During Michael Jordan’s NBA career, he had a number of rivals. Most of them were on an individual player-versus-player basis, like Isiah Thomas, but a few of them involved the entire team. Today we’ll look at Jordan’s rivals, including a team that many fans wouldn’t expect during the early part of his career.
The Chicago Bulls’ rivalry with the Milwaukee Bucks
As Jordan grew into a league icon, their first real rivalry happened to be with the Milwaukee Bucks. During the 1980s, the Bucks were one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Led by Don Nelson, the team started the decade with seven seasons of 50+ wins, according to Basketball Reference. They were easily a thorn in Chicago’s side and gave Jordan a first-round exit during his rookie season three games to one.
Here’s what Jordan had to say about the Bucks when speaking to Cigar Aficionado: “Early on, it was Milwaukee. We couldn’t beat Milwaukee. They were just 45 minutes to an hour away. They were a strong team and they constantly kept beating us. Even when we got in the playoffs, they kept beating us.”
Michael Jordan’s rivalry with the Detroit Pistons
The rivalry with Detroit would be a lot more personal for Jordan and the Bulls. As his popularity grew around the world, there seemed to be a perceived slight between Jordan and Pistons guard Thomas.
Thomas was a native of Chicago and the two players were constantly seen going back and forth during games. Chicago would ultimately face off with Detroit in three straight playoffs.
The first meeting was in the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals, which Detroit won 4-2. The next season the two teams met in the Eastern Conference Finals, with another win by Detroit in seven games. The following season would see the rivalry reach new heights.
Infamous Eastern Conference finals between the Bulls and Pistons
For two straight years, Chicago saw elimination by way of Detroit, and it fueled them heading into the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals matchup. It was another tough series for the Bulls. Detroit was arguably the most physical team in the NBA, and anytime a player from Chicago headed into the lane bodies were thrown at them.
The team didn’t get the nickname “The Bad Boys” for their fluid offense on the court. They were one of the grittiest and toughest teams the league had seen, and also won back-to-back championships, so it wasn’t like the Bulls were facing a pushover.
During Game 4 of the series, as the closing seconds winded down, Isiah Thomas led the team off of the bench and walked back to the locker room, refusing to shake hands with the players and coaching staff of the Bulls.
This was taken as an extremely disrespectful act around the league, and some even speculate it was the main reason Thomas was kept off of the first Dream Team for the 1992 Olympic Games.
Other rivals of the Bulls
Besides the Bucks and Pistons, there were two other teams in the East that were considered rivals of Chicago. The first was the Boston Celtics. Led by Larry Bird, they swept the Bulls in the first round in both 1986 and 1987.
The other main rival of Jordan and the Bulls was the New York Knicks. The Knicks gave Chicago tough battles in the late ’80s and early ’90s and made the NBA Finals during Jordan’s first retirement.