'The Last Dance' writers' roundtable: What do we do with Dennis Rodman?

Yahoo Sports


The Yahoo Sports NBA staff watched the latest episodes of “The Last Dance” like the rest of you, and here were their responses to a few burning questions.

Dennis Rodman and today's game — would it fly? 

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Vincent Goodwill: Rodman would be the most unique athlete in this era. More unique than LeBron James because of what he embraced — and he’d be a social-media superstar. Can you picture the Worm with Twitter and IG with the outfits, the hair and the Vegas trip in the middle of the season? He’d snitch on himself before TMZ could find him.

Athletically, his ability to guard 1 through 5 in today’s switch-heavy game would make him even more valuable than he was back then. He was never a leader in steals or blocks but could do everything defensively, including guarding LeBron James and Kevin Durant today — which is easy to imagine considering he guarded Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

He’d be a max player and a max entertainer in today’s game, and it wouldn’t be close.

Chris Haynes: Rodman would be a center in today’s game, which would be a seamless transition for him considering he dominated defensively while being undersized during an era of legendary 7-foot centers. 

In this small-ball era, Rodman would be the prototypical big man capable of guarding all five positions. Offensively, he wasn’t a threat and that would be an obstacle in any decade of basketball. However, his contributions to a team are too immense to be strapped to a bench for large stretches. His energy, his defensive prowess, his rebounding and playing his role to the fullest would make for a Hall of Fame career in any era.

There was no NBA player like Dennis Rodman. (JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
There was no NBA player like Dennis Rodman. (JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)

Seerat Sohi: No question. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Dennis Rodman stood out off the court. He made sure of it. On the court, he had the opposite tendency of modern stars: He wanted to fit in. Rodman was a rugged, energetic defender who dove and spun all over the court, oftentimes crashing onto the hardwood in pursuit of stops and rebounds. He did the work nobody else wanted to do, and demanded none of the scarce offensive opportunities that teams are often forced to cede to keep the hard-hat and lunch-pail guys happy. For a coach who could handle him, Rodman was the dream chess piece. Competitive teams will put up with a lot in exchange for a player of his caliber. 

Besides, these days, we’re so overstimulated that it takes a program as absurd as “Tiger King” to get and keep everyone’s attention. In the 1990s, Dennis Rodman was a singular spectacle. Today, we would watch Dennis Rodman emerge from a car in a white wedding dress and assume it was spon-con for a bridal shop.

Do the Pistons and Isiah Thomas get enough credit for beating the Bulls, Lakers and Celtics between 1988-90?

Goodwill: They don’t, and that’s the league’s fault. It focused only on their physical play — play that would be escalated by the hallowed ringless New York Knicks in the ’90s — and it obscured their greatness. Those Pistons were a bad call away from possibly three-peating, beginning in 1988. They suffered heartbreak that the league usually highlights as marks of perseverance, losing to the Celtics in seven games in the ’87 Eastern Conference finals (Isiah throwing the ball away, and Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley bumping heads in Game 7), then losing to the Lakers in ’88 (Isiah’s ankle injury) before breaking through with no doubt in ’89, with 63 wins and a 15-2 romp through the playoffs.

Beating Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael should mean something and they did just that. You could make the argument that sans Magic, there’s been no greater point guard than Thomas, if winning is supposed to matter.

They were the antiheroes, which meant they wouldn’t be embraced by the masses. Getting two titles and perhaps being robbed of a third in the league’s greatest era should be celebrated more.

Bill Laimbeer was a stretch five three decades before the NBA went in that direction, and having three small guards carry the scoring load is almost unheard of, even in today’s guard-heavy game.

They were ahead of their time in a lot of ways, but they haven’t been appreciated by a league that’s supposedly the best at celebrating its history.

Haynes: The Pistons dominated the tail end of the ’80s, but the only teams that are mentioned as reigning supreme during that decade are the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.   

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the league’s marquee faces, two captivating figures who gave the league prominence and played vital roles in elevating the game from tape delay to a must-see live television experience.  

Negative stereotypes of Detroit and the way the Pistons played didn’t endear them to a large following outside of their region. Even with Isiah Thomas, the league found the Pistons difficult to market or it simply refused to.

Therefore, they are known more for their “Bad Boys” personas rather than being the only team to take down Johnson, Bird and Jordan while accumulating back-to-back titles. 

Sohi: I can’t speak from the experience of watching them, but we certainly hear about the Pistons considerably less than other championship teams. I imagine there are a number of reasons. Most of their best players, aside from Isiah Thomas, receded out of the spotlight and they didn’t play a fun brand of basketball. In fact, they were despised for their brutish assault on a game that was supposed to remind viewers of jazz. 

Most important, they were victims of Michael Jordan’s orbit. Thanks to the public’s fascination and the storytelling prowess of the folks at Nike, every single character who collided with Jordan was folded into his story. 

Despite winning two championships, most people remember the “Bad Boys” Pistons as the hurdle Jordan needed to jump over before he could be a champion. Their legacy lives, maybe literally, in his victory scars.

Scottie Pippen was a historic defender. (John Lee/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Scottie Pippen was a historic defender. (John Lee/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

How good was Scottie Pippen — really?

