"Pippen and Jordan are great at both ends of the floor," says Jack Ramsay, the former Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers coach, who is now a television analyst. "Jordan, of course, does whatever it takes. Pippen can defend almost anyone on the floor. Rodman can get you rebound after rebound. But he's almost a noncontributor to the offense. When you include Rodman, you're including a specialist player who doesn't have a rounded game."
Indeed, the one glaring disadvantage the Chicago Three have in comparison with other great NBA trios is the complete lack of threat from Rodman on the offensive end. Some would say that when you're on the floor with Jordan, that hardly matters. But the hole in Rodman's game detracts from the overall assessment of the Bulls' trio in historical perspective. "If you want to talk about the best two players on a team, the Bulls are right up there," says Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, who has covered the NBA for 30 years. "Jordan is without question the greatest player ever, and as long as he's playing with Michael, Pippen is the second-best player in the league. But to throw Rodman in the mix is ludicrous. All he does is rebound."
Ramsay and Ryan consider the Boston trio of small forward Larry Bird, power forward Kevin McHale and center Robert Parish the game's alltime greatest. This vaunted front line won three NBA championships in the 1980s, and each member of the trio could score and rebound (Bird wasn't too bad in the assists column, either). In 1985-86, their best season together, Boston's Big Three combined to average 63.2 points and 27.4 boards as the Celtics won 67 regular-season games. Boston then went 15-3 in the postseason to win the third title of the Bird-McHale-Parish era.
"Bird was an incredible overall player offensively," says Ramsay. "McHale may have been the best back-to-the-basket post-up guy ever. And Parish hit the high-percentage shots."
The Celtics threesome of the mid-80s enjoyed another advantage over the modern-day Bulls. They had, on the other side of the country, a formidable rival against which to measure themselves: Magic Johnson's Lakers, whom Bird's Celtics met three times (and lost to twice) in the Finals. The Bulls, on the other hand, knocked off a different Western Conference challenger in each of their five Finals appearances.
The Lakers' trio of Magic at point guard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center and James Worthy at small forward won three titles in the '80s (Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar had won two together before Worthy arrived in 1982) and was nearly as well-rounded as that of the Celtics. In 1984-85, Los Angeles won 62 regular-season games on its way to the NBA title, and Kareem, Magic and Worthy combined for 57.9 points and 20.5 rebounds a game. Magic was second in the league in assists, with 12.6 a game, and finished second in the MVP voting, behind Bird.
The Bulls' two recent trios are notable in that they lacked a dominant man in the middle. Even the '72 Lakerswhose starting guards, West and Gail Goodrich, combined to average 51.7 points per gamehad a productive center named Chamberlain. All Wilt did in his 13th NBA season was lead the league in rebounding (19.2) and field goal percentage (.649), and help Los Angeles to 69 regular-season wins, a record that stood until the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman Bulls came along.
In the 1970-71 season, Abdul-Jabbar led the NBA in scoring (31.7 ppg) and led the Milwaukee Bucks to the championship, a feat that would not be accomplished again until Jordan. The Bucks' trio of Abdul-Jabbar, guard Oscar Robertson (19.4) and forward Bob Dandridge (18.4) averaged 69.5 points a game.
In the election of an alltime great trio, Celtics center Bill Russell heads two formidable ticketswith backcourt mates Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman in 1956-57 and with guards John Havlicek and Sam Jones nine seasons later. "You put Russell with any two guys, and they were great," says Ramsay. "Russell had the greatest impact on the defensive end of the floor. He changed the game."
But those championship Celtics teams of the '60s were invariably deeper and more balanced than their competition. In the 1969 Finals, that depth and balance enabled the Celtics to outlast a Lakers club that included the pretty fair troika of Chamberlain, West and forward Elgin Baylor, who combined to average more than 70 points a game. "Maybe the best of all," Kerr says of that Lakers threesome. "I think they were Number 1, with all the rest in second place."
It could be argued that the Bulls' lack of depth in today's expansion-ravaged NBA lifts their three superstars a notch in comparison with other great trios. In '86 the Celtics had Bill Walton coming off the bench. Michael Cooper was among the subs on those great Lakers teams of the '80s. The Bulls have dominated the league with Luc Longley starting at center and Jud Buechler and Jason Caffey logging significant minutes.
Others, though, would say that the leaguewide dilution of talent diminishes Chicago's accomplishments. While other teams have seen their superstars come and go, the Bulls have been able to keep Jordan and Pippen together for their entire basketball careers. "They have benefited dramatically from expansion," says Ryan, "and from vastly inferior competition. But I believe Jordan and Pippen are as good as any duo ever, and I think they could win just as much without Rodman."
Jordan and Pippen did indeed win before Rodman arrived, but with the Worm under the boards doing the dirty work, the Bulls became close to unbeatable for two seasons. Now, with Jordan insisting that his continued presence in town hinges on that of coach Phil Jackson, with Pippen the subject of trade rumors and with Rodman's future as a Bull uncertain, even unlikely, we may have seen the last of Michael, Scottie and Dennis together.
If so, the book is closing on one of the oddest and most entertaining threesomes in sports history. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman may not ultimately be acknowledged as the greatest trio of all time, but it matters little. They dominated the only time that matteredtheir time.