bulls would have had a normal, dominant regular season in 1999. It likely would be aided by the lockout getting a shorter season and longer break. I think they would have gotten through the East easily, just as the 8th seed Knicks did. I do not think they would have beaten the Spurs in the finals though. It would have been an epic series in NBA history and a fitting passing of the baton to a young Duncan to carry on the next 15 years and 5 championships. You want to see someone “beat the man”.
Seeing the Spurs and Lakers dynasties building up in 1998 is ultimately probably what broke the Bulls up knowing it was only a matter of time coming. There would be some small chance if they had made the finals in 1999 and been close or even won that they would run it back again in 2000. This almost certainly would have been the end in either 1999 or in 2000 when the Lakers would have surely beat them.
Jackson leaving in 2000 for the Lakers was likely IMO, everyone could see that Dynasty coming and he would have left in 2000 I think regardless to get on that ship. If the Bulls tried to hang on and hired a coach better than Tim Floyd with Jordan’s pushing, I think it’s certainly possible they could have beat the East Weaklings again in 2000, and probably even 2001, and made it to the finals to take a beating from the Lakers. The finals those years was just a forgone conclusion, and the real finals was the Western Conference showdowns. I say that as good a possibility as Jordan still looked before his knee injury when he came back in 2001-2002 with the Wizards. Pippen was still fairly effective with the Blazers at most aspects but scoring. I think they would have found some players that wanted to come build around them.
I do not think they would have ever won the Championship again after 1998, and even getting to the finals by 2000 and 2001 in the weak East would still have been a struggle with a competent coach. This is where the run with the Bulls would have likely ended in 1999 or 2000 after another finals appearance or 2 and pretty uncompetitive losses are likely.
Going to another Finals or 2 would have added to the Legacy. To potentially win 7 championships and go to 8 or 9 finals out of 9 or 10 years would have added to the greatness even more. It is possible, that they could have beaten the Spurs in 1999 with their experience and the sheer greatness of Jordan even at that point. The Spurs weren’t unbeatable, but I would favor them given all the reasons. 2000 they could have likely gotten back to the finals as well, but the Lakers were a different beast by that point.
I could see many scenarios of Jordan still walking away after 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, etc. This is a unique player in sports that would walk away and then long for the game and return, as he did multiple times in reality. I don’t think it would have taken much for him to stay or leave. If he had stuck it through until 2003, he likely still would have ended up with 7 championships and maybe still on the Wizards at the end. If that were the path, he’s certainly in the record books in all-time points, close in steals, and higher in many categories.
Knowing how Jordan would do with the Wizards when healthy, and that he had a wrist injury during the regular season of the last dance. I think it’s fairly easy to trace a believable career regression individually for such a consistent player of the years he missed or played only a few games. I’ve highlighted those years I have filled in the blanks for statistically.
Jordan had a great career that in many ways was still an enigma of what could have been in potentially 5 other seasons he stepped away and was still playing at a high level. I hope we have offered up some educated interpretations given the timeline he did actually play in from 1984-2003. I hope you join us for future editions, including what team he possibly could have landed on in 1999 when the Bulls blew it up.
He would have had 42,196 points in his NBA career with these seasons added.