What-ifs and hypotheticals are fun, and especially so in the NBA. In practically any season, you can point to this or that moment when the championship team could have lost had a ball bounced slightly differently. Even Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls are no exception. Had the Utah Jazz managed to prevail in Game 6 in 1998, they certainly would have been the favorites in Game 7 especially Scottie Pippen’s injuries at the time.
But now the what-if of the time is not whether Jordan’s Bulls could have been defeated earlier, but whether they could have grabbed a 7th title. Dennis Rodman declared just that on ESPN’s First Take, declaring that the Bulls could have “easily” won a title in 1999 over Tim Duncan and his San Antonio Spurs.
It is easy to see how fans could believe that, as to bet against Michael Jordan in the 1990s feels like a foolish idea. But no team in the modern NBA era has ever won 4 straight titles, in large part because of how exhausting it is. And had the Bulls brought everything back for one last hurrah in 1999, that team would probably have lost in the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs.
Age and Fatigue
Remember that the 1999 NBA season was not a normal season. Due to the NBA lockout, 50 games were compressed into 90 nights. There was no such thing as resting players back then or giving them pampered Dermani Medspa treatments. The modern NBA has discussed limiting and scrapping back-to-backs, while the 1999 NBA season had back-to-back-to-backs!
A Jordan-led Chicago Bulls probably would have been less affected by the lack of training camp and practice compared to other teams due to the strong chemistry between them. But the 1998 Bulls already suffered from fatigue and injuries, and that would have been even worse in 1999.
The Utah Jazz are an example of what could have happened to Chicago. The Malone-Stockton-Hornacek trio got off to a strong start. But they lost five of their last 10 games, fell to the second seed, and lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round.
The Enemy Teams
And while 1999 did not have a dominant rival like the subsequent Shaq-Kobe Lakers, there were good teams that would have challenged Chicago. I suspect the Bulls would have made the Finals, though their matchup against Indiana, a team which took them to the limit in 1998, would have been interesting.
But the 1999 Spurs were no slouch. Chicago would have had a difficult time with the Twin Towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, and the Spurs had tough defensive guards in Mario Elie and Sean Elliott. They swept a nascent form of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the playoffs, were the best defensive team in the league, and had some guy named Gregg Popovich coaching. (Though The Ringer points out that Popovich came very close to being fired that season, another fascinating what-if. )
It should be noted that if fans want to speculate about the Bulls in 1999, what would have happened if they had won and tried again in 2000? The best team in the league that year had Phil Jackson, and the second-best team had Scottie Pippen. What would the landscape of the NBA have looked like then?
We will never know for certain. But we have to remember that while Jordan was the greatest, he was not invincible to age and fatigue. The 1999 NBA season would have tested his team’s limits, and he would have been against a solid team led by a young superstar. The probable result is that the Bulls would have faced their playoff Finals defeat in 1999.