No number defines Michael Jordan’s career more than the number six.
Six Finals appearances. Six Finals wins. Six Finals MVPs.
A perfect record in the grandest stage in basketball; a record befitting the greatest player of all time. Many have tried, but no one has succeeded in denying His Airness a title in the Finals. When the Chicago Bulls were on the court come June, they were near-unstoppable.
Not all of these teams were created equal, however. Some of these teams were simply better and pushed the Bulls further that the others. Let’s examine the performances of the six teams the Bulls faced in the Finals and rank them accordingly.
6. 1991 LA Lakers
Your first time isn’t always going to be memorable.
This Lakers team wasn’t by any means a weak team. Magic Johnson, despite being an older superstar and adjusting to the team’s different offensive philosophy, was still a magnificent offensive wizard. His ability to create passing angles out of nothing was matched by no one. His size and added strength made him a matchup nightmare for most guards. Johnson was also surrounded by good pieces such as A.C Green, James Worthy, Vlade Divac and Sam Perkins.
However, there was a distinct lack of depth for this Lakers team. Out of the bench players on the team, only three players posted a BPM of -2.0. This came back to haunt them in the Finals, where they lost the deciding game in part due to the absence of Worthy and Green in that game.
5. 1992 Portland Trail Blazers
The ’92 Blazers were a terrifying team to face.
Out of the six teams that will be mentioned here, they are one of the stingier defensive squads. They held teams to a 47.3% eFG% (40.3% from the field, 30.3% from 3) and forced the most turnovers (18.4) per game. This led to the team having a 104.3 DefRtg, good for third in the league that year.
They also boasted a potent backcourt duo in Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. The Glide was a dynamic scorer and playmaker who was the centerpiece of the Blazers for a long time, earning comparisons to MJ in the process. Perfectly complementing him was Porter, who had the best scoring season of his career in 1992.
Drexler, however, wasn’t quite on the same level as some of the other stars of the other Finals teams that faced the Bulls (such as Karl Malone, John Stockton and Charles Barkley). This, along with the lack of production from other role players in the playoffs and Kevin Duckworth’s abrupt decline from his All-Star season are the biggest factors as to why the Blazers are ranked here.
4. 1998 Utah Jazz
This was a tough call to make.
On one hand, this version of the Jazz team still had John Stockton and Karl Malone, the greatest duo to never win a championship in NBA history. Stockton was a maestro on the court, facilitating for his teammates through his bread-and-butter, the pick-and-roll play. His partner-in-crime, Malone, also happened to be one of the most dominant players of all time. The Mailman’s blend of bullish strength, scoring touch, and a sneaky passing game earned him MVP honors the year prior.
However, this Jazz team is nowhere near its predecessor. Stockton suffered an injury in the regular season that hampered his production. This would carry on in the playoffs, where despite playing less minutes, he shot worse (56.9% from 62.7%).
Malone’s choking issue in the postseason is well-documented amongst the community. This playoff run was no exception. His TS% dropped by 6.3 percentage points while taking three more attempts per game. Malone also fouled a bit more (3.5 from 2.9) and also drew less fouls (39.3% from 59.7%) in the Playoffs compared to the regular season. This affected how he got his points when it came to the Finals.
3. 1996 Seattle Supersonics
If anyone ever needed a reason to bring back a Seattle team to the NBA, this version of the Sonics is a great argument.
Led by the Sonic Boom duo of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, and bolstered by the addition of Hersey Hawkins, they reached the NBA Finals. Payton was the most complete two-way point guard in league history, combining elite defense and playmaking to lead his team. Kemp, on the other hand, was the athletic do-it-all forward who thrived in the controlled chaos of the Sonics offense.
But the Sonics weren’t renowned for their offense; they wreaked havoc on the other side of the ball. Behind Payton’s disruptive lockdown defense, Seattle frustrated their opponents, including the vaunted Bulls offense. Payton was one of the few players who could slow Jordan down consistently. The Sonics also held their opponents to a 47.9 eFG% and 96.7 PPG and forced their opponents to 18.7 turnovers per game, the best in the league that season.
2. 1993 Phoenix Suns
It takes a special type of player to turn a Playoff team into a Finals team in one season.
Charles Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns during the 1992 offseason for a package of multiple players. It immediately worked wonders for the Suns. Behind Sir Charles, Phoenix morphed into an offensive juggernaut, leading the league in OffRtg (113.1) and eFG% (52.1) in 1993. Barkley was smack in the middle of his prime during this season, terrorizing defenders with his unique blend of raw power and agility. Not many people could match Jordan’s dominance, but Barkley was one of the few people who came close. His exploits earned him the league MVP that season over MJ himself.
In the Finals, Barkley and the Suns took an exhausted Bulls squad to their limit, taking a TRIPLE-overtime win against them. They never lost by double digits for the whole series. The only thing hindering this team for taking the top spot is the cohesive talent that the next team has.
1. 1997 Utah Jazz
If there was any team that could’ve toppled the peak Chicago Bulls, it’s probably the ’97 Jazz squad.
This team is a souped-up and more productive version of the ’98 Jazz featured earlier. It’s essentially the same team – a well-oiled machine built around the lethal Stockton-Malone tag team – but with one key difference: Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek was the secondary playmaker and spot-up threat for Utah. In this season, he posted an average of 14.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists on roughly 60% TS%.
They were also a much better defensive team than the ’98 Jazz. They did a good job in closing out, defending shots and forcing turnovers. They ranked sixth in Opponents’ TS% (48.0%), 9th in Opponents’ Turnovers (16.2) and eighth in Opponents’ PPG (94.3).
Simply put, this team was damn good, and it’s a damn shame they ran into the prime of the greatest team of all time.
PER – Player Efficiency Rating. A catch-all metric that measures a player’s on-court contributions. League average is 15.00
BPM – Box Plus-Minus. An estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributes while he’s on the court. -2.0 is the replacement-level or league average.
__% – [Stat]%. The percentage of any stat a player accumulates on his time on the court.
eFG% – Effective Field Goal Percentage. A field goal % stat that takes into account that a three-pointer is more than a two-pointer.
TS% – True Shooting Percentage. Combines FG%, 3PTFG%, and FT% into one handy statistic.
OffRtg/DefRtg – The estimate of the points scored/allowed by a team per 100 possessions.
All stats are from Basketball Reference