The year is 1997, and the Chicago Bulls are set to begin their quest for their sixth title in eight seasons.
While it might have looked easy in hindsight, heading into the 1997-98 season, there were a number of questions surrounding the Bulls' ability to complete their second three-peat of the decade. And although Chicago had the league's best player in Michael Jordan, his sidekick, Scottie Pippen, would be out until January. Looming over everything were the rumblings surrounding whether or not it would be the final year of the Bulls' dynasty. Waiting in the wing were a number of teams looking to play spoiler.
MORE: How to watch "The Last Dance"
To prime you for the upcoming "Last Dance" documentary that chronicles what would ultimately be the final year of the Jordan-era Bulls, let's take a trip back in time for the state of things going into the 1997-98 season in the NBA.
The year before…
1997 NBA Finals
The Chicago Bulls made it back-to-back championships, defeating league MVP Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in six games to capture the 1997 NBA title. It was the fifth championship (and Finals MVP) for Michael Jordan, who averaged 32.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in the series. It was also the fifth title for Scottie Pippen, who was the only other Bull to average double figures in the Finals, averaging 20.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 blocks.
- Chicago Bulls defeat Utah Jazz (4-2)
- NBA Finals MVP: Michael Jordan
1997 Award Winners
For the first time in his NBA career, Karl Malone was named NBA MVP in 1997, slightly edging Michael Jordan in one of the closest MVP races in league history. While Jordan's Bulls won 69 games, Malone led the Jazz to 64 wins with averages of 27.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.
At his MVP press conference, Malone joked: "I thank Michael (Jordan) for letting me borrow it for one year.″ Malone would go on to win the award a second time in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the first year of Jordan's second retirement.
- MVP: Karl Malone, Utah Jazz
- Coach of the Year: Pat Riley, Miami Heat
- Rookie of the Year: Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers
- Defensive Player of the Year: Dikembe Mutombo, Atlanta Hawks
- Most Improved Player: Isaac Austin, Los Angeles Clippers
- Sixth Man of the Year: John Starks, New York Knicks
1997 NBA Draft
Tim Duncan, who was named the consensus National College Player of the Year following his senior season at Wake Forest, was selected No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs, who finished the season with a 20-62 record thanks largely in part to an injury sustained by former MVP David Robinson.
Here are the top five…
|1||San Antonio Spurs||Tim Duncan||Wake Forest|
|2||Philadelphia 76ers||Keith Van Horn (traded to New Jersey)||Utah|
|3||Boston Celtics||Chauncey Billups||Colorado|
|4||Vancouver Grizzlies||Antonio Daniels||Bowling Green|
|5||Denver Nuggets||Tony Battie||Texas Tech|
The Chicago Bulls
Previous season: 69-13, won NBA Finals vs. Utah Jazz
Opening night starters: Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Toni Kukoc, Jason Caffey, Luc Longley
Having compiled a record of 141-23 over the previous two seasons, the back-to-back defending champions were again the class of the NBA ahead of the 1997-98 season but the team's opening lineup didn't look quite like what fans were used to. Scottie Pippen was on the mend from a preseason foot surgery, while Dennis Rodman asked to be moved to the second unit feeling like he needed to earn the respect back from his teammates and coaches.
Head coach Phil Jackson had already made it clear that it would be his final season in charge of the Bulls and Jordan had made it clear that he didn't want to play for anyone else. The noise surrounding this Chicago team was loud, and injuries only complicated things further.
Ultimately, Pippen would miss 38 games, and he wasn't the only Bulls player to miss time due to injury. Kukoc (eight games), Longley (24 games) and Steve Kerr (32 games) all missed varying amounts of time while Harper and Jordan appeared in all 82 games.
With the limping Bulls a year older, this appeared to be the most vulnerable they had been since Jordan's return.
Previous season: 64-18, lost NBA Finals vs. Chicago Bulls
Opening night starters: Howard Eisley, Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russell, Karl Malone, Greg Ostertag
Similar to the Bulls, the Jazz were in a tough spot as John Stockton would miss the beginning of the season after undergoing an offseason procedure on his knee. In his absence, reigning league MVP Karl Malone would lead the way while fourth-year guard Howard Eisley would assume playmaking responsibilities to start the season.
New York Knicks
Previous season: 57-25, lost Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. Miami Heat
Opening night starters: Charlie Ward, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing
Fresh off losing to their rival Miami Heat in the 1997 playoffs, the Knicks were yet another ageing team that needed a clean bill of health to compete. As Mike Wise of the New York Times penned in Oct. of 1997, "so much rides on Patrick Ewing's knees, Allan Houston's surgically repaired right wrist and Chris Childs's decision-making."
Could a 35-year-old Ewing be the anchor for a team with title hopes?
