Careers that started off with a sense of championship inevitability were beginning to conjure up doubt and uncertainty. The quality of these two players and their positions in the game as two of the best was never in question, but without the rings they’d be careers stained with a sense of underachievement. Would these two unstoppable individual forces ever be in a team that could rise to compliment their high standards?
The Second Stage
Michael Jordan never missed a playoff series while at Chicago despite joining a team that was the second worst in the league. Every season the Bulls seemed to make progress as they made the personnel changes they hoped would give Jordan the supporting cast to reach the top. Through some smart trades for solid role players and intuitive drafting they were able to finally reach the summit and once they did they decided to stick around for awhile.
Similar to Michael, Lebron came to a Cavaliers organisation that had the equal worst record. The exact size of the challenge facing the Cavs has been shrouded in some controversy with claims even from their former coach – John Lucas – that the Cavaliers tanked in the 2002/03 season to get a better chance at trading local hero and the best draft prospect in years, James. It is without question though that the Cavs were far off challenging for the title. After seven seasons of trying, Lebron decided to opt out and made a move that shook the sporting world.
The Jordan Dynasty Begins
Jordan’s success like any athlete in a team sport comes down to more than just what he was able to do out there on the court. In 1989/90, Jordan finally had a teammate – Scottie Pippen – who was an active All-Star and 4 other teammates averaging double figures so it was no surprise that that same year they pushed the Bad Boy Pistons who had three All-stars to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Scottie, Horace Grant and BJ Armstrong were rookies when they came to Chicago but they were coming of age and were on an upward trajectory not doubt helped by scrimmaging day in and day out with Jordan.
In 1990/91, Armstrong and veteran John Paxson were splitting the point guard duties, Grant and Pippen were established players and major contributors on both ends of the floor. Although Scottie wouldn’t be selected for the All-Star game this season, Bill Cartwright was called up as an injury replacement. Jordan was the 1990/91 season MVP on the back of 31.5ppg, 6rpg, 5.5apg, 2.7spg and the second best record in the league behind the Portland Trailblazers.
Jordan’s output in the playoffs stayed true to his regular season numbers although his assists jumped by three and he got his single-game career high rebounds, 19, in an amazing performance against Charles Barkley’s 76ers. They would have their revenge on the Pistons sweeping them convincingly in the Conference finals.
It’d be Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers challenging the Bulls in the NBA Finals in a dream match up between the two biggest individual stars in the competition. Magic and his team had been there and done it while this was the first time for these Bulls to reach such heights. You wouldn’t have known though by their performances. The Bulls dropped just one game, the first game in what may have been a brief bit of stage fright.
Jordan saw the chance to face Magic as a way to show the world on the biggest stage that there was a new sheriff in town. He did it too by matching Magic at his own game, passing. Jordan still got his points with a Finals’ average of 31.2 but he did it while also averaging 11.4 assists in the series. In the final game of the series, Magic got 20 dimes to average exactly one more assist for the series but until then Jordan was leading the assists.
After only losing two games over the course of the entire playoffs, the Bulls had finally arrived and they had done it in some style. Of course reaching the summit is one thing, staying there is a whole new challenge. The Bulls were determined though to not be one-hit wonders and a big part of this would be the supporting cast of MJ’s to continue their individual improvement.
In 1991/92, Pippen got back to the All-star game with his all-round game and breaking the 20ppg average for the first time with 21ppg. Grant would average a double-double and BJ Armstrong would continue his transition into becoming the starting point guard. Jordan once again was the league MVP with numbers of 30.1ppg, 6.4rpg, 6.1apg, 2.3spg and leading his team to the best record in the league (67-15) with the next best 10 games behind.
Jordan had two 50 plus point games in the regular season but it was the playoffs where Jordan would save his best. The Bulls swept past Miami in the first round which saw Jordan score 56 in one game and average 45 in the best of five series. New York and Cleveland would provide more resistance than the Buls had faced last season but these Bulls were now battle-hardened and extremely confident. In game 7 against New York, Jordan dropped 42 points in 42 minutes to lead the Bulls to a comfortable 29 point win.
The Final would be another exciting match up for basketball fans with Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and his Trailblazers meeting the Bulls perhaps a year later than anticipated. A fascinating aspect of this contest was of course the Trailblazers passing up Jordan in the NBA draft to select Sam Bowie with the number 2 pick. It was an intriguing match with two very even teams on paper and Drexler was the most stylistically similar player to Jordan in the league at the time. This was another chance though for Jordan to vanquish another opponent who people dared to compare with him.
