The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls are one of the most famous and popular teams in NBA history. Led by Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson, the Bulls became a worldwide phenomenon.
The last run for that Bulls squad is captured in “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary series debuting Sunday (9 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App).
How did one of the greatest dynasties of all time come together? Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of the transactions and machinations that assembled all of the pieces for the Bulls’ sixth championship.
The details: After earning a combined $29 million on his first two NBA contracts, Michael Jordan signed back-to-back contracts with the Bulls worth more than $30 million a year.
Jordan’s $33.1 million salary was the largest in NBA history at the time, over $10 million more than the second-highest of the 1997-98 season, Patrick Ewing’s $20.5 million deal.
The significance: The greatest player in the game signed the biggest contract in the NBA, but the noteworthy part of the deal wasn’t just the money. It was the fact that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf famously told Jordan that he would regret giving the guard such a big contract. As author Roland Lazenby noted in “Mindgames: Phil Jackson’s Long Strange Journey,” it was a comment that stuck with Jordan long after he signed the deal.
Jordan’s monumental deal not only set the bar for the time, it set the path for the max contracts that would come after Jordan eventually retired. In 1999, the NBA put a maximum on what players could earn based on years of service, and the max salary slot for MJ would have been $14 million.
The details: Two months after he was selected in the first round of the 1987 draft, Pippen signed a six-year, $5 million contract.
The contract was eventually renegotiated and extended for a total of $18 million after the Bulls won their first championship in 1991. Pippen’s base salary in the current season (1990-91) and remaining two years increased significantly, with the final two years averaging out to $3 million per season.
The total value of the remaining five seasons (through 1997-98) was $13.3 million. Pippen would end 1997-98 as the sixth-highest-paid player on the Bulls.
The significance: As longtime Bulls observers remember, Reinsdorf was the one who told Pippen not to sign the deal.
“I told him when he was getting ready to sign this deal that ‘halfway through it you’re going to think you’re underpaid, especially since we front-loaded it,'” Reinsdorf told Sam Smith, then of The Chicago Tribune. “His answer was, ‘You’ll never hear from me.’ I told him I didn’t believe it, but he promised that would be the case.
“I know he’s underpaid. Sometimes I make good deals and sometimes I make bad deals.”
What has gotten lost at times over the years is that the Bulls almost sent Pippen to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1994 in exchange for Shawn Kemp, a deal that never quite made it to the finish line. ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande asked Jordan if he would have come back to play basketball in ’95 if Pippen hadn’t been on the team.
“Probably not,” Jordan said. “I could have played with Shawn, but I wouldn’t have been as comfortable as I was with Scottie.”
For the Bulls, the Sonics backing out at the last minute was the best thing that could have happened. For Pippen, though, it turned out to be a major source of frustration. He requested a trade in ’95, but Reinsdorf wouldn’t budge. Pippen’s deal allowed the Bulls to build up the rest of the roster, but the ill will it engendered — and the fact that Reinsdorf wouldn’t renegotiate — still lingers in the relationship between the Hall of Famer and his former team.
The details: Kukoc was 21 when Chicago selected him with the No. 2 pick of the second round of the 1990 draft.
Kukoc remained in Europe for three seasons, playing for KK Jugoplastika and Benetton Treviso. In that three-year period, Kukoc won two EuroLeague titles with KK Jugoplastika and an Italian cup with Benetton. He was also named MVP of the EuroLeague final four in 1990, 1991 and 1993, and earned two silver medals in the Olympics — in 1988 with Yugoslavia and 1992 with Croatia.
Three months before Jordan retired, Chicago signed Kukoc to an eight-year, $18.1 million contract. The Bulls had limited salary-cap flexibility, so the first-year salary started at $1.1 million, the most they could offer. The contract did have a rare early termination option after Year 1, allowing Kukoc and the Bulls to rip up the long-term pact after the 1993-94 season and sign a new contract with a larger salary.
Kukoc terminated his contract and agreed to a new six-year, $24.5 million contract in mid-August. Because he had already played one season with the Bulls, Bird rights had been established, allowing the new contract to exceed the salary cap. The $3.3 million cap hit in 1994-95 tripled what the forward would have earned under the old agreement.
The significance: Two weeks after Kukoc’s contract was signed in 1994, the NBA voided the agreement on the basis of salary-cap circumvention. NBA senior vice president of business and legal affairs Jeffrey Mishkin stated that, “because of the one-year opt-out clause, the Bulls were able to sign a player last year that they did not have room under the salary cap. Kukoc’s new contract with Chicago proves the point.”
Kukoc and the Bulls filed suit in U.S. District Court against the NBA, eventually winning the case. The contract was finally approved on Sept. 15, 1994.
Though the NBA lost the Kukoc case, Bird rights were amended during the 1995 collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Rather than being established after playing one season, a player must now play for three seasons (with his current team or a new team if traded) without clearing waivers to have full Bird rights.
Roster additions during Jordan’s baseball hiatus
The details: Harper signed a five-year $19.2 million contract on Sept. 15, 1994.
The significance: Harper was a two-way threat who provided another layer of veteran leadership. He was also durable, playing in at least 77 games in each of his first four seasons with the Bulls. However, Harper was never able to replicate the same numbers he put up as a member of the LA Clippers. The guard averaged 20.1 points in 1993-94 with the Clips, but he never averaged double figures in his first four seasons with the Bulls.
