Bullish 03.02.17: The Ultimate NBA Counterfactual
Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season. In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated. I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root. I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.
The Chicago Bulls are at the center of two of the NBA’s biggest counterfactuals. One is well known: what if in the 1984 draft, the Portland Trail Blazers took Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie with the second pick. League history would be very different (for the record, those Bulls were well stocked with bigs so I think they would have taken Charles Barkley with their pick if Jordan was off the board), but the circumstances behind that moment warrant their own dispatch. Let’s look at what happened five years earlier in April 1979.
In the 1979 draft, there was one incandescent talent, Magic Johnson. Like 1984, this was a pre-lottery draft. It was in fact, pre-draft mania too. If the answer is Bob Lanier, Austin Carr, LaRue Martin, Bill Walton, David Thompson, John Lucas, Kent Benson, and Mychal Thompson, then the question Alex is “who were the NBA first overall picks in the ‘70s before Magic. There are three Hall of Famers and only one Bargnani level bust (Martin), but it’s easy to see why the draft wasn’t looked at as a wellspring of transformational talent the way it is now. No one was tanking to be able draft Austin Carr, and in fact, it wasn’t uncommon for teams to trade their first round pick without condition for veteran talent; whether outright or as compensation for free agent signings. This is how the Lakers, 45-37 in 1978-’79 wound up vying for the first round pick; they had been awarded it (as well as a 1977 first rounder and a 1980 second rounder) when Gail Goodrich signed with the New Orleans Jazz in 1976. Goodrich was 33 at the time of the deal and signing 33 year old shooting guards is rarely a good roster construction strategy and this one blew up in the Jazz’s face. By 1978-’79, the team slumped to 26-56, the worst record in the league, and they were preparing to move to their current home in Salt Lake City.
Owning the pick of the team with the worst record didn’t guarantee the Lakers the first pick, rather it qualified them for a coin flip with the team that suffered the worst record in the other conference. At the time New Orleans was in the Eastern Conference and the Chicago Bulls were in the West (NBA geography was a little weird at the time. San Antonio and Houston played in the East; Chicago, Indiana and Milwaukee were in the West. The Bulls that season finished 31-51, at the bottom of their conference, and yes it was a compressed league at that that point, following an era in the early ‘70s, following expansion where the best teams routinely won 65 games, in 1979 the Association’s best record belonged to the 54-28 Washington Bullets.
Commissioner Larry O’Brien flipped the coin. The Bulls GM Rod Thorn called heads. It was tails. The Lakers drafted Magic Johnson and won five titles in nine seasons and went to the Finals in two other seasons. The Bulls chose UCLA power forward David Greenwood and continued their mediocrity until 1984, when Portland passed on Jordan.
But what if the coin came up heads?
The lore on this Is that Johnson would have returned to Michigan State for his junior year, but I doubt that. Magic was a kid from Lansing Michigan. Chicago may not have had the glamour of Los Angeles but compared to his roots, there were plenty of bright lights. Furthermore the Bulls weren’t your usual lottery top of the draft basket case. Just as the Lakers had Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the Bulls had a Hall of Fame bound center in Artis Gilmore. Just as the Lakers had a dynamic point guard who could move to shooting guard in Norm Nixon, Bulls backcourt leader Reggie Theus was capable of a similar shift. The Bulls had a solid spot up shooter in Scott May too.
It seems funny to say 33 years after Jordan’s arrival in the Windy City, but the Bulls desperately lacked for star power. Other Chicago teams had proudly boasted Hall of Famers and the Bears of that era had NFL’s best player in Walter Payton, but the Bulls who hadn’t existed two decades to that point had all stars but lacked a public face who ranked among the Association’s most elite talents. It was well within organizational memory that the Bulls had recently advanced to the Western Conference Finals in consecutive years but in 1975, their offense melted down in the fourth quarter against Golden State resulted in a miserable, 83-79 loss. Chicago’s front office would have cracked open the vaults for a player like Magic. And Magic would have little incentive to return to college. Phil Hubbard, Michigan State’s other top notch player, was a senior and draft bound. And Magic liked the uptempo game but the NCAA was still five years from instituting a shot clock. By contrast in 1978-79, the league average Pace Factor in the NBA was 105.8, substantially faster today’s game where the Golden State Warriors are the league’s most uptempo team at a pace barely into triple digits. Yeah, if the coin flip came up heads, I think Magic would have been a Bull.
The NBA of the late ‘70s was substantially different from today’s league. Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Charlotte, Toronto and Memphis were not yet NBA cities; Kansas City, San Diego and Seattle were. NBA Finals games were typically shown on tape delay after the late, local news. The three point shot did not exist thus “Downtown Freddie Brown,” a sharpshooter for the Seattle Supersonics had value as a floor spacer for Jack Sikma and Dennis Johnson, but not directly on the scoreboard.
While Magic and Theus would have been NBA’s best backcourt from opening night, it’s far from clear that Johnson’s tenure in Chicago would have been anywhere near as glittered as his run with the Lakers. For one, Chicago was coached by Jerry Sloan, a former Bulls player, who advocated a slower half court game and often clashed with Theus over his desire to push the tempo. Secondly, while the Bulls weren’t as Barkley might now say turble, they weren’t good. Magic arrived to a 47 win Laker team and was the primary reason they won 60 in his rookie season. A comparable impact on the Bulls results in 44 wins and spot in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference. However, in Sloan’s second season, the Bulls acquired forward Larry Kenon from the San Antonio Spurs with improved front court play Chicago’s offense soared and their record improved to 45-37, but this was in the much tougher Eastern Conference (in a move of substantial geographic logic, the Pacers, the Bulls and Bucks were moved in the EC while the now Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs were moved into the Western Conference) where three teams, Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia all won 60 games. Magic probably would have put the Bulls in the Eastern elite with those teams.
What happens from there gets murky. The Bulls failed to sustain their success the following season. Sloan left. The team failed to improve markedly under new coach Paul Westhead, who had been forced out by Magic in Los Angeles, so the Bulls tanked and wound up drafting Jordan, the transformational talent that the team had long desired. The rest as they say…
Obviously, if Magic is a Bull, then Chicago is a perennial playoff team if not a championship contender and Jordan winds up somewhere else, maybe Dallas and the course of league history is substantially altered. All that from a coin flip.