The Chicago Bulls and the Fleeting Mirage of Greatness
Michael Jordan led the Bulls to greatness, but he has also made them look like something that they never were and have not been since he left: a winning organization
If you asked a random basketball fan on the street to name the 3 most successful franchises in NBA history, what would their response be? Chances are they might mention the Lakers and Celtics immediately. But what would the third team be? Would it be the Spurs with their long-running dynasty and history of playoff appearances, or maybe even the Warriors when accounting for the Stephen Curry era in addition to the very fun Run TMC era as well? Or perhaps, they would mention the Chicago Bulls. After all, they won six titles in the 90s! They had Michael Jordan, the greatest shooting guard (and perhaps overall player) of all time, and had a mastermind of a coach in Phil Jackson. Surely, this is a team that we could all associate with winning.
There is a phrase that former president Barack Obama used at a campaign event where he said “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig”. The expression means you can dress something up all you want, but doing that doesn’t change what it is. For the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan was that lipstick. The Bulls are often regarded as a bit of a sleeping giant and a good organization, but in reality, they are simply a mediocre franchise that plays in the third largest media market in North America living off of the accolades of one the most extraordinary athletes we have ever seen.
The Dominance of Air Jordan
Michael Jordan often gets applauded for his greatness. We think of his 6 titles, but also how he was the Finals MVP of all of those series, and how he was league MVP 5 times, and scoring champion 10 times. But beyond that, there is a history of success that is just incredible to consider. In his 12 seasons with the team, they had 9 seasons with a winning record (one of the subpar seasons was due to Jordan missing time with injury and only playing in 18 games). In every one of those seasons, the team made the playoffs. They lost in the first round three times, in the conference semifinals once, and in the Eastern Conference finals before winning six titles in a row.
All told, the six titles won in those 12 years by Jordan’s Bulls are more than all but three franchises (Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Golden State Warriors). Jordan’s teams accounted for 114 playoff wins, which is more than the playoff win total for 12 franchises in the league. Jordan’s teams had a playoff winning percentage of 65.85%, which on its own is better than any other team's percentage ever.
It is numbers like these that many Jordan fans use to validate his spot as the greatest player of all time. His sustained greatness for that period is likely one of the most dominant things we’ve ever seen. In his documentary, The Last Dance, a Jordan quote was highlighted when he was drafted. He said:
“I just want the franchise and the Chicago Bulls to be respected as a team like the Lakers or the Philadelphia 76ers or the Boston Celtics”
Jordan indeed accomplished what he said and then some. Through his greatness, the Bulls were uttered in the same breath as the Lakers and Celtics, and have far surpassed the Sixers in the eyes of many basketball fans. And luckily for the Bulls franchise, he gave them a legitimacy that they are still living off of today.
Not So Incredi-Bull
In their first 9 years of existence, the Bulls were a perennial playoff team that was led by Bob Love and Chet Walker. In those 9 years, they made the playoffs 8 times and made it to the conference finals in two of those years. The team's 19 playoff wins in that stretch account for a quarter of the franchise's playoff win totals in the non-Jordan years. 6 of those playoff appearances were first-round exits, which were known as the semifinals in those days. On top of that, they finished with 4 losing records in that stretch, so mediocrity was already shaping up to be the norm in the Windy City.
The following nine years (1976-1984) were marked by ineptitude. The team made the playoffs twice with 7 seasons of losing records. In that stretch, the team went 303-425, good for a winning percentage of 41%. The team was simply middling and not remarkable in any sense of the word. They desperately needed an injection of star power and got it in the way of Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft. Jordan then proceeded to lead them on a run of unprecedented success that led them to be a worldwide brand.
After he left for the second time, following the 1998 season, the Bulls returned to being a laughing stock. Rebuilding with young players like Elton Brand and Ron Mercer, the Bulls went on 6 years of winning 30 games or less per year. Then in 11 years under coaches Scott Skiles, VinnyDel Negro, and Tom Thibodeau the Bulls seemed to have a resurgence. A sleeping giant that was awoken to rise from the ashes of Jordan’s departure. In those 11 years, the Bulls made the playoffs 10 times, but only reached a conference final once, and never reached an NBA Finals.
In the years since the team has been toiling in mediocrity. They have only made the playoffs twice since 2016 (both first-round exits), and have never finished higher than 6th in the Eastern Conference standings. The Bulls often look to make a splash in free agency and the trade market these days but often seem to come up short. They traded for Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic and it has yielded little to no success. They signed DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso in free agency and that hasn’t helped either. The team famously overpaid for a defensive stopper in Ben Wallace that was towards the end of his prime, a 30-year-old Rajon Rondo that was well past his championship-winning days in Boston, and a homecoming for native son Dwyane Wade after he had lost a step.
The team continues to operate in a space where they are not rebuilding but also not contending. They are a team that is the definition of NBA purgatory. And for years they have been looking for the player that will take them back to the promised land. We have seen countless players come through Chicago with the idea of restoring them to greatness when the reality has become that their greatness was derived from Michael Jordan.
The Mirage in the Windy City
The numbers tell the true story when it comes to the Bulls with and without Michael Jordan. As you can see below, it is a tale of two different franchises, one that is elite and one that struggles to find its footing.
With other great franchises, there are multiple eras that we can reference to define their greatness. With the Celtics, it was the Bill Russell era then the Larry Bird era, and finally the Paul Pierce era. With the Lakers, it was the days of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, followed by the Showtime Lakers of Kareem and Magic, and finally the Kobe and Shaq era. Even the Warriors, a team that seems to be defined by the Splash Brothers of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, also had the Rick Barry-led 1975 championship team and the statistical mythology of a young Wilt Chamberlain. Even the Philadelphia 76ers that Jordan mentioned in his documentary, had the 1967 championship with Wilt Chamberlain, the 1983 juggernaut with Moses Malone, Julius Erving, and Maurice Cheeks, and then had the feel-good Allen Iverson era. What have the Bulls had?
Before Michael Jordan arrived the Bulls were known as a “cocaine circus”, a listless club in the dregs of the NBA. After Jordan, they have had the Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler era that yielded 4 playoff series wins in a decade. And now they are a middling team without much of a sense of direction. In short, the entire mythology of the Chicago Bulls as an elite NBA organization is built off of the man who has a statue in the United Center.
The legacy of Michael Jordan as a player is unmatched by nearly everyone that is not named LeBron James. But perhaps part of his legacy should be the fact that he turned a franchise like the Chicago Bulls, one that has been unable to get out of its way for decades into the pantheon of the greats. The Chicago Bulls' entire reputation has been built off of what Michael Jordan did. There is no debate for the greatest Bull because there was only ever one truly great Bull. The same cannot be said about the Lakers, Celtics, Warriors, or 76ers. So the next time we wonder why Chicago can’t seem to figure it out it would be good to remember that they were never able to figure it out until they were gifted with one of the best players to ever pick up a basketball.