Why Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls Lose to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets in the Best NBA Finals Matchup We Never Saw
Call it blasphemy. Call it far-fetched. Call it insane. Call it whatever you want but I stand firm in my belief that even if Michael Jordan hadn’t retired in 1993, his Chicago Bulls don’t match the Boston Celtics’ record of eight consecutive NBA titles like so many think they would have. The reason? Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets, who won the title in 1994 in Jordan’s absence and again in 1995 when MJ returned to the NBA, would have simply been too much for the Bulls to handle.
Yeah, I went there.
Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets used to dominate Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls
While the Chicago Bulls could seemingly dominate every other team in the NBA with Michael Jordan on the roster, that certainly wasn’t the case with the Houston Rockets. During the Bulls’ first three-peat run from 1990-1993, the Bulls and Rockets matched up six times and Hakeem Olajuwon and company won five of those games. And before you Google it, yes, Jordan played in all six of those games and averaged 29.2 points.
Jordan was always going to get his and that’s not the issue here. Any team he ever played against was going to have to suck it up and deal with the fact that MJ was going to get his points. It’s just that the Rockets created a ton of matchup problems for Chicago.
The matchups favor the Houston Rockets
So let’s go ahead and jump into this hypothetical matchup in the 1994 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan never retired and he and the Chicago Bulls are back in the Finals for a fourth consecutive season, this time against Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.
For one, the Bulls have absolutely no answer for Olajuwon. Bill Cartwright? Nope. Luc Longley? Nope. Bill Wennington? Nope. And you have to remember that Dennis Rodman is two years away from joining the Bulls at this point so he’s not there to body up “The Dream.” Another big thing to note is that Phil Jackson didn’t like to double-team but he would have no choice but to do so here. Otherwise, Olajuwon is dropping 40 to 50 every night. When anyone doubles down, that leaves a number of shooters on the outside. The Rockets were ahead of their time in launching the long ball and attempted more three-pointers than any other team in each of their title seasons and those points add up quickly. And they had guys who could hit them in Mario Elie, Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, and Kenny Smith.
Again, Michael Jordan is going to get his points but Vernon Maxwell, as he did in those aforementioned matchups, would have made him work a lot harder to get them, which hurts on the other end of the floor. Yes, there’s still Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant to worry about. But let’s not forget that the Rockets had a highly-underrated Otis Thorpe. Combined in the frontcourt with Horry and Olajuwon, the trio creates a lot of matchup issues on both ends of the floor.
And simply put, the Rockets just had much better players coming off the bench than did the Bulls. Steve Kerr hadn’t become the player he became in later years and Scott Williams and Stacey King just weren’t threats for Chicago like guys such as Elie or Cassell were for Houston. Sure, there’s the Toni Kukoc factor but that was his first year in the NBA and he hadn’t yet blossomed into the player he became, despite some big moments that first season in the Windy City.
Now take this matchup into 1995 and it gets even worse for the Bulls.
The excuse that Michael Jordan wasn’t ready in the 1995 playoffs is a poor one; the Rockets dominated a Magic team that beat the Bulls
My favorite excuse about why the Chicago Bulls didn’t win the NBA title in 1995 is because Michael Jordan had just come back from his hiatus and that he wasn’t ready to fully compete for a championship, something he even said himself during The Last Dance. Okay, then why exactly did he average more points in the 1995 postseason (31.5) than he did in 1996 (30.7) or 1997 (31.1)? More so, he had a higher shooting percentage (48.4%) in the 1995 playoffs than he did in any of the Bulls’ playoff runs from 1996 to 1998, obviously the three seasons in which he won his final three titles. Can’t he just admit that he lost to a better team in the Orlando Magic, a team that the Houston Rockets dominated and swept in the ’95 NBA Finals? Oh wait, Michael Jordan would never admit anything like that, would he?
So take all of the matchups mentioned above and now apply those to a hypothetical 1995 NBA Finals battle between the Bulls and Rockets. Only this time, the Rockets have Clyde Drexler and the Bulls don’t have Horace Grant. You’re telling me there’s no way Houston wins that series? Come on.
It’s true that if any team and any player could make the right adjustments, it’s the 1990s Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. But you can’t overlook how great those Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets were. It’s just too bad we never got to see it play out.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference