’90s Rockets star confident they would have defeated Jordan’s Bulls

Scottie Pippen, Vernon Maxwell, Ron Harper, Chicago Bulls
Scottie Pippen, Vernon Maxwell, Ron Harper, Chicago Bulls /

In a recent episode of the No Chill podcast with Gilbert Arenas and Josiah Johnson, former Houston Rockets star Vernon “Mad Max” Maxwell came on to discuss a variety of subjects including spending time on a championship team in the midst of the ’90s Chicago Bulls dynasty.

While the entirety of the podcast was a treat to listen to, hearing his comments regarding the “asterisk” surrounding Houston’s two championships due to the absence of Michael Jordan was most interesting of all. Maxwell argues that even had Jordan remained in the NBA and never pursued a brief career in baseball, the Rockets would have still repeated as champions in those two seasons.

The basis of his point is rooted in Houston’s regular season success against the Chicago Bulls in the years leading up to their eventual back-to-back championships. Although the Bulls emerged as NBA champions in ’91, ’92, and ’93, the Rockets actually posted a head-to-head record of 5-1 against Chicago over that span in the regular season.

Assisting superstar teammate Hakeem Olajuwon as a secondary scoring option, Maxwell averaged 18.3 points on 50.6% shooting in those games against the Bulls — a significant step up from the 16.1 points and 40.5% shooting he averaged during those three seasons.

It’s clear Maxwell took this matchup very seriously, so it’s no surprise to see his numbers shoot up so drastically. You can listen to Maxwell’s guest appearance on No Chill below (warning: sensitive language).

After winning a pair of championships during MJ’s hiatus, Vernon Maxwell believes his Rockets would have defeated the Chicago Bulls in ’94 and ’95.

While the Rockets certainly were a formidable regular season matchup, I think it’s important to not gloss over just how different of an animal the Chicago Bulls became when postseason play rolled around. Ironically, the opposite could be said of the Rockets.

We can posit championship hypotheticals all we want, but the fact remains that you must still actually make the NBA Finals in order to have a chance to win the NBA Finals. In the six seasons Maxwell played in Houston, the Rockets only managed to make it out of the Western Conference in the two years Jordan had been absent from the NBA.

Let’s take a look at how those years panned out for Houston:

  • 1990: Lost 3-1 to Lakers in the first round, LA lost 4-1 in the second round
  • 1991: Lost 3-0 to Lakers in the first round, LA lost 4-1 in Finals against Bulls
  • 1992: Finished 42-40 and missed playoffs, Bulls win 2nd championship
  • 1993: Lose 4-3 to SuperSonics in the second round, Seattle loses 4-3 in Conference Finals, Bulls win 3rd championship
  • 1994: Beat the Knicks 4-3 to win NBA Finals, the same Knicks who went to Game 7 against a Jordan-less Bulls team
  • 1995: Beat the Magic 4-0 to win their second championship, the same Magic who beat the Bulls in six games

As you can see, the Rockets posed no threat from 1990-93. Even in 1994, the Rockets struggled mightily to defeat a Knicks team that had been and would have been easily handled by a Jordan-led Bulls squad.

Maxwell’s “regular season” argument also falls apart even further when you take into account the Bulls still split the four regular season games the two teams played against each other in ’94 and ’95 even without Jordan present.

The one year the Rockets do have a legitimate claim to be the best team on the planet was 1995, as adding NBA legend Clyde Drexler truly helped this team reach their peak. While they may not have posted their best regular season record this year, the Rockets plowed through the latter half of the playoffs by going 8-2 in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals.

This was also the year (an albeit very rusty) Jordan returned, and the Rockets won it all handily against the team that eliminated MJ and the Bulls. If there were ever a year a team could have torn down Jordan’s perfect Finals streak, this was the year. At least, I certainly can’t fault any Rockets fan or a guy as competitive as Maxwell for believing so.

Even so, the ’95 Rockets faced elimination five times, put on the ropes by both the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns in the first two rounds. They certainly weren’t invulnerable, and no one would be better equipped to take advantage of their weaknesses than the best team of all time led by the greatest player of all time.

Vernon held no delusions about Jordan’s ability, however, as he offers his respects and admiration on the podcast.

"“Mike is Mike man. The best player I ever played against, I never thought I’d ever see nothing like that. I just see the bottom of that [expletive]’s tennis shoes man.”"

I’m certain Maxwell wouldn’t want to hear it, but the greatest threat to the Jordan-era Bulls was not the Houston Rockets. It was the Bulls themselves. Had MJ never taken that time off, it’s hard to say if he could still avoid the mental and physical fatigue that would have made another three-peat possible in the first place.

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