While discussing the fact that he was unlikely to move Pippen in ’95, Reinsdorf used Harper’s deal to emphasize his point.
“I don’t see Ron Harper coming in and asking to negotiate down,” Reinsdorf said. “I wouldn’t expect him to, either.”
The details: After signing back-to-back one-year contracts, Kerr signed a four-year, $2.9 million contract on Sept. 16, 1994.
The significance: Kerr provided long-range shooting off the bench and hit one of the most memorable shots in Bulls history. After taking a pass from Jordan, Kerr hit a jumper that iced Game 6 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz.
The details: Like Kerr, Buechler was coming off back-to-back one-year contracts before he signed a two-year, $1 million deal on Sept. 26, 1996.
The significance: Buechler was a lightly used reserve during the second Bulls three-peat, but he gave Jackson another long-range option off the bench and helped space the floor for Jordan and Pippen.
The details: A year after he was acquired from Minnesota, Longley signed a three-year, $8.1 million contract with Chicago on Oct. 6, 1995.
The significance: The Australian center started 58 games for the Bulls in ’97-98, averaging 11.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in a career-best season. Longley provided a stabilizing presence down low and knew what was expected of him on a team full of stars.
The details: Brown signed a five-year, $5.8 million contract on Oct. 6, 1995.
The significance: Brown was a defensive spark plug off the bench and grew close to Jordan during his tenure. He averaged only 4.1 points per game in ’97-98 but saw action in 71 contests.
The details: Wennington signed a one-year, $150,000 contract before the 1993-94 season, followed by a three-year, $3 million contract the following season. A month before the start of the 1997 training camp, the center inked a one-year, $1.8 million deal.
The significance: Wennington’s first season with the Bulls was his return to the NBA after spending two seasons in Italy. He knew his role and got along well with his teammates. Wennington averaged just 3.5 points in the ’97-98 campaign.
The missing piece to the puzzle
The details: Rodman was acquired from the Spurs on Oct. 2, 1995. Starting with the 1996-97 season, Rodman signed back-to-back one-year contracts worth $9 million and $4.6 million.
The contract in 1997-98 was signed on Oct. 23, one week before the start of the regular season.
The significance: When Rodman was acquired for Will Perdue, many questions lingered over his arrival.
Could he still play at an elite level? Were his antics off the floor going to impact his performance? Maybe most important, would he be able to fit in with Jordan and Pippen?
As Reinsdorf explained to ESPN.com’s Melissa Isaacson in 2011, “We concluded that how you handle Dennis is don’t worry about the other stuff. If he wants to take off his shoes, let him take off his shoes. Who cares?”
Rodman got in opponents’ heads and helped push the Bulls to a new level with his intensity, rebounding acumen and defensive skill. Despite the intrigue surrounding his life off the court, Rodman delivered time and time again, becoming a beloved figure in the city. Rodman’s place in the Hall of Fame began at the start of his career in Detroit, but it became a reality because of the role he played in pushing the Bulls to their second three-peat.
The offseason additions and one trade
Scott Burrell: The Bulls acquired the 26-year-old swingman from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Dickey Simpkins. Burrell played in 80 games in the ’97-98 season, his only one with the Bulls.
Keith Booth: The Bulls’ first-round draft pick in 1997, Booth played in just six games during the ’97-98 season.
Rusty LaRue: The Wake Forest alum spent his first NBA season with the ’97-98 Bulls, playing in just 14 games.
The details: The Bulls were 40-15 when they made their lone trade during the 1997-98 season, sending forward Jason Caffey to the Warriors in exchange for former first-round pick David Vaughn and two future second-round picks.
The significance: Caffey was part of the 1996 and 1997 championship teams and was averaging 5.2 points and 3.3 rebounds. The forward was on an expiring contract, however, and had seen his minutes decrease from 17.8 the season before to 13.9.
The trade left the veterans on the roster confused.
“I’m very surprised,” Rodman said, who viewed Caffey as his rebounding heir apparent. “It reminds me of my Detroit days when we won two championships and they started to break up the team. I think it’s dumb.”
“I don’t know anything about David,” Jordan said. “Every time I’ve seen him, he’s never been in uniform. I think that says a lot.”
Vaughn played three games with Chicago, scoring a total of four points. He was waived on March 2, making room to re-sign Simpkins. Simpkins had won two championships with Chicago, but he was traded to Golden State before the season for Burrell.
As a result of Jordan’s $33.1 million salary, Chicago finished in the top spot in team salary. The luxury-tax penalties for excessive spending did not come into place until the 2002-03 season.
Of the 29 NBA teams, 25 spent less than $40 million. Only Chicago, New York, Orlando and Washington topped the $40 million mark.
Jackson was the first domino to fall, officially notifying the Bulls a week after their sixth championship that he would not return.
It took six months before the rest of the Bulls’ dynasty would begin to be torn down. Because of a work stoppage, the 1998-99 NBA season was on hiatus, resuming in January 1999 with a shortened 50-game schedule.
Jordan retired on Jan. 13, 1999 (before returning in 2001); Pippen signed a five-year, $79.6 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade with Houston; Rodman agreed to a two-year, $1.8 million contract with the Lakers but was waived after the regular season; and Kukoc played 66 more games with Chicago before he was traded to Philadelphia in 2000.
The Bulls spent a league-low $29.1 million on the 1998-99 roster and finished the season 13-37. It took six seasons for Chicago to reach the playoffs again.