By Ryan Houlihan – May 29, 2020
Michael Jordan’s Bulls were the best in basketball during their reign in the 1990’s. In fact, the ‘95-’96 Bulls are widely recognized as the best team ever assembled. Achieving two three-peats was no easy task, however, considering how deep the league was at the time.
The Western Conference was especially deep with powerhouses like the Jazz, Supersonics, and Trail Blazers all vying for a chance to play Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the NBA Finals.
In this article, we take a look at the five best Western Conference teams to match up against Jordan and the Bulls in the NBA Finals. Had it not been for Jordan, some of these teams would have been NBA champions considering the fact that the Houston Rockets won two titles in ‘94 and ‘95 during Jordan’s baseball hiatus.
5. 1992-1993 Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 51-31, 4th in Western Conference
Notable Players: Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth
Coach: Rick Adelman
The Portland Trail Blazers were a powerful Western Conference team that achieved a few 50+ win seasons in the early ‘90’s. Led by hall of famer Clyde Drexler, the Blazers made it as far as the NBA Finals in the ‘89-90 season before losing to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons in five games. With a strong supporting cast made up of All-Stars in Terry Porter, Buck Williams (a four-time All-Defensive Team recipient), Kevin Duckworth, and a young Cliff Robinson, the Blazers made their third consecutive Western Conference Finals in the ‘91-92 season. The Blazers took down the Jazz in six games to set up a date with Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the ‘92 NBA Finals. Drexler did his best to help the Blazers hang with Jordan and the Bulls before Jordan took over in games five and six to secure his second straight NBA title en route to his first three-peat.
4. 1990-1991 Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 58-24, 3rd in Western Conference
Notable Players: Magic Johnson, James Worthy, A.C. Green, Byron Scott, Vlade Divac
Coach: Mike Dunleavy Sr.
Out of all the storied teams in franchise history, this Lakers team might be one of the most interesting. Two seasons removed from Kareem’s retirement, which ultimately ended the Showtime Lakers, this Lakers team did not quite fall into the category of the Showtime teams and was still years away from Kobe and Shaq’s dominance of the late 1990’s. Sandwiched in between two storied eras of the franchise, this was the last great Lakers team for a few seasons. Despite just featuring the remains of Showtime, a 31 year old Magic Johnson and an aging James Worthy were still able to lead the Lakers to almost 60 wins and a third seed for the ‘91 NBA Playoffs. Fellow Showtime teammates A.C. Green and Byron Scott along with Vlade Divac and Sam Perkins served as strong role players for Magic and Worthy. Together, they breezed through the first two rounds with only one loss before taking down Clyde’s Trail Blazers in six. In the ‘91 Finals, Magic and Worthy were outmatched by a young and hungry Michael Jordan, who, after dropping game one, led the Bulls to four straight victories for his first of six NBA championships.
3. 1995-1996 Seattle Supersonics
Record: 64-18, 1st in Western Conference
Notable Players: Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins
Coach: George Karl
One of the more underrated duos of the 1990’s, hall of famer Gary Payton and All-Star Shawn Kemp brought forth some of the NBA’s most exciting basketball. The Glove shut down the league’s best offensive players and had the trash talking prowess to rival Bird and Jordan, while the Reign Man rocked the rim with his pogo-like jumping ability. After three consecutive seasons with 50+ wins and no NBA Finals appearances, the Supersonics put together one of their best seasons in franchise history during the ‘95-96 season, reaching 64 wins. Payton won the Defensive Player of the Year Award and earned his third consecutive All-Star and All-NBA selections, while Kemp had his best statistical season with averages of 19.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, and 1.6 bpg en route to his fourth consecutive All-Star selection and third consecutive All-NBA selection. All-Stars Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins brought secondary scoring for a team that lost only one game through the first two rounds of the ‘96 playoffs against the Kings and Rockets. The third round matchup against Stockon and Malone’s Jazz brought forth a much different challenge as the Sonics narrowly squeaked out a series win in seven. The victory against the Jazz matched the Sonics up in the NBA Finals with the 72-win Bulls, who quickly went up 3-0. Game four saw Payton finally guard Jordan and he was able to slow him down on offense and get in his head with some trash talk. The Sonics would win the next two, but Jordan and the Bulls closed out game six with a 12-point win to secure the first NBA championship of their second three-peat. Had the Sonics not run into arguably the best team ever assembled with Jordan at his peak performance, we would remember them as NBA champions for the ‘95-96 season.
