When we speak about some of the greatest teams in NBA history, two of the first teams mentioned are the 1998 Chicago Bulls and 2001 Los Angeles Lakers. The ‘98 Bulls were the last runs of the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen era and culminated in a 2nd three-peat and 6th championship together. In 2001, the Lakers were an unstoppable juggernaut who went on to win their 2nd straight championship of the Shaq and Kobe era. The Lakers went nearly unscathed to a championship led by a duo that is among the best in NBA history. So, what would happen if they went head-to-head?
First, let’s get to know our teams. The 1998 Chicago Bulls finished with a 62-20 record in the regular season and a 15-6 record in the playoffs. They held the 3rd best defensive rating in the league as a team and the 7th best offensive rating. Jordan found himself shouldering the weight of the load that season as teammate Scottie Pippen battled back issues all season long and missed 38 games. Jordan responded well, winning the MVP award with 28.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, and 1.7 SPG. Dennis Rodman led the league in rebounding with 15.0 RPG, and Toni Kukoc delivered 13.1 PPG in 52 starts. The season ended with Chicago hoisting their 6th Larry O’Brien trophy above their heads and Michael Jordan riding off into the sunset on top.
The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were an offensive juggernaut that ran like a buzz saw through the competition in the regular season and playoffs. The Lakers finished with the 2nd best record in the West at 56-26 but would lose just 1 game for the entirety of the NBA playoffs. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal each averaged over 28.0 PPG, while O’Neal added 12.7 RPG and 2.8 BPG on defense. Kobe also added 5.9 RPG and 5.0 APG. Derek Fisher contributed 11.5 PPG in just 20 games played, while Horace Grant delivered 8.5 PPG and 7.1 RPG. Ron Harper coincidentally appeared for both the 1998 Bulls and 2001 Lakers, having a much larger role with the Bulls at the time. The season ended for the Lakers with a dominant run to their 2nd straight championship, with Shaq grabbing Finals MVP after dominating the Sixers in the Finals.
1998 Chicago Bulls: Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley
2001 Los Angeles Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox, Horace Grant, Shaquille O'Neal
On paper, these 2 teams are about as evenly matched as can be. They are both powerhouse teams led by a duo surrounded by the perfect complimentary players. Each team had its own recipe for success and executed it to perfection. The 1998 Bulls had a starting lineup consisting of Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and Luc Longley. Pippen would be in and out of the lineup with lingering injuries. They present a ferocious defensive backcourt with Harper and Jordan, putting pressure on the ball constantly while lingering off the ball in anticipation of a deflected or errant pass. Jordan obviously scored at will, and the Bulls fed him to the point that he took over. Rodman would draw the matchup with Shaq here, and it should bring some fireworks. Rodman will have to dig deep in order to keep up with the strength and speed of Shaq, but he has shown before that he is capable.
The Lakers boasted a lineup that produced the best duo in the game since Scottie and Michael. Kobe and Shaq lead the way as a huge inside/outside threat and pose severe matchup issues with the Bulls. Joining them will be Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and Horace Grant. All 3 will have trouble hanging with the Bulls and their complimentary pieces. The Kobe-Jordan matchup gets highlighted here as a student vs. teacher moment, with Jordan holding a slight advantage. It will be tough for Fox and Grant to hang with Pippen and Kukoc when he comes in off the bench. Grant will have his hands full guarding Rodman on the boards. This opens up plays to be made by both as well as the scoring from them and others around them. Head-to-head, this matchup of starters is as evenly matched as it gets as things look to the bench to move the needle.
Advantage: Chicago Bulls
1998 Chicago Bulls: Steve Kerr, Scott Burrell, Toni Kukoc, Jud Buechler, Bill Wennington, Randy Brown, Dickey Simpkins
Los Angeles Lakers: Tyronn Lue, Ron Harper, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Mark Madsen
The 3-man rotation for the Bulls off of the bench will be Steve Kerr, Scott Burrell, and Toni Kukoc. Kerr will be present in situations where the Bulls may find themselves needing a big outside bucket to drop or to simply get Harper some rest. Burrell will be there as a relief to either MJ or Pippen whenever they need it, especially when Pippen’s back isn’t strong enough to keep going. The most important piece off of the bench for Chicago will be Toni Kukoc. He will be there for the Bulls as the game and series wear on and be the most important offensive player not named Jordan or Pippen. If Kukoc can provide some scoring relief from the bench, this matchup of bench players will be a lot close than most think.
