Contrary to popular belief, the NBA did, in fact, go on after Michael Jordan’s first retirement in 1993. Nearly two full seasons were played without him, and both of them crowned champions that weren’t the Bulls. History may remember the decade belonging entirely to Chicago, but a mini-dynasty was born immediately after their decline as the Houston Rockets snagged back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995.
Jordan and the Bulls reclaimed the title in 1996 and held it until his second retirement in 1998, leading his most ardent fans to write off Houston’s two championships as nothing more than placeholders. The court of public opinion has since treated them as historical footnotes. Unlike many of the Western Conference’s best players during that era, they never had a chance to prove themselves in a head-to-head Finals matchup with His Airness himself, and without such public validation, they are subjected to more asterisk talk than any other championship in NBA history.
But imagine that Jordan didn’t retire in 1993. How might a matchup between his Bulls and Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets played out? Let’s dive into the greatest series we never got to see.
Who were the mid-90s Rockets, and why didn’t they ever face the Bulls in the Finals?
Largely forgotten now, the Rockets of the mid-1990s were offensive innovators. Early adopters of the long-ball craze that has since swept across basketball, Houston led the NBA in 3-point attempts in both of their championship seasons. Robert Horry was one of the NBA’s first stretch-fours, guards Vernon Maxwell, Mario Elie and Kenny Smith fired away with impunity, and for their second championship run they even managed to bring Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler in on the fun.
But the sun around which all of this revolved, though, was Olajuwon. One of the greatest defensive players ever and practically inarguably history’s most skilled post player, the attention Hakeem drew generated the 3-pointers those Rockets loved so much. Even despite the great lengths defenses went to contain him, Olajuwon posted two of the greatest playoff runs in NBA history en route to his two titles. He averaged just under 29 points and 11 rebounds during the 1994 postseason, and then upped his scoring all the way to 33 points per game in the 1995 playoffs. Those numbers dwarf those of any Jordan Finals opponent. The highest playoff scorer he faced in reality was Charles Barkley in 1993, who put up 26.6 points per game in that postseason.
For those two magical playoff runs, Olajuwon was completely and utterly unstoppable. He just didn’t have the team around him to reach the Finals during Jordan’s first three-peat. His relationship with management grew so poor that he demanded a trade in 1992. The Rockets finally got their house in order by 1994, but by then, Jordan was in Birmingham, Alabama playing minor-league baseball.
But, as Olajuwon is quick to remind people, Jordan was back in time for the 1995 postseason. He lost to Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic in the second round, a team the Rockets went on to sweep. Jordan defenders frequently point to his reshaped baseball body as the primary reason for that, but there just isn’t much statistical evidence suggesting that theory’s validity.
Jordan averaged 31.5 points per game in the 1995 playoffs, more than he did in three of his six championship postseasons including the two that immediately followed this one. He also had a higher field goal percentage (48.4 percent) and effective field goal percentage (50.6) than he did in any of the championships runs from his second three-peat. While Jordan’s regular-season numbers in 1995 saw a meaningful decline from their norms, his playoff numbers didn’t. So if Jordan’s baseball sojourn wasn’t to blame here, what was?
The natural decay of a champion. Dynasties tend to die organic deaths. After a certain number of years together, rosters age, the grind of winning year after year takes its toll and players begin to prioritize other things. O’Neal and Kobe Bryant won their first ring in 2000 and split in 2004. LeBron James‘ Miami Heat lasted four seasons; Kevin Durant’s Warriors, only three. Whether Jordan’s Bulls would have met the same fate had he not retired in 1993 is unknowable, but no less an authority on dynasties than Steve Kerr, a member of those Bulls and coach of the Warriors, certainly thinks they would have.
“Sometimes people say to me, ‘If Michael had stayed, you guys would’ve won eight in a row.’ That’s the most preposterous thing I have ever heard. People have no idea how emotionally draining it is for a team to keep winning,” Kerr told David Aldridge and Michael Lee of the Athletic.
At the very least, it’s hardly a coincidence that both Chicago breakups came after their third consecutive championship. Besides Bill Russell’s Celtics, no NBA team has ever won four in a row.
Chicago’s roster in that Orlando series was not equipped for championship-level competition. Virtually the entire Bulls’ championship frontcourt was gone by that point, as Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright and Stacey King were playing for other teams by the time Jordan returned. Dennis Rodman, a staple from the second three-peat, hadn’t yet been acquired, and others such as Kerr, Ron Harper and Luc Longley were still adjusting to the triangle and Jordan’s presence. Not even Jerry Krause could rebuild a dynasty-caliber roster overnight, and not even Jordan is immune to his own teammates.
