This morning, as I often do, I made a cup of coffee to drink over a YouTube video or two.
First I watched Shaq eat spicy hot wings on Hot Ones. He’s a pretty interesting guy. I learned that he has a doctorate. He didn’t elaborate on it much on his appearance, so I looked it up. The NYT reported on May 6th, 2012, that Shaq did indeed earn a doctoral degree in education from Barry University.
Maybe it was big news at the time, but I had no idea. Pretty cool.
After the Shaq clip, I saw a video of highlights from the ’91 playoffs. For those who don’t remember (or never knew), the Pistons were the emerging powerhouse in the late 1980s as the Lakers and Celtics dynasties came to and end. Remember, too, that those two teams thrilled NBA fans with their amazing clashes in the finals, which happened in the ’80s three times.
I’ll say that again.
Two teams. Were so good. In one decade. They managed to each make it to the finals. At the same time. Three times. In a ten year span. Larry Bird vs. “Magic” Johnson.
Mmm…not quite. There’s a bit of a twist. Ready for it?
First, let me say that all my stats came from www.basketball-reference.com.
OK, let’s go.
The first super team wasn’t the Pistons. It was the ’90s Bulls, who went on to dominate the league in a way not seen since, maybe, ever. The Lakers and Celtics were amazing in the ’50s, all the way through to the ’80s, up until the Pistons served as a segue into the Bulls’ singularity of greatness. If Jordan’s Bulls were in the finals, don’t even watch–just place your bets. The prior amazing dynasties were usually competing with other dynasties. Or they ruled a league with a lot fewer teams and no free agency.
Jordan’s Bulls, thanks to both talent and circumstance, had no equal.
But Jordan’s Bulls didn’t enjoy immediate success. It took time to build a super team unlike any other.
Magic Johnson came into the league and won a championship his first year. And his third year. And his sixth year. (Jordan didn’t get his first until his seventh season.) He won two more, but stopped playing when he contracted HIV. And Magic was good in his last pre-HIV playoff run. Really good. 21.7 points/game, 12.6 assists/game, 8.1 rebounds/game, 1.2 steals/game, making an even 44% of his field goals. There’s no reason to think he couldn’t have given the Pistons, and maybe the bulls, for a few years anyway, a difficult match-up.
But I digress. My point isn’t that Magic had one less ring than MJ, but probably could’ve at least tied him–though it is an interesting thought. And one more interesting thing about “Magic”: he wasn’t a good 3PT shooter. Most of his career he shot 23% or lower from deep. But his last 3 pre-HIV seasons, he shot 31.4%, 38.4%, and 32% from behind the three-point line. He wasn’t getting worse in his early 30s–he was getting better. Think a guy who can score like Dirk Nowitzki and pass like…well, Magic. Scary. But it was cut short. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
My point is that Magic didn’t benefit from over half a decade of team building. He was drafted to a good team, and made them champions in his first year. But, although he was a rookie point guard, he also pulling big man duty in the playoffs when their other superstar, Kareem (who was then at the end of his career), went out with injury. Without his other superstar on the court, playing out of position, as a rookie, in game 6 of the NBA Finals. This happened: 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists. Rookie dominance. Without the only other name people like to drop and say, “Yeah…but he had Kareem, though…”
I gotta address that argument. I just have to. Magic was drafted to a good team, yes. But he made that team even better–immediately. Just go watch his passing highlights. NBA defenders looked like kids who’ve never played the game before. He ruined his opponents with his passing, man. AS A ROOKIE, MAN! Sure, he had a HOF center, but Kareem was in his last years, like Shaq in Cleveland or Boston. Good, but not the same. (Like the tie in from earlier? Yeah, you do.)
It took the bulls over half a decade of Jordan not getting them all the way, before they eventually were able to put together a wicked roster. At their peak they had the best defensive big man (Rodman–a former bad boys’ Piston!!!), the best 3-point shooter possibly in NBA history, (Steve Kerr, all as a Bull, became the only player to make 50% of his three-pointers over an entire season more than once. Again, no one else has ever done it more than once. He did it THREE TIMES!) the best all-around player ever (MJ), and a #2 who made the all-star team 7 times, playing good D and averaging around 20ppg during their best years (Pippen).
The only other teams that were stacked like, and built in that way, were: 2000s Lakers (who ironically lost to a Piston’s team in the finals, 4-1, who were labeled, the team without a superstar), Lebron’s Miami Heat, and that crazy Celtics squad. The Rockets are trending that way, in my opinion, but aren’t there yet. Golden State drafted most of their good players. You might call the Durant era in the Bay a super team. But a lot of the crazy dominant teams of the past really just drafted well. Unrestricted free agency wasn’t even a thing until 1988, which also plays a major factor here; the Bulls kinda wrote the post-free agency playbook. I think Jordan’s Bulls, who couldn’t get past Detroit for six years, had to become that super team, and also, conveniently, had the door opened by the league for that to happen right as the Bad Boys were at their best. The Bad Boys were tough, physical, and (I’ll admit) cheap-shot takers. But they were also a hell of a team. They had an electric point guard (Isaih Thomas), the best defensive player in the league (Rodman), a great SG in Joe Dumars, a three-point specialist (back before there really was such a thing) in Vinnie “the microwave” Johnson, and two intimidating big men (Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn).
The bulls saw the even distribution of talent and the importance of role players and said, OK, we gotta do that, but X10, or we’re never gonna make it to the finals. So that’s what they did.
And it changed everything.
-CT (an obvious Detroit sports fan)
Christopher Tallon writes, podcasts, and…wait a second. Are you actually reading this? High five!