2. 1992-1993 Phoenix Suns
Record: 62-20, 1st in Western Conference
Notable Players: Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers
Coach: Paul Westphal
Before the Suns had Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni’s seven-second offense, the early 90’s Suns made up one of the league’s best offenses. Led by All-Stars Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, and Dan Majerle, the Suns racked off four consecutive 50-win seasons and made two Conference Finals, but never reached the NBA Finals. In July of 1992, Jeff Hornacek, along with Tim Perry and Andrew Lang, were traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for hall of famer Charles Barkley. In his first season with the Suns, Barkley won league MVP. One of only two players to strip the award away from Jordan during his reign in the 90’s, Barkley averaged a cool 25.6 ppg and 12.2 rpg. Barkley had an excellent supporting cast in Majerle, Johnson, and Chambers. Majerle was one of the league’s best 3 and D players, Johnson was a double-double threat each night, and Chambers remained a solid scoring threat as he neared the end of his career. The Suns also had a young Cedric Ceballos, who would go on to be an All-Star two years later, and All-Rookie scoring machine Richard Dumas. Ranking first in both points per game and offensive rating that year while placing fourth in pace, this Suns team was tough to slow down. After securing the first overall seed in the ‘93 playoffs, the Suns received a scare in the first round from a Magicless Lakers team, dropping the first two games in the series before winning the next three to move on to the next round. The Suns then battled past David Robinson’s Spurs in six and Gary Payton’s Supersonics in seven to match up in the NBA Finals against Jordan’s Bulls, who were looking for a three-peat. The Bulls quickly went up 3-1, but the Suns won a decisive game five to send the series back to Phoenix for a possible two-game homestand. Phoenix was up four in the final minutes of game six and were closing in on a game seven before a mini-collapse led to John Paxson’s game-winning three to secure Jordan’s first three-peat. Barkley averaged over 27 ppg and 13 rpg in the NBA Finals, but was overshadowed by Jordan’s insane 41 ppg.
1. 1996-1997 /1997-1998 Utah Jazz
Record: 64-18, 1st in Western Conference
Notable Players: John Stockton, Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek
Coach: Jerry Sloan
Stockton and Malone. Need I say more? By the late-’90s, both members of the league’s most famous duo were entering their mid-30’s, but were still setting the league on fire. Malone was in the midst of securing two MVPs in a three-year stretch in ‘97 and ‘99, while Stockton was busy earning his ninth All-Star selection, fifth All-Defensive Team selection, and 10th All-NBA Team selection. After seven years of 50+ win seasons and no NBA Finals appearances, the Jazz finally broke through in the ‘97 and ‘98 seasons. During the ‘96-97 season, the Jazz compiled 64 wins, good enough for the one seed in the Western Conference. They went on to sweep a 36-win Clippers team in the first round before breezing past Shaq and Kobe in five games. Hakeem and the Rockets gave the Jazz an actual series for the first time that playoffs as they tied the series at two before the Jazz pulled away with two straight wins to earn Stockton and Malone their first NBA Finals berth. The first four games against Jordan’s Bulls drew a 2-2 tie. In an iconic game five, a flu-ridden Michael Jordan dropped 38 points, which was just enough to get by the Jazz 90-88. The Bulls narrowly slipped past the Jazz in game six by only four points to close out their ‘97 season with another championship. The next season, Stockton and Malone led the Jazz to another 60+ win season and the first seed in the Western Conference. The Jazz navigated through the West to set up a rematch against Jordan and the Bulls in the ‘98 NBA Finals. Again, the Jazz played the Bulls in an extremely close six games. As we all know, Jordan had arguably his most iconic moment in game six. With the Jazz up one and 20 seconds left, Jordan swiped the ball away from Malone in the post. Jordan dribbled down the clock and made his iconic step back (some would call it a push-off) over Bryon Russell to give the Bulls their sixth NBA championship and second three-peat. These two Jazz teams were the Western Conference representatives that played the Bulls the closest in the Finals and the games between the two clubs gave basketball fans some of Jordan’s most memorable moments.