By Drew Dykowski – May 29, 2020
Without question, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were the best team in the NBA. They won six championships in the decade and laid waste to several promising teams, especially in the Eastern Conference. Aside from the Bulls, the Detroit Pistons were the only team in the East to win a championship during the 1990s.
Due to Chicago’s dominance, several solid Eastern Conference teams were unable to make the NBA Finals or reach their true potential. As time goes on, these teams have become somewhat forgotten.
Despite not truly reaching legendary status, they were still very good and deserve to be remembered fondly. If it were not for Michael Jordan and the Bulls, each team on this list would have had a legitimate shot at a championship.
These are the best Eastern Conference teams the Chicago Bulls faced during their runs in the 1990s.
Honorable Mention: 1991-1992 Cleveland Cavaliers
5. 1996-1997 Miami Heat
Record: 61-21, 2nd in the Eastern Conference
Notable Players: Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Dan Majerle, Jamal Mashburn
Coach: Pat Riley
Due to the more recent success of the Heat, many fans forget how good the Miami Heat were in the late-1990s.
They had one of the league’s best duos in Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning, as well as one of its best coaches in Pat Riley. During the 1996-97 season, everything came together, as Hardaway had one of the best seasons in his career, earning an All-Star and All-NBA 1st Team selection, as well as finishing fourth in the MVP race. Mourning earned his fourth All-Star selection that year, averaging 20 ppg, 10 rpg, and was one of the league’s best shot blockers averaging 3.0 per game.
Jamal Mashburn helped Hardaway on offense while Mourning and P.J. Brown led one of the best defenses in the NBA. Isaac Austin also won the Most Improved Player Award and Pat Riley was named Coach of the Year. Although they made the playoffs every year from 1996-2001, their only deep postseason run was during this season.
In the first round, they won their first playoff series ever by defeating their in-state rival, the Orlando Magic, 3-2 in a tight five-game series. In round two, the Heat found themselves down 3-1 to the New York Knicks, but a fight in game five turned the tide of the series. Brown and New York’s Charlie Ward ignited a massive brawl that resulted in multiple suspensions, mostly assessed to the Knicks.
Although the Heat had to overcome the loss of Brown, they were able to dispose of the now undermanned Knicks in seven games. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat put up little fight against the mighty Chicago Bulls, losing 4-1.
The 1996-97 Heat had enough talent to move up higher on this list, but their flukey playoff run along with how easily the Bulls defeated them justifies their fifth place ranking.
4. 1992-1993 New York Knicks
Record: 60-22, 1st in the Eastern Conference
Notable Players: Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason
Coach: Pat Riley
The 1993-94 and 1998-1999 Knicks both made the NBA Finals, but Michael Jordan did not face either team because he had already retired. Seeing that the Knicks were the first team to win the Eastern Conference after both of Jordan’s retirements, however, shows how good New York was throughout the decade and how many championships they could have won had it not been for the Bulls.
The best Knicks team that Jordan did face has to be the 1992-93 Knicks. New York battled Chicago hard in both the 1991 and 1992 playoffs, but found the most success in 1993. The Knicks were better than Chicago in the regular season and played a tough, physical brand of basketball that was reminiscent of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons.
New York had the best defense in the league, finishing first in both opponent points per game and defensive rating. Ewing was fourth in MVP voting, made the All-Star team, and was named to the All-NBA Second Team. Starks also made the All-Defensive Second Team, while Pat Riley won Coach of the Year.
In the playoffs, the Knicks easily dismantled Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers 3-1 in the first round before defeating Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson’s Charlotte Hornets 4-1 in the second round.
The Knicks met the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals and took a 2-0 series lead. Their physicality seemed to be working against Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the Bulls, but Jordan found a way to overcome it as Chicago won four straight games to again reach the NBA Finals.
The Chicago-New York rivalry was one of the best in the NBA during the 1990s and was at its peak in 1992-93. The Knicks were an excellent team that got under Chicago’s skin and nearly defeated them, which makes them the fourth best team on this list.
3. 1997-1998 Indiana Pacers
Record: 58-24, 3rd in the Eastern Conference
Notable Players: Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin
Coach: Larry Bird
As great as the New York-Chicago feud was in the 90s, the rivalry between the Pacers and Bulls was just as entertaining. Michael Jordan was obviously the best shooting guard in the NBA during the decade, but Miller was not too far behind. Miller was an elite trash talker, getting under everyone’s skin from Jordan to Spike Lee. He was also one of the best shooters in NBA history and just as clutch as Jordan, consistently coming up big when it mattered the most.
