When the first two episodes of The Last Dance aired earlier this week, it caused a real stir.
Vintage footage, insightful interviews and tangible tension led to a riveting first two chapters of a 10-part documentary that offers a behind-the-scenes look into one of the greatest dynasties in professional sports history. Every drama includes its fair share of strong protagonists and antagonists playing tug-of-war, and The Last Dance proves to be no exception.
One of those who plays a central role in the story is the late Jerry Krause, long-time general manager of the Chicago Bulls who acted as both architect and demolition man, the latter of which stands far more prominently so far given his desire to break up the championship core in an effort to begin a rebuild.
But while that demolition man identity largely spins Krause as an antagonist, it's important to note that all of that success and domination doesn't happen without his moves as the dynasty architect. Yes, Michael Jordan was already in place. The hard part? Surrounding the transcendent shooting guard with enough talent and perfectly-fitting puzzle pieces to compete in a league that up until that point had been dominated by bigs.
Jordan may have been the foundation, but here are the pieces that allowed the Bulls to grow into a skyscraper that dominated the NBA's skyline for the better part of a decade.
Drafted Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in 1987
The 1984 draft gets all the love. It was also a product of luck.
The 1987 draft represents the initial master stroke which paved the way for dynastic dominance.
Krause didn't draft Jordan in 1984. That honour is bestowed upon Rod Thorn, the man who held the GM role prior to the arrival of Krause. To be clear, none of what transpired in the 90s in Chicago happens had the Portland Trail Blazers selected Jordan instead of centre Sam Bowie with the No. 2 overall pick. But the Blazers took Bowie and Thorn made the easiest and most obvious No. 3 pick in NBA history.
If the 1984 draft planted the seeds for dominance, the 1987 draft displayed shrewd managerial prowess which enabled the cultivating and harvesting of said seeds.
Krause saw something in Pippen and manuevered to acquire the spindly swingman from the Seattle SuperSonics, who drafted him fifth after a meteoric rise at the University of Central Arkansas. The Bulls selected Olden Polynice with the eighth overall pick and then traded him to Seattle along with a future second round pick and an option to swap first-round picks in either 1988 or 1989, a move that while common now was not at the time.
What's more? Krause also included protection against trading away a top-3 pick, again something that's common now but was far ahead of the times. That detail ultimately didn't come into play, but nevertheless showed the level of detail Krause routinely exhibited in building the Bulls.
And just like that, Krause nabbed the greatest sidekick in NBA history and someone that within 10 years would be named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
With Pippen now in the fold, Krause then turned his attention towards the 10th overall pick, which the Bulls used to snag power forward Horace Grant. While it's fun to imagine what might have happened had the Bulls taken future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, who went one spot later, Grant proved to be the perfect third piece alongside Jordan and Pippen on the wing. Grant played a pivotal role on all three of the championship teams during the first 3-peat and even made the All-Star team in 1994 during Jordan's first retirement before eventually moving on to the Orlando Magic as a free agent.
Traded Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright
Normally, trading away your franchise superstar's best friend probably isn't the best of ideas.
Except that nothing about these Bulls were normal.
Especially when you consider the following. Here are the players in the NBA who averaged over 13 rebounds per game in both the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons:
- Charles Oakley.
That's it. That's the list.
One year after landing Pippen and Grant, Krause pulled the trigger on a trade that sent a 24-year-old Oakley just entering his prime to the New York Knicks in exchange for Patrick Ewing's 30-year-old backup. An All-Star earlier in his career, Cartwright was certainly on the backend of his career with injuries and age gradually taking their toll.
In a vacuum and on pure talent alone, it was a head-scratching transaction.
But Krause understood his team. Pippen and Grant, after a year of rookies as substitutes, were ready to take a place in the starting five, which made Oakley the odd man out. The Bulls desperately needed a reliable centre who could fill in the gaps, and that's exactly what Cartwright offered.
Krause's plan played out perfectly as Pippen and Grant blossomed and Cartwright stayed healthy enough to start for each of the first 3-peat championship teams.
Hired Phil Jackson
When Jackson took over prior to the 1989-90 season, he had exactly zero years of experience as an NBA head coach. An assistant with the Bulls for two seasons under Doug Collins and the architect of Chicago's defence, Jackson certainly knew the lay of the land and had developed relationships with players, but was still at the end of the day a rookie head coach taking the reins for a team with all the pieces in place to win right now.
At that point in time, the 43-year-old Jackson had four years under his belt as an NBA assistant coach (he also spent two seasons with the New Jersey Nets) and had previously served as a head coach in the Continental Basketball Association.
As legendary sportswriter Sam Smith wrote in the Chicago Tribune in July of 1989 after the hiring of Jackson, one of the reasons - though certainly not the only reason - he got the gig was because of his ability to connect with Jordan.
