"Opening" Night: CHI vs DAL (1996)

Posted on Wed 02 November 2011 in Eye on the Classics by Alex Dewey

_In celebration of our opening night, we're trying to make up for the NBA's current lack of a scheduled opening night. We're going to try and make it up to you by posting three full NBA matchups of the teams that WOULD have been playing on opening night, if the season's schedule hadn't been scrapped. Here's game #1: the defending champion Mavs face off against the ECF Bulls, 90s style. Except in 1996, with the Bulls the champs and the Mavs, well, pretty far away from any sort of conference finals. They've got Jason Kidd, though! _

Here's the box score. Click the jump for the highlight videos.

Pity Jason Kidd and the Dallas Mavericks. Sure, their stirring, amazing championship this year may have finally vindicated the careers of Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Mark Cuban, and Kidd himself. But no amount of titles could ever wash off the taint of the team's performance in the 1990s. The Dallas Mavericks never broke .500 in a season starting in the decade. Their win totals - ordered by increasing levels of atrocity - were 40, 36, 28, 26, 24, 22, 20, 19, 13, 11 from 1990-91 to 1999-00.* The Mavericks were 15 years old in 1996 (and had even had quite a few good runs with Mark Aguirre), but seemed like the oldest expansion franchise in the league at this point - a total joke, filled with one superstar destined to leave soon (Jason Kidd) and two 17th-team All-NBA players (Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn [who actually suffered a season-ending injury about 18 games into 1996]). Can you even imagine rooting for the Mavs right in the middle of that awful decade? I can't, in all honesty.

*As a math major I have to note that they have every even number between 20 and 28 wins, inclusive, like they were playing a drinking game of mediocrity. The Mavs were 239-549 (.303) for the decade, a .303 winning percentage, which comes out to about a 25-win season, on average. Damn.

But to their credit, the Mavericks filled legendary Reunion Arena with dedicated supporters for their awful team. For the early regular season game we'll be covering, no fewer than five world-class athletes showed up. All - as I understand it - are top 10 all-time at their positions: Roger Staubach (former Cowboys QB), Michael Johnson (sprinter), Michael Irvin (wide reciever), Emmitt Smith (running back), and Deion Sanders (cornerback).* And even the Fucking Mayor of Dallas. Wow! All of them showed up to root their home team on (if they don't win, it's a shame!). The likes of Deion Sanders saw the high-flying trio of young Mavs' stars: sophomore PG star Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson at his absolute peak, and the always-sizzling Jamal Mashburn. Or, as they called themselves, Triple J (sounds like a radio station)!

*Missing were Nolan Ryan, Future Dirk Nowitzki, Tom Landry, and Holger Geschwinder.

It was obvious just from watching that Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and the rest of the 1996 Chicago Bulls had a heck of a time mentally coping with the powerful support (ecstatic at times) for the good old 1996 Dallas Mavericks in the legendary Reunion Arena. And Triple J didn't disappoint, combining for an amazing 64 points on just 64 shots!

Part 1:

Being serious: For Dallas, Jason Kidd put up a rather incredible (and characteristic) 25-15-11-6 (8 offensive rebounds, Jesus.) on a kind of bad 22 shots, but like, look at that statline, seriously. He's a point guard! Like, he got 7 defensive rebounds, in addition to 8 offensive rebounds! Only 3 turnovers as the only Maverick with a really good handle! He did everything in this game, and it was possibly more impressive to watch than the statline suggests. Time after time, the Bulls perimeter defense would cover Kidd's passing target well, so he'd reset and find a better shot, then he'd rebound it if the shot didn't go in. He even shot the trey pretty well (2-6, but...well, you'll see). Every single possession Kidd would motor around on offense and defense, and do it efficiently. Say what you will about his apparent character (the less said, the better), but I can understand why he topped the polls of "smartest player in the league". Absolute tour de force. Jamal Mashburn was never an efficient player in his long career (his peak seemed to be a decent, starter-quality 22-6-6 on 42% and some floor spacing), but in this game he was a fun player to watch, with a lot of agility, apparent effort, and leaping ability. Monster Mash seemed like kind of a chucker in this game, honestly, but I mean, on the 1996 Mavericks? Unless he was always passing up a shot for Jason Kidd to reset or something, Mash probably should have just taken the shot every time. When Mashburn had the ball and a reasonable chance at the hoop, he was practically obligated to shoot. And he seemed like a living matchup problem at the 3, even if he wasn't especially skilled. Mash had a few swag drop-steps in the post, and definitely was a competent wide receiver for Jason Kidd when Kidd made an Ender's Game, five-steps-ahead-of-anyone-else sort of alley-oop.

The surprise of this game is that Dallas demolished Chicago on the boards in this game 66-50, winning 32-12 on offensive caroms (Dallas had 4 players in double-figure rebounds, and two more with 5). The Mavericks, in addition to having a dominating presence on the boards, also showed surprising acumen at passing when the legendary Bulls defense actually closed in on them in the second half. The Mavs didn't play great ball (considering their team, how could they, really?), but thanks to Kidd and their team rebounding, they really put themselves in a position to win with what they had. To be fair to the Bulls, they weren't near full strength: Dennis Rodman suffered a monthlong injury that lasted most of November (one of many weird facts about the 72-win Bulls). Rodman just got inducted into the HOF a couple months ago, and he absolutely deserved the honor: The Bulls' frontcourt was Rodman as a historically great rebounding and defensive force. As laughable as the claim is that Rodman was the most important player on the '96-98 Bulls (though he is a unique and truly great player), the way the roster was structured, he may have been the most irreplaceable Bulls player.