Prior to the 1997-98 season, Indiana was a solid team, but unable to reach the top of the East. They made the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994 and 1995, but lost in seven games to both the Knicks and Magic, respectively. During the 1997-98 season, it seemed that they could finally challenge Michael and the Bulls. Miller and Smits were both All-Stars with Miller also making the All-NBA Third Team. Bird was also named Coach of the Year.
Similar to other East teams of the decade, Indiana had one of the league’s best defenses, ranking fifth in defensive rating. In the playoffs, the Pacers easily defeated the Cavaliers 3-1 in round one and the Knicks 4-1 in round two. This set up the first-ever playoff meeting between the Bulls and Pacers. The series was tied 2-2 following Miller’s game-winning three pointer in game four. The teams traded wins in the next two games to set up a thrilling game seven.
It took 28 points from Jordan and 21 from Toni Kukoc to narrowly defeat the Pacers 88-83 in the deciding game. Although they lost the series, Indiana came closer than any other Eastern Conference team did to dethroning the Bulls in either of their three-peats. Miller also proved to be one of Jordan’s most worthy adversaries. As good as they were, the fact that they could not defeat the Bulls puts them behind the top two teams on the list.
2. 1994-1995 Orlando Magic
Record: 57-25, 1st in the Eastern Conference
Notable Players: Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson
Coach: Brian Hill
In just their sixth season of existence, the 1994-95 Magic reached the NBA Finals and became only the second team in the 1990s to defeat a Michael Jordan Bulls team. The team was one of the most exciting in the league and was filled with young talent.
O’Neal continued to blossom into an NBA superstar as he led the league in points at 29.3 per game. He was an All-Star and made the All-NBA Second Team. Hardaway proved to be the perfect running mate with O’Neal as he was also an All-Star and made the All-NBA First Team in just his second NBA season.
Grant, who left the Bulls to sign with the Magic the previous summer, provided leadership to the young Magic and made the All-Defensive Second Team as one of the league’s best defenders. Orlando easily defeated the Boston Celtics 3-1 in round one of the playoffs and then faced the Bulls in round two. Jordan was only a few months removed from his return to basketball following his first retirement, so the Magic were not up against the championship Bulls or MVP-level Jordan.
After Jordan helped Chicago tie the series at two, the young Magic wore him and the Bulls out to take the series 4-2. Orlando then won a tough series against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in seven games to reach the NBA Finals, which they lost 4-0 to the Houston Rockets.
There will always be an asterisk next to the 1994-95 Magic’s triumph over the Bulls since Jordan was still not at full strength and Chicago came back the next year to sweep Orlando out of the playoffs.
Regardless, the Magic were still one of the most talented and most exciting teams Jordan had to face. They also knocked off a very talented Pacers team and deserved to make the NBA Finals. However, the fact that they were swept by Houston and failed to win a championship after knocking off Jordan limits them to the second spot on this list.
1. 1989-1990 Detroit Pistons
Record: 59-23, 1st in the Eastern Conference
Notable Players: Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman
Coach: Chuck Daly
Easily the toughest opponent Michael Jordan ever had to overcome, the Detroit Pistons of the late-1980s and early-1990s were one of the toughest, most physical, and most successful teams in NBA history. Detroit’s championship team in 1988-89 was arguably the best of the Bad Boys-era, but the 1989-90 team is featured on this list since we are only talking about 1990s teams. Although they may not be the best Bad Boys team, the 1989-90 Pistons were still one of the best in league history.
They continued to be one of the best defensive teams in the league, finishing first in opponent’s points per game and second in defensive rating. Thomas, Dumars, and Rodman were each All-Stars with Rodman also taking home the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Dumars was named to the All-NBA Third Team and was joined by Rodman on the All-Defensive First Team. In the playoffs, the Pistons swept the Pacers 3-0 in round one before defeating the Knicks 4-1 in round two. This set up another Eastern Conference Finals matchup between Detroit and Chicago.
Following Chicago’s defeat in 1989, Jordan revamped his body to sustain the torment the Pistons and their “Jordan Rules” put him through. He and Chicago were able to force game seven, but the Pistons’ experience and Scottie Pippen’s migraine led Detroit to their third straight NBA Finals appearance.
Once in the Finals, the Pistons defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1 to win their second straight championship. Detroit is the best Eastern Conference team Jordan ever faced because they pushed him to become the player he was throughout the 1990s. Without Detroit, Jordan does not become the champion we know him to be today.
The Pistons are the only East team to win a championship in the 1990s other than Chicago and also inspired the other teams on this list to play tough, physical basketball to find success against Jordan. All of this along with the amount of talent they had makes the 1989-90 Pistons deserving of the top spot.