As for the Lakers, their main rotation off of the bench will be Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, and Tyronn Lue. Horry will see his fair share of minutes, coming off the bench in a similar role to Kerr except for being used for more than just his clutch shooting, although that will come into play. Lue will serve as a relief to Fisher, providing defensive pressure on the likes of Ron Harper and even Jordan. Shaw will be the guard that backs up Kobe, should he even want to come out of the game. Kobe will probably be giving the Lakers 48 minutes a night when he’s lined up across from Michael Jordan just to raise the stakes that much. The Lakers and Bulls have similar players playing similar roles off of the bench. As important as Kukoc is to the matchup, the Lakers have a slight advantage in overall talent and production from the bench.
Advantage: Los Angeles Lakers
1998 Phil Jackson vs. 2001 Phil Jackson
The coaching matchup for this one is weird because you're putting Phil Jackson’s triangle offense with the Bulls against, well, Phil Jackson’s triangle offense with the Lakers. Jackson mastered the triangle offense that allowed Michael Jordan to thrive and for Kobe and Shaq to coexist and thrive. With the Bulls, Jackson was a defensive mastermind as well, directing moving parts like a maestro moves an orchestra. He will allow Jordan and Pippen to be the engine that runs the team while others get to their spots and play their roles to perfection.
The same can be said about Phil Jackson and the way he coaches the Lakers. It will be up to Shaq and Kobe to operate the triangle offense while Phil works his magic, plugging players in on defense. You just know that Jackson will have something special for Jordan up his sleeve as he coaches against him in a big game for the first time in his career. On offense, the plan should be to feed the big fella Shaq down low as he holds an enormous advantage over Rodman, Longley, and the Bulls' interior players.
Advantage: Chicago Bulls
Chicago Bulls Advantages
As is usually the case when two great teams face off, each has distinct advantages heading into a series. The first for the Chicago Bulls is the overall talent from their wings and guards. Leading the way is Michael Jordan, who needs no introduction. It doesn’t really matter that Kobe Bryant will be lined up across from him as Mike is Mike and he is going to get his, no matter what. Pippen and Rodman own a distinct advantage over Rick Fox and Horace Grant. Pippen and Rodman are too fast and disciplined for the Lakers’ duo. Pippen should not only be a force on defense but his playmaking for teammates and scoring in bursts should be on full display. Rodman's defense will prove vital, along with his rebounding. If Rodman can even contain Shaq, this matchup could be a runaway for the Bulls.
The second glaring advantage is the perimeter defense of the Chicago Bulls. You start things off with Ron Harper, who owns a bit of a size advantage over Derek Fisher. Not only that, but he brings his swarming on-ball defense that will put immense pressure on Fisher, forcing a few unwarranted mistakes. The Jordan/Kobe matchup is interesting as you will probably see a few doubles thrown Kobe’s way, combining Jordan and either Harper or Pippen to apply pressure. This is going to force Kobe into many tough shots which, while he can make them, will be an advantage for the Bulls in the long run.
Los Angeles Lakers Advantages
The first distinct advantage that the 2001 Lakers hold over the 1998 Chicago Bulls is the presence of Shaq. In 2001, Shaq was at the height of his power, and I don’t know that any center in NBA history could have stopped him or slowed him down. Shaq used his brute strength and agility to dominate opponents in the post with his patented “Black Tornado” spin move. Shaq would throw his full weight at a defender while controlling the ball in a spin move that resulted in Shaq going right around you or going right through you. Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley, and Bill Wennington will have their hands full. I would say the “Hack-A-Shaq” method would work here, but with the lack of depth at center for the Bulls, it would not be wise. Shaq will dominate the Bulls' bigs, keeping the series close.
The other advantage, although slight, for the Los Angeles Lakers is their play off of the bench. Harper is a good defensive piece to have, even though he was a much older version of himself in 2001. Robert Horry, as well all know, can knock down any and all shots if given even an inch of space. Brian Shaw and Tyronn Lue provide good bursts of energy too, off of the bench for L.A. If it were a match-up of second units, the Lakers would be able to run Chicago nearly off the floor with their speed and defensive ability conjuring up many fast break opportunities. Production off of the bench on both ends of the floor will certainly be in the Lakers' favor.
Who Wins This Matchup In A 7-Game Series?
In Game 1 of this seven-game series, it would be all about Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers. Michael Jordan would do all he could for the Bulls with 38 points and 12 assists, but it would not be enough. Shaq would take control of the game from the outset with 26 first-half points and 8 rebounds. Rodman simply had no answer. The 2nd half would be no different as he would finish the game with 45 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 blocks to help the Lakers win handily, 125-108. It is important to know that Scottie Pippen only played 5 minutes in this game due to back spasms.
