Magic Johnson

On this day in 1991 the Bulls dynasty began

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AP

On this day in 1991 the Bulls dynasty began

A dynasty was born.

On this day June 12, 1991, Bulls legend Michael Jordan won his first NBA championship and Finals MVP, capping off a 4-1 series win against the Los Angeles Lakers.

This was no easy task for the Bulls going up against the Lakers Big Three in Magic Johnson, Vlade Divac and James Worthy.

The Lakers did, however, win Game 1 of the series 93-91, at the old Chicago Stadium – now the United Center -- despite Jordan’s game-leading 36 points.

The leading scorer trend was no small feat for Jordan in the series, besides Scottie Pippen leading all scorers in Game 5 with 32.

Jordan averaged a double-double in the series, leading the Bulls in scoring with over 31 points per game and 11.4 assists. Pippen followed suit with nearly 21 points and six assists.

This was just the beginning for Jordan and the Bulls dynasty. The Bulls would eventually win again in 1992 and 1993, marking the first such “three-peat” since the Celtics won eight straight from 1959-66.

After Jordan retired in 1993 to join the White Sox, he came back in 1995. And beginning in the 1995-96 season another three-peat was cemented into the history books, with Jordan leading the Bulls to three consecutive championships from 1996-98.

All NBA Greatest of All Time arguments have holes...yes, even Michael Jordan's

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AP

All NBA Greatest of All Time arguments have holes...yes, even Michael Jordan's

LeBron James’ continued playoff greatness has inspired age-old conversations concerning ghosts and lists, but also presented the public with an opportunity to examine age-old, so-called “truths” about the game’s history.

Either way, the camps are out.

The side that claims James has surpassed you-know-who as the definitive G.O.A.T.

The side that will forever tout that 6-0 trumps anything James can achieve, since it appears likely James will retire with a losing record in the NBA Finals as he currently sits with a 3-5 mark.

The exhausting exercise appears to have no end in sight, even though anyone who can lay claim to the throne as basketball’s best, the Greatest of All Time, has holes in his resume.

No candidate—Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell or James—has an unassailable resume.

All sit at the special table in the special room reserved for only the best of the best and depending on the lens, each can make his case to stand above all the rest. Or at the very least, point out facts that detract from the others’ case.

Yes, even Jordan has things that work against him, facts that have been ignored or forgotten through the years as he has been, until recently, canonized as the greatest.

Jordan’s 6-0 Finals record came in one of the NBA’s weakest eras, diluted by expansion after the popularity boon of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird led 80s. Between 1988 and 1995, the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies were added, taking a 24-team league to thirty.

That’s 72 players who would otherwise be on a different roster, if not out the league altogether. It dramatically changed the landscape of the NBA, as well the depth of the rosters.

More incoming stars were dispersed to franchises that couldn’t compete. Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Kevin Garnett, Anfernee Hardaway and more would have been on different, perhaps more established, teams, making for a more competitive league.

It wasn’t Jordan’s fault he had no individual peer, as the greats of the 90s were clearly a step behind him. But considering the historical weakness of the teams the Bulls faced in the Finals, foregoing expansion would have produced better, more quality rosters.

When measuring Jordan against James, Jordan never played the quality of teams in the Finals James has. The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, who have delivered four of James’ five Finals losses, are among the NBA’s best, with their clusters of stars and rings to back it up.

The only champion Jordan beat in the Finals was the 1991 Los Angeles Lakers, a team well past its storied prime. Abdul-Jabbar already retired, Magic Johnson was months away from an H.I.V. diagnosis that precipitated his retirement while James Worthy and Byron Scott were nowhere near the supporting players they had been in the 80s.

Worthy’s field-goal percentage dropped from 55 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 1991 as he approached age 30, while Scott went from averaging a career-high 21.7 points in 1988, the Lakers’ last title season, to 14.5 in 1991. Worthy and Scott battled injuries in the series (each missing a game because of it), helping lead to the lopsided 4-1 triumph by the Bulls.

Speaking of Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar seems to be forgotten in this argument. Like James, he dominated basketball with longevity for decades. After forcing a trade to the Lakers in 1975, they only qualified for one conference finals until someone magical arrived in 1979.

Johnson reinvigorated Abdul-Jabbar’s career, even though Abdul-Jabbar spent the past several seasons being the league’s best player without accomplishing the ultimate team success.

That would qualify as a demerit on Abdul-Jabbar’s case, if one were to make a case against him. Considering his name is all over the record books as the game’s all-time leading scorer and possessing the single most effective weapon in the history of the sport with his sky-hook, the margins are thin.

The two combined to lead the Lakers to five NBA titles to dominate the 80s, even as Abdul-Jabbar’s game declined while Johnson began to take more of the reins and was a highly effective player until his second-to-last season in 1988—the last time the “Showtime” Lakers won a title.

