Twenty-six years ago before a game against the Seattle Supersonics, a Spanish journalist asked Michael Jordan what he needed to improve his team. Jordan replied, “a cape,” and then led the Bulls to a 105-88 win with 18 points and a season high 15 assists.
In many ways, the 1988-89 season was a tumultuous one for the Chicago Bulls. Early on, they struggled to stay above .500 as conflicts between players as well as tension between the front office, coach, and staff adversely affected team chemistry. Despite early struggles, the Bulls played better in January and February 1989, but there were still concerns, especially on the offensive end.
“Jordan was growing angry about what he felt was Collins’ misuse of him, particularly that he thought the coach was overplaying him in the fourth quarter, when defenses are focusing on him the most.” –Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1989
The Bulls were 34-24 and on a three game losing streak when Michael Jordan and Doug Collins met for more than two hours to discuss issues such as offense, team harmony, and coaching philosophy. Jordan wanted more help on offense and many complained that communication issues between Doug Collins and Bulls point guard Sam Vincent, as well as Collins’ insistence on running plays through Bill Cartwright, slowed the Bulls offense down and were the source of their offensive struggles. Both coach and player emerged from the meeting optimistic and under the assumption that most issues had been addressed. “I think we are in agreement,” Jordan explained. “He wants me to have the ball, to create, make things happen.”
“Does he need a new nickname if he passes the ball more,” asked Sam Smith on March 12, 1989 after Jordan’s 18 point, 15 assist performance against the Seattle Supersonics, his first game at the point guard position. Over the eight games from March 11th to March 24th the Bulls were 6-2, and Jordan became a scoring and assist machine. In the March 13th 122-90 blowout of Indiana, Jordan reached the triple-double milestone by halftime, and finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 14 assists. In Los Angeles on March 21st he tied his career high of 16 assists, and three nights later in Portland set a new high with 17 assists, 9 in the first quarter. “I’m still learning the stuff at point guard,” Jordan said. “But I’m a quick learner.”
Jordan reaches tripe-double by halftime
On March 25th the Bulls were in Seattle and Scottie Pippen scored 31 points including the game winning three-pointer. But Jordan’s 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists was triple-double #1 in what became the second longest streak in NBA History. Over the next six games, Michael Jordan would indeed prove that he was “a quick learner,” and as the triple-doubles mounted, everyone was left to wonder or fear what was in store if he ever learned his new position.
Triple-Double #2 March 28, 1989 vs Golden State 33 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists
Triple-Double #3 March 29, 1989 @ Milwaukee 32 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists
Triple-Double #4 March 31, 1989 vs Cleveland 37 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists
Triple-Double #5 April 2, 1989 vs New Jersey 27 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 assists
“The bottom line is that Michael is a better point guard than I will ever be,” said Bulls’ actual point guard Sam Vincent. By the beginning of April the words NBA title and Chicago Bulls were being used in the same sentence and Jordan was considering making the point guard experiment a permanent thing. The triple-double had become so routine that Jordan could “feel it” when he got close, and he had also taken to checking his stats on the bench to see exactly what he needed to keep the streak alive.
“I knew I had 9 assists, and I looked at Brad (Sellers) and said, ‘Brad can I count on you for my 10th?’ And he said ‘Yeah,’ and he hit a jumper from the baseline.” –Michael Jordan, April 2, 1989
During the streak, triple-doubles may have become a nightly personal goal for Michael Jordan, but with every one of them he also chipped away at the narrative that he was a selfish player, incapable of making his teammates better. “I thought Michael was the focal point of the game,” said Bill Cartwright after Jordan’s first game at point guard on March 11th. “When he’s on top and they try to double team him, someone is glaringly open.”
Jordan at point guard “opens up the floor for the whole team,” noted Scottie Pippen. By early April the Bulls were 11-3 with Jordan at the helm and both Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, who thrived in the faster-paced offense, saw their shot attempts and scoring increase. Pippen’s scoring increased from 13 points per game to 18, Grant’s from 11 to almost 15 points per game, and Doug Collins was calling fewer plays. As for Jordan, his scoring was down from 33 to 28 points while his assists had almost doubled to 12 a game. Doug Collins was right: “His [scoring] numbers are down, everybody else’s numbers are up-and the team is winning.”
“It puts pressure on the other players to actually produce. I am going to draw a lot of attention and make it easier for me to pass the ball off. And the guys are responding.” -Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan, April 6, 1989
The fact that Michael Jordan recorded his sixth consecutive triple-double with 33 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists against the Charlotte Hornets on April 4th did not really impress the Detroit Pistons who had already beaten Chicago four times. The Bulls came into their back-to-back meeting with the Pistons winners of eight of the last nine games, but were fighting a number of injuries to key players. John Paxson and Craig Hodges missed the game with injured ankles and Jordan had been nursing a sore groin since early March.
“With Michael at point guard they are still basically the same team,” said Bill Laimbeer after the Pistons beat the Bulls 115-108 for the fifth time despite Jordan’s 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists, his seventh consecutive triple-double. The next night in Chicago the Bulls and Pistons battled in an emotional overtime thriller. Bill Cartwright and Isaiah Thomas were ejected and later suspended for fighting, five players, including Jordan, fouled out, Doug Collins had to be restrained at the end of regulation over what he felt was a missed goal tend call on Pippen’s last shot in regulation, and, like most Bulls’ accomplishments in the late 1980s, Jordan’s run of triple-doubles ended with a sub-par 40 points, 7 rebounds, and 11 assists in a 114-112 loss to the Detroit Pistons.
The two losses to Detroit were the first of a six game losing streak, despite the fact that Jordan started a new three game streak of triple-doubles. Injuries, illness, suspensions, or family issues, each game it was something different, and by April 14th the Bulls were entering every contest short handed, with Jordan carrying most of the offensive load.
Triple-Double #1 April 9, 1989 @ Atlanta 40 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists
Triple -Double #2 April 13, 1989 @ Indiana 47 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists
Triple-Double #3 April 14, 1989 @ New Jersey 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists
Jordan’s second triple-double streak ended against Cleveland on April 16th, the final tally being ten in eleven games. However, it was only a short break because he added another one against the Washington Bullets with 34 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists in the Bulls last regular season win of the 1988-89 season.
In the final twenty-four games of the season, Michael Jordan had at least a double-double in twenty of them, which included 12 triple-doubles in which he averaged 33.6 points, 11 rebounds, and 11.3 assists. His streak of fifteen double-doubles that began on March 18th and ended on April 16th against the Cavaliers remains a Bulls franchise record and it has taken twenty-six years for a player to get close to his streak of seven consecutive triple-doubles.
Overall, the Bulls went 13-11 during Jordan’s double-double/triple-double barrage finish to the season and ended it 47-35. They would go on to have a deep playoff run. The Bulls defeated the Cavaliers with more Jordan heroics in five games, knocked off the second place Knicks in six games, and finally lost to the Detroit Pistons, who went on to the first of their two NBA titles. Throughout his dominating performances, Michael Jordan insisted he was “learning the point guard position.” I think he mastered it.
The NBA’s highlight compilation from the triple-double streak
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