Goodwill: Pippen was placed perfectly in Chicago. He wasn’t a No. 1 guy, although he could masquerade as one on occasion. He needed Michael Jordan to sharpen him and harness his physical gifts.

He could distribute, rebound and lead the break with ease, fitting into the triangle offense without much conflict. It’s often said Jordan didn’t win a playoff series until Pippen came along, but Pippen didn’t turn into a truly dependable player until 1991, when the Bulls won the first of their six titles.

Those two were terrors defensively and, theoretically, he helped carry the defensive burden that would’ve worn Jordan down. Who knows if Jordan could’ve found another sidekick who was as unique as Pippen, but Pippen would’ve never found another situation to maximize his ability as the Bulls did.

Without Jordan, we saw what happened: When it came down to it, he wasn’t the guy who could make the last shot or even take it, evidenced by Phil Jackson drawing up a last-second play for Toni Kukoc in the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. Pippen was so enraged he wouldn’t even take the floor — not something a No. 1 guy is supposed to do.

The migraine is a demerit on his record, and his inability to close the deal in his other stops post-Bulls means he shouldn’t be in the pantheon of greats.

One could say Pippen got his rings courtesy of Air Jordan Jewelers — but he doesn’t have to give them back, either.

Haynes: Scottie Pippen wasn’t an unstoppable force offensively, but his 6-foot-7 wiry frame mixed with raw athleticism and impeccable ball-handling made him an above-average offensive threat. Defensively, you can’t name three players in the history of basketball better than him at his position. 

When Michael Jordan went on his basketball hiatus, Pippen proved he was a franchise player in his own right by leading the Bulls to 55 wins, two victories short of what they accomplished with Jordan the year before. 

Due to his connection with Jordan, Pippen will never fully get the recognition he deserves because he will always be viewed as a “Robin.”

Robins are seldom in the conversation of the greats, but without question, he is one of the greatest players of all time. Jordan needed No. 33 for all six of the franchise’s championships. That speaks volumes. 

Sohi: As with almost every Pippen take, this is a double-edged sword: He was the best complementary star ever.

He helped Jordan preserve his legs by defending the best player on the opposing team on most nights of the regular season and took over ball-handling duties. He might have been the best perimeter defender of the decade. He was one of the few wings in the league who was athletic enough to keep up with Jordan in transition and he was a great spot-up shooter.

Pippen filled in all the utility checkmarks, so much so that he basically invented the point-forward position, but he was never as dynamic a scorer as most wing stars.

In the absence of a late-game closer like Jordan, I wonder if we might have remembered Pippen — if we thought about him very much at all, that is — more for his weaknesses than his strengths. Think Andre Iguodala before Stephen Curry: the star that wasn’t quite a star, grinding his way to occasional playoff berths in Philadelphia.

Pippen was simply too long, too athletic and too smart not to have a prominent role somewhere in the NBA. He couldn’t have asked for a better situation to be drafted into, and Jordan couldn’t have asked for a more fitting second star.

Where does ‘The Shot’ vs. Cleveland rank among other MJ shots?

Goodwill: Jordan’s series winner over the Cavs in 1989 is arguably his most important game-winner until the 1998 Finals, when he capped off the Bulls’ sixth championship over the Utah Jazz. The Bulls were down one, which meant no overtime was possible, a true “hit this or go home” situation. Jordan was the reigning MVP, but the Bulls took a step back team-wise in 1989 as a sixth seed in the playoffs. The way things laid out, beating the Cavs and then the Knicks before giving the Pistons a six-game scare seems logical in hindsight, but going out in the first round after advancing past that point in 1988 would’ve caused some true soul-searching in the Bulls’ organization.

Coach Doug Collins was still fired, but who’s to say GM Jerry Krause would’ve stuck with Pippen and Horace Grant, two key cogs in the Bulls’ first three-peat? And without that run, do they have the confidence to come back in 1990 with a 55-win campaign and a subsequent bigger step toward a title?

Jordan would’ve still heard the criticisms of his style not being fit for a title, especially compared to team-oriented stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and the Bulls could’ve made drastic changes to lessen his importance to the team.

Entering his sixth season, Jordan would’ve had one playoff series win on his career ledger if not for “The Shot”, offsetting his individual excellence that was obvious to anyone with eyes. Perhaps he would’ve wound up more Wilt than Russell in terms of winning, if the Bulls hadn’t figured out the perfect formula in the meantime.

No doubt, Jordan would’ve eventually got his rings, but the road to get there might’ve taken a little bit longer and had a lot more questions along the way.

Haynes: Of the many back-breaking, game-winning shots Michael Jordan made in his career, “The Shot” was the foundational basket and arguably the most important basket in Bulls history.

The shot served as the official announcement that these aren’t the Bulls you’re accustomed to seeing. The Jordan game-winner over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the ’98 Finals is another iconic moment because it is his final shot with the Bulls. A year before, Russell was on the receiving end of another one of Jordan’s memorable game-winning jumpers in Game 1 of the Finals. 

