The “Bench Mob.” A popular nickname for a group of reserves on Bulls teams in the early 2010s. Good Bulls teams. Deep Bulls teams. While most of the attention, and deservedly so, falls on Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman as we reminisce with NBC Sports Chicago’s #BullsRewind series, the Bench Mob of an historic 72-10 team in 1996 was pretty darn good. And they deserve some love, too.
I’m still stuck social distancing, and so are you. But let’s enjoy some greatly underappreciated pieces of the dynasty together. Here are some of my favorite bench performances from the Bulls’ playoff run in ’96.
It’s the Pecking Order.
1. Steve Kerr – Game 1 vs Orlando, ECF
This is the performance that inspired this column. Particularly, Stevie’s fourth quarter performance. The Bulls had the victory well in hand, as Magic players not named Shaq or Penny forgot to show up for this one. You call them “garbage time” minutes, I call them “Steve Kerr’s MVP minutes.”
In 17 minutes, Kerr finished with 14 points on 5-7 shooting, including 4-5 from downtown. Even more impressive, he stuffed the rest of his stat sheet with six assists, four rebounds and three steals. One of those assists was a beautiful no-look behind-the-back bounce pass to a cutting Bill Wennington for a dunk. After another assist, this one coming after Kerr stole the ball and fed Randy Brown a bounce pass for an easy layup, commentator Bill Walton said, “Steve Kerr’s playing like John Stockton out here! He’s just toying with guys!” He wasn’t wrong.
The one basket Steve made that wasn’t a triple was a crafty layup after a surprisingly quick ball fake and drive that left Penny Hardaway in his dust. Just wow.
God I love Steve Kerr so much. What a gift to basketball.
2. Bill Wennington – Game 5 vs New York, ECSF
The stat line for Billy won’t bowl you over in this one – four points, four rebounds, three assists and one block in 24 minutes – but the most important number is the last one. 24 minutes was a greater ask than usual for Wennington, who averaged just 15 minutes per game in the ’95-96 regular season and only 9.4 minutes per game in the ’96 playoffs. But the Bulls needed a body in the frontcourt. Why? Because the ‘90s Knicks threw all the muscle they had at the Bulls in their last gasp attempt to stave off elimination.
These Knicks were brutally physical to play against. Trying to contain Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing was one thing, but they also threw former Bull Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason at you. Just so much body. As a result, the Bulls starting frontcourt of Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley fouled out in 31 and 23 minutes, respectively. While John Salley and James Edwards were fun additions to this season’s roster (how many former Bad Boy Pistons can you fit on one Bulls team?) they weren’t as useful as Wennington, whose midrange game kept defenses honest.
My favorite part about this game from Bill? The three assists, which highlighted one of the criminally underrated elements of his game: for a big guy, he was a very talented passer. A nice piece to have in Tex Winter’s triangle offense.
3. Jud Buechler – Game 4 vs New York, ECSF
Winning Game 4 at Madison Square Garden was critical. The Knicks held on for an overtime win in Game 3. If the Bulls had lost this one and gone back to Chicago for Game 5 with the series tied, all of a sudden the Knicks have dangerous levels of confidence. Maybe they use that confidence to steal Game 5. You never know.
But the Bulls hung on to win Game 4 by a narrow margin, 94-91. If Jud Buechler – always my favorite piece of the late ‘90s Bench Mob – doesn’t go a perfect 3-3 from the field for six points in just five minutes of action, the Bulls lose this game. It seems silly to frame it like that, but it’s true.
And it perfectly describes how I always viewed “Buchy”: a scrappy player who maximized every one of his minutes.
4. John Salley – Game 1 vs Orlando, ECF
It wasn’t just Stevie who had fun torching the Magic down the stretch of this Game 1 blowout. John Salley, just days after his 32nd birthday, got seven solid minutes of run while the Bulls iced this one.
Salley was added to fill out the frontcourt depth of a roster in a time when frontcourt depth mattered a lot more. But he was also added for reasons that went beyond the dimensions of court. He was a great locker room veteran, and a comfortingly familiar friend for an increasingly volatile and unpredictable Rodman. That mattered.
But when he got on the floor, he often proved he could still contribute. On this night, he did it to the tune of eight points on perfect 4-4 shooting, adding two rebounds, two assists and a block. Give it up one time for ol’ Spider!
5. Toni Kukoč – Game 1 vs Seattle, Finals
The quintessential “Sixth Man” game. The Bulls set the tone for the Finals with a 107-90 Game 1 masterpiece that told the story of their season of unprecedented dominance: MJ and Scottie combined to score 49, starting role players Ron Harper and Luc Longley combined for 29 more, Dennis had 13 rebounds while establishing residence in the heads of every Sonics player…and? The Croatian Sensation chipped in with 18, four and four off the bench. This was the model for the Unbeata-Bulls, and they executed to a T in Game 1.
Toni was a crucial part of that system, and it’s what earned him the ’95-96 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award. His season-long numbers were nearly identical to his performance in Game 1, except for a slightly higher point total in this game.
As an honorable mention, Toni followed that up with another strong performance in Game 2, which the Bulls desperately needed. In a much tighter contest that the Bulls won 92-88, The Waiter served up 11, five and five. Somebody tip this man, and make it at least 20 percent.
The fun continues tonight on NBC Sports Chicago, as the Bulls will have to come from behind against a shorthanded but determined Magic team in Game 2 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals. Tipoff at 7pm Central. Join the in-game conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #BullsRewind.
Thanks for reading. See red, be good, stay healthy.