After a month of watching "The Last Dance," you know all the things Michael Jordan did for the Chicago Bulls.
But he also gave the Celtics a huge, unintentional assist.
Let’s say it another way: Thanks to Michael Jordan, the Celtics had the opportunity to enjoy 15 seasons of Paul Pierce.
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In June 1997, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was on the verge of completing a deal with the Celtics’ Rick Pitino. I was covering the Celtics at the time for the Boston Globe and my colleague, Peter May, had the story ready to go. The Bulls would get the third and sixth picks in the draft along with a player (probably Eric Williams), and the Celtics would receive Scottie Pippen and Luc Longley.
What does that have to do with Pierce, who was still at Kansas? Hold on. We’re getting there.
The trade actually would have been good for what both Krause and Pitino wanted at the time. Krause, as the series explained so well, was looking ahead to a rebuild. He planned to select Tracy McGrady and Ron Mercer with those picks, and he would have gotten them. Pitino wanted to take away the sting of losing the draft lottery — and Tim Duncan — and was desperate to make the playoffs in his first year.
With Pippen and Longley, Pitino would have gotten his wish of a 45- to 47-win team, if not better.
The presence of those two would have strengthened the roster in other ways, too. There wouldn’t have been Pitino’s disastrous panic signing of Travis Knight. You can’t make this stuff up: Because Pitino didn’t know the salary cap — no joke — he didn’t realize that bringing in Knight forced him to get rid of Rick Fox, which he didn’t want to do.
So take away that error and you still have Fox as a valuable starter/role player here instead of an eventual champion/actor in Los Angeles.
Jordan shut it all down.
He’d already promised to retire if the Bulls didn’t bring back Phil Jackson (they did), and now he was raging about the potential departure of the versatile Pippen. The Bulls went on to win their sixth title and the Celtics, with 36 wins, dropped into the lottery. They got the 10th pick and smartly and happily took Pierce.
(A what-if for another day is imagining who the Celtics would be if Pitino had gotten his preferred player in that draft, Dirk Nowitzki.)
Looking up at the Garden rafters now, and looking through the Celtics’ record books, there’s a good lesson on patience somewhere in there. Pierce is either ranked first, second or third in at least a dozen categories in franchise history. He helped break a generational championship drought and picked up a Finals MVP along the way.
As for Pippen, his trade here would have been received well in ’97 because Pitino got the benefit of the doubt on everything he did then. Clearly, I feel some kind of way about it; don’t get me started.
After the Bulls’ Last Dance, it was a last dance of sorts for Pippen as well. He was never an All Star after ’98, and Pierce was better than Pippen by his second year in the league.
If the unfolding of Pierce’s story provides a lesson on patience, one of my small-print takeaways from "The Last Dance" is that it shows the flaws of arrogance. It served Jordan well on the court, and I still haven’t seen a better player, stylist, and international phenomenon. But with all those years he spent watching Krause, and making fun of him, he missed an opportunity to learn some team-building techniques from him.
Krause had one of the best 10-year runs of general managing in the history of the sport, highlighted by his discovery of Phil Jackson, drafting of Pippen, and trade for Dennis Rodman. A talented team builder, Jordan is not.
But I’m nitpicking. Jordan was clutch in the front-office move that matters to us. He shut down a trade and Pierce wound up here because of it.