This is a guest post written by Adam Levy of the blog The City of Broad Shoulders
Think about it: how many times have you gotten into a conversation or an argument with someone about whether or not the Bulls would have won eight straight championships had Michael Jordan not retired to play baseball? For me, it must be a good five to ten times and counting. It was only a few years ago when I got into a heated debate with two Rockets fans about this very topic. Punches were nearly thrown and veins began popping out of our necks and foreheads. Fortunately for me, those punches were not thrown, as I would have easily gotten my ass kicked.
This topic has been debated amongst diehard fans, casual fans, people who think they know basketball because they’ve heard of some guy named Jordan, writers, analysts, and scrubs off the street. It has probably also been debated amongst current players, former players, coaches and even front office personnel. The main argument for the Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon. Of the six championships the Bulls won, they never had to play a team with a legitimate center (Vlade Divac, Clifford Robinson, Tom Chambers, Shawn Kemp/Sam Perkins whom were both true power forwards, Greg Ostertag twice). Olajuwon averaged 29-11-4-4 during the ’94 playoffs and 33-10-5-3 during the ’95 playoffs. That’s fair. The main argument for the Bulls: Michael Jordan. The Rockets didn’t have him. The best player in the world retired right smack-dab in the middle of his prime after winning three straight championships. No team could have stopped him no matter how hard they tried.
Of course, no one really knows what would have happened had Jordan not retired during the summer of ’93. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop arguing about it. What fun would that be? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion – as long as they can back it up with some sort of logic. For all these years, I’ve always argued just for the sake of arguing – some of it out of bias for my hometown Bulls and my sick obsession with M.J., some of it out of thinking that a Jordan-led Bulls team was truly better all-around than the Rockets. But, being the number-loving guy that I am, I surprisingly never took the time to come up with an answer from a statistical point-of-view. So, I asked myself, “What are the chances the Bulls would have won championships in 1994 and 1995 with an unretired, cannibalistic Jordan?”
To figure this out, I used a very similar approach (that I learned about in a book called Mathletics) to one of my posts from May, titled By the numbers: Chances the Bulls get to the Finals with a healthy D-Rose. I used Microsoft Excel Solver to power rate each NBA team during every postseason from 1990-1995 using season-long data from nba-reference.com. I calculated the home team’s margin, prediction of each game, and the squared error of each game, which equals (home margin – prediction)^2. The sum of the squared error acts as the “target cell” in Solver and must be minimized in order to come up with accurate team ratings. Assuming that the average NBA playoff team had a rating of 0, you can see below that the Bulls, as expected, received the highest playoff rating during each of their first three championship runs with 15.88, 20.54 and 9.59, respectively. The Rockets, of course, rated the highest during the 1994 and 1995 postseasons with 5.74 and 16.08, respectively.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s take all this in for a second. Based on just the numbers above, it’s no coincidence that the Bulls went from making everyone their bitch from 1991-93 to just above average in the two postseasons that followed. They also ranked first overall in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) during the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons and second overall in 1992-93, then plummeted to 14th overall in 1993-94 and 10th in 1994-95. The impact that MJ had on the Bulls can obviously go without saying. Even without him, though, they finished their first Jordan-less season with 55 wins and the third seed in the playoffs. Had Hue Hollins not made one of the most controversial foul calls in the history of the NBA against Scottie Pippen during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bulls would have likely won the series against the Knicks and could have been one step closer to playing the Rockets without Jordan. But, it clearly didn’t work out that way, and they were sent packing before the Finals for the first time in four years.
Anyways, it’s time to get back on track and calculate the chances that the Bulls would have beaten Houston using Excel’s @RISK. The first step was forecasting the average scoring margin for home and away games. There was no right way to do this, so I had to get creative. I figured the most logical way would be to:
- Take the Bulls’ average playoff rating over those three seasons above (15.34) and put it up against the Rockets’ ratings in their respective championship seasons (5.47 in ’94, 16.09 in ’95).