"In fact, he is generally considered about the only person in the organization other than Reinsdorf not fearful of criticizing Michael Jordan. One Bulls player relates the story of Jackson last season telling Jordan and several other players they shouldn't have gone out after a victory, that their late night led to a loss in the next game when the team tired.
"Jordan told Jackson he didn't agree with him, but later told teammates that he respected Jackson for stating his opinion. Also, several Bulls players still point to a December game against Milwaukee as the most enjoyable game of last season. (Doug) Collins was ejected early in that game, but the Bulls, relaxed and playing confidently away from the pressure often produced by Collins' intense sideline direction, came from far behind to win."
At the time, there were rumours that Jackson would be in line to become head coach of the Knicks, for whom he helped win a championship as a player in 1973-74. But the Knicks set their sights elsewhere and Jackson ultimately said yes to Krause and the rest is history.
Drafted Toni Kukoc in the second round in 1990
"Magic Johnson of Europe."
That's how Kukoc was described in the New York Times in July 1993 after the Bulls finally landed him three years after drafting him.
In the 1990 draft, the Bulls selected Kukoc with the second pick of the second round. It was highway robbery even in the moment, considering that Kukoc was just 21 years old and had already been awarded the MVP of the 1990 FIBA World Cup in Argentina a month before and of the Final Four of the Euroleague that same season. A forward with centre size and guard skills, Kukoc was ahead of his time and today would be in the mix for the first overall pick.
But 30 years ago almost no team looked outside the United States when drafting - Kukoc was just one of the two players chosen in that draft who were not college players (the other was the Italian pivot Stefano Rusconi, chosen 52). There was total uncertainty about when Kukoc would come to the NBA given his contract status in Europe. But Krause didn't mind: he already had youngsters like Jordan, Pippen and Grant, he could wait a bit.
"Maybe I was the Magic of Europe or the Larry of Europe, but here I'm just another rookie," said Kukoc.
The Croatian arrived in the league for the 1993-94 campaign and, despite some jealousy from teammates like Pippen at first, ended up being an underrated piece of the second 3-peat, earning the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996 and averaging at least 13.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in each of the three championship seasons.
Traded Stacy King for Luc Longley
In the middle of the 1993-94 season - the only one in which Jordan did not play a single game for the Bulls between 1984 and 1998 - Krause made a move that would end up paying off after Jordan returned.
Australian centre Luc Longley arrived from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Stacey King, who represented perhaps one of Krause's worst mistakes in his early years as GM. (Krause drafted him sixth in 1989 and ranks just 22nd in career win shares among players drafted that year).
It was a centre exchange in which the Bulls got out from under King, who averaged 5.5 points and 4.3 rebounds that season, for Longley, a player two years younger and with a similar role and similar production. Though skilled in his own right, what Longley added was a knack for doing the dirty work. The Aussie started for each of the championship teams in 1996, 1997 and 1998 while King barely played for the Timberwolves, was cut after the 1994-95 season and by the end of the 1996-97 season was out of the league.
Traded Will Perdue for Dennis Rodman
After the Bulls got bounced by the Orlando Magic in the second round of the 1995 playoffs in a series that Shaquille O'Neal and former Bull Horace Grant dominated on the glass, it was clear that Chicago needed a defensive-minded enforcer who could battle on the boards.
Enter the greatest rebounder of the decade.
Krause's final master stroke involved flipping Perdue, a backup centre for the Bulls during the first 3-peat, for Rodman, who had fallen out of favour with the San Antonio Spurs.
It was the ultimate buy low opportunity as the former two-time Defensive Player of the Year and inarguably the best rebounder in the entire league endured multiple team suspensions with a fractured relationship beyond repair. Viewed throughout the league as untouchable entering the final year of his contract, Rodman proved difficult to move, as admitted by Spurs GM Gregg Popovich. Asked at the time if it were a relief to be rid of Rodman, Popovich answered in a way that's become all too predictable over the last 25 years. "A big relief? We were without him for quite a bit last year, so it's not any different in many respects."
A no-brainer in hindsight, there was signficant risk and controversy in the moment. "I don't talk to my teammates, but I have a good relationship with them," said Rodman in his first weeks with the Bulls. Rodman had also been a member of the Bad Boy Pistons during the harsh rivalry with Jordan and Pippen in the late 80s and early 90s, so there was certainly some bad blood in the past.
Still, Krause bet that if there was any team that could keep him in check, it was the Bulls, who had an unassailable locker room with Jordan and Jackson at the helm. After a series of weekend meetings between Krause, Jackson and Rodman, which stretched over a 36-hour period, the Bulls decided it was a risk worth taking. "Phil and I talked very carefully about this," Krause said. "We did an awful lot of homework and found out a lot of things. We were both satisfied."
Three years. Three rebounding titles. Three championships.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the NBA or its clubs.