Vincent Goodwill

Goodwill: On Jordan’s last shot, the Warriors, and the longevity of an NBA dynasty

michael_jordan_the_shot.jpg
NBC

Goodwill: On Jordan’s last shot, the Warriors, and the longevity of an NBA dynasty

It’s known as “The Last Shot” but Michael Jordan’s last moment with the Bulls could be more aptly described given his team’s journey and more specifically, Jordan’s fourth-quarter ups and downs in Salt Lake City 20 years ago today.

The pose following his push-off on Bryon Russell and picture-perfect jumper with 5.2 seconds left seemed to signify to all watching that it was a form of “goodbye”, knowing what was coming for the Bulls franchise that summer and beyond.

“Who knows what will unfold in the next months, but that may have been the last shot Michael Jordan will ever take in the NBA,” NBC announcer Bob Costas bellowed as the dull roar of the Delta Center accompanied his call.

Costas said what we were all thinking, whether you were an ardent Jordan lover or even a Jordan hater. The breakup to one of sports’ greatest dynasties, and it was ending fittingly, perhaps perfectly without much blemish.

But even more fittingly than our thoughts about Jordan’s pose was the practicality of it. Jordan’s jumpers had come up woefully short a few times in that fourth quarter. The 35-year old was losing his legs, evidenced by jumpers hitting the front rim instead of the bottom of the net. Memories don’t need to be jogged, but Scottie Pippen was all but useless after his back went out on the game’s first possession—although his presence on the floor had to be a calming influence if nothing else.

Jordan was carrying a load unlike any other in his championship runs, and facing the prospect of a Game 7 on the road without Pippen could’ve very likely led to the first 3-1 comeback in the history of the NBA Finals.

And he hadn’t made a jump shot in several minutes.

Instead, though, Jordan resorted to driving to the rim to draw fouls to keep the Bulls within striking distance. Then when Karl Malone turned his back, Jordan used his guile to swipe the ball from the sweet spot and marched toward further immortality.

Malone, like the rest of us bystanders, could only watch as the inevitable unfolded.

So he had to extend on his form after pushing off Russell to give himself that extra uumph, that extra charge of energy to make sure the jumper reached its goal as opposed to its+ likely destination given his fatigue.

Costas said Jordan was “running on fumes”, something not terribly uncommon given the amount of effort Jordan put forth in his return to Chicago.

The third straight run to the Finals for the second time in the decade.

In 1993, the Bulls had to dig themselves from an 0-2 hole to the surging New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, gutting out a six-game victory that sent them to the Finals against a Phoenix Suns team with the MVP (Charles Barkley) and homecourt advantage.

In 1998, the Bulls were pushed to seven games by the mature Indiana Pacers and trailed by double digits at home in Game 7. If not for Toni Kukoc’s explosion in the third quarter, the dynasty could’ve ended in May, not June.

And awaiting Jordan in the Finals was a Jazz team intent on learning lessons from 1997, armed with homecourt advantage and a MVP from the season before in Malone.

In both series, the Bulls stole wins early before coming home to snatch 3-1 leads only to give up a championship-clincher in Game 5, having to fly cross-country to face a confident opponent with the last two games in their building ready to make history—Jordan be damned.

Except, that damned Jordan.

No one can argue it was Jordan’s finest statistical series, not with the masterpieces he laid forth in 1991 through 1993. No one can argue it was even Jordan’s most impactful series, not with his stamp on every win of the 1997 series as he had a game-winner in the opener, a near triple-double as an encore, the “flu game” in Game 5 and the winning assist to Steve Kerr in Game 6.

But what 1998 did for Jordan and by proxy the Bulls, was elevate them to a higher plane of perfection through imperfection. Jordan wasn’t the physically dominant player he’d been in the past, and the Bulls had clearly slipped from winning 69 and 72 games the previous two years.

They were vulnerable and the league was catching up to them, rapidly.

A proud champion was weary and wobbly from taking body shots, a three-peat was no longer a mere formality.

