Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls enjoyed immense success during the 1990s. They reached the Finals six times during the decade and came away with six NBA titles — including two separate three-peats — becoming arguably one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history in the process.
Though the Bulls‘ success was great for the city of Chicago, it came at the expense of other teams from across the league’s landscape, as the Bulls blocked a plethora of great teams from hoisting the title trophy during their six championship seasons. Some of those teams had an opportunity to earn a ring before, or after, the Bulls’ epic run, while others didn’t. With that said, here’s a look at the top 10 teams that the Bulls bested in the postseason during their six championship seasons.
10. Detroit Pistons (1990-91)
The feud between the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls in the late 1980s and early ’90s has been well-documented, and it was rehashed again in ESPN’s new documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Bulls, “The Last Dance”. Episodes three and four of the series focused on the playoff battles between the two teams, and how the Bulls needed to overcome the Pistons in order to develop into champions. In 1991, they finally did, as they bested the Pistons 4-0 in the Eastern Conference finals.
The ’90-91 iteration of the Pistons was fresh off of three straight Finals appearances, so they were older — and a bit more beat up — than they were when they were at the peak of their powers as a team. They were still solid though, as they had the Defensive Player of the Year in Dennis Rodman, won 50 regular season games, and advanced all the way to the conference finals before they ran into a Bulls squad primed for their first championship run.
9. Orlando Magic (1995-96)
It’s tough to talk about the ’95-96 Magic without thinking about what could have been, as it was the last season that Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway played together in Orlando. Had the two played together for longer the course of NBA history would be different, and perhaps Orlando would have a championship banner, or two. Instead, O’Neal signed with the Lakers in free agency after they got swept by Jordan and the Bulls in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals.
For the Bulls, the ’96 series between the two teams was personal, as the Magic had knocked them out of the postseason the previous year, after Jordan returned from his stint as a baseball player, and then advanced to the Finals. (In fairness, Jordan was probably still a bit rusty at that point after a long time away from the court). The Magic won a franchise-high 60 games in 1995-96, which was the third-best record in the league that year, but ultimately they were no match for a Bulls squad that was poised to kick off a second three-peat.
8. New York Knicks (1992-93)
After losing to Chicago in consecutive postseasons in 1991 and 1992, the Knicks finally felt like they had a team that could beat the Bulls in 1992-93. Prior to the season’s start, they traded Mark Jackson to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Charles Smith, Doc Rivers, and Bo Kimble. They also acquired four-time All-Star Rolando Blackman from the Mavericks. Things went well for the Knicks during the regular season as they tied a franchise record with 60 wins and finished with the best record in the East. Pat Riley was also named Coach of the Year.
The Knicks were able to advance past the Pacers and Hornets with relative ease in the first two rounds of the postseason, and they even took a 2-0 lead over the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. Ultimately, though, they couldn’t sustain that success, as the Bulls went on to win the next four games in order to advance to the NBA Finals, where they would win their third straight title. The Knicks would get another shot at a title the following year after Jordan retired for the first time, but they fell to the Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals in seven games.
7. Indiana Pacers (1997-98)
The ’97-98 Pacers were a tough-nosed team with a solid defense and two All-Stars in Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, and they pushed the Bulls about as hard as any team did during their title seasons. In fact, they were the only team (out of the 24 that the Bulls faced in the playoffs during their six championship seasons) that forced a seventh game against Chicago; which they did in the ’98 Eastern Conference finals. Former Bulls guard Steve Kerr even referred to Game 7 against the Pacers in 1998 as the “scariest” game the Bulls ever faced. Ultimately though, the Bulls came out victorious in the Game 7 and then went on to win their sixth title. The Pacers, meanwhile, are still waiting to win their first NBA championship.
6. Los Angeles Lakers (1990-91)
Just like the Pistons were no longer at the peak of their powers as a team when the Bulls finally bested them in 1991, the same could be said about the Lakers that same season. By 1991, Magic Johnson and the Lakers were coming off of a decade straight of deep postseason runs, and while still great, they just weren’t the same squad that they once were. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was gone, while Johnson and James Worthy had both declined athletically. The Lakers were still good enough to win 58 regular season games and advance all the way to the NBA Finals, but once there they couldn’t keep up with the young and hungry Bulls, who won the series in five games. It was Chicago’s only Finals series during the decade that didn’t stretch to six games.