Johnson, while leading the Lakers to nine Finals appearances, had a disastrous Finals series in 1984 against the Celtics—giving away games with late turnovers and mistakes unbecoming of someone in his position.

Johnson and the Lakers had the benefit of dominating a weak Western Conference during that time. A healthy Johnson—similar to James at this stage—almost guaranteed a trip to the Finals, in part due to challengers unable to emerge.

Still, though, Johnson’s Lakers were 5-4 in the Finals—closer to James’ mark than Jordan’s one of perfection.

Johnson won three regular-season MVPs to Abdul-Jabbar’s record mark of six, and the seamless transition of power in Los Angeles shouldn’t be used against one or the other, but it should be noted.

And for James, his warts are well-known. The meltdown in 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks, coming up short in four straight fourth quarters as the Miami Heat choked away a series is the biggest detraction.

He had a mysterious Game 5 in 2010 against the Boston Celtics in his first run in Cleveland that sticks out, but he’s been a pristine playoff performer otherwise—and has probably performed better in team defeat than wins.

He’s had no true head-to-head competitor in the Eastern Conference during this run of seven straight Finals appearances in Miami and Cleveland, and although it isn’t directly his fault, James’ presence makes it hard for teammates to be great around him.

His ability and intelligence demands his teams allow him to orchestrate so much of the schemes around him, perhaps to the detriment of his teammates and their ability to make plays on their own.

James’ monstrous statistics in Year 15 are also aided by defenses that aren’t allowed to be as physical on the perimeter, giving him free reign to dissect passive defenses to his will.

The rules have been bent to allow for more free-flowing basketball and more scoring, a benefit Jordan didn’t have in the 90s when “high scoring” meant a playoff score of 95-93.

But with all that said, his accomplishments must be acknowledged, similar to ones of his peers.

His performances don't have to be admired, merely respected. And as his longevity and consistency cements him deeper into the record books of all-time lists, it doesn’t require instant reflection on whom he passed or whom he’s yet to catch.

Sometimes it’s better to let it all play out before the next game-winner becomes a weapon in an argument there’s no true answer for.

Who’s the greatest? From here, it’s Jordan—by a hair. Wait, he’s bald.

NBA Buzz: 2018 brings hope for Bulls fans that rebuild could progress faster than expected

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: 2018 brings hope for Bulls fans that rebuild could progress faster than expected

With another dismal Bears season now in the books, it’s time for the return of my weekly NBA Buzz column featuring analysis on the latest news and happenings around the league.

Let’s start right here in Chicago, where the Bulls' sudden turnaround has drawn a lot of national interest. Since the return of Nikola Mirotic from the injuries he suffered in the training-camp fight with Bobby Portis, the Bulls have put together a 10-4 record, which is even more impressive since it directly followed a 10-game losing streak that dropped the Bulls to a league-worst 3-20.

So, what are we to make of the amazing change of fortunes? First of all, let’s give credit to Fred Hoiberg and his staff for remaining positive and continuing to work hard on player development during the rough start. The Bulls lost a number of close games early in the season that could have destroyed the confidence of a young team. Instead, the coaches focused on working to improve every day, which included tweaking the systems on offense and defense to better suit the talent on the roster.

Secondly, credit Mirotic and Portis for putting their differences aside to work together on the court, in the process helping the Bulls develop one of the highest-scoring second units in the NBA. Mirotic came back from nearly seven weeks of inactivity with his strength and conditioning from an intense summer of weight training surprisingly still intact. And even more significantly, his entire mental approach to the game has changed with a newfound confidence and decisiveness we didn’t see during his first three NBA seasons. Sure, 14 games is a relatively small sample size, but it appears that Mirotic finally understands what he needs to do to be successful at this level, which should ensure a long and productive NBA career.

Portis also deserves credit for adjusting so quickly to the backup center role in place of Cristiano Felicio. Portis’ ability to score in the post and step out to the 3-point line makes him a valuable commodity in the modern NBA game. And some of the best stretches of offensive basketball over the last 14 games have come with Portis and Mirotic on the floor together, which no one would have predicted after their fight two days before the season opener.

The other major factor in the Bulls' turnaround has been the play of second-year point guard Kris Dunn. Since taking over as the starter, Dunn’s confidence and play-making ability has returned to the level he displayed as an All American at Providence. The 6-foot-4 guard has emerged as the Bulls’ closer, ready and willing to take the big shot down the stretch in close games. Sure, he’s had some failures, including Monday night in overtime against Portland, but Dunn’s emergence as a potential high-level point guard is probably the most significant story from the 2017 portion of the season.

So, what does 2018 hold? A lot depends on which direction the front office decides to go leading up to the trade deadline in early February. If John Paxson and Gar Forman decide to trade Mirotic, Robin Lopez and/or other rotation players in hopes of improving their chances in the draft lottery, the wins will come less frequently. Paxson told reporters the night of the Jimmy Butler trade the Bulls would be patient in the rebuilding process and focus on improving through the draft. That leads me to believe the Bulls will sacrifice some short-term success for a better shot at one of the potentially franchise-changing talents at the top of the 2018 draft.