Our visions of great champions like Jordan, or Muhammad Ali, are enhanced when we know dominance isn’t assured. Ali was knocked down by Joe Frazier and lost that classic bout in 1971, but his endurance to stay in the fight despite its ending—as well as his victories against Frazier in their trilogy and George Foreman when Ali was well past his prime elevated his stature despite the toll we know it took on him years after.

And similarly, Jordan rose again, and whether we as a collective believe it or not, that’s the standard we’re likely holding the Golden State Warriors to as they go on this historic run.

Adding Kevin Durant certainly tipped the scales in their favor, but it also upped the ante for all the other so-called contenders in the league. Teams haven’t cowered and run to hide as much as they’ve ramped up their efforts to chase the team when owner Joe Lacob boasted his team was “light years ahead” of everyone else in the NBA.

In the time since, we can only hope teams have truly seen the light in their pursuit.

The Warriors are celebrated in plenty of circles but won’t be universally admired until we’ve seen them truly challenged, knocked down and facing seemingly insurmountable odds.

LeBron James stripped away that invincibility in 2016, leading an incredible comeback from a 3-1 deficit before the Warriors added the ultimate cheat code in Durant weeks later.

And although the Houston Rockets took a 3-2 lead in the Conference Finals, there wasn’t as much doubt in the Warriors winning that series as much as it felt like self-made drama and suspense with their bi-polar efforts and moments in the postseason.

Focusing in and playing an inferior opponent led to a six-game romp very few found shocking.

But the NBA moves forward and teams catch up, as they always do. Several marquee free agents can change addresses, including James, as he’s likely to bring a few talented planets with him wherever he goes.

Like it or not, he’s the Sun everything revolves around in the NBA. Individually, he shines brightest, shines longest but it still hasn’t been enough to take down the new version of the Warriors.

One can only hope either he—or someone else, finds a team suitable to do more than make the Warriors sweat. Hopefully there’s a Joe Frazier out there, willing to put a champion on its behind and drag out every ounce of greatness left in it by presenting unsavory odds.

Watching the entertaining but inevitable outcome of the Finals may lead some to believe competitiveness is a thing of the past.

If anything is to be learned and appreciated by the Bulls’ 20-year anniversary of the greatest ending in NBA history, it’s this: It doesn’t take long for a walk in the park to turn to scorched earth.

With Trae Young's team workout looming, his trainer clears air on any Bulls rift: 'That's totally false'

With Trae Young's team workout looming, his trainer clears air on any Bulls rift: 'That's totally false'

Trae Young’s intriguing draft status will make a stop in Chicago this week as he’ll work out for the Bulls, who are believed to be enamored with the playmaking point guard.

Young has been trained by Jimmy Butler’s trainer, Travelle Gaines, who had pointed comments about Bulls general manager Gar Forman in the wake of Butler being traded on draft night last year.

In a now-deleted tweet, Gaines said the Bulls have the worst culture in the league, and that he knows drug dealers with better morals than Forman, calling him a liar.

There was a strong belief Butler was misled by the Bulls in his final meeting with the front office before departing for a European vacation days before the draft. Gaines’ tweet only added fuel to that, as Butler was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.

There’s been whispers Gaines would try to use his influence with Young against the Bulls, and when reached by NBCSportsChicago.com, Gaines strongly denied the claim.

“I would never discourage Trae or any player from working out or talking to the Bulls,” Gaines said by telephone. “I don’t know where the narrative came from but that’s totally false.”

Young is scheduled to have his workout Thursday in Chicago, and Gaines said the two haven’t even discussed the Bulls in their training sessions. Gaines doesn’t regret his tweet, but he said it wasn’t reflective of his thoughts of the organization en masse.

“What I said a year ago, I was in the moment and those were my feelings at the time,” Gaines said. “But I don’t feel the Bulls are a bad organization or franchise. I love the franchise. I was a huge Michael Jordan fan. The league is better when the Bulls, Knicks and Lakers are great. I want the Bulls to be great again.”

