Michael Jordan Once Revealed His ‘Great Respect’ for the Rockets and Doubted Whether the Bulls Could Have Beaten Houston in the NBA Finals
Just two teams won multiple NBA championships during the 1990s: The Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets. Those two franchises never met in the Finals, and Michael Jordan is probably glad they never did.
Former Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich revealed the extent of an interaction he had with MJ during which Jordan expressed doubts about the Bulls’ chances against Houston. Those doubts mostly centered around a man Jordan once deemed a “small forward playing center.”
The Houston Rockets won back-to-back championships immediately following Michael Jordan’s first retirement
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls reached unprecedented territory after completing a three-peat in 1993. But MJ’s shocking retirement that fall opened the door for other teams to win a title, and the Houston Rockets took full advantage.
Led by head coach Rudy Tomjanovich and Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets won back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. Olajuwon captured MVP honors during the 1993-94 season as Houston reached the NBA summit, and a resilient Rockets squad repeated the following season despite entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
Those Rockets teams had plenty of variety. Olajuwon dominated in the middle with a versatile skill set that gave inspiration to future All-Stars. Robert Horry’s size, shooting, and two-way playmaking made him a valuable asset, and guards such as Kenny Smith and Mario Elie spaced the floor, with Vernon Maxwell supplying grit and swagger.
Granted, Houston’s titles came in Jordan’s absence, as MJ’s return to NBA action in 1995 did not prove enough for the Bulls. Still, Mike questioned whether Chicago could have beaten the Rockets even if he never retired or if the two teams ultimately did find themselves squaring off in the Finals.
Jordan admitted the Bulls might not have beaten the Rockets because of Hakeem Olajuwon
Several years after leading Houston to consecutive NBA championships, Rudy Tomjanovich found himself discussing hypotheticals with Michael Jordan.
Following Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, Rudy T and his assistants had dinner at Charles Barkley’s house before a game against the Phoenix Suns. Among the guests present was Jordan himself.
His Airness and the Rockets head coach quickly struck up a dialogue of “What If?” scenarios. According to Tomjanovich (h/t The Athletic), Jordan gave spontaneous praise for the championship Rockets teams. He also expressed doubt about the Bulls’ chances in a hypothetical Finals series, primarily because of Olajuwon.
“[Jordan] gave our team great respect. He didn’t feel that they could contain Hakeem. They just didn’t have the personnel to do it. And he said he thought we were the team that gave them the most trouble.”–Rudy Tomjanovich, via The Athletic
It’s rare for the ever-confident Jordan to make such a statement. But his assessment is worth examining.
Here’s something to consider: The Bulls went 0-2 against the Rockets during the 1992-93 season, just before the Rockets became champions. Olajuwon averaged 23.0 points, 15.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 5.0 blocks, and 4.0 steals during those contests. He dominated the interior and gave Chicago fits with his length.
Indeed, Olajuwon’s presence in the middle likely would have largely impacted the Bulls’ scoring opportunities in the paint, which is especially pertinent as far as Jordan is concerned. On the other end, The Dream had too many moves on the low post and was far too agile for Bulls bigs like Bill Cartwright, Scott Williams, and Stacey King. If Chicago sent doubles, Olajuwon could make the right basketball play.
Here’s a broader view for those questioning the above sample size: The Bulls went 1-5 against the Rockets during their first three-peat. As Jordan acknowledged, Houston legitimately gave Chicago problems.
Other former Bulls think differently
Toni Kukoc does not share Michael Jordan’s sentiments regarding the Rockets. In fact, the former Bulls forward still believes Chicago could have won a championship without MJ.
Kukoc said during an interview this summer that he feels the Bulls could have beaten the Rockets had they made it to the 1994 NBA Finals. Chicago split the season series with Houston during the 1993-94 regular season. Kukoc said Olajuwon would indeed have been a handful, but he felt the Bulls had the pieces to triumph.
Unfortunately, basketball fans can only dream of such a matchup or simulate it on the NBA 2K videogame series. However, Jordan’s skepticism is, if nothing else, indicative of just how good and those championship Rockets teams were in the mid-90s.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.