You see, the way the Bulls were constructed, losing Rodman meant losing 90% of his contributions. This isn't like when fans of all 30 teams today moan occasionally about wanting an agile seven footer that can defend and rebound (it seems so easy to get one!). No, Rodman was precisely what the Bulls were missing, qualitatively and quantitatively. Look at the numbers: Rodman got 14.9 rpg in 1996. Their next best rebounders that season were...Jordan and Pippen at about 6 apiece. Then came their starting center Luc Longley at 5 rpg, even though Rodman was playing far better defense than Longley: In addition to his infamous rep as an enforcer, Rodman won the DPOY (twice!), had unimaginably solid conditioning (he was 37 when the Bulls won in 1998), and the same gifts that made him a great rebounder (tenacity, endurance, predictive vision, lateral quickness, unpredictable blunt motions like hops) were also perfect for man and help defense. Furthermore, next to Longley, Rodman was only marginally less efficient at offense (same efficiency stats basically, but Longley got about twice as many touches). In about 6 more mpg, Rodman got about 3 times as many rebounds as Longley. Without Rodman they didn't have anyone that could consistently dominate on the glass (though both Pippen and Jordan were occasional double-double/triple-double threats, of course). Similarly on defense, while they had three great wing defenders in Pippen, Jordan, and Ron Harper*, Rodman was their only great inside presence. Longley, the infamous Croatian "prospect" Toni Kukoc, Jason Caffey, Bill Wennington? Yeah, all role players in the final tally. The Bulls without Rodman were a missing team. They weren't a 72-win team.

*The Bulls set the best half-court traps in all of basketball.

Part 2:

And yet, the Bulls without Rodman were not a bad team. They were a great team, in fact: Michael Jordan was hitting his final peak as an athlete, built around still-great driving ability, mental toughness, and an unguardable fadeaway (and generally, an amazing one-on-one arsenal and a much-improved jumper) that I am required by law as a blogger to tie into Kobe Bryant somehow. It's a cliche, but Jordan was honestly the brilliant assassin that his legendary personality dictated and that his athletic gifts often belied. Strange to say, but if anyone was truly athletically amazing in the Dallas game, it was Scottie Pippen (or Jason Kidd). What's really weird is that MJ's scoring was still very high and efficient in 1996 (30.4 per on .495 FG% and .427 3P%) but the points were often so easily gotten and difficult to defend that even if you were watching him, you could miss his insane scoring numbers. You could never mistake his level of production watching him in a 1991 45 point performance or his "God" game in 1986. But - similar to Tim Duncan's production throughout his career - late Jordan would often put in 7 in each of the first three quarters and 10 in the fourth and end up with 31 on 20 shots before you knew what was happening, no homecourt advantage or superstar calls needed. I mean, of course there were a few "how in God's name did he do that?" moments that only Jordan could have pulled off (can't wait to get this video up, seriously), but even so, Jordan scored more than 35 points, and it's a total shocker to hear. He somehow drops 17 in the second quarter, only 4 of which are conspicuous.

Unlike Jason Kidd, Pippen didn't quite get a triple-double in this game. However, his game was possibly more impressive and well-rounded. It was a great performance. Pippen got a 26-12-7 with 1 steal and 5 blocks, with just 3 turnovers. He also got the 26 points on 19 shots (not super-efficient, but better than Kidd). Now, Pippen didn't quite have the "_only good player" responsibility that Jason Kidd had, but on the other hand, Pippen also wasn't the statistical beneficiary of being the only good player on his team. When your team is filled with inefficient shooters and you get 11 assists, that's pretty impressive, but Kidd also got 8 offensive rebounds partially because his team didn't _expect to hit 50% of their shots ("We're not a 50% team," Mavs coach Dick Motta said at halftime, "But we're not a 35% team, either."). And as impressive as 6 steals is, Pippen got 1 steal and 5 blocks (none of them cheap perimeter swats), as a small forward.* Insane. Against an inferior Mavs wing defense (at best, they had an undersized Jason Kidd on Jordan), Jordan got a lot of unassisted baskets - and yet Pippen managed to find 7 assists. At one point in the first half, the Mavs were swarming Pippen: They had taken Michael as a given and were moving on to Scottie in a futile attempt to mitigate him.

*Small observation: A lot of blocks seem to happen when the offensive player makes a really formulaic counter-move switching from side to side in the paint. This is one reason I love when little guards use the "Eurostep," the "Dream Shake," and ball fakes in the paint. It's hilarious when it works (like when big linebackers make interceptions) and it's forced by the competitive structure of the game: The defensive player has established himself as good enough to block the standard layup, and the standard counter-moves like hand switches and turns.

And, oh man, so much of this game was brilliant transition offense and defense - as if Kidd, Pippen, and Jordan collectively signed a contract to make this game as fun and competitively possible in which they (and Ron Harper, guest star of Kenan & Kel this one time) were the only great players. You really have to see some of these plays. I'll try to get my highlight reel up, but this really is a vintage Jordan-Pippen-Kidd game - and you have to wonder how many people even saw it besides Kelly Dwyer and the Mayor of Dallas.

Maybe it wasn't so bad to be a fan of the Mavs after all.