Game 1 Jordan made his intent clear by scoring 39 points, dishing 11 assists and hitting 6-10 three pointers which provided one of the most iconic moments in sport, The Shrug. The Bulls would win by thirty three points in a complete rout. To the Trailblazers credit they would come out next game and win a classic in overtime with Jordan’s 39 points and 10 assists this time not being enough. The Bulls would lose only once more in the series. Jordan responded in typical Jordan fashion after the game 4 loss by scoring 46 points off 60% shooting in game 5 before Jordan and Pippen led the way together in game 6 to wrap up the series. Jordan’s playoff averages were 34.5ppg, 6.2rpg, 6apg, and 2.1spg.
The Bulls had gone back-to-back and if there were any doubters out there before, they were being converted. There didn’t seem to be much that could stop the Bulls run, until a big post-season move saw one the league’s most dominant players, Charles Barkley, move to the Phoenix Suns. Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Danny Ainge, Dan Majerle and Richard Dumas with some solid role players like Mark West, Oliver Miller and Frank Johnson would storm to the best record in the NBA. The 1992/93 season was looming as perhaps the most challenging for this Bulls side.
It wouldn’t be only the Suns though that would provide the resistance to the Bulls dreams of a three-peat. Fierce rivals the New York Knicks would finish with the best record in the East. The Knicks were strongest in the Bulls’ weakest position, center and the NBA at this time was still very much a big man’s game. Patrick Ewing was a genuine superstar of the game and he had a strong supporting cast mixed with youth and experience that fought tooth and nail every possession; Charles Oakley, John Starks, Anthony Mason, Doc Rivers, Rolando Blackman and Greg Anthony.
BJ Armstrong had now become the outright starting point guard for the Bulls. Jordan was once more getting a lot of help on offense with three other players averaging in double figures. This didn’t stop him from upping his point average from last season and deliver some classic scoring exhibitions. He had 4 regular season games where he scored over 50 including 64 against Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic. He scored an incredible 47 points at 60% shooting with 8 boards against Washington in 31 minutes.
Defensively he was stepping up too. In one game he got 9 steals to go with his 40 points in a game vs the New Jersey Nets, tying an NBA record at the time of 8 steals in a half. He would finish the season with 2.8 steals a game. His final stat line for the regular season was an impressive 32.6ppg, 6.7rpg, 5.5apg, 2.8spg including 4 triple doubles. However, Charles Barkley would claim the MVP with a double-double average (25.6ppg and 12.2rpg) and after his Suns had improved by 9 wins on last season to top the NBA.
Jordan no doubt felt slighted that he missed out on his third straight MVP award and this would be no more evident than by his performances in the playoffs. The Bulls would sweep Atlanta and a Cavs side – who had three All-Stars in their line-up – to set up a showdown with the Knicks.
With home court advantage the Knicks made it count by winning the first two games of the series before heading to Chicago for games 3 & 4. Jordan would get a double-double (22point and 11 assists, just missing a triple double by 2 rebounds) in the first game at home and then 54 points on 60% shooting which included 6-9 from beyond the arch in the next game to tie the series. It was then back to the Garden in a crucial Game 5 for the Knicks as Game 6 would be back in Chicago.
This Bulls team was more than able to assist Jordan now and they did just that with every starter getting in double figures with Pippen and Grant registering double-doubles to go with Michael’s triple double (29 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists). For the Knicks only Ewing turned up to be the top scorer in the game with 33 points. Despite getting more help from his teammates in game 6, the series went to the Bulls on the back of the Pippen and Jordan show.
Phoenix and their MVP Charles Barkley joined the Bulls in the NBA Finals after a less comfortable time getting there. The Suns had the best record going into the playoffs but they dropped seven games compared to the Bulls two during the playoffs. The Suns were still seen as the slight favourites because of their depth and the dominance that Barkley had displayed during the regular season and playoffs which included an amazing 44 point/24 rebound game in the Western Conference Finals against Seattle.
Jordan though had a point to prove and as teammates and opponents have often recounted, that is when Jordan was at his most dangerous. The Suns had the home court advantage but it was nullified in a game 1 that Pippen and Jordan showed that they were the best one-two punch in the league on both ends of the court. Importantly, Barkley was held to just 21 points.
Game Two, Sir Charles would be back to his best with 42 points and 13 rebounds but the only problem was that Jordan would match it with 42 points of his own, 12 rebounds and 9 assists. Unlike Barkley, Jordan had help this game with Pippen getting a triple-double and Grant a double-double.
Game Three was held in the Windy City and the momentum was well and truly with the Bulls; and MJ was winning the “real MVP” battle with Barkley. This game would become an epic three-overtime war of atrition. Jordan and Barkley both were on form and they were joined by their teammates too to provide the NBA with one of the most nail biting games in Finals history. At no break until the final whistle at the end of the third overtime was the margin more than 1 point. Jordan would score 44 to lead all scorers, Barkley got 24 (5th highest in the game) and 19 rebounds but Dan Majerle’s 28 points with 6-8 from downtown would prove to be the difference.
His Airness turned up to game Four determined not to let their advantage slip. Barkley would get a triple-double (32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists) but Jordan would take it up another notch and pour in 55 points. It wasn’t a blowout but the Bulls never looked like losing. They now had a 3-1 lead and next game would be at home.
Operation “Save the City – Beat Chicago” was in effect and the Suns would do just that. Three of the Suns starting 5 (Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dumas) would score over 20 points whereas Grant (1), Cartwright (2) and Armstrong (7) would be out-scored by Dan Majerle (11). Jordan’s numbers were 41 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists but it wasn’t enough and now they’d have to beat the resurgent Suns again on their home court to effectively sweep them at home. The Suns had only lost 6 games at home all season and now the Bulls would have to beat them 3 times, it was a tall order.
Cometh the man, cometh the hour. This was never truer for, no not Michael Jordan, John Paxson. No one in game 6 had taken it by the scruff of the neck. Jordan led the scorers with 33 with Pippen the second highest scorer with 23 points. Momentum shifts were a common occurrence throughout the contest and Phoenix were finishing the stronger of the two sides in a low scoring 4th quarter. With 14.4 secs left the Suns had out scored Chicago 19 to 9 with all 9 Chicago points scored by Jordan. The Bulls had possession and trailed by two points, everyone in the stadium and watching at home knew who was going to get the ball. They were right too, Jordan would get the ball but he didn’t keep it as he kicked it up to Pippen who threw it down in the post to Grant who in turn flicked it out to an unmarked John Paxson and the outcome was inevitable.
The Bulls had become the first team since the Celtics in the 1960s to win three consecutive titles. Jordan would average 41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists to win the Finals MVP and prove that he was still the top dog in the yard. The Chicago Bulls had created a dynasty and with Jordan still only 30 and the core support Pippen, Grant and Armstrong even younger the Bulls were looking unstoppable.
James Decides To Win
Perhaps it was pressure from the media and the public that he needed rings to cement his legacy? Maybe it was inspiration from seeing the three veteran stars in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen join forces so successfully? It could even be a bit from column A and little from column B? Whatever the impetus for the “Decision” it signaled clear intent from these three superstars to takeover the league. The NBA world was split over the move and the manner of the announcement but if the aim is to win rings then it was a good step to making it happen.
Dwyane Wade was a former league MVP and had a ring from his time with Shaquille O’Neal. Chris Bosh was the main man in Toronto and a perennial All-Star. Lebron had his help and then some in these two but he was coming into Wade’s team so it was important that he brought a familiar face in veteran center Ilgauskas. The Big 3 would score almost 71 of the team’s 102 points a game in the 2010/11 season which saw them finish with the third best record (58-24) behind Chicago and San Antonio who both had 60+ win seasons.
The even contribution from the trio and relatively modest success of the team helped Derrick Rose beat James to the MVP award. Playing with other superstars also allowed James to play less minutes and for only the 2nd time in his career did he average under 39mpg in the regular season. James numbers in the regular season were 26.7ppg, 7.5rpg, 9apg, 1.6spg and 0.6 blocks. He had 31 double-doubles and 4 triple-doubles.
Despite not being as dominant as they were predicted to be during the regular season, the playoffs saw the Heat steamroll to the Finals dropping only three games on the way. The Spurs wouldn’t make it to the Finals and instead the Dallas Mavericks led by Dirk Nowitziki stood in the way of Lebron and the Heat getting that ring that they were picked at the beginning of the season to do in a canter. However the team from the West had other ideas and the Heat would go cold when it mattered.
Lebron struggled offensively in this series averaging only 17.8 points to put him 5th amongst all scorers for both sides. Game Four could’ve seen the Heat take a 3-1 lead in the series and the game would go down to the wire. Dirk and Dallas didn’t bring their A-game with Dirk only getting 21 points on 32% from the field but other than Wade and Bosh no other Heat player got into double figures. James ended up with a disappointing 8 points on 27% shooting and the momentum shifted to the Mavericks which they would not relinquish. The Mavericks won in six.
