The knock on Phil Jackson has long been that he walked in to situations tailor made for championships â€” all he had to do was roll out the balls and stay out of the way. If you really think itâ€™s that easy you should ask Del Harris about it, but thatâ€™s another discussion for another day.
However, there is one season when Jackson coached a team that didnâ€™t have overwhelmingly dominant talent â€” the 93-94 Bulls. Michael Jordan was off flailing at curveballs and the torch had been passed to Scottie Pippen and the rest of the â€œJordanairs.â€ A look at that team will tell us about what Jackson may be able to do with a Laker roster that has talent but some serious deficits that will keep them from games in mid-June until they are fixed.
The 93-94 Bulls team finished 55-27, but I think itâ€™s safe to say that team was a little lucky â€” their Pythagorean win/loss (based on points scored and allowed) was 50-32. Still the team finished that year with the seventh best RPI in the league (for comparison, this past yearâ€™s Lakers were 20th).
As you would expect without Jordan, the Bulls offense struggled â€” they averaged 103 points per 100 possessions, the 15th most efficient team in the league (the league average was 103.3). That is a good step behind last yearâ€™s Lakers, who had a number of good scoring options and averaged 104.6 per 100 possessions, seventh in the league. I think Phil Jackson has to look at pieces such as Kobe and Lamar and know he has a team that can score plenty.
But the other side of the ball is a different story. That 93-94 Bulls team still played defense â€” they gave up 100.2 points per 100, the sixth best defensive team in the league despite losing one of the games all time great one-on-one defenders. Last yearâ€™s Lakers gave up 108 points per 100, 29th in the league (the average was 103.1).
You can make an argument that player-for-player last yearâ€™s Laker team was the more talented of these two, but the Bulls had the more tenacious defenders (and a better system than whatever that was the Lakers were doing last year). The roster moves you see from the Lakers this off-season will be to bring in defenders â€” long guys like you see changing shots in the NBA Finals right now.
The Bulls focal point player was the long Scottie Pippen, who had a 23.1 PER that season â€” very close to the 23.3 PER Kobe had this past season (Scottie had a better shooting percentage, 51.5% to 48.2% [eFG%] but Kobe got to the line more and had more points per shot attempt, 1.13 to 1.09). Pippen was a good defender â€” that season he was second in the league averaging 2.9 steals per game.
After Scottie, the next man on the Bulls totem pole was Horace Grant â€” who averaged not only 21.7 points per 48 minutes (15.1 per game) but also pulled down 17.5% of the rebounds on the floor. Rebounds is one area this Bulls team was far better than the Lakers â€” Pippen was grabbing 13.3% of he rebounds in his extensive minutes, Scott Williamson was coming off the bench an grabbing 16.6% of the available rebounds in his 16 minutes a game. The best Laker last season was Lamar Odom at 15.9, followed by Chris Mihm at 15.1 â€” the team lacked a dominant glass cleaner.
Other Bulls players of note were a rookie Toni Kukoc, who was averaging 21.6 points per 48 minutes and had a PER of 15.4, Steve Kerr was still hanging out at the three point line and there was BJ Armstrong, who poured in 14.8 points per game (but wasnâ€™t terribly efficient in doing so).
That Bulls team made the playoffs and in the first round swept past the franchiseâ€™s favorite patsies â€” Cleveland. Then in the next round it was a seven-game battle with Pat Rileyâ€™s knock-down, alley-fight New York Knicks (who went on to the finals that year). By the way, ask a Bulls fan and they’ll tell you the Knicks didn’t beat them, Hugh Hollins did with his phantom call on Hubert Davis’ three late in game five.
The Eastern Conference of those Bulls was not as deep as the West the Lakers will have to face next year, and 55 wins is a mighty long way up. But better defense and some roster moves to bring in rebounders and defenders will move the Lakers back toward the leagueâ€™s elite. It may take a few years, but a direction to build a team in the mold of the early 90s Bulls (with Kobe in the Jordan role) is what I think weâ€™ll see.
(I could not have done this without the amazing basketball-reference.com site put together by Justin K. Thanks for everything you do.)