For the Lakers, the loss to the Bulls in 1991 proved to be the end of an era, as it was the last time that they would make the Finals in nearly a decade, and it was Johnson’s last postseason run, as he retired from the NBA prior to the start of the 1991-92 season.
5. Utah Jazz (1997-98)
After losing to the Bulls in the 1997 NBA Finals, the Jazz got another shot in 1998. They weren’t quite as good record-wise as they were the previous season (62 wins in ’97-98 compared to 64 wins in ’96-97), but they were virtually the same squad as they were the year before. Ultimately, they suffered the same fate too, as they lost in the Finals in six games to Jordan and the Bulls. This time around the Jazz were able to take the first game in the series, but the Bulls quickly bounced back and took a commanding 3-1 lead. The Jazz ultimately lost the series on Jordan’s game-winner over Byron Russell in Game 6, which became one of the most famous shots in NBA history.
4. Portland Trail Blazers (1991-92)
The 1992 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Blazers was especially intriguing due to the media-fueled rivalry between Jordan and Blazers guard Clyde Drexler. Jordan and Drexler had similar skillsets, and the Blazers had once even passed on drafting Jordan because they already had Drexler on the roster. While Drexler was a great player and a future Hall-of-Famer, Jordan didn’t like being compared to Drexler, and he used the comparisons as motivation during the ’92 Finals. Jordan averaged 35.8 points per game over the course of the series, which Chicago won in six games. ESPN recently ranked the ’91-92 Trail Blazers as the 37th best NBA team of all-time; the highest ranking of any of Chicago’s Finals opponents. Here’s what they said about the Blazers:
“Making their second Finals appearance in three years, the Blazers faced a juggernaut Bulls team in the midst of their first three-peat. The Blazers still managed to steal a game in Chicago and were even 2-2 midway through the series, but a Bulls comeback in Game 6 prevented Portland from becoming the only team to take Chicago the distance in the Finals.”
3. Seattle Supersonics (1995-96)
The Supersonics were a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference in the ’90s, and 1995-96 was their best season as a team. Led by Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton the Sonics had a dominant defense and they were also electric offensively, thanks largely to Shawn Kemp, one of the most explosive dunkers that the league has ever seen. Both Kemp and Payton were named to the All-Star Game in 1996 and the Sonics won a franchise-record 64 games, which was good enough for the best record in the West.
The Sonics took down the defending champion Rockets and a Jazz team that would win the conference for the next two years en route to their Finals showdown with Chicago. Unfortunately for the Sonics, they couldn’t quite keep up with the Bulls, who had won a then-league record 72 games during the regular season. Chicago jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the series over the Sonics, and eventually took the series 4-2 in order to claim their fourth title.
2. Phoenix Suns (1992-93)
The Suns shook things up in a major way before the 1992-93 season, as they traded with the Philadelphia 76ers to land All-Star forward Charles Barkley, and they added Paul Westphal as their new coach. The changes largely paid off, as the Suns won a franchise-record 62 games during the season, and Barkley was named NBA MVP. The Suns then took down the Lakers, Spurs, and Sonics en route to their first Finals appearance since 1976. Though the Bulls ultimately won the series in six games, it took a herculean effort from Jordan, who averaged 41 points per game over the course of the series, and dropped 55 points in a Game 4 victory.
1. Utah Jazz (1996-97)
After several appearances in the Western Conference finals, and over a decade straight of playoff appearances, the Jazz finally broke through and made it to the NBA Finals in 1997. This was Utah’s best team ever record-wise, as they won 64 regular season games, which was good for the top seed in the West. Karl Malone had another stellar season for the Jazz and was named the NBA’s MVP in the process.
Once the postseason rolled around, the Jazz had no problem advancing past the Clippers, Lakers, and Rockets in order to make it to the Finals for the first time. Once there, the Jazz put up a good fight against Chicago, as three of the Bulls’ wins in the series were by four points or fewer, including Game 1, which the Bulls won thanks to a Jordan buzzer-beater. The Bulls ultimately won the series 4-2 to take home their fifth title.