In 1991, in what was a passing of the proverbial torch, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won their first of six NBA titles in the 1990s by defeating Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic, of course, won five titles with the Lakers in the 1980s, and the ’91 Finals were essentially a farewell party to the “Showtime” era. It wasn’t so much that Magic passed the torch to Michael, but more that Jordan just took it. The Lakers, while obviously still a strong team — they obviously still reached the Finals — certainly weren’t what they were even a few years before, and the younger Bulls were simply better.
However, a few years later, Magic said that although Jordan’s Bulls were a great team, they would have been dominated by his best Lakers team.
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls soundly defeated Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals
The 1990-91 season was an important one for Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. In each of the previous three years, they’d been knocked out of the NBA playoffs by the Detroit Pistons, the last two defeats coming in the Eastern Conference Finals. So it was important for Jordan & Co. to prove they could take that next step.
After winning a then-franchise record 61 games in the regular season, the Bulls continued their dominance in the postseason. In the first round, they swept the New York Knicks and destroyed the Philadelphia 76ers in five in the conference semis, setting up another meeting with Detroit in the conference finals. And we all know what happened there as the Bulls swept the Pistons to reach their first NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, Magic and the Lakers had something to prove in their own right. After being the dominant team in the NBA throughout the 1980s, reaching the Finals eight times and winning five titles, they were getting older but wanted to make one last run. At 58-24, they earned the No. 3 seed in the West and then defeated the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors to reach the conference finals, where they upset the Portland Trail Blazers, who had the best record in the NBA that year at 63-19.
But they were no match for Jordan and the Bulls in the Finals. After scoring an upset in Game 1, the Lakers were dominated over the next four games as Chicago won their first NBA title. Magic led the way for LA, averaging 18.6 points, 12.4 assists, and eight rebounds per game, but Jordan was simply unstoppable. MJ averaged 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 steals, and 1.4 blocks on the way to winning the first of six NBA Finals MVP awards.
Magic says his best Lakers team would ‘dominate’ Jordan’s best Bulls team
After getting over the hump against the Lakers, Jordan and the Bulls won five of the next seven NBA titles, a total some believe would be higher had MJ not opted to retire after Chicago’s first three-peat. The ’90s Bulls are seen by many as the greatest team in NBA history, and there’s certainly an argument for that. However, Magic once said his best Lakers team would “dominate” Jordan’s best Bulls team.
“Sometimes the Bulls rely on Michael [Jordan] too much. If you get me in foul trouble and get Michael in foul trouble, take us both out, you would see what would happen. Our team would dominate them. I mean, who’s going to stop Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]? We had so many more weapons. We would beat them.
“No question that Michael [Jordan] would have scored 50 on us or 50 on anybody else because he’s just a great basketball player. But I think we would’ve held everybody else down.”Magic Johnson on how his best Lakers team would beat Michael Jordan’s best Bulls team
Now, it’s always difficult to compare teams from different eras, but let’s look at Magic’s best Lakers team and Jordan’s best Bulls team and see what we can do.
Breaking down the fantasy series
Looking back on Magic’s best team, I’d have to say the 1984-85 Lakers were probably the best. They went 62-20 in the regular season, 15-4 in the postseason and were the first Lakers team to ever beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, doing so in six games. As for Jordan and the Bulls, the easy call would be the 1995-96 team that went 72-10 in the regular season, 15-3 in the postseason, and defeated the Seattle Supersonics in six games in the NBA Finals.
First, let’s look at the starting lineups and their scoring average for the season. For the Bulls, you’ve got Michael Jordan (30.4), Scottie Pippen (19.4), Luc Longley (9.1), Ron Harper (7.4), and Dennis Rodman (5.5). For the Lakers, you’ve got Magic Johnson (18.3), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (22.0), James Worthy (17.6), Byron Scott (16.0), and Kurt Rambis (5.2).
Off the bench, the Bulls had Toni Kukoc (13.1) and Steve Kerr (8.4), while the Lakers had Bob McAdoo (10.5), Mike McGee (10.2), Michael Cooper (8.6), and Jamaal Wilkes (8.3).
Now, we’d obviously have to look at more than just scoring in this fantasy battle, but, on that end, the Lakers clearly have the advantage. As Magic stated, Jordan is always going to get his. And Pippen and Kukoc are certainly capable of taking over a game. But, overall, the Lakers are just deeper. No, Kareem wasn’t in his prime at this point but still led the team in scoring. And the combo of Luc Longley and Bill Wennington isn’t going to stop him. Rodman would have certainly stepped up to that challenge, but that opens up many other avenues for the Lakers.
Worthy wasn’t in his prime when the Bulls and Lakers met in ’91, but then again, neither was Pippen. So in this fantasy series, that would certainly be a matchup to watch. Defensively, overall, the edge would probably have to go to Jordan and the Bulls. With MJ, Pippen, Rodman, and Harper, who reinvented himself with the Bulls as he wasn’t the scorer he once was, the Lakers would definitely have their work cut out for them. But it’s not as if those Lakers couldn’t play physical basketball.
Trust me. I could sit here and break down each individual matchup from top to bottom, but, in the end, it’s all moot. Sure, Magic’s Lakers are deeper, but it would be tough to bet against Jordan in the Finals, although I am one of those who believe the Bulls lose to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets if MJ didn’t retire in 1993. But we’ll obviously never know what would have happened if Jordan and the Bulls would have met Magic and the true “Showtime” Lakers.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference