The Last Dance Report: The Beautiful Marriage of the Bulls and the Triangle

Just like MJ did in Laney High and Scottie did in Hamburg High, the SLAM PH Team will be doing a “Book Report” on each week’s drop of The Last Dance. Here’s the report on episodes 3 and 4.

The basic belief has always been: You can’t win basketball games without having the best player in the league. From Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, basketball has constantly found a way of highlighting unique, yet dominant individuals. Basketball has always been a game of stars. During the late-80s, Chicago Bulls head coach Doug Collins had the biggest one yet.

Michael Jordan was fresh off a historical 1987-88 season. He finished that year winning Regular Season and All-Star Game MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year, and Slam Dunk Champion. He was a guard who dominated a game that’s long been ruled by giants. This proved what Collins belived: stars win you games.

Collins installed a system that was simple yet understandable. He made Jordan the focal point of the team, putting the ball in his hands and allowing him to control overall production. On paper, it was working because the Bulls were on an upward trend then. But Assistant Coach Tex Winter believed this way of playing had its limits.

“There’s a way of playing this game that’s different than that,” said Winter to Collins. Collins wasn’t having any of it. But Jerry Krause, was willing to gamble and try something new by hiring Coach Phil Jackson even if the Bulls were reaching new heights with Collins.

Photo from the NBA

The story of episodes 3 and 4 of The Last Dance start and end with what Jackson and Winter introduced to the Chicago Bulls during the 1988-89 season. Enter the Triangle Offense, a philosophy that not only changed the relationship of the Bulls on the court, but even off it.

The principles of the offense were simple, but executing it was a whole other story. Its action would often start with a pass to the high post and 33 possibilities would open-up because of that one pass. It’s a system that required players to not only be smart, but also responsible.

“Players can do spontaneous, creative things using their strengths,” said Jackson on the system. And at the core of it all was that spontaneity and creativity which made the Bulls the legends that they’re revered as today.

When you talk about the Bulls, you will always mention Michael Jordan. But the episodes this week highlighted a player who’s remembered, but also underrated by many pundits today. Enter Dennis Rodman, who not only brought the hustle of the Bulls, but also perfectly represented the beauty of the Triangle on and off the court.

Rodman was a character, even during his days with the Detroit Pistons. The tendency of coaches is to try and control players like him to fit their system. Former Pistons Assistant Coach Brendan Malone tried to work out the kinks of his game, but head coach Chuck Daly told him otherwise.

“Just leave him alone,” said Daly. “You don’t put a saddle on a Mustang.”

To Daly’s credit, it worked out fine for the Pistons at first. The Pistons won back-to-back championships, even with the quirks of Rodman’s game. In fact, Daly’s coaching allowed Rodman to solidify himself as one of the league’s best defensive players. Allowing the Mustang to drive fast was paying off.

However, there reaches a point when you need to learn to control working the engine of your sports car, no matter how powerful this is. That’s what Rodman struggled with after his championship years with the Pistons. From being an excellent and unique basketball player, he was suddenly branded as the most controversial player of the NBA. Teams would have been foolish to try and add him to their rosters.

Photo from the NBA

Sometimes, risk can breed success. Assistant General Manager of the Bulls Jim Stack saw something in Rodman and pushed Krause to scoop him up in free agency. It was a gamble. But if there was a team capable of successfully playing their cards right with such a move, it was Chicago.

“I just felt like the structure that we had with Michael, and Scottie (Pippen), and the leadership,” said Stack, “Dennis would respect those guys, and play, and thrive.”

“Hey, he can help us win. We all know how tough he is,” said Jordan. He and Pippen were vital in the transition of Rodman to his new team. But they wouldn’t have been the leaders they were before the 1995-96 season without Phil Jackson.

At the core of Coach Jackson’s philosophy was the Triangle. This was a system meant to highlight the strengths of each individual and Pippen was one of its immediate beneficiaries. “The triangle offense allowed me to be more of what I wanted to be,” said Pippen. With the ball out of MJ’s hands, Scottie was transformed into a Point Forward position a unique postion back then. He acted as a playmaker, his natural position out of College, while still having the athleticism and strength to play as a small forward.

The transformation would not have been possible without the cooperation of Jordan. MJ has been branded as selfish because of how ball-dominant he was. But with the help of Jackson, His Airness learned to trust his teammates by pushing them to be better as individuals. It required not only humility from Michael, but also acceptance. He needed to accept he wasn’t the only valuable player in this team. There were four other guys he’d be inside the court with and he needed to learn how to creatively cultivate their strengths.

It paid off. By trusting not just Pippen, but also players like Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, and John Paxson, Jordan had finally won the championship that catapulted him with the likes of Bird and Johnson. Jackson and Winter’s philosophy resulted in a championship. The Triangle had successfully conquered the pride of Jordan. But little did they know it would be facing an even bigger challenge a few years later.

Photo from Andrew Bernstein

“Dennis was bizarre,” said Steve Kerr. That was something a legendary pop star helped instill in Rodman a few years before he joined with the Bulls. “You have to establish who you want to be in this life. Don’t be who they tell you should be,” said Madonna.

Rodman embraced his quirky personality with insane haircuts, colorful dress choices, and a lifestyle that would even tire out hormone-filled teenagers. He was a character. But for the Bulls, and their philosophy of accepting the individuality of their players, they were willing to bring him in to their culture.

“If he could do his job, then we’re going to love him,” said Pippen. “Play basketball and win.”

Adjusting to Rodman did not come with its challenges. Aside from the excessive drinking, partying, and appearances in wrestling shows, Rodman had some special needs, such as a break in the middle of a potential three-peat run.

Jordan was flabbergasted at the idea. But Jackson, being the Zen Master that he is, accepted the proposal of his forward.

Even though that story ended with Jordan needing to drag Rodman out of his hotel room in Las Vegas back to Chicago, it was well worth it. The Bulls are now remembered as one of the greatest teams of all time and that would not have been possible with the quirks of Rodman.

“I think what made it work was Phil and Michael’s understanding that to get the most out of him on the court, you had to give him some rope,” said Kerr. Even if that rope meant allowing him to party with Carmen Electra or drinking Kamikaze in the middle of weight training. It was who Dennis was. As long as it led to winning basketball, it was fine with them.

Basketball is a game that has evolved rapidly throughout the years. From a intense focus on individuals, the sport has transformed into something that puts the spotlight on special groups. That’s what the Triangle did for the Bulls. It showcased not just an amazing main character in Jordan, but other important pieces such as Pippen, Rodman, and Jackson. The Last Dance reminded us of an idea, through a legendary system in the Triangle, that remains true to this day:

“Players can do spontaneous, creative things using their strengths.” It doesn’t matter if their strengths are quirky, as long as it’s who they really are.

The Last Dance Report

Episode 1 & 2: Turbulence in the Air

Episode 5 & 6: The Difference Between Being like Mike and Being Mike

Episode 7 & 8: The Trials of a Mortal Man

Episode 9 & 10: The Bulls were the brightest star of the 90s