The Bulls eventually did make it back to the top, but the timing simply didn’t work out. Houston lost to Seattle in the 1996 postseason, and then sacrificed its 3-point shooting identity in swapping Horry and Sam Cassell for Charles Barkley. The Rockets haven’t been back to the Finals since. It’s a shame, too, because Olajuwon played Jordan as well as any star in the NBA.
How the Bulls and Rockets matched up
Very few players got the better of Michael Jordan head-to-head during his illustrious career. Hakeem Olajuwon is one of them. The two faced off 23 times in the NBA, and Olajuwon won 13 of them. Distill that down only to the years in which Chicago won championships, and Olajuwon still holds a 6-5 advantage.
A quick glance at Chicago’s rosters explains why. The Bulls were decidedly perimeter-oriented during the six championship runs. They were so lacking at center that their only remotely effective method of defending Olajuwon was throwing double teams at him. Even that hardly worked, as Hakeem so readily passed out of those doubles to one of his many shooters or cutters.
Wide-open 3-pointers are hardly a desirable outcome against a team that shot as well as Houston did, but the Bulls didn’t have a choice. Just look at what Olajuwon did to poor Luc Longley when given rare one-on-one opportunities.
Longley was too slow for Hakeem. So was Bill Cartwright, and though he wasn’t yet on the roster, it’s worth noting that Rodman struggled against him too. Olajuwon averaged 25.9 points per game against The Worm. The two met in the playoffs once, during the 1995 Western Conference finals, and Olajuwon absolutely roasted not only Rodman, but David Robinson, the MVP at the time, to the tune of 35.9 points per game. The Bulls had no real answer for Hakeem.
This is a sentiment even Jordan seemingly agreed with. Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich told Michael Lee of The Athletic that Jordan had immense respect for the Rockets.
“He gave our team great respect,” Tomjanovich said. “He didn’t feel that they could contain Hakeem [Olajuwon]. They just didn’t have the personnel to do it. And he said he thought we were the team that gave them the most trouble.”
This isn’t to suggest that the Rockets had some sort of magic key to locking down Jordan. He averaged almost 31 points in his 23 matchups with Olajuwon, after all, but Houston lived by a set of defensive principles that served it well against Jordan. While different games featured slight wrinkles, the Rockets generally eschewed overcommitting to Jordan, instead favoring basic, conservative tactics. For the most part, they allowed their solid but unspectacular defenders (Maxwell, Drexler, Eldridge Recasner) to guard him one-on-one.
When Jordan used screens, either on or off of the ball, the Rockets tended to drop the screener’s defender back in an effort to protect the rim. That is pick-and-roll defense 101.
When Jordan did see doubles, they tended to come late, when there was less risk of Jordan passing out of it (though, given his underrated playmaking ability, he still managed to do so).
Jordan got his points, but the strategy was grounded in Houston’s faith in shooting. Doubling Jordan would have created an abundance of open looks for his teammates. As a team that won games based on the open shots Hakeem generated out of doubles, the Rockets recognized the danger in allowing similar looks to an opponent. So they stayed home on Chicago’s shooters and trusted that even if Jordan beat his man, he’d run into Olajuwon at the rim.
The results were mixed, but leaned positive. Jordan’s numbers against Houston were largely in line with his typical totals. Chicago averaged 97.9 points per game against the Rockets in games Olajuwon played during their six championship seasons, well below their 105-point average during that period as a whole. The Bulls shot 37.5 percent from behind the arc, but those numbers were buoyed by a two-game stretch in which the Bulls shot 23 of 49 on 3s. Both games came after the league’s 1994 decision to shorten the 3-point line. For three seasons from 1994 through 1997, the 3-point line was a uniform 22 feet from the basket, which is the typical length from the corners only. In their other nine matchups with the Rockets in that span, they fell to 33 percent.
These are small sample sizes, and the shortened 3-point line cuts both ways. Strategically speaking, it is rare for a team not to make schematic changes during the NBA Finals, so in all likelihood, Phil Jackson and Tomjanovich would have thrown different looks at one another throughout a potential series. But based on the basketball we did see, Houston acquitted itself quite well against Jordan. It had a strategy that largely achieved the desired effect and a mismatch Chicago had no answer for. When you factor in the caliber of Bulls team Houston would likely have faced, they very easily could have been favored in a potential Finals series.
The Butterfly Effect
Jordan’s retirement, in many ways, enabled the rebuilding of the Bulls. Ron Harper signed with Chicago specifically to fill in for Jordan as their new starting shooting guard. He may not have joined the Bulls for a bench role. Reserve Judd Buechler also signed while Jordan was retired, and his minutes summarily declined each season upon his return. Jordan’s absence opened up touches and shots for Toni Kukoc’s development, who already had to compete with Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong for the ball.
