Perhaps the truest mark of any all-time great is the teams he left in his wake. Bill Russell and the Celtics buried Jerry West and the Lakers throughout the 1960s, and LeBron James has no shortage of Eastern Conference foes decimated throughout the 2010s. But no superstar in history has dispatched a generation of elite players and teams quite like Michael Jordan.
Jordan’s hit count in the 1990s is iconic. He ended the Bad Boy Pistons, shut down Clyde Drexler’s Blazers and out-dueled Charles Barkley en route to a trio of Finals, and that was before his first retirement. Seattle’s best season of the Gary Payton era came to a bitter end against Jordan. The Jazz got a double dose of Jordan in MJ’s last two titles. And that’s just the Finals. Jordan silenced Madison Square five (!) times. He fought past Indiana on his last legs. Imagining the NBA Finals of the 1990s without Jordan is an interesting parlor game.
So which squads that Jordan dismissed are actually the top teams of the 1990s? We at The Crossover ranked the best squads Jordan kept from seizing that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy.
1. 1996–97 Utah Jazz
You could quibble with which Jazz squad deserves the nod here, and both Stockton and Malone squads made Jordan sweat in the Finals. But the 1996–97 team won more games and had a better offensive rating and defensive rating than Utah’s 1997–98 team, giving them a slight edge.
Perhaps the late-90s Jazz weren’t stacked with stars, but they were exceptionally deep, playing 12 players over 10 minutes per game in 1996–97. Jeff Hornacek was still near his prime, and Karl Malone was named MVP. Utah swept the Clippers and dispatched the Lakers in five games in the first two rounds, and Jerry Sloan’s team then exacted revenge over the Rockets two years after the Mario Elie shot. The title was firmly in reach, but Jordan had other ideas. The Jazz are still awaiting their first title in franchise history.
2. 1992–93 Phoenix Suns
Charles Barkley & Co. squeaked through to the Finals, needing five games to defeat the Lakers in the first round and seven games to defeat the Sonics in the Western Conference finals. But don’t mistake playoff struggles for anything less than dominance for much of 1992–93. Phoenix ripped off 62 wins before the postseason, and it posted a league-leading 113.3 offensive rating. Barkley came to Phoenix after eight years in Philadelphia and subsequently won MVP. Some may attribute Barkley’s honor to Jordan fatigue, but there’s no denying Barkley’s excellence in his first year with the Suns.
Barkley wasn’t a one-man band by any stretch of the imagination. Kevin Johnson remained an electric point guard in 1991–92—though he did struggle in the Finals—while sharpshooter Dan Majerle led the league in threes. Phoenix’s Finals squad was a true offensive juggernaut, and one well suited for the modern era. But Michael Jordan is considered the GOAT for a reason. Jordan averaged 41 points per game in the Finals (on 40% from three), including a 55-point explosion in Game 4. Barkley held his own, but nobody could challenge Jordan at his peak as Chicago sealed the three-peat.
3. 1995–96 Seattle SuperSonics
George Karl averaged 59.5 wins in his six full seasons with the SuperSonics, and the 1995–96 squad was likely his best. Seattle was the league’s No. 2 defense and No. 8 offense, sprinting to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with 64 wins. And a quick peek at the roster quickly explains the Sonics’ success.
Both Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton finished in the top 10 of the MVP race, and Detlef Schrempf was still cruising as an impact scorer in 1996–97. Seattle sported significant stretch with the Schrempf, Sam Perkins and Hershey Hawkins trio.
The Sonics ended the Rockets’ three-peat bid with a sweep in the second round, then outlasted Utah in a seven-game thriller to reach the Finals. But the Finals ended quicker than the series tally suggests. Chicago won the first three games of the series, then won Game 6 at home by double-digits. Payton and Kemp were a menacing two-man combo in 1995–96. Yet they stood little chance against a rejuvenated Michael Jordan.
4. 1992–93 New York Knicks
Barkley’s Suns would likely thrive in the modern era. Patrick Ewing’s Knicks? Not so much. New York averaged ranked No. 22 in offensive rating in 1992–93, and the roster wasn’t exactly filled with scoring punch. Ronaldo Blackman was on his last legs by the time he got to New York, and Doc Rivers and Greg Anthony weren’t exactly scoring dynamos. But after years during which Ewing was largely on his own, 1992–93 marked the emergence of a dynamic duo.
