By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Throughout the entirety of the wonderful 10-part documentary “The Last Dance,” the one question that seems unfathomable to even try to answer is how and why was Bulls management so intent on ending the dynasty? Why did Jerry Krause say that Phil Jackson could go 82-0 yet still would be gone after the ’98 season? Why did Jerry Reinsdorf side with his GM over the greatest basketball player of all time? How was there no effort at all made to keep Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the rest of the Bulls’ core together to try to make it four straight championships and seven titles overall?
Even after viewing all 10 hours, there’s no real clear answer. And MJ himself appears to be still perturbed by the way that it ended.
“It’s maddening,” Jordan said of the end of the Bulls run. “Because I felt like we could’ve won seven. I really believe that. We may not have, but man, just to not be able to try, that’s something that I just can’t accept for whatever reason. I just can’t accept it.”
For general sports fans, the documentary was captivating. For folks in New England who just saw the dissolution of the greatest partnership in NFL history with Bill Belichick moving on from Tom Brady, it was a bit more relatable.
But will the ’90s Bulls serve as a picture of what to expect for the Patriots? Belichick, Robert Kraft, and all of New England have to hope that that’s not the case.
The documentary ended by saying the Bulls began their “rebuild” in the summer of ’98. That “rebuild” manifested itself in the form of one the very worst seasons in Bulls history the following year, when the Bulls went 13-37 in a lockout-shortened ’99 season. It got even worse the next year, when they went 17-65. They fell impossibly further the next season, going 15-67 as the worst team in the entire NBA.
Coming off three straight championships, the Bulls put together a 45-169 in the three seasons that followed. They were 119-341 in the six seasons following ’98. They never did quite get around to that rebuild.
It makes you wonder … will the Patriots end up like that?
Almost assuredly, the answer has to be no. For two major reasons.
For one, Phil Jackson left those Bulls. Belichick, as far as we all know, has no plans to leave the Patriots or football any time soon. Tim Floyd is not walking through that door.
So in the sense of retaining the greatest coach in history, the Patriots will remain in good hands for the foreseeable future.
The second factor is that even though Brady is now gone to do Tompa things in Tompa Bay, the Patriots’ roster is far from decimated. Yes, a number of key contributors on defense have departed via free agency, such as Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton and Duron Harmon. While some rookies may be able to offset the losses, the Patriots may be falling back slightly from having the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
Still, the unit should be plenty potent, and the cupboards aren’t at all bare up and down the roster. The team invested in Devin McCourty and Joe Thuney, and there’s enough talent on the roster for the Patriots to remain competitive in the AFC East.
The ’99 Bulls? That was a different story. Here’s a look at the ’98 Bulls roster and the ’99 Bulls roster. Listed are all players who averaged 16 minutes or more per game.
Bulls Leaders In Minutes Played, 1997-98
1. Michael Jordan
2. Scottie Pippen
3. Dennis Rodman
4. Toni Kukoc
5. Luc Longley
6. Ron Harper
7. Steve Kerr
Bulls Leaders In Minutes Played, 1998-99
1. Toni Kukoc
2. Brent Barry
3. Ron Harper
4. Randy Brown
5. Dickey Simpkins
6. Mark Bryant
7. Andrew Lang
8. Kornel David
9. Rusy LaRue
10. Charles Jones
That is … drastic.
While obviously going from Tom Brady to Jarrett Stidham (or Brian Hoyer) marks a significant change, the Patriots will still be returning their starting offensive line, running backs and receivers on offense. Defensively, they’ll be returning eight players who started at least nine games last year. Of the 22 players who started the Patriots’ playoff game in January, 15 will be back in 2020. In a league where roster turnover is the only constant, that’s a high number.
So, from those two perspectives, New Englanders should feel confident that a bottoming-out in the basement of the NFL does not await the Patriots. Anything is possible in a sport as unpredictable as football, but a repeat of the ’99 Bulls should not be on its way to Foxboro.
Still, even with that being the realistic case, “The Last Dance” and the drastic downturn of the Bulls can at least serve as a reality check of how quickly things can change in the world of sports.
Consider that the Bulls went to the Finals in six out of eight years, only seven of which involved Michael Jordan. Extend it out to a 10-year window, and the Bulls’ franchise resume looks like this:
7 NBA titles
7 NBA Finals appearances
8 Eastern Conference finals appearances
592-228 regular-season record (.722 winning percentage)
Now look at the 22-year window since the end of that run:
0 NBA titles
0 NBA Finals appearances
1 Eastern Conference finals appearance
780-959 regular-season record (.449 winning percentage)
From making the conference finals eight times in 10 years, to making the conference finals once in 22 years. After winning six championships in eight years, the Bulls would go seven years before making the playoffs again and nine years before winning a playoff series.
The good old days sure do have a way of quickly becoming the distant past, don’t they?
For the Patriots, a comparable fate may indeed be on the way. While they’ll almost certainly remain competitive in the coming years, the departure of Brady makes them much more like every other team in the NFL. Having an ace in the hole in the form of the greatest clutch quarterback the sport has ever seen has served them rather well over the years, and it’s helped to minimize any potential holes on the roster. That was true early in his career, and it was certainly true in the latter part, too. The fourth quarter and overtime performances against Seattle, Atlanta, Kansas City and Los Angeles would be enough for any quarterback to make the Hall of Fame twice over. For Brady, it served as icing on his career cake.
Tom Brady, Fourth Quarter/Overtime Stats, Postseason, 2014-18
1,290 yards, 7.17 yards per attempt
9 TDs, 1 INT
100.0 passer rating
12-2 record (.857 winning percentage)
Three championships, two Super Bowl MVPs
Michael Jordan, Postseason Per-Game Stats, 1996-98
45-13 record (.776 winning percentage)
Three championships, three NBA Finals MVPs
The Patriots’ run of success in Dynasty Part Deux has been arguably better than the first chapter, when the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years. Any way you break it down, though, the past 20 years in New England have been absurd and unprecedented in NFL history.
New England Patriots, 2001-07
86-26 regular-season record (.768 winning percentage)
14-3 playoff record
Four Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl wins
Five conference championship appearances
Six division titles
New England Patriots, 2010-18
125-35 (.781 winning percentage)
16-6 playoff record
Five Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl wins
Eight conference championship appearances
Nine division titles
While all of that was going on, plenty of folks tried to provide the proper context for what was taking place. Yet it’s often difficult to take that wide-angle view of the present. If that run of perpetual contention for championships is indeed over, the overwhelming dominance of that Brady/Belichick run should only grow in magnitude.
And while a complete franchise collapse really won’t be in store for the Patriots, the New England region is now set to learn what life is like once the actual GOAT leaves town. Any way you break it down, a change in expectations and reality is in order.