- Assume the Bulls would have had home court advantage (5.85 points) both years because they finished with only three less wins than Houston in ’94 (55 to 58) and the same amount of wins in ’95 (47 each). I’d like to think that the Bulls would have won at least three extra games each year had Jordan been playing.
- Assume they would have beaten every Eastern Conference opponent because it just makes my life easier.
For home games, I took (Home Edge + Bulls Rating – Rockets Rating). For away games, I took (Bulls Rating – Home Edge – Rockets Rating). The projected margin was then calculated using the average forecast and standard deviation (Mathletics states that ”12 points is the historical standard deviation of actual scores about a prediction from a ranking system”). If that number was greater than 0, then the Bulls were given a 1 (indicating they won) and were given a 0 if the number was less than 0 (indicating they lost). If the sum of the wins was greater than or equal to 4, then the Bulls would have won the series. With that being said, take a look at the 1994 Finals simulation results:
After running 1000 iterations, the Bulls won the series a ridiculous 966 times, meaning they would have had a 96.6% chance of beating Houston with Jordan playing. In other words, had the Bulls played as well in the 1994 postseason as they did the previous three seasons, the Rockets would have stood virtually no chance of winning. Seven championships instead of six? Yes please.
The 1995 playoffs were a completely different story. Houston played with much more of an edge after finally winning a championship the year before, and Hakeem Olajuwon was simply unstoppable, as he solidified himself as the best center in the game. Jordan also came back and played in the playoffs, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Check out the 1995 Finals simulation results:
This time, the Bulls won the series only 504 times – you can’t find a more even matchup than that. The split was nearly dead even at 50/50 so, based on numbers alone, it’s very hard for me to argue for any one side. However, I will say this: I understand that Jordan came back near the end of the season and played in the playoffs, but he wasn’t quite the same player that everyone was accustomed to watching until the playoffs actually started. He was very rusty in a majority of the regular season games he played in and shot a career low 41% from the field.
Yes, Jordan’s numbers against Charlotte and Orlando that postseason prove that he finally got his mojo back (31.5 points per game), but the team’s chemistry wasn’t even close to where it once was during their three-peat. The Bulls had added Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Ron Harper and Steve Kerr since Jordan left, and they lost Horace Grant and John Paxson. It was probably very difficult for Jordan to adjust to playing with a completely different group of players and vice versa. Imagine playing two years with Scottie Pippen leading your team and then watching him hand over the reigns, just a month before the 1995 playoffs, to a legend who takes about 22 shots a game and approaches every play, every set and every opposition unlike anyone you’ve ever seen. It takes longer than a month to get used to, so the Bulls entered the playoffs during a honeymoon period, and Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic took advantage. Needless to say, they went on to win a NBA-record 72 games the next season and obliterated everyone en route to their fourth of six championships (finished the postseason with a 15-3 record). Surely, a little chemistry, as well as a little Dennis Rodman, never hurt anyone. Well, except for any women who claim victim to Rodman’s misdemeanor and domestic violence charges. But that’s besides the point.
Look, I don’t want to take anything away from the Houston Rockets. They were an incredible team led by two Hall of Famers in Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and supported by Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, Robert Horry and Mario Elie. After Jordan, Olajuwon may have been the best player in the ’90s and is widely considered the greatest defensive player of all time. Coming up with probabilities is fun and all, but it’s not a final indicator of who would actually win the series. The games would still have to be played. Maybe the Rockets weren’t going to lose that year no matter who they went up against, but I still can’t help but think about what could have been.
From Charles Barkley to Karl Malone to John Stockton to Patrick Ewing to Reggie Miller to Dominique Wilkins to Shawn Kemp to Brad Daugherty to Tim Hardaway, the list of Hall of Famers or great players that never won a ring because they couldn’t beat M.J.’s Bulls is endless. Had Jordan never retired to play baseball, who’s to say that Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler wouldn’t have joined that list as well?