Bulls fans can also look forward to the return of dynamic shooting guard Zach LaVine in the next couple weeks. The two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion is in the final stages of his rehab from ACL surgery last February, and his return will give the Bulls' coaches another athletic wing who can create his own shot in close games. Don’t forget, LaVine was averaging nearly 19 points a game and shooting 39 percent from the 3-point line when he was hurt last season, and despite the injury, NBA general managers voted him the third most athletic player in the league in the annual preseason survey. The 22-year-old LaVine was the centerpiece of the Butler trade, and you can count on the Bulls signing him to a long-term contract this summer with hopes of future All-Star appearances.

Bottom line, 2018 offers Bulls fans some exciting possibilities and hope for the future. It’s no longer just about trying to "secure the Bagley" or "lose every quarter for Porter." The Bulls have already identified three foundation pieces in LaVine, Dunn and rookie Lauri Markkanen, plus some useful role players in Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, Portis and Jerian Grant. And they should get a high-quality player in the draft, with ample cap room to spend in free agency in July. With a little luck in the lottery, the Bulls rebuild could progress a lot faster than most people expected.

Around the Association

Tuesday marks the return of All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas from a serious hip injury suffered during last season’s playoffs. Thomas finished third in the NBA scoring race a year ago, averaging 29 points a game on the way to leading Boston to the Eastern Conference Finals. But despite his heroic play, Danny Ainge decided to trade Thomas to Cleveland as part of a package to acquire arguably one of the top 10 players in the league, Kyrie Irving.

How the ball-dominant Thomas fits with LeBron James will be one of the most intriguing storylines of 2018. James is the de facto point guard for the Cavs. The ball is always in his hands with the game on the line. Irving chafed at being asked to go stand in the corner and space the floor for James, and my guess is Thomas won’t be thrilled with that role either. Adding to the drama is the fact Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, anxious to show the other 29 teams that he’s fully recovered from his hip injury and worthy of a max contract in a year when very few teams have significant cap space.

The James-Thomas-Kevin Love experiment could provide the Cavs with the additional firepower they need to dethrone Golden State in June. But if it fails, James and Thomas could be looking for greener pastures in July, sending the Cavs into rebuild mode.

Speaking of which, did you see the Lakers held a team meeting last week, giving players the chance to air out their grievances? The Lakers have done a nice job of accumulating talented young players through the draft, including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. But apparently, some of the young guys are looking over their shoulders with all the media reports Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson is looking to make a hard push to sign James and Paul George as free agents this summer.

A couple of those young players might be traded elsewhere to free up cap space, and Randle in particular has been unhappy with the erratic playing time he’s been given lately by head coach Luke Walton. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has been sinking towards the bottom of the Western Conference standings after a solid start, and they won’t have a first-round pick this year because of a previous trade. We know Johnson is popular with current NBA players and has a ton of charisma, but if he can’t convince James or George to come to L.A. this summer, the return of the Lakers to contending status might turn out to be fake news.

Finally, NBA fans have been treated to another exciting rookie class for 2017-18. Bulls fans have enjoyed the sweet-shooting stroke and better-than-advertised athleticism of the 20-year-old Markkanen. He could be a future All Star in the East.

Utah guard Donovan Mitchell has been drawing rave reviews at every NBA stop with his spectacular dunks and 3-point shooting range, and the same can be said for Kuzma, who looks like the steal of the draft as a late first-round selection the Lakers acquired in the D’Angelo Russell trade with Brooklyn.

Jayson Tatum has been a Day 1 starter for a championship-contending team in Boston, ranking among the league leaders in 3-point field-goal percentage. Dennis Smith Jr. is sparking a recent upswing by the Mavericks with his off-the-charts athleticism and play-making ability. Ball gets a lot of unfair criticism because of his father’s antics, but he looks like the type of point guard who can make his teammates better in the Jason Kidd mold. Former Indiana Hoosiers star O.G. Anunoby has come back strong from knee surgery and is showing off his two-way skills as the starting small forward for a very good Toronto team.

Add in the exciting potential of high lottery picks Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox and Frank Ntilikina, and you can see why the NBA is in such a good place right now with probably more talented players under the age of 25 than we’ve seen in the long history of the league.

Quote of the Week

I mentioned the stunning transformation of Mirotic's confidence level. That confidence has also carried over to his postgame interview sessions, where he now routinely refers to himself in the third person and isn’t afraid to detail all his accomplishments. Here’s what Mirotic had to say after knocking down eight of 16 3-point attempts in last Friday's win over Indiana.

“My son actually told me before the game, ‘Daddy, I want you to make five 3s.’ I told him I will try. I can’t promise. But I made eight actually. So I’m sure he’s very happy. And he was at the game, too.”

Keep going Niko. Keep going.