Los Angeles Lakers
Previous season: 56-26, lost Western Conference Semifinals vs. Utah Jazz
Opening night starters: Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Sean Rooks
Similar to the other contenders, the Lakers were without a key piece to start the season as Shaquille O'Neal missed opening night with an abdominal injury and would ultimately miss time throughout the season.
Still, L.A. was a prime candidate to overtake Utah as the best in the West as it had the talented backcourt of Van Exel and Jones plus a key free-agent acquisition in Fox and a talented 19-year-old sixth man by the name of Kobe Bryant.
Previous season: 61-21, lost Eastern Conference Finals vs. Chicago Bulls
Opening night starters: Tim Hardaway, Voshon Lenard, Jamal Mashburn, P.J. Brown, Isaac Austin
The Heat weren't exempt from the health issues that plagued other top teams in the league as star big man Alonzo Mourning began the season on the injured list after undergoing a knee procedure in the offseason.
Despite the fact that they came up short in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat were expected to take a step back because of the emergence of other teams.
Previous season: 57-25, lost Western Conference Semifinals vs. Houston Rockets
Opening night starters: Gary Payton, Hersey Hawkins, Detlef Shrempf, Vin Baker, Aaron Williams
Just over a year after pushing the Bulls to six in the 1996 NBA Finals, changes abounded in Seattle as Shawn Kemp's trade demand was met. Kemp was dealt to Cleveland in a three-team trade that saw Vin Baker become a Sonic. With "The Glove" still running the show, there was potential for this new-look Sonics team.
Previous season: 39-43, missed NBA Playoffs
Opening night starters: Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Dale Davis, Rik Smits
To be fair, not much was truly expected from the Pacers ahead of the season, but they would go on to exceed expectations by a long shot, giving the Bulls a tough go in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.
The biggest headline, of course, was that Hall of Famer and Indiana native Larry Bird had taken over as the Pacers new head coach. Mullin, acquired in an offseason trade, was expected to add even more shooting to a lineup that featured Reggie Miller.
San Antonio Spurs
Previous season: 20-62, missed NBA Playoffs
Opening night starters: Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Sean Elliott, Tim Duncan, David Robinson
As mentioned earlier, San Antonio's down year resulted in them receiving the ultimate prize: the No. 1 overall pick it would use to select Duncan.
Teams don't go from worst-to-first very often, but Duncan was that good. With Robinson back in the lineup along with veterans like Johnson, Del Negro and Elliott rounding things out, many saw the Spurs as a team that could make a title run.
What was said about the Bulls
Oct. 3, 1997: "Pippen Injury more than a Bulls footnote" - Terry Armour, Chicago Tribune
"When Rodman re-signs and Pippen is playing on a regular basis, the Bulls probably will be a strong favourite to win the franchise's sixth title this decade. This is why nobody is particularly worried with more than eight months of basketball still to be played."
Oct. 8, 1997: "PRO BASKETBALL; Bulls' Pippen Will Miss 2-3 Months After Toe Surgery"
Under any circumstance, the loss of Pippen for the season's first two or three months would be a major stumbling block. But it is especially troubling now, with in-house grumbling between management and Coach Phil Jackson and his players and with the growing possibility of Jordan's retirement after the season.
Oct. 25, 1997: "NBA 1997-98: End of an era in the NBA as Bulls exit, lockout looms" - Chris Sheridan, Associated Press
"The Chicago Bulls will be going for another title in the final season under coach Phil Jackson, who says "wild horses couldn't drag me back.″ That could mean the end of Jordan's career, since he has said he won't play anywhere else.
"Yes, I believe him. And yes, I'll try to talk him out of it,″ Jackson said. "I appreciate his loyalty and appreciate that he said that, but I don't want to limit his career. I'll encourage him to go on if there's something left in the tank.″
But there's no guarantee Jackson or anyone else will be able to do that."
Oct. 29, 1997: "N.B.A. PREVIEW '97-'98; Jordan and the Bulls Are Finally Vulnerable, Leaving a Scrum for the Title" - Mike Wise, New York Times
"Poor Michael and the Bulls. They're hurt. They're old. They're unhappy. This is called playing possum in the N.B.A. The reality: Scottie Pippen will return by January, Dennis Rodman is still a rebounding fool and Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. Chicago is more vulnerable, but it still has the heart and talent of a champion. As for the legs, we'll see."
Oct. 31, 1997: "Bulls, Jordan Have All the Drama" - Michael Wilbon, Washington Post
"The relevant question now is, is the cumulative weight of all this extravaganza simply too much? How many balls can they juggle at once? It's not a three-ring circus anymore, it's grown to four rings. And Jordan, after all, will turn 35 shortly after the All-Star Game. Dennis Rodman will turn 37 during the playoffs. Pippen is already 32. Jackson's a lame-duck coach. Jordan likes Reinsdorf, but Pippen doesn't."
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