The Chicago Bulls never had a chance to defend their title in 1998-99.
After completing their second three-peat in 1998, the Bulls broke up.
Michael Jordan retired for a second time, Scottie Pippen was traded to the Houston Rockets, Dennis Rodman was waived and Phil Jackson took a year off before eventually joining the Los Angeles Lakers.
MORE: 5 takeaways from Episodes 9 and 10 of The Last Dance
Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper were the only holdovers from the playoff rotation as the Bulls entered a complete rebuild and finished 13-37, the worst record in the Eastern Conference. It's a startling end to one of the most dominant decades in the history of professional sports.
What if that's not how it ended?
What if the Bulls came back the exact same team in 1998-99? Would they have triumphed for a seventh time or would someone have knocked them off their championship perch?
Our NBA.com experts weigh in.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): This one's pretty straight forward to me...
Maybe it's sacrilegious to even suggest that they wouldn't win, but I'm not sure they'd come all that close.
The Bulls were already running on fumes prior to the start of the 1997-98 season and watching the events of The Last Dance unfold behind the scenes, it's somewhat incredible they managed to finish off the three-peat as is. The mental fatigue and exhaustion of going for a four-peat would have been too much, even for a proud group with an axe to grind.
Imagine that Bulls team with Rodman and Luc Longley squaring off against David Robinson and Tim Duncan in an NBA Finals. They never faced a frontcourt remotely close to as formidable as San Antonio's twin towers. It's fair to question how the Spurs would have managed to match up with Jordan and Pippen, but this was the league's top-rated defence that could have in theory devised a scheme to make Chicago work for everything.
That's if the Bulls even made it that far.
The Heat and Pacers had some serious depth, as did the Knicks who shocked the world by reaching the Finals as an 8-seed. Nobody could match Jordan, but all three ran deeper than the Bulls who simply weren't that loaded beyond MJ and Pippen. In a weird way, the dismantling of the Bulls kept their aura of invincibility intact as they never reached the breaking point that dynastic team does at some point. Part of what helps the Bulls stand out in a crowd is they never lost in the same sense that so many others did.
Magic's Lakers. Larry's Celtics. Isiah's Pistons. Shaq and Kobe's Lakers. LeBron and D-Wade's Heat. The Golden State Warriors. Every iconic champ bows out at the end of the road, either at the hands of Father Time or a most worthy adversary. The Bulls broke up before it happened to them but make no mistake... it would have happened. And it would have happened in 1999.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): I'd say no. Look I know that at that time MJ was still the best player in the league and there really wasn't anyone yet ready to take the crown from him but I think the team would've self-destructed.
All the drama and off-court issues they had going on they were able to put it behind them for that last championship run but for a fourth straight would've been near impossible.
The one thing they had going for them was the season was going to be shortened and the East was still relatively weak, but the Spurs would've been too much for them to handle if they were able to find a way back to the Finals.
By that time, David Robinson had already realized what the team had in Tim Duncan and gave way to him becoming the team's go-to player. And while Rodman had success guarding Shawn Kemp and Karl Malone in the Finals they Bulls never had to deal with a tough center in those series. If Rodman had foul trouble or needed a break, the Bulls could switch him onto someone, and he'd be guarding Greg Ostertag, Adam Keefe, Antonie Carr or Frank Brichkowski. With the Spurs, if Duncan was abusing Rodman, the next option would be to put him on Robinson.
The Spurs did allow Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston to put up big numbers in the Finals so you'd have to think MJ and Pippen could've gotten their fair share of buckets easily against the Spurs perimeter guys but Greg Popovich would've made some adjustments and had his team well prepared for battle. It would've been the best coaching matchup Phil Jackson had seen since Chuck Daly and the Pistons. I'm leaning on the Spurs to pull it out in '99 even with Jordan and the Bulls still intact.
Alex Novick (@Anov_SN): I'm saying yes, and won't even use the easy reasoning of 'you can't bet against MJ'.
First of all, this team would have breezed through the East. Let's remember that the 8th-seeded Knicks reached the Finals that year with an underwhelming roster led by Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston and a hobbled Larry Johnson. Those Knicks upset the top-seeded Miami Heat in the first round, who would've been light work for Chicago thanks to an aging and ineffective Tim Hardaway.
The No. 2 seed in the East that year was the Pacers, who took the Bulls to seven games in the Conference Finals the year before. Indiana would likely have given Chicago a tough series in '99, but Reggie and company couldn't even knock off those underdog Knicks in the actual Conference Finals, so you're not convincing me they're taking down the reigning champs.
The No. 3 seed in the East in '99 was the Magic, led by a shell of what was once Penny Hardaway. Orlando's second and third-leading scorers that year were Nick Anderson and Darell Armstrong. How that team managed to secure a three-way tie with Miami and Indiana for the conference's best regular-season record is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the '90s.
Before we move on to the Spurs, let the record show that MJ and Scottie were still very much up to task.
Jordan was coming off a season in which he played all 82 games, won the scoring title, MVP and averaged over 32 points per game in the playoffs. Safe to say he was good to go for another ring quest.
While Pippen had already dipped a notch at age-33, he still had plenty left in the tank. He played well for the Rockets in 1998-99 and while he shot poorly in their first-round playoff exit, still managed to drop 18.3 points. 11.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the series. He continued on to have four strong, all-around seasons with the Blazers and each year stepped up his production when the playoffs rolled around.
Even if Jordan and Pippen began to show their age, Toni Kukoc was primed to effectively handle a larger role coming off a strong '98 postseason and Finals. He did just that with the real-life edition of the1998-99 Bulls, averaging a Pippen-like 18.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists. That production would've served nicely if these theoretical Bulls wanted to put Scottie and MJ through a load-management regimen throughout the regular season, keeping them fresh for the title defense.
So once this team reached the Finals, would they have been able to handle the Twin Towers?
Sure, San Antonio had won 30 of 34 games heading into the '99 Finals and was the league's best team defensively. But let's remember this is only Tim Duncan's second season and David Robinson was not the same dominant player at age 33.
Aside from those Hall of Famers, a quartet of Avery Johnson, Mario Ellie, Sean Elliott and Jaren Jackson Sr were all on the wrong side of 30 and not exactly striking fear into anyone. This was a middle-of-the-road offensive team that lacked a reliable third scoring option. Over nine games in the '99 Western Conference Finals and Finals, San Antonio reached the 90-point plateau only twice.
To get an idea of how Jordan and Pippen would have fared in a hypothetical championship series, all you need to look at is how Sprewell and Houston combined to average almost 48 points per contest in the actual '99 Finals. Those Knicks hung tough in each game of that series, winning Game 3 and losing by one point in a series-clinching Game 5. These Spurs were very beatable.
So give me the 3-time defending champs to successfully complete their four-peat, partially thanks to what might've been the easiest road to a ring throughout the entire Bulls entire dynasty.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.