The question is posed with frequency in many scenarios. Professional sports certainly is home to many cases of what if circumstances.
The delightful asset of playing the what if game is that it can be applied in virtually any situation. Here’s an example that’s been discussed quite often since ESPN aired the Michael Jordan docu-series The Last Dance.
What if Jordan’s Bulls had faced Hakeem Olaujuwon’s Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals?
Olajuwon was the greatest basketball player in Nigerian history. While Jordan took his 18-month hiatus from the NBA in 1994-95, Hakeem The Dream led the Rockets to successive NBA championships.
Jordan ended his retirement in 1995, and the following season, he led the Bulls back to the summit. They won three NBA Finals from 1996-98. Chicago had also won the three finals prior to Houston’s two-season run of success.
Suppose Jordan hadn’t retired and opted to give pro baseball a try? What if he and his Bulls had stood in the path of Olaujuwon’s Rockets during Houston’s two championship seasons?
Which super team would’ve come out on top? One thing’s for certain – if online sportsbooks were as prevalent in the mid-1990s as they are today, bettors would’ve loved the odds being offered on such a spectacular series.
Hakeem Rose Above His Airness
Olajuwon had Jordan’s number, perhaps more so than any of Jordan’s NBA peers. They met head-to-head on the court 23 times during their NBA careers. Olajuwon’s team won 13 of those games. Even during the six seasons that Jordan’s Bulls won the NBA Championship, Olajuwon and the Rockets still held a 6-5 advantage.
The Bulls averaged 105 points per game over the course of their six championship seasons. Against the Rockets during that same span, Chicago averaged 97.9 ppg.
It wasn’t like the Rockets locked down Jordan’s greatness when he took the floor against them. He averaged just under 31 points a game against Houston. But the Rockets were of the belief that Olaujuwon could match Jordan offensively, and his brilliant defensive work would provide enough stops on MJ to make the outcome go in Houston’s favor.
“(Jordan) gave our team great respect,” Rudy Tomjanovich, Houston’s coach during those title-winning seasons, told The Athletic. “He didn’t feel that they could contain Hakeem. They just didn’t have the personnel to do it. And he said he thought we were the team that gave them the most trouble.”
Those dominant Bulls teams were never known for their center play. Whether it was Luc Longley or Bill Cartwright, neither was a match for Olajuwon in the paint.
During Chicago’s championship years, Olajuwon per-game averages in games against the Bulls included 22.8 points, 12 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.2 steals, and 3.3 blocks. All of those totals were better than his career averages.
Chicago was left to try and double-team Hakeem, and that set up a dream scenario. The unselfish Olaujuwon would simply dish the ball out to any one of Houston’s deadly three-point shooters, and they would apply the dagger to Chicago.
Michael Jordan with former U.S. President Barack Obama. Photo by: Pete Souza (Public Domain).
While no one is questioning the legend of Jordan, or the greatness of that Bulls dynasty, what was lost in the airing of The Last Dance was Houston’s own mini-dynasty. And their leader was clearly Olaujuwon.
“We talk about Michael Jordan not being human, but for those that haven’t been paying attention to the NBA, Hakeem Olajuwon wasn’t human either,” ESPN analyst and former NBA player Jalen Rose said. “He could play with his back to the basket. He had quick hands and quick feet.”
What’s conveniently forgotten is that Jordan did return to the Bulls for the latter part of the 1994-95 season. He was with the Chicago team that was eliminated by the Orlando Magic in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“You know, a lot of people, they say that and it’s amazing because they act like (a Bulls-Rockets Finals) couldn’t have happened,” Olaujuwon told The Athletic. “Orlando beat them. He was playing (in 1995).
“He missed a year. They say he missed two years, but he lost in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference. Against a tough Orlando team. You have Penny Hardaway, (Nick) Anderson and Shaq. That’s a monster. They beat them!”
Olaujuwon led Houston to a sweep of the Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals.
What If The Bulls And Rockets Had Met?
NBA contemporaries of Jordan and Olaujuwon find it sad that the two superstars never clashed for all the marbles.
“One thing that hasn’t gotten enough play is how much trouble Olajuwon and that team would’ve given Michael,” former NBA player Kevin McHale told ESPN. “I always said what the Bulls didn’t run into during MJ’s reign was an unbelievably dominant big man like Hakeem Olaujuwon.
“If anybody was going to give the Bulls a lot of trouble, it would’ve been a dominant center, which of course Hakeem was.”
While naturally biased, Tomjanovich certainly would’ve liked his team’s chances against Chicago in a best-of-seven series.
“It was too bad that we didn’t get [to the Finals] when they got there,” Tomjanovich said. “We would have to go and play. We could all talk about it and stuff, but we’ll never know.
“It would’ve been a great series.”
That’s the one drawback with what ifs. You never know for sure what the result would’ve been.
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