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TO THE TOP
Phil Taylor
June 23, 1997
By winning a fifth NBA title, the Bulls attained the imperial stature of the Celtics' and the Lakers' dynasties
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June 23, 1997

To The Top

By winning a fifth NBA title, the Bulls attained the imperial stature of the Celtics' and the Lakers' dynasties

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It's no coincidence that all three dynasties had coaching stability. Jackson has overseen Chicago's entire championship run. Riley, who began his Lakers stint early in the 1981-82 season, coached four of the five L.A. champions. (Paul Westhead was in charge in '80.) Red Auerbach led Boston to all but the final two championships of the Russell era; he became the Celtics' full-time general manager in '66, with Russell taking over as player-coach. On the surface Auerbach and Riley, both tough, no-nonsense types, appear to have more in common with each other than either has with the laid-back, philosophical Jackson. But behind the gruff image, Auerbach had some of the motivational qualities for which Jackson is celebrated. "Red was more similar to Jackson than you might think," says Heinsohn, who himself won two championships, in 1974 and '76, as Boston's coach and is a Celtics broadcaster. "He was not a Prussian general sending his guys out of the trenches and into the machine guns. He allowed his players to express their opinions from training camp to the last shot of the game. Jackson does the same thing. They're both great handlers of people."

With their extended dominance—and especially considering those record eight championships in a row—the Celtics must still be ranked as the NBA's preeminent dynasty, but the Bulls are closer to them than it might appear. If Jordan had not retired for 18 months, thus missing the 1993-94 season and most of the '94-95 campaign, Chicago's latest championship might very well have been its seventh straight, and the Bulls would be setting their sights on Boston's mark. The last time the Bulls lost a playoff series when Jordan played the entire regular season was in '90, when the Pistons beat them in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.

However, even if the Bulls had won seven straight titles, they would still face the argument that their achievement was less impressive than the Celtics' because of the caliber of their competition. There were eight teams in the NBA when Boston won its first title, and the league had expanded only to 14 by the time the Celtics won in 1969. Chicago won its first title in '91, in a 27-team league that has since grown to 29. With more teams, the thinking goes, the talent has been spread more thinly than it was in Boston's era, making it easier for a good team to dominate. It is telling that while Russell's Celtics had Wilt Chamberlain and his teams (the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Lakers) as constant rivals and the Showtime Lakers had Larry Bird's Celtics, the Bulls have had no consistent challenger. Chicago has beaten five teams in the Finals: the Lakers, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns, the Seattle SuperSonics and the Jazz.

"When we played, the league was not diluted," says Heinsohn, a Celtics forward from 1956-57 through '64-65. "Today you can be a good team with only two outstanding players, but in those days every team had at least three or four players in that category. What the Bulls have accomplished is remarkable, but I would have to say that it was harder to win a championship in those days than it is now."

These days, though it may not take as large a nucleus of stars to win a championship, it is harder to keep that nucleus together. In this era of free agency and the salary cap, successful teams tend to break up as the players responsible for that success command bigger salaries. That's why the strongest challenge to the Bulls' dynasty is coming not from any other team but from Reinsdorf, who has to meet their growing payroll. Chicago lost Grant to free agency in 1994 when he signed with the Magic. This off-season the Bulls would dearly love to keep forward-center Brian Williams, a key late-season acquisition who played well in the playoffs, but Williams is a free agent and Chicago doesn't have room under the salary cap to offer him the more than $5 million a year he is seeking. There have been reports that Reinsdorf and vice president of basketball operations Jerry Krause have contemplated trading Pippen before he becomes a free agent, partly because he will no doubt be in search of a huge contract.

"Those are things we didn't have to worry about," says Heinsohn. "In the old days, you joined a team and you stayed with them until they traded you. We didn't have to worry about Russell becoming a free agent and taking a bunch of money to go play for the Cincinnati Royals. That's why I think the Bulls' greatest accomplishment has been keeping that nucleus of Jordan and Pippen together all these years. It definitely would have been harder for us to keep our team together and win all those titles if players could have moved around the way they can today."

If they played today, the Russell-era Celtics also would have had to survive more playoff games to win their championships. The postseason wasn't nearly the long, grueling ordeal for the Boston teams that it has been for Los Angeles and Chicago. In each of their first eight championship seasons, the Celtics had to win only two series to take the title, and they needed to beat only three playoff opponents to win each of their last three championships of the Russell era. By contrast, the Lakers' championship teams needed to win three series twice and four series thrice, and the Bulls needed to prevail in four series in each of their championship seasons. More opponents mean more of a chance of being beaten. However, the relative ease with which the Bulls have gone through postseasons during their reign is the one aspect of championship performance in which they have surpassed the Celtics and the Lakers.

Chicago is the only one of the three dynamos that is undefeated in the Finals. (The Celtics lost to the St. Louis Hawks in 1958; the Lakers lost to the 76ers in '83 and the Celtics in '84.) Astonishingly, the Bulls' title teams have never been pushed to a seventh game in the Finals, and overall they have played only one seven-game series, in the '92 Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Knicks. The Lakers played three seven-game series, all in '88, their last championship season, and the Celtics made a habit of playing—and winning—seventh games: They won all 10 they played during their championship years.

Although Chicago and L.A. have won with more ease in the playoffs, Boston was the more dominant regular-season team. The Celtics finished with the best record in the NBA in nine of the 13 years that spanned their dynasty, while the Bulls have had the best record in three of the last seven years, and the Lakers finished on top in the regular season only in the last two seasons of their nine-year run.

So it says here the Celtics still reign as the premier dynasty, but the Bulls have surpassed the Lakers, and Jordan isn't finished yet. The confetti was still floating from the United Center rafters last Friday night when he looked into a television camera and held up his fingers to symbolize Chicago's titles. Jordan did not hold up five fingers. He held up six.

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