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Chicago Bulls

One Play: What made Dennis Rodman an invaluable part of the 'Last Dance' Chicago Bulls

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Dennis Rodman (NBA Getty Images)

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, Dennis Rodman takes the spotlight.

Context: With "The Last Dance" captivating the world, our coverage of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls continues.

The first two episodes of the series, which are now available to watch on Netflix, were focused on Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, but it's only a matter of time until Dennis Rodman takes centre stage in the documentary, both because of his larger-than-life personality and his role on the team.

Even though Rodman was nearing the end of his career in 1997-98, he was still an important part of the Bulls. He appeared in 80 games that season, of which he started in 66. He averaged career-lows at the time of 4.7 points and 0.2 blocks, but he led the league once again with 15.0 rebounds per game.

That Rodman was able to average that many rebounds despite being an undersized power forward in his late 30s is nothing short of incredible.

To get a sense of how he was able to do it, let's take a closer look at one particular possession from that season.

The play: In a win over the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 27, 1997, Rodman pulled down a season-high 29 rebounds, nine of which came on the offensive glass.

Here is one of those nine offensive rebounds:

Breakdown: Halfway through the possession, Jordan catches the ball at the top of the 3-point line. To his left are Ron Harper, Toni Kukoč and Luc Longley. To his right is Rodman.

With time ticking off the shot clock and nothing coming to fruition for the Bulls, Rodman raises his left arm to signal that he's going to set a screen for Jordan. Jordan doesn't wait for Rodman's screen, but he dribbles his defender, Steve Smith, into it.

Rather than having Smith fight through Rodman's screen and risk Jordan getting open, the Hawks decide to switch, resulting in Smith being on Rodman and Tyrone Corbin being on Jordan.

With Corbin guarding him, Jordan sizes him up by dribbling the ball out to the 3-point line. He then crosses the ball over and drives baseline to attack the rim.

In the process, Jordan draws the attention of not one, not two, but three members of the Hawks. (This is your reminder that 34-year-old Jordan was still the best scorer in the league). Corbin is on his hip, Smith helps off of Rodman to pack the paint and Dikembe Mutombo, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, slides over to protect the rim.

Christian Laettner is also in the paint.

With nobody guarding him, Rodman walks into the paint and positions himself close to the basket in case Jordan misses.

Sure enough, that's exactly what happens - Jordan misses a tough reverse layup.

Mutombo gets to Jordan's miss first, but Rodman is able to get his hand on it to create a loose ball. Rodman then beats everyone to the ground and calls a timeout before Laettner can tie him up to force a jump ball.

Why it matters: Ahead of "The Last Dance" being released, I was tasked with writing something about Rodman's rebounding but I didn't know which specific rebound I wanted to use as a springboard for this article. So in search of inspiration, I went to his box score page from the 1997-98 season, looked for what his season-high was and checked to see if that game is on YouTube.

Sure enough, it is.

Figuring that I would have to watch at least half of the game before something jumped out, I put it on in the background while I worked on something else. But it didn't take Rodman long to grab my attention because this rebound came on the opening possession of the game.

That's right - Rodman grabbed an offensive rebound on the opening possession of the game and burned one of Chicago's timeouts with 11:30 remaining in the first quarter.

Was it a smart move by Rodman to call a timeout that early? No. Not at all. ("It's kind of early to call this one," the announcers said. "You might just let him get into a jump ball situation.") But the fact that he didn't hesitate to call a timeout in that situation tells you everything you need to know about him.

The thing to remember with Rodman is that he made a Hall of Fame career out of being a specialist. When he first came into the NBA, he earned the reputation of being a ferocious defender on the "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons teams. By his fourth season in the league, he was named Defensive Player of the Year for the first time in his career. The following season, he won the award for a second time.

It was after that season that Rodman began to channel some of the energy that helped him become one of the league's most feared defenders into rebounding. Through the first five years of his career, Rodman averaged only 9.0 rebounds per game. In 1991-92 - the year after he won his second Defensive Player of the Year award - he more than doubled that number to average a career-best 18.7 rebounds per game. (An increase in minutes had something to do with that, but there was a noticeable jump in his per 36-minute numbers as well).

That sparked a run of seven straight seasons in which Rodman led the league in rebounding, putting him behind only Wilt Chamberlain for the most rebounding titles of all-time.

Rodman was still a great defender during those years - he made a total of eight All-Defensive Teams in his NBA career - but rebounding became his calling card. In the 1997-98 season, for example, he averaged more offensive rebounds (5.3) than points (4.7) and field goal attempts (4.5). Rebounding was what he did.

"I rebound with a little flair, a little something extra," Rodman once said. "It's not for the crowd, it's just for me. Rebounding is how I express myself on the floor."

Rodman's love for rebounding played a big role in his dominance in that regard. It's not just that he was a rebounding genius who was built like a truck. (There's a great anecdote about how Rodman used to study the rotation of the ball to learn where it would bounce). It's that he was relentless. He went all out on every miss, even the ones people weren't expecting him to, such as on the opening possession of a game in the middle of the regular season.

Does that excuse him from doing things like wasting a timeout? Maybe not in the moment. But if anything, it showed how he valued every possession, no matter at which point of the game it was.

Plus, he usually made up for it by doing things like out-rebounding an opposing team's starting lineup all by himself, as he did against the Hawks. Whereas he finished this game with 29 rebounds, Mookie Blaylock, Smith, Corbin, Laettner and Mutombo combined for a total 23 rebounds.

That was Rodman in a nutshell, a one-man wrecking crew on the boards.

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