Gaines also trains current Bulls Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine at his facility in Los Angeles, and noted Portis and Young have run into each other a few times during sessions. Again, Gaines said he operates in the best interests of his clients and not personal agendas.

“(Bobby and Denzel) say they want to get back to the playoffs and I’ll tell them, ‘Get the Bulls back to the playoffs,’” Gaines said.

If Young is the player his greatest supporters believe he is, taking him with the seventh pick would be a step in that direction, even though the Bulls employ Kris Dunn at point guard.

Gaines is a big believer in Young and his potential fit with the Bulls, although he doesn’t believe Young will be around at the No. 7.

“I think Trae would be great for the Bulls,” Gaines said. “Playing alongside Lauri Markkanen and also Zach LaVine, he would be phenomenal for the team and the city of Chicago. He’d be great in that market.”

There’s no doubt Young carries a level of star power that would be attractive to the Bulls, who would love to have someone marketable to their fan base.

“With his work ethic and passion for basketball I think he will be great for the city of Chicago and that great market,” Gaines said.

Substance, best fit, development, best pick? Observations from the workouts of Wendell Carter Jr. and Mikal Bridges

Substance, best fit, development, best pick? Observations from the workouts of Wendell Carter Jr. and Mikal Bridges

Substance, not flash: Wendell Carter Jr. is not the quote machine Mohamed Bamba is, nor is he outwardly charismatic in his approach to the media. But what Carter projects, both with his production and approach, is a sense of stability and dependability.

Whether it was playing at Duke with top-three projected pick Marvin Bagley III, hot-headed Grayson Allen or fellow freshman Gary Trent Jr. and being forced to blend his versatile talents into a winning setting or it just being his nature, he spoke about his intangibles being able to help the Bulls if they draft him.

That’s talk reserved for veterans who’ve been around or young players who’ve been humbled early by the reality of the NBA. Carter Jr. seems to grasp the knowledge that he’ll have a long career by focusing on the things teams appreciate rather than the stat sheet.

“I’m a great rebounder. I take a lot of pride in rebounding,” Carter Jr said. “I don’t like for people to out-rebound me. I just fight.”

Nine games of 12-plus rebounds serves as evidence for his ruggedness, and although college stats can be skewed, rebounding is the one trait that usually translates from college to the NBA. Carter Jr. also mentioned the possibility of Bulls center Robin Lopez serving as a mentor to help him adjust to the league.

“I’m a great teammate, and that comes to being a great cheerleader on the bench or setting a great pick for one of my teammates to get open,” Carter Jr. said. “I think I’m good at all the intangibles, the little things that a lot of fans might not recognize but a lot of coaches do.”

When looking at this current Bulls roster, they should be evaluating personalities and individual needs—as in having to cater to certain players for whatever reason. Kris Dunn is growing, but he’ll need the reinforcement of confidence from the coaching staff. Zach LaVine will need the ball, and opportunity to display he’s worth whatever he signs for this offseason. Lauri Markkanen isn’t high maintenance at the moment, but as he matures and grows into his own, he’ll develop needs of his own.

High-maintenance players aren’t bad; it’s just a reality in today’s NBA. Teams need to have the right staff and right group of players so there won’t be too much conflict off the court while going through the growing pains young teams tend to do.

Carter repeatedly mentioned doing the little things, things that can endear him to teammates and coaches alike, things that help turn middling teams into contenders.

“I take a lot of pride in that. A lot of players don’t look at that,” Carter Jr. said. “They want to score 50, 60 points a game and make all the flashy plays. I just want to win. To win, you got to do the small things.”

If you’re drafting for need…: Villanova’s Mikal Bridges fits the bill. An athletic small forward who can defend, he’s been on Bulls fans draft boards for months now. Add to it a NCAA Tourney run that put him in forefront of everyone’s minds, he feels like a perfect fit—if the Bulls are selecting for fit.

