One thing I’ve noticed about the pandemic is that it has made people more appreciative of any chance they get to talk to another human being instead of the plants on their window sills.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that, in those moments, there really isn’t much to talk about except for the pandemic. Perhaps it is this infinite loop of psychological turmoil that ESPN can thank for the record number of viewers that tuned in to watch The Last Dance between mid-April and mid-May.
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While it is fair to wonder about the objectivity of any documentary that was produced with the level of cooperation that The Last Dance got from its principal subjects, one thing on which all of us can agree is that it has provided all of us with a topic of conversation that is far more interesting than 5-year-old reruns of American Ninja Warrior.
Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, during an hour-long video conference with local reporters, Sixers coach Brett Brown referenced the Michael Jordan documentary on a number of different occasions. Like many of us, he credited it with helping to fill the unprecedented void of competitive sports that has existed ever since the NBA postponed its season on March 11. He also suggested that the documentary has informed his preparations for the presumptive resumption of play, which is an interesting thing to consider given how radically the league has changed in the 20-plus years since the Bulls won their sixth and final championship. It’s particularly interesting from Brown’s perspective, given that any parallel between the Embiid/Simmons Sixers and the Jordan/Pippen Bulls would make Brown either Stan Albeck or Doug Collins. And there aren’t many coaches who envision their legacy as that particular character in the story.
But if you ever rewatch the documentary, it might be a fun little exercise to spend a part of that time imagining that you are watching the plot unfold through Brown’s eyes. In fact, that’s exactly how I spent part of last week, and as I did, I identified two critical observations that I think a coach in Brown’s position would hope the world at a large would make.
The first is that developing young talent into championship talent takes time.
By the start of the 1987-88 season, Jordan was well on his way to establishing himself as the best basketball player on the planet. He was 24 years old, he had played six seasons of college and pro basketball, and he was coming off a year in which he averaged an NBA-best 37.1 points per game while playing 40 minutes per night. Yet the Bulls had won just one of the 10 playoff games in which Jordan had played, exiting the postseason in the first round in each of his three seasons.
In 1987, the Bulls added Scottie Pippen, who was the No. 5 overall pick in the draft, giving themselves two players who would eventually be named among the Top 50 in league history. Nevertheless, the Bulls failed to reach the Eastern Conference finals that season, losing four out of five games to the Pistons in the conference semis.
I assume you can see where this is going.
The parallel isn’t perfect. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons did not come within two wins of the NBA Finals in their second season together, while Jordan and Pippen did. But the trajectory of the Bulls in those early years is relevant to consider, especially if you happen to be somebody who feels like you have reached some sort of definitive conclusion about he future of these Sixers. Championships rarely happen overnight, regardless of talent.
Whether they eventually happen here will depend largely on the two biggest variables in superstardom: talent and health. But it will also depend on a variable that is essential to championship-level superstardom: a will to win.
The most remarkable thing about Jordan is that the things that made him a highlight-reel sensation were a sliver of the reason he became the most impactful player of all time. Jordan’s leaping skills and fast-twitch bounce were unrivaled. There’s a reason they called him “Air.” But he didn’t have James Harden’s handle. He didn’t have Steph Curry’s outside shot. He didn’t have the size of a Simmons or Embiid. What he had was a singular focus on getting himself into scoring position on offense, and preventing opposing player from doing so on defense. Talent plays a role in that, sure, but Jordan became Jordan because of an indefatigable will and competitiveness consistently put that talent in a position to express itself.
Watch a few minutes of footage from those Bulls’ practices in 1997-98 and you immediately understand what Brown was thinking when he told reporters that he hoped that all of his players were watching the documentary.
“The pieces that really go into a team,” Brown said. “The intricacies of a team, the competitiveness that it really takes ... your best player has to grab stuff by the throat and lead, and it can be done a little bit by committee.”
If I’m Brown, I’m giving Simmons whatever the millennial equivalent of a DVD box set is of the Last Dance, telling him to rewatch the parts where Jordan talks about winning, and then saying, “That is who I want you to be.” Embiid, too. But Simmons is the guy with the ball in his hand, the guy with the most diverse set of physical gifts, and, thus, the guy with the greatest ability to transform his team with an adoption of the sort of maniacal spirit that defined MJ.
I think Simmons has it in him. I really do. You can see it on the defensive end of the court. And there have been moments you have seen it with the ball in his hands. Granted, Jordan entered the NBA with the ability to score from anywhere on the court. But he also had two extra years of college to develop that ability.