Questions about Lebron’s legacy and his heart followed the disappointing no-show in the Finals. Could Lebron make this his team and become the leader that they needed? Or would he continue to defer to Wade? It is perhaps injuries to Wade in the shortened 2011/12 season which forced Lebron to make the step up. Wade would miss 15 regular season games which gave James ample time to assume the leadership role and it to become his team. Winning the season’s MVP award would be the recognition that he was now the man in Miami. Lebron averaged 27.1 ppg, 7.9rpg, 6.2apg, 1.9spg and a 46-20 record.
Regular season achievements would mean little though if James couldn’t make his mark in the playoffs like the greats before him. James wouldn’t disappoint either with some commanding performances throughout with 11 double-doubles, a triple double and significant increases in rebounds and points (30.3ppg up 3.1, 9.7rpg up 1.8).
The Heat made short work of New York in the first round before a scare in the next round that saw Indiana take a 2-1 lead in the series after the Heat lost Chris Bosh with an abdominal injury in Game One. James though did what a leader should and answered the threat with an incredible performance in Game Four. A return of 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists helped the Heat to an 8 point win in Indiana to stop the rot.
Next up would be the aging stars of the Celtics who were perhaps the inspiration for this Heat team. The Heat would be without Bosh until Game Five but they didn’t let it affect them when they raced to a 2-0 lead but the Celtics would rally and win the next three. Again it would fall to James to respond and save the Heat’s season and that is exactly what he did. Shooting 73% from the field, Lebron grabbed 45 points and 15 rebounds in what would be another defining performance in his career. That game broke the backs of the Celtic side and the Heat would win the deciding Game Seven after a dominant second half performance that saw them out score the Celtics 55 to 35.
Oklahoma City Thunder would impressively dispatch Dallas, the Lakers, and San Antonio to reach the Finals but there was nothing impressive about their Finals debut. Lebron and his chargers were riding the wave of an amazing turnaround against the Celtics and despite losing Game One, they wouldn’t give the Thunder a sniff.
Westbrook and Durant would do their thing but it wouldn’t be enough against a more balanced Heat team. Durant was the series top scorer but the Heat had 5 players averaging in double figures with James close to a triple double average of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists. Lebron had his first ring and answered many critics in the process.
Season 2012/13 would see the Heat become the team that everyone had feared they would. With a record of 66-16 they would own the outright best record in the league, Lebron James would once again be the league MVP, and Ray Allen would join to add a fourth scorer to average in double figures.
Lebron would have an incredibly consistent season without having too many standout performances. His regular season averages were 26.8 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists which included 4 triple-doubles and 36 double-doubles. He only scored 40 or more in one game including the playoffs but with the help he had with Wade, Bosh and Allen the burden of scoring wasn’t on James like in previous seasons. The game he got 40 was against Sacramento and this same game he also got his single-game career high assists, 16.
James and the Heat entered the playoffs the clear favourites and quickly lived up to the tag by dispatching Milwaukee and Chicago losing only game. They met Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals and this series would go to 7 games. King James would be the difference in the series with Indiana getting very even output from their starting five which whereas except for James and Mario Chalmers they other big names in the Heat were off their game. The contest see-sawed right until the final game when thanks to James points and some stingy defense they routed the Pacers by 23 points.
James was proving himself in pressure situations which had been a consistent source of much of the criticism aimed at him. Once again in the NBA Finals the San Antonio Spurs would test Lebron’s bottle by taking the Heat to seven. Game One the Spurs stole a close one away to the Heat and although James would get a triple-double (18points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists) he’d be criticised for his 4th quarter. He only scored four points from the field in the last quarter in a game decided by four points with the Spurs out scoring Miami 23 to 16.
Game Two would be an ugly one for the Spurs who, with the exception of Danny Green, couldn’t hit their shots (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard all shot under 40%). James this game only scored 17 but he wasn’t required to score anymore with such a dominant 19 point win.
There was a huge turnaround when the series moved to AT&T Center. Danny Green and Gary Neal were the unlikely offensive stars and the Spurs were able to limit the Heat to just 77 points and James to 15 points off 7-21 from the field. At no point did the Spurs look like losing but the 35 to 14 point last quarter by the Spurs was the punctuation mark in a 36 point win.