“How they run the floor, especially with Kris and Zach, fast with the ball, get out in transition, I play well in transition,” Bridges said. “A young group, learning to defend as a team. Defensive role, playing anybody 1-4, transition threes, doing whatever I have to do.”

Bridges knows it, too, coming to Chicago for his second workout after a weekend session with Charlotte.

“Most definitely, this is one team that I feel like I fit perfectly in, just a lot of young guys, how they run transition, how they defend,” Bridges said. “So I feel like I fit perfectly and I take it day-by-day, just keep getting better every day, prepare for workouts and see what happens on June 21.”

The Bulls employed David Nwaba and Denzel Valentine at the small forward spot this season, with Nwaba a defender and energy player while Valentine improved as an outside shooter.

Bridges, who looks like a better athlete on film than he’s given credit for, believes he defend everything from point guard to power forward in small-ball situations. He believes in his intangibles as well as Carter Jr.

“I play hard and gritty, but that aggressiveness, it's that Villanova culture,” Bridges said. “That's what Coach (Jay) Wright got me to be that type of person, be that dog and killer on the court and when the ball hits the floor, whoever I'm going against, always think I'm going to be better than that person, always outwork that person and just having that mentality for sure.”

For his sake, those intangibles better serve him right, considering he didn’t shoot the long ball as well as he’d hoped in his workout by his own admission.

Development to get here: While Bridges isn’t a four-year senior, he will be 22 before his rookie season begins. One has to wonder how much growth he’ll make but on the plus side, Bridges’ development was marked after a redshirt freshman year.

His body filled out and he admitted he wasn’t ready to play early. He seemed to take the coaching positively and if it happens at this level, he won’t be a rookie crowing about a lack of immediate playing time.

“Freshman year I was a little too weak, I wasn't really ready,” Bridges said. “I got stronger in the weight room. Just filling my body out. In that redshirt year I had a lot of tough guys to guard, so I had to learn how to play defense really well.”

It was there where he began developing an identity of a defensive stopper, not truly becoming a scorer until his junior year where he topped double-figures for the first time.

“Started using my length, lifting a lot, it gets my legs stronger so I could slide quicker and all that stuff,” Bridges said. “Each year, especially my sophomore year, my first year playing, I got the role of being that good defender off the bench and kept progressing ever since.”

He hopes that progression continues into the pros, as he brought up Paul George and Kawhi Leonard as examples of players who didn’t have strong rookie seasons but emerged shortly thereafter. George and Leonard both went after the top 10 in their respective drafts.

“They weren't guys coming in like phenoms like LeBron just coming in and dominating,” Bridges said. “They worked their way up and seeing how they got better every year, I see myself doing that, as I got better every year in college. And keep affecting on my game and try to be the best player I can be by the end of my time.”

Versatility: Carter Jr. knows he’s a better fit for this game than the old-school NBA, and while his body develops he can rely on his versatility to hang with big men.

The switch-heavy NBA Finals are proof of that.

“The biggest thing is there’s not a lot of traditional big men anymore,” Carter Jr. said. “There’s a lot of switching going on. As you watch these playoffs, these Finals, they’re switching almost every ball screen. The ability for a big man to stay in front of a guard and force them to take contested twos, that’s very important. And then being able to shoot, stretch the floor, is very important for a big man.”

There actually isn’t much question about whether he can move his feet quick enough to stay with guards or wings on the perimeter. The Bulls had him go through post drills or shooting drills, presumably to see how he could fit next to Lauri Markkanen.

He shot 41 percent from 3-point range, but only took 46 attempts in his lone college season. He felt he showed in the workout that he’s competent from there.

“(I showed) How good of a shooter I am, that I push through fatigue,” Carter Jr. said. “It was my first workout so nerves were going and I got tired real quick. But I showed that’s not going to affect my game much.”

Says here Carter Jr. should be the best selection for the Bulls, a mix of talent, fit and personality.