One of the reasons The Last Dance has been so widely anticipated is the never-before-seen video content that was promised.
Just two episodes in, there is still a lot to be shown from the culmination of the Chicago Bulls’ second Three-Peat, but while some of the information that has already been revealed, other parts have seemingly been overlooked.
We may yet get into a few of the items below, but there’s a good chance these nuances remain outside the storyline.
Scottie Pippen earned more in basketball contracts than Michael Jordan
Much was made about the pittance that Scottie Pippen was paid during the 1997-98 season—at least compared to how important he was to the then five-time NBA champions.
But don’t feel too sorry for Scottie.
The league’s cap structure looked nothing like today’s, but some quirks in Pippen’s rookie contract meant he could be extended at any point during that time and he opted to do so at the end of his fourth season. But even by the end of that year, which resulted in the first Bulls title in 1991, the league was already projected to grow in profits dramatically.
The Last Dance did a great job of explaining why Pippen opted for the longest level of security possible as early as the Bulls would give it to him: His being part of a large family with two members of it (his brother and father) in wheelchairs meant he felt like he needed to help provide.
However, if Pippen had read the room, or simply bet on himself a little more, he wouldn’t have been paid less than Luc Longley by the time the 1997-98 season ended.
— Bryan Curtis (@bryancurtis) April 20, 2020
The discrepancy between Jordan’s and Pippen’s contracts went from just $925,000 in 1995-96, to more than $30 million in 1997-98, and it clearly frustrated the hell out of Scottie. Pippen said “I’ll get mine” in The Last Dance, and he did.
The following season, he signed with the Houston Rockets for $11 million and earned $85 million over the next seven seasons (mostly with the Portland Trail Blazers), despite his production dipping dramatically after leaving Chicago. By the end of his career, he had earned nearly $17 million more than Michael Jordan did for playing basketball.
Of course, MJ lapped both Pippen and the field many times in endorsements, but the context of Pippen being underpaid in Chicago was missing those latter-career footnotes.
What is this load management you speak of, future basketball player?
In 1997-98, the Chicago Bulls started off 4-4. As was explained on The Last Dance, they needed double-overtime heroics from Michael Jordan just to earn their first road win against the lowly LA Clippers during their 12th game of the season.
With Scottie Pippen recovering from surgery, and an aging roster coming off its second consecutive Finals win, the team was tired and struggling. Jordan had to take control in order to reach their eventual 62-20 record and first-place Eastern Conference finish.
There is a lot said about load management during this particular era (or lack thereof), and while the old heads might exaggerate stories about averaging more than 44 minutes in every game of the season, this wasn’t far off the truth for Jordan.
He was more than just an incredible talent, he was the definition of an NBA iron man.
If you throw away his sophomore season when he broke his foot, (and the 1994-95 season when he only joined the Bulls for the final few weeks after his first retirement), Jordan missed just seven regular-season games during his time in Chicago.
He led the league in scoring every season between 1986-87 and when he left the Bulls in 1998 (aside from that 18-month “vacation” Jordan took to pursue a baseball career).
And this was at a time when numbers were deflated in comparison to today. Team scoring has gone up across the board, with the league averaging 111.4 points per game during the 2019-20 season, according to Basketball-Reference, compared to just 94.5 in 1997-98. Simply put, points were harder to come by back then.
Even at the age of 34, Jordan scored 29.6 percent of his team’s points while averaging 28.7 per game during The Last Dance season. To compare, James Harden might have scored 34.3 points per game in 2019-20, but this only amounted to 29 percent of the Houston Rockets’ total output. Plus, Harden was four years younger during his season and took 12.6 three-point shots per game, compared to Jordan’s 1.5.
The documentary pointed out that Jordan was restricted to 14 minutes per game when he returned from injury in his sophomore season. In reality, he played 13 minutes once and 14 minutes once.
After that, it crept up steadily until he was playing more than 25 minutes within eight games. During that ‘restricted minutes’ span, he averaged 17.3 minutes and 16.8 points but was relied upon just as heavily when he was on the court. Per-36 minutes that season, he would have averaged 32.6 points—the second-best output of his career.
So, even while the Bulls were without Pippen during the season prior due to surgery, and even though players of this era sat out with injuries a little more than their fuzzy memories often relay, Jordan absolutely carried (not managed) the load.
Toni Kukoč, Not Dennis Rodman, was the bulls’ real third star
The ‘Croatian Michael Jordan’ was heavily scouted and favored by Jerry Krause during the early 1990s. And since GM Krause and the real Michael Jordan had a bad relationship from their first year together, Jordan and Pippen disliked anyone that Krause showed an affinity for.
In Bill Simmons’ Book Of Basketball, he wrote about when Krause “glowingly courted European star Toni Kukoč, Jordan and Pippen wrecked Kukoč in the ‘92 Olympics with particular fury”.
It’s any wonder the Croatian turned up in Chicago by 1993.
But Kukoč’s talent was undeniable by 1997-98. On ESPN’s 30 For 30 about Dennis Rodman, the multi-colored haired rebounder said: “As funny as it sounds, I was more famous than Michael for three years in a row.”
That might have been the case but Rodman was probably not the third-best talent on that team even as he’s typically named as such.
Kukoč had silky skills, could get to the rim or shoot from nearly anywhere. His limbs were long, but he had quick hips and a great basketball IQ, which made him a very good defender. In some line-ups, the Bulls could put Rodman at center and play an early version of small-ball—or skill-ball by putting Kukoč and Pippen at forward, then with Jordan in the backcourt along with Harper or Kerr at the point.
Kukoč could guard three or four positions.
During The Last Dance season, Basketball-Reference says he averaged 13 points with four rebounds and four assists. Kukoč was second on the team in value over replacement, third in plus-minus and second in assists. His value was truly realized the following season when he averaged more than seven points per game better than anyone else on the roster.
On The Lowe Post podcast last week, Steve Kerr said: “I see these graphics for The Last Dance, they have these promos, and I see Michael, Scottie, Dennis, Phil and me, and I understand it. The reason I’m on there is because I’m famous as a coach of the Warriors, and maybe people wouldn’t recognize Toni Kukoč… but should really be Toni on that promo because he was an incredible player.”
There are still eight more episodes to come, so Kukoč might have his own star turn in an episode still to be aired.
But if he doesn’t, just keep in mind that while the world held up Jordan, Pippen and Rodman as the faces of the franchise, the 1997-98 Bulls would have struggled to win their third consecutive championship without the Croatian’s multi-faceted talents filling a lot of the gaps.
Huw is a TBW staff writer who grew up in Wales and currently lives in England where he coaches a local basketball team. He loves all sorts of basketball: men’s, women’s, wheelchair, international, good and bad. He has bylines with the NBA/WNBA’s UK broadcast rights partner Sky Sports, has featured on Sporting News covering FIBA events and is a Lead Writer with UK-based basketball website and podcast Double Clutch. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @coach_huw where he often posts about how Tim Duncan was the best player of his era.