And those are just the tangible impacts of his absence. The Bulls without Jordan still had plenty of drama to contend with. Pippen remained, and his relationship with management . Horace Grant feuded with the front office as well, and owner Jerry Reinsdorf blasted him to the media after he left for Orlando in 1994. A number of his teammates revealed in “The Last Dance” that they believe his desire for credit and stardom compelled him to reveal inside information to journalist Sam Smith for his book, The Jordan Rules. The stress of competing for a fourth straight championship could easily have exacerbated those preexisting issues. Jordan himself has spoken openly about the stress of his third championship run. A fourth might have been the breaking point.
Pat Riley coined the term “disease of more” to describe the phenomenon of championship teams splintering over roles, money and credit. It happened to Kobe and Shaq. It happened to Durant and Draymond Green. The Bulls would have been confronted by it in 1994. No one can say how they would have handled it, but if nothing else, it seems reasonable to suggest that championship No. 4 would have proven harder, internally, than the first three.
In other words, evaluating this matchup is not as simple as lining up two rosters. The Bulls at that point were playing with the weight of history on their shoulders. That is a major disadvantage, and it was one that likely would have hurt them from a talent standpoint as well.
A 1994 Finals matchup between the Bulls and Rockets would appear to be a toss-up largely because measuring the impact Jordan would have on that roster involves too many variables. Both Grant and Armstrong made their first All-Star teams in 1994 largely thanks to the expanded offensive roles Jordan’s absence afforded them. Would they have played as well with him? Probably not, but it’s impossible to say for certain.
Chicago was visibly declining by its third championship run. The Bulls won only 57 games during the 1992-93 season, a 10-win drop from their 67-win campaign a year earlier. Their net rating declined significantly as well, and it was their first championship season without having the NBA’s No. 1 offense. The Bulls won 55 games without Jordan a year later, but his retirement recalibrated the team completely. There are valid arguments for further decline or a revitalization.
Houston may have won the championship in 1994, but its vision was not fully realized by that point. The non-shooting Otis Thorpe was still in the starting lineup, and Drexler hadn’t yet been acquired. The second-leading scorer for the Rockets in the 1994 Finals, Maxwell, averaged only 13.4 points per game. That lack of firepower would have been problematic against the Bulls. Even with the exhaustion of three straight titles wearing them down, they’d likely enter this series as championship favorites.
Were the two to play in 1995, though, Houston would be heavily favored. Had Chicago’s dynasty followed a typical trajectory, this would have been the likeliest moment for its demise.
Olajuwon in 1995 was not only better than any player Jordan ever faced in the Finals, but had one of the greatest playoff runs in NBA history, including Jordan. He scored 725 total points in the 1995 postseason, trailing only Kawhi Leonard in 2019, LeBron James in 2018 and Jordan in 1992, and he played fewer games than Leonard and James did. Chicago had nobody capable of defending him.
Drexler pushed Jordan to six games in the 1992 NBA Finals only three years earlier. His addition gave Olajuwon the sidekick he lacked in 1994, and it also realigned Houston’s starting lineup in a very meaningful way. The Rockets played three guards and moved Horry to power forward full time, fully taking advantage of the 3-point line that the NBA shortened for that very season. Chicago, which took the 16th-most 3-point attempts in the NBA that season, didn’t utilize the long-ball nearly as effectively. With no Harper in this scenario, likely no Grant and a less empowered Kukoc, Jordan simply wouldn’t have the manpower to stand up to this Houston roster. Had the Bulls made it past Orlando and reached the 1995 Finals, they would have lost to the Rockets, potentially badly.
What happens after that is up for speculation. Without knowing whether or not they would have been able to acquire Rodman, or how they would have replicated Harper’s production, or even how the team would have gotten along without the year-and-a-half-long break they got from Jordan’s maniacal competitiveness, it’s ultimately impossible to project how many championships they would have won in total. Heck, the Bulls even managed to make it through six Finals runs largely unblemished from an injury perspective. Would Jordan have stayed healthy eight trips in a row? Would his teammates?
In the end, Kerr said it best. Eight straight championships would have been impossible. No post-merger franchise has ever been equipped to handle the inevitable attrition of sustained winning for that long. Jordan’s retirement gave the Bulls time to rejuvenate and retool for their next three championship runs. In that sense, it may have even been a blessing. In the end, Jordan may have matched his ring total even without it, but his unblemished Finals record simply would not have held up in the face of Olajuwon’s overwhelming 1995 dominance.