There are too many great Jordan baskets to break down, but had it not been for the one in Cleveland, there might not have been as many big stages for Jordan to perform on. “The Shot” gave him and his team confidence that their time would come.

And it did in a big way.

Sohi: Second. 

I don’t think I have to say that “The Shot” is awesome, but just to be clear: “The Shot” is awesome. It’s called “The Shot.” I understand its appeal as a signature moment: the double-clutch, the mid-air focus and muscle control that came to define Jordan’s grace, the win-or-go-home elimination game stakes, the fist-pump afterward and the air-kick that brought poor Craig Ehlo down a second time — the energy, the passion, the vitality. 

In the end, “The Shot” didn’t lead the Bulls to the promised land. They got knocked out by the Pistons in the next round. On the other hand, the final shot of Jordan’s Bulls career, against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, got Chicago its sixth ring. 

By then, Jordan had played over 35,000 regular-season minutes, and the Bulls were in the final stages of a third straight Finals run. With 90 seconds left in that game, Jordan drove right, pulled back, pulled up from 8 feet and missed his signature fadeaway. “The jumpers come up short when fatigue is a factor, it’s true of anyone,” the announcer blared, as if to say, “Yes, even Michael Jordan gets tired.”  

Sure. But Jordan’s gift was his ability to overcome fatigue. At 35, he was in war against attrition, a war against his own body.

On the next play, Jordan drove baseline and flung himself into John Stockton, getting to the free-throw line. Then he drove right and scored on Bryon Russell. Then with the Bulls trailing by one, Jordan poked the ball out of Jazz forward Karl Malone’s hands, and dribbled up the court, all before hitting the shot that broke Utah’s heart. 

Jordan didn’t just rise to the moment. He engineered the conditions for the moment to exist. “The Shot” was a testament to his talent. Jordan’s final shot was a testament to his will.

Coaching the Michael Jordan Bulls was quite a task for Phil Jackson. (Photo credit should read ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Coaching the Michael Jordan Bulls was quite a task for Phil Jackson. (Photo credit should read ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images)

How important was Phil Jackson to the Bulls’ dynasty?

Goodwill: Phil Jackson was amazingly important to the Bulls. His biggest alliance with Jordan was simple, and hasn’t been repeated by stars of today (read: LeBron James). He created a system that maximized everybody else’s talents as opposed to his star’s. Jordan retrofit his game to adjust to the triangle offense , and thus allowed the Bulls to identify players who fit in the system as opposed to just fitting in with Jordan.

Jackson was quirky but found a way to endear himself to his teams by creating an atmosphere that locked out distractions — even within their own building. They identified enemies, even GM Jerry Krause, and bonded over it.

They weren’t as frenetic as previous Bulls teams, and Jackson helped them mature and find a center of gravity through chaos. Finding motivation to win a third title, two times, had eluded the great teams of previous days. Jackson seemed to find the right mix of motivation and poise to keep them focused during fatiguing runs.

Getting Jordan to believe he could both lead the team in his own way and rely on teammates in tense moments isn’t something that happens in the moment. It’s a trust that has to be fostered from coach to player and reinforced through years of practice.

Jackson was a master at it, and even though he has been blessed with great talent, it’s hard to see many duplicating the winning he did again and again.

Haynes: Jackson is one of the first coaches to excel in managing the egos of stars. X’s and O’s are imperative, but of equal importance is the caretaking of high-profile characters and keeping them all on the same page.

The Zen Master enlisted unorthodox methods of team bonding and gave in to unheard of requests, like Dennis Rodman’s in-season vacation plea. He understood the mechanisms of getting the most out of each individual player, and the players felt he genuinely cared for their well-being outside of the game.

His willingness to change the offense at the initial dismay of Jordan proved to be the foundation of a historic run. And if there were still any doubts to Jackson’s value in Chicago, refer to his Laker coaching tenure as well. 

Sohi: This is a tough question. It’s harder to plug-and-play with coaches than it is with players, because so much of a coach’s job has to do with interpersonal dynamics. We can guess how the Bulls would look without, say, Pippen or Rodman, but you can’t throw Pat Riley in for Phil Jackson and say that things would have been exactly the same. 

Just like we can’t know if Jackson allowing Rodman to go to Las Vegas kept him engaged in June.  But the Bulls won in the end, so, hey, the Zen Master did it again! Such is the precarious task of assessing coaches.

Jackson has inherited some talented teams. He has also been uniquely capable at wrangling them toward one common goal. It’s clear that he spends a great deal of time thinking about his players’ psyches.

The system that molded Jordan’s individualistic style with the team’s goal was authored by assistant coach Tex Winter, but Jackson got Jordan to buy into it. 

Jackson understood that even if he couldn’t solve his players’ problems, being seen and heard would make them feel better. He called Pippen the second-best player in the NBA, which is a nice way of saying, ‘Sorry you’re so underpaid.”  

Jackson understood that people perform best when they feel integral to their team’s operation.

He understood how to manipulate situations in his favor, like he did when he ratcheted up the tension between the front office and the players to create an us vs. them mentality. 

What Jackson understood best is a testament to what makes him so important and unimportant: He knew when to get the hell out of the way.

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