Could the Bulls have won a seventh title? Here's what the numbers say.
The final episode of "The Last Dance" had an unhappy ending, at least from Michael Jordan's perspective.
Jordan talked about wanting a next dance. He wished the championship Bulls had kept going and tried to win a seventh title in 1998-99.
At the same time, we got Jerry Reinsdorf saying in the documentary it would have been "suicidal" to re-sign the team's aging core to market-value contracts.
Jerry Krause, in his unpublished memoirs shared by NBC Sports Chicago, wrote, "Did we break up a dynasty or was the dynasty breaking up of age, natural attrition of NBA players with little time to recuperate and the salary-cap rules that govern the game? Put yourself in our shoes. ... What would you do?"
Former Bulls assistant general manager Jim Stack told the Daily Herald's Barry Rozner that it was Phil Jackson who walked away from the chance to run it back.
This is a complicated issue, but let's at least check the numbers, the salaries, the rosters. Would it have been possible to bring back the championship Bulls in 1998-99?
First of all, we need to assume Jordan would have been more careful around cigar cutters during the offseason. Secondly, the idea that the Bulls couldn't have possibly given Scottie Pippen a long-term contract is complete garbage. It's an insult to every viewer's intelligence.
What actually happened was the Bulls pulled off a sign-and-trade with Houston, giving Pippen a five-year, $77-million contract. Pippen made $11 million in 1998-99.
The NBA salary cap was $30 million that season. It's currently $109 million, which is why '99 Pippen made only slightly more than Cristiano Felicio did this year. But that's beside the point.
Pippen clashed with Charles Barkley in Houston, so the Rockets threw up their hands, realized they were stuck with this large contract and had no possible recourse.
Not really. Actually, the Rockets traded Pippen to Portland, which is exactly what the Bulls could have done if they didn't want to keep him when Jordan finally retired.
Another issue was center Luc Longley, a free agent after the '98 season. Krause wrote that the Bulls recognized Longley had ankle issues and the team didn't think he would play much longer. And they were right. Longley retired three years later, with two years left on the five-year deal he signed with Phoenix.
In this case, the correct move would have been to do the same sign-and-trade with the Suns. In return for Longley, the Bulls got Mark Bryant, Martin Muursepp, Bubba Wells and the first-round draft pick they used to select Ron Artest.
So who would have played center? Well, in the '99 season, Bryant averaged 9.0 points and 5.2 rebounds. Dickey Simpkins averaged 9.1 points and 6.8 rebounds. In comparison, Longley was at 8.7 points and 5.7 boards in Phoenix.
Could the Bulls have survived a playoff series against Miami's Alonzo Mourning or San Antonio's Tim Duncan and David Robinson with a center corps of Simpkins, Bryant, Bill Wennington and maybe Joe Kleine? Good question, but throughout the second championship run, Longley rarely played in the fourth quarter anyway. The Bulls always leaned on their perimeter advantage.
What about Dennis Rodman? He made $4.5 million in 1997-98 and almost certainly would have re-signed on a one-year deal. Rodman ended up playing 23 games for the Lakers in '99, 12 games for Dallas the following season and was done.
Would he have fared better by sticking with the Bulls? He played in 80 games and averaged a league-best 15.0 rebounds in 1997-98, so you'd think so, if he kept playing with Jordan and Pippen.
Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler and Scott Burrell left as free agents, but none of them struck it rich by NBA standards. Kerr made $1.8 million in San Antonio, Burrell $1.0 million in New Jersey and Buechler $850,000 in Detroit. The Bulls could have easily matched those salaries.
The players still under contract for '99 were Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, Randy Brown, Keith Booth, Rusty LaRue, Wennington and Simpkins. History has shown Kukoc was capable of picking up more of the scoring load.
The Bulls could have brought everyone back, minus Longley, for $38.04 million, plus whatever Jordan made. He got $33.14 million in 1997-98 and was worth every penny.
The only long-term deal on the books was Pippen's, which was very tradable. So it's ridiculous to say it was bad business for the Bulls to bring everyone back.
Of course, at the time Krause thought he could quickly turn the Bulls back into a title contender. In hindsight, we can say it was bad business to rebuild. The Bulls won 13, 17 and 15 games during the next three seasons and didn't return to the playoffs until 2005. They became an NBA punchline. But the United Center stayed full for most of the time, so maybe it was good business.
What if Jackson refused to return under any circumstances? Well, the Bulls could have promoted Frank Hamblen or Jimmy Rodgers to the head job, or essentially whomever Jordan wanted.
Tim Floyd was obviously the wrong choice, and he joined the Bulls under rough circumstances. Before outmaneuvering the Bulls in free-agency, Orlando made a smart move by hiring Chicago native Doc Rivers as head coach. Imagine if Krause had followed a Proviso East path by drafting Michael Finley in '95 and hiring Rivers in '99.
Really, though, the one person who could have kept it going was Jordan. If he got behind the idea of running it back in 1998-99, all of this could have happened. He could have spoken to Reinsdorf, Jackson, his teammates, made his desire public.
Why didn't he? Probably because he was ready to end it in '98, but now 22 years later realizes how special it all was.
It happens to all of us.