The Demise of the Bulls in the 1998-99 Season

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Madelyn Burke: They say all good things must come to an end, including "The Last Dance" documentary and the talented Chicago Bulls dynasty it followed. The season after the last dance was, of course, delayed due to a lockout amidst labor negotiations. But once it began, it didn't take long for the landscape to shift. I'm joined now by SI's Ben Pickman, who recently took a look at how members of the '98-'99 Bulls and the surrounding parties remember that last dance and what came next, Ben? Six months after winning their sixth NBA championship, the Bulls didn't even have enough players to practice with. How indicative was that of what was coming for this franchise?

Ben Pickman: Yeah, it was incredibly indicative of what was to come that season. In that 50 game, lockout-shortened, ended up being 13-37 win season. Now, those Chicago Bulls, they really struggled that year, as I said. And at the start of the season, they didn't even have enough players to go through a practice. They had a new coach that year, Tim Floyd, who was hired straight from college. And at Floyd's first practice in some of those early practices, they only had four, five, six, seven guys. And so that led a number of the returners to look at themselves and say, is this a joke? And almost everybody has gone. They looked at each other and said, this is not the franchise that we were used to. Now, some of those new guys, they fit right in, but they struggled as a team to gel and cohere as a unit. Now, there were only seven returners in the end from that final last dance season into the 98 99 season. Many of them role players, of course, Jordan and Pippen. Rodman. Steve Kerr. They were all gone. Phil Jackson was even gone. Many of the names of guys you mentioned even came back on one year deals. So it wasn't like they were here or with the Chicago Bulls for a long period of time. One guard, Randy Brown, he told me that that was kind of the bittersweet part of it all, that the greatest team ever, he said, never had a chance to be beaten. 

Madelyn Burke: They say you got to play for the name on the front of your jersey and not the back. But this team coming off their second three peat, an NBA championship with an entirely different roster. How different is it playing with that bull's eye on your back without the likes of Michael Jordan on the squad?

Ben Pickman: Right. And a lot of the teams they play that year, as you said, wanted to take out the punishment, the hurt that the Bulls had provided for years and years and years on this 98, 99 team. So Randy Brown. Dickey Simpkins, a number of others said that, yes, they had this bull's eye on their back from being title winners for each of the last three seasons. So they said they really got beat down a few times throughout that year. I must say, their longest win streak was just two games. And as I mentioned, they won just 13 games all year of the 50 total that were played. They lost by 47 points to Orlando. They actually had the worst home-loss in United Center history to the Detroit Pistons early in the year. And that lost, of course, the last time Detroit had actually beaten the Bulls in Chicago had been in the 1990 season before the Bulls had even won their first title. And so all these teams, Orlando, Detroit, Seattle, Charlotte, they all took their cracks at the Chicago Bulls in that season. And so that was one of the staples of it. Now, one other thing I should add, though, is that the guys did play hard and the fans were supportive and they did not boo. But it just was not the most talented group without Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. 

Madelyn Burke: Its definitely quite the change for sure. And watching a team go from the best to one of the bottom teams in the NBA was the important lesson for guys like Steve Kerr, who is now coaching the Golden State Warriors, and it's seeing that kind of swing happening to that dynasty as well. Ben Pickman, thank you so much for the insight. 

Ben Pickman: Thanks a lot for having me. 

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