ESPN’s sensational The Last Dance docuseries masterfully retells the true story of Michael Jordan and the teams he led to six NBA Championships.
Filled with 90’s nostalgia and never-before-seen footage of the greatest player to ever grace the hardwood, the ten part docuseries uncovers the truth about Jordan’s Bulls, the obstacles that forged their will to win, and the ego that ended their run prematurely.
At least that’s the narrative ESPN has hammered into the minds of SportsCenter viewers for five weeks and counting.
But Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has recently joined Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen in criticizing a fundamental flaw at the documentary’s core: Michael Jordan’s oversight in crafting his own story. “If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period.”
One aspect that Michael evidently did not want in his own documentary was deceased General Manager Jerry Krause’s side of the story.
From the narrative’s outset, Michael and The Last Dance director Jason Hehir paint Krause as the villain whose ego prevents Michael’s Bulls team from winning a 7th ring. The series’ opening episode shows Michael glancing up at Krause’s office when asked about the Bulls greatest challenge in 1997, and uncomfortably close shots of the General Manager’s face supplement frequent jabs at his physical stature throughout.
If The Last Dance is a live action adaptation of Space Jam, Jerry Krause evidently plays the role of Moron Mountain’s evil slaveholder Mr. Swackhammer.
And sure, there’s an argument to be made that Krause’s “organizations win championships” philosophy may have cost the Bulls a 1999 NBA Finals appearance. Nevertheless, a deeper dive into Krause’s plans reveals that Michael Jordan’s resistance to change may have cost the Bulls far more.
After resisting Krause’s Charles Oakley-for-Bill Cartwright trade as well as Krause’s hiring of then-unproven head coach Phil Jackson, Jordan took personnel decision-making into his own hands ahead of his “Last Dance” with Chicago. Jerry Krause reportedly assembled a blockbuster trade that would have landed the Bulls Tracy McGrady in addition to the number 3 pick on the evening of the 1997 NBA Draft. But to the dismay of the oft-criticized general manager who aspired to build a dynasty that would outlast Chicago’s aging core, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf vetoed the trade per Michael Jordan’s request.
While Jordan’s camp may argue that Krause’s Tracy McGrady trade could have cost Chicago a seemingly guaranteed title run in 1997-98, history makes a strong case for this type of gamble.
The “Showtime” Lakers’ willingness to part ways with Finals-winning coach Paul Westhead paved the way for prolonged success under Pat Riley. Boston’s Cedric Maxwell-for-Bill Walton gamble paved the way for arguably the greatest Celtics team in franchise history following a pair of championships with Maxwell on the team and one in which he won Finals MVP.
Even in the modern era, we’ve seen Gregg Popovich’s Spurs and Phil Jackson’s Lakers move on from players such as David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal to continue their respective dynasties with new pieces around Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. Each of these organizations embraced inevitable change to surround their respective cornerstones with valuable supporting players on bargain deals. Jerry Krause’s likeminded approach during the Jordan years had a similar effect on the Bulls… until Jordan interfered.
Following successful gambles on boom-or-bust players such as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Toni Kukoč as well as one on diamond-in-the-rough head coach Phil Jackson, Jerry Krause had earned the right to make one last gamble by 1997.
Had Jordan trusted Krause’s expertise and embraced the change that necessitates longevity in NBA title contention, he may have achieved that elusive seventh ring... and perhaps even more.
Of course, Jordan may have not won ring number six without Pippen by his side in the ’97-’98 season. The Bulls fate that year may have rested in their ability to move up in the draft for Krause’s target Keith Van Horn, who would go on to average more points per game than Pippen that season while playing in 18 more regular season contests.
Regardless of the 1997-98 season’s outcome, Jordan would have lengthened his own championship window by up to six years (until his 2003 retirement) had he refused to interfere with Krause’s McGrady trade. The 1998-99 Bulls would have returned a core of Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Toni Kukoč, and Randy Brown, as well as the Bulls’ selection with the third overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft (Keith Van Horn via trade or potentially a promising young prospect in Chauncey Billups). The McGrady trade would have also significantly improved Chicago’s cap situation moving forward, allowing the team to fill holes left by Luc Longley and Dennis Rodman in the front court and continue surrounding Jordan with some of the league’s best role players.
In 1999, a reloaded Bulls team with Jordan and a rapidly improving Tracy McGrady would have a shot to compete with Tim Duncan and David Robinson’s Spurs for another NBA Championship. In the years 2000-2002, Kobe Bryant would have had to face “the single hardest match-up” of his career in McGrady, while MJ and Shaq would battle to give their respective teams the edge. And in Jordan’s farewell season, 2003 NBA Scoring Champion Tracy McGrady (32.1 PPG) would demand the attention of each team’s defensive specialist as Jordan would play a Pippen-like role in the quest for his final NBA Championship.
“It’s maddening because I felt like we could have won seven,” Jordan said in the final installment of his own docuseries.
I would have to imagine Jerry Krause felt the same way as he watched Tracy McGrady rise to stardom on a bargain contract while Jordan averaged 20 PPG for the veteran’s minimum with the Wizards.
The Chicago Bulls players won championships. Six to be exact.
Jerry Krause’s organization could have won seven had Michael Jordan trusted his NBA Hall of Fame General Manager’s intuition.
- Doug Battle
Co-Host of Fanalytics