John Starks had been in New York for two seasons entering 1992–93, though he was largely a complementary player, failing to enter the starting lineup in a single game in 1991–92. Starks’s third season with New York marked a turning point. He jumped to 17.5 points per game, earning All-Defensive team honors as he started 51 games. New York won 30 of its last 37 contests amid Starks’s rise, and the Knicks cruised past Indiana and Charlotte en route to the Eastern Conference finals. Starks held his own against Chicago, including a 25-point performance in Game 1. But Jordan and the Bulls ripped off four straight after falling in a 2–0 deficit, marking just one of many heartbreaks for the Knicks in the 1990s.
5. 1990–91 Detroit Pistons
Dethroning Detroit in 1991 remains one of Jordan’s top career accomplishments, an achievement that was chronicled at length in The Last Dance. The Pistons battered and bruised Jordan for years, continually keeping him out of the esteemed company of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Defeating the Pistons represented Jordan finally getting over the hump. But while Detroit remained a sturdy Finals contender as the 80s ended, the 1990–91 team is by no means the franchise’s best.
Detroit won 50 games in 1990–91, a nine-win dip from the previous season. Both Vinny Johnson and Mark Aguirre were near the end of their careers, as was interior enforcer Bill Laimbeer. This isn’t to say that Detroit was some sort of paper Tiger. Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars finished in the top 15 of the MVP voting, and Thomas frankly should have fared better than his No. 13 finish. But champions always run out of gas sooner or later, and 1991 marked the end of Detroit’s golden era. The 1990–91 run ended in a sweep against Chicago, and it took 11 years for the Pistons to win a playoff series after their loss to the Bulls. The peak Isaiah Pistons could have beaten any team on this list. The 1990–91 squad ran out of juice with plenty of miles on the odometer.
6. 1991–92 Portland Trail Blazers
Portland was well positioned to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 1991–92 as Clyde Drexler finished behind only Jordan in the MVP voting. The Blazers won 57 games in the regular season and dropped just three playoffs contests en route to the Finals, and it appeared as though Jordan could have his hands full as he eyed back-to-back championships. The prognosticators were quickly proven wrong.
Jordan banged home six first-half threes in Game 1 of the Finals—leading to the famous shrug—finishing the night with 39 points in a 33-point win. And MJ continued to dominate through the Finals. He scored 39 again in Game 2 and an outrageous 46 in Game 5, giving the Bulls a 3–2 series edge as it returned to Chicago. Portland kept it close in Game 6, but Chicago outscored the Blazers by 19 in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. Portland has yet to return to the Finals after Drexler was shredded by His Airness.
7. 1995–96 Orlando Magic
Penny and Shaq defeated Jordan’s Bulls in the second round of the 1995 playoffs, and back-to-back Finals appearances was certainly in play entering the 1996 Eastern Conference finals. The Magic won 60 games in the regular season, then won seven of their first eight playoff games. They quickly ran into a buzzsaw.
Jordan didn’t do much heavy lifting in a four-game sweep of Orlando. Dennis Rodman controlled the paint with 13 points and 21 rebounds in Game 1, and Scottie Pippen led Chicago with 27 points in Game 3. But with a sweep in sight, Jordan smelled blood, dropping 45 points in a five-point victory. O’Neal left for Los Angeles that summer, stopping what could have been the league’s premier duo in its tracks. Orlando wouldn’t reach the Eastern Conference finals for another 13 years.
8. 1997–98 Indiana Pacers
Indiana reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1998 and 1999, then broke through to the reach the Finals in 2000. But the 1997–98 squad was perhaps the best Pacers team of the Reggie Miller era. The sharpshooting guard canned 42.9% of triples, and Miller was surrounded by a dominant defensive core. Dale and Antonio Davis packed a serious punch in the middle of Indiana’s defense, and Rik Smits logged his lone All-Star campaign. And it looked for a second like the Pacers were ready to dethrone the Bulls.
Indiana clawed back from a 2–0 series deficit with nail-biter wins in Game 3 and 4, and the Pacers pulled off a three-point win in Game 6. Chicago faced a dogfight in Game 7. Jordan made just nine of 25 shots, and Chicago missed 17 free throws while shooting 38.2% from the field. But Indiana scored just four points in the final 5:50 of regulation, sending the Bulls to their sixth straight Finals. Miller would have to wait two more seasons to seize the Eastern Conference crown.