Things looked bleak for the Heat with the next two games in San Antonio but it’s moments like this that champions step up and that is what James and Wade would do with solid contributions from Bosh and Allen. For the Spurs, they didn’t have anyone who could take the game over with Tim Duncan top scoring for Spurs with 20 points compared to Lebron’s 33 and Wade’s 32.
With the series now tied at 2-2 and both teams running hot and cold it was anyone’s series. The Spurs came out determined from the opening tip and established a lead that would be too much for the Heat to come back from. Although Wade and James had solid games, the Spurs starting five would score all but seven of their 114 points in an inspired performance.
Down 3-2 but returning home the Heat were far from done but it didn’t look good at the start of the last quarter when they were trailing by 10 points. Lebron was having a relatively quiet game until this point but he would have the type of last quarter that people expect of a player of his caliber. James would pour in 16 of his 32 points in the last 12 to pull the deficit within three and then Ray Allen would hit the game tying shot to send it into overtime. The Heat would tie the series with a three point win in overtime thanks to an extraordinary contribution from James and Ray Allen’s clutch shooting.
In Game Seven, James would not leave anything to chance as he cut loose with a 37 point off 5-10 from beyond the arch performance. Not a blow out but the Heat were able to go in in front at every change. Lebron and the Heat had overcome their biggest challenge to date, Lebron had proved himself when it mattered, and they were now back-to-back champions.
Success brings with it expectation and this would be no different for James and the Heat as they chased the elusive three-peat. Miami would finish with the second best record in the East behind Indiana who took them to seven last Eastern Conference Finals.
Lebron would post 27.1ppg, 6.9rpg, 6.3apg, 1.6spg and 0.3bpg but would lose out to Kevin Durant for the league MVP due to the Heat winning 12 less games than the year before while statistically Lebron went down in every major category besides points. He would score 61 against Charlotte for a career high but his overall play that season was down, highlighted by only 12 double-doubles in the regular season.
Going into the playoffs as the second seed in the East, the Heat would run through that side of the draw, only losing three games along the way. James wasn’t required to pull out many heroics along the way but his 49 in the Eastern semis was a standout for the playoffs. The Finals would pit the Spurs and the Heat together again and after last season’s dramatic series it was a mouth-watering match up. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to the billing with the Spurs destroying the Heat 4-1 with every victory being by 15 or more points.
James did his part for the Heat but he wasn’t helped as much by his teammates. The one game they won which was at AT&T Center by 2 points, Lebron had to score 35 points but in the other games the Spurs were too much for even Lebron to win on his own. Bosh and Wade’s stats dropped in the Finals from their regular season stats and without anyone else stepping up, it was too much for Lebron against an experienced and well-coached team like San Antonio.
Lebron missed out on his three-peat with Miami but he had won the rings he had set out to. Now it was time to reassess and make another big decision regarding his future.
The Second Stage: Head to Head
In three seasons during the first championship run, Jordan won all three trips to the Finals never going to a seventh game. He now benefited from playing with another All-Star in every season from 1991 to 1993 plus had a better mix of veterans (Paxson and Cartwright) and young talents who were improving every season (Grant, Pippen and Armstrong).
Lebron’s second stage of his career lasted four seasons and yielded two championships. His move to Miami to team up with Wade and Bosh was successful even if unpopular with many. The three superstars made the Finals every year winning two and losing two. It can be difficult to get big talents and big egos to work together but for the most part the Heat had done just that.
Jordan and the Bulls organisation had built an unstoppable force and had done it through astute acquisitions. Over the course of the three-peat three to four starters were players either drafted by the Bulls or traded for as rookies which was the case for Scottie Pippen who was initially drafted by Seattle before being traded on the same day to Chicago for Olden Polynice.
Lebron was able to create a ready-to-win team with other superstars who also shared his ambition for more titles. He tried to get the Cavs there but they were a victim of their own success. They were performing above expectations and winning games which made it hard to draft in top talent.
Jordan won two League MVPs, three Finals MVPs, three All-Star appearances, three All-NBA First teams, three All-NBA Defensive teams and three times league-leading scorer.
Lebron won two League MVPs, two Finals MVPs, four All-Star appearances, four All-NBA First teams and three All-NBA First teams.
First three-peat Jordan (regular season)
Miami Heat James (regular season)
First Three-peat Jordan (playoffs)
Miami Heat James (playoffs)
Check out the next installment coming soon:
The Third Stage: Jordan Is Back v The Prodigal Lebron