“Here is the truth. Jordan’s hour has passed,” wrote Bernie Lincicome after Chicago’s disappointing loss to Orlando in the 1995 playoffs. It was a defeat in which expectations directly clashed with reality, because for even the most skeptical fans there was a belief or hope that Michael Jordan could rescue the struggling Bulls. They had arguably overachieved the previous season and all signs pointed to a rebuild for the summer of 1995 as the team struggled to hold a .500 record. A retooling would have certainly include dealing Scottie Pippen for multiple present and future draft picks to pair with the 26-year old Toni Kukoc. Many might guess that when Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls in March of 1995, champagne orders would have replaced rebuilding discussions. However, in 1995 things were not so clear-cut, and Jordan’s struggles, Pippen’s conflict with the organization, age, and an early and disappointing playoff exit combined to produce more questions and uncertainty than talk of another championship. Instead it was an offseason dominated by swirling trade rumors, hard questions about the future, and, for an organization that would focus the next three years on keeping the championship core together, it was an offseason plagued with speculation about breaking that core up.
“I don’t want to be here (with the Bulls) the rest of the season. I’m hoping I won’t be. I’m hoping teams are thinking about me. I’m still ready to get out of here. I’m looking for a different place, a different team, a different perspective on my career.” -Scottie Pippen, Chicago Tribune, Feb 7, 1995
It was February 1995, Michael Jordan was playing baseball, the Bulls were struggling to maintain a winning record, and Scottie Pippen was showcasing himself in preparation for the trade deadline. Trade rumors surrounding Scottie Pippen were nothing new and with the Bulls asking for draft picks, the lottery-bound Warriors, Clippers, 76ers, and the Timberwolves were center-stage in the rumors swirling around the trade deadline. It seemed like everyone wanted in on the Pippen sweepstakes, and as he fielded questions about where he would like to play, Sam Smith was proposing a trade with the Magic that would have given the Bulls Anfernee Hardaway. The trade deadline came and went with Pippen still a Bull, content on finishing the season but even Michael Jordan’s return did not quell the rumors or dissuade some that major roster changes were necessary.
The offseason brought more apprehension than starry-eyed optimism. Instead of championship talk Jordan fielded questions about his diminished basketball skills and the notion that the next few years would be the farewell tour of a once great player. The Bulls’ rookie forward Dickey Simpkins described the future as “up in the air.” Scottie Pippen, called by Sam Smith “30-year old angry veteran,” remained convinced he had played his last game as a Bull, while Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan downplayed their desire to take part in a rebuild.
Jordan said that he would consider a Pippen trade the clear signal that Chicago intended to rebuild, which was within the realm of possibility. In the days before Twitter, people read the speculation in the newspaper and the Chicago Tribune reported that within hours of losing to Orlando the Bulls’ front office were on the phone with suitors for Pippen, many of them the same lottery-bound teams from previous talks. The Bulls wanted draft picks, so the avalanche of trade talk reached its zenith around the lottery and right before the draft, with the top four picks being the key targets for Chicago. The Clippers were the most serious contenders in a deal for Pippen who could offer their #2 pick and multiple future 1st round picks, but close seconds were the Warriors (#1 pick), the 76ers (#3 pick), and Minnesota (#5 pick).
“Every month Pippen stays, his value decreases…And does he have enough surrounding him to succeed? Clearly not. Pippen will be 30 before next season begins, but more importantly, will have played more than 25,000 minutes in the NBA, a career for many players.” -Sam Smith, Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1995
The question facing the Bulls that summer was whether or not to begin rebuilding or make one last run with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Anyone reading this may instinctively recognize the obvious choice, but in 1995 the latter option appeared to some as the riskier move. Sam Smith wrote in the Tribune that the only way to stay on top was to deal Pippen for picks and build for the future, which he saw in Toni Kukoc. Bernie Lincicome wrote that, though aged, Jordan and Pippen were worth building around because “they are all that is worth keeping,” noting that Kukoc was a “once-a-week wonder” and that all three Bulls’ centers did not make one working part. In other words, some were skeptical the Bulls had enough to make a title run and if they did, the team was certainly not built for any success beyond a few years. Others expressed a different opinion, citing the risk in trading superstar talent for draft picks and the fact that in all likelihood trading Pippen meant losing Jordan. ESPN’s Dick Vitale labelled Pippen on of the top five players in basketball, saying he wouldn’t trade him. Bill Walton had a similar opinion, calling a trade an “absolute no-no,” citing the relationship with Jordan, while Dick Versace, a former Pacers coach and at the time with TNT, advised the Bulls to hang on to Pippen, pair him with Jordan in the back court, and go get a big, rebounding, power forward.
The draft came and went with no blockbuster deal involving Scottie Pippen, a move Sam Smith called “one of the boldest steps in franchise history.” For those that wanted the Bulls to make a major offseason splash or bold move that would change course of the franchise, all that was left to do was lament what could have been. Theoretically Charles Barkley could have become a Bull that summer or the organization could have dealt Pippen for a top 5 selection in the draft and selected anyone from Joe Smith to Kevin Garnett. However, when the season started Chicago had paired an unstable Dennis Rodman with an aging Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, which had many predicting disaster. The word bold or phrase “risk-taker” are not what fans usually associate with the Bulls front office, but according to Jerry Riensdorf, immediate success was the priority in 1995 and one could argue, as some did, that in 1995 the Bulls took the riskiest road possible. It just happened to work out.
Follow Lee Winningham on Twitter @jlw771