Game 2 would be far different from the first, as Chicago finally had a plan to contain Shaq. They removed Pippen from the starting lineup due to his injuries and inserted Toni Kukoc in his place. The combination of Rodman and Longley was able to contain Shaq to just 22 points and 9 rebounds on the night. This was the battle of Kobe and Michael Jordan as they went back and forth over the course of the game. Kobe wound up with 31 points, but this was Jordan’s night. MJ took over in the 4th going 8-8 shooting from the field and leading the Bulls to a 101-93 victory. Jordan finished with 46 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Game 3 was all Bulls again as the recipe to keep Shaq at bay continued to work. On this night, the first half belonged to Toni Kukoc off the bench. He was able to rattle off 14 first-quarter points to get things going for Chicago as Jordan struggled to find his rhythm. Scottie Pippen returned in Game 3 to the tune of 28 minutes played and 15 points, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Kobe kept the Lakers in it until the very end, but a resurgent Michael Jordan put the Lakers away in the final 5 minutes with 2 clutch buckets and a clutch steal. Chicago wins 105-101.
Game 4 was a return to dominance for Shaq. Dennis Rodman would limp off the court early with a rolled ankle and not return. This left Luc Longley and Bill Wennington to fend for themselves, trying to defend the big man to no avail. Shaq went off for 42 points and 15 rebounds to even up the series for Los Angeles. Kobe added 27 on top of that, while Michael Jordan led the Bulls once again with 33 points. Kukoc and Pippen struggled mightily as they shot a combined 5-20 from the field. Lakers even up the series at 2 games apiece by a score of 111-98.
The Chicago Bulls would come ready to play from the outset in a critical Game 5. Pippen seemed to be healthier than he had been all season, grabbing rebounds and pushing the pace with Michael Jordan. As the duo gave fans flashbacks to 1993, the Bulls' defense stepped up big time on the perimeter and caused many unsolicited turnovers with the pressure put on Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. Shaq continued to do whatever he wanted in the paint but the Lakers struggled so badly on the outside that he didn’t mean much. Jordan led the way with 48 points, including a scoring 3rd quarter that saw him drop 22 points on 11-14 shooting. Pippen added 21 points for the Bulls and 8 assists as the Bulls take a 3-2 lead, 106-96.
Not to be put away that easily, the Lakers fought, scratched, and clawed their way to a Game 6 victory. Shaq and Kobe were as smooth as ever in the first half, working perfectly in sync to build a 15-point lead heading into halftime. Chicago would storm back in the 3rd and 4th quarters behind big runs fueled by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. A big second half from Chicago set the stage for a tie game at 98 with 20 seconds left on the clock. The Lakers call a timeout to draw up a play and Chicago had no fouls to give. The inbound pass is tipped by Jordan but corralled by Kobe, who takes a few dribbles to the side to set up the play. With 10 seconds left, Kobe drives to the basket, where he is met with resistance from Jordan and Pippen. As the double team collapses, Kobe lobs it up to the hoop as Shaq rises above the defense to flush it home and force a Game 7, 100-98.
The stakes are high and the stage is set for a classic finish to this series between the 1998 Bulls and 2001 Lakers. Rodman made his return to the Bulls lineup, setting the stage for an intense battle between him and Shaq. The first quarter is all Shaq getting whatever he wants on Rodman, giving the Lakers a 25-21 lead after one. The 2nd quarter is when the duel between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan heats up. They trade baskets like two heavyweight fighters slugging it out in the middle of the ring. Jordan lights up the scoreboard in the 2nd quarter to finish the first half with 20 points while Kobe finishes with 19 and the game is tied at 51.
The 3rd quarter is when things start to turn in favor of Chicago. Rodman makes his presence felt with gutsy minutes and defense to help slow down Shaq and the Lakers' attack. Jordan continues to dominate thanks to the outstanding playmaking from Kukoc and Pippen. Kobe doesn’t let things get out of hand, ending the quarter on an 8-0 run to keep the Bulls' lead to 71-68.
The 4th quarter begins with a massive stretch from Shaq, scoring the Lakers’ first 10 points out of the gate. Harper plays a big role in the 4th quarter coming up with 3 deflected passes off Fisher’s errant passes leading to easy buckets for Jordan on the fast break. With 5 minutes left, Kobe and Shaq work together to bring the Lakers even and tie the game at 94 apiece. With 40 seconds on the clock, Kobe controls the ball at the top of the key. He drives on Jordan, who tips the ball on the shot attempt. Shaq tries to gather the loose tip, but it bounces right into the hands of Scottie Pippen, who calls timeout with 14 seconds left. On the inbound pass, Kukoc finds Scottie on the wing as the clock ticks. Scottie gets it to a curling Jordan off a screen, and he receives the pass at the elbow. Met by Bryant at the elbow, Jordan rises to shoot, but pump fakes Bryant right by him. Jordan rises and knocks down the game-winner as the clock strikes zero, and the Bulls win 96-94.
1998 Chicago Bulls Win Series 4-3
Finals MVP: Michael Jordan