The Last Dance: What if Michael Jordan returned to UNC for his senior year?

Michael Jordan (C) of the Chicago Bulls is guarded by Rik Smits (L) and Reggie Miller (R) of the Indiana Pacers 31 May during the first half of game seven of their NBA Eastern Conference finals game at the United Center in Chicago, IL. The winner of this series will take on the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals staring 03 June. AFP PHOTO/Jeff HAYNES (Photo by JEFF HAYNES / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
Michael Jordan (C) of the Chicago Bulls is guarded by Rik Smits (L) and Reggie Miller (R) of the Indiana Pacers 31 May during the first half of game seven of their NBA Eastern Conference finals game at the United Center in Chicago, IL. The winner of this series will take on the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals staring 03 June. AFP PHOTO/Jeff HAYNES (Photo by JEFF HAYNES / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images) /

A throwaway line in the first episode of ‘The Last Dance’ unravels the entire timeline of the 1990s NBA. What if Michael Jordan had returned for his senior season?

The first two episodes of The Last Dance documentary on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls revealed a lot of fun nuggets of Michael Jordan and NBA lore. We got to relive the 63-point playoff game in the Boston Garden. We learned about the decision-making that led to Scottie Pippen‘s discontent during the 1998 season. We got several jokes in at former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause’s expense. It was a good time, and it sets up the rest of the documentary to be must-watch TV.

Most of the stories are things that we already knew about, just told in a different way. But one line in the first episode fundamentally broke my brain as I watched. It was a throwaway fact setting up a larger story, but it’s what I spent the rest of Sunday night thinking about. When The Last Dance is getting ready to discuss the 1984 NBA Draft, Michael Jordan and Roy Williams both discuss how Jordan was seriously weighing returning to UNC for his senior year.

He obviously didn’t, and we don’t know how serious he actually was about it. But if you stop and think about it, that is a bombshell of a What-If. Given how pivotal the 1984 and 1985 drafts were for setting the table for the 1990s NBA — 17 All-Stars were selected between the two drafts, compared to 24 in the 1982, 1983, 1986 and 1987 drafts combined — that would have significantly altered the course of NBA history. There are no 1990s Bulls if Jordan comes back. Instead, we get a ripple effect that has some truly mind-bending consequences and scenarios to think about.

While going into all of them is impossible, there are some changes that would’ve been nearly certain to happen — and they are massive. So let’s talk briefly about just how much different the history of the NBA would’ve been if Jordan had decided to take one more year at Chapel Hill.

1984 NBA Draft

  • The Bulls still do okay, more than likely. While the documentary paints the pre-Jordan Bulls as a dire situation, they weren’t horrible and had talent to work with. Their options aren’t terrible in the 1984 Draft, either. While they aren’t getting Jordan, three options were realistic:
    • Sam Perkins, Jordan’s teammate at UNC, picked fourth. While not an All-Star talent, he was a valuable player on winning teams for nearly two decades and made three Finals.
    • Charles Barkley, picked fifth. Obvious star talent who would have probably helped the Bulls start winning again. Chicago might not win a title with him, but he gets you close. A Barkley/Jerry Krause relationship is fascinating to think about given how Barkley’s time in Philadelphia ended.
    • Alvin Robertson, picked seventh. If the Bulls still wanted a guard, he was the next one taken and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1986.

Assuming they take Barkley to be generous, the Bulls still have little trouble putting together a strong defensive core around a franchise talent. They probably aren’t title contenders, but it’s reasonable to think that a Barkley-led Bulls team can at least be in the late-80s East’s second tier with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.

  • No one remembers Sam Bowie at all. Fairly obvious. Even if the Bulls take Barkley, we don’t remember this mistake by the Portland Trail Blazers as being so egregious. It’s a bad pick, but not arguably the worst draft decision ever.
  • Other Butterfly Effects: What does a post-Dr. J era in Philly without Barkley look like? If Chicago takes Robertson or Perkins and Dallas lands Barkley, do they win a title in the late 1980s? What happens if you do this exercise with Patrick wing declaring for the 1984 Draft?

1985 college season

  • Jordan vs. Ewing in the best Wooden Award Race ever. Jordan won in 1984, Ewing won in 1985. Ewing probably still wins given how good that Georgetown team was, but a Jordan repeat probably gives him a case as the best college player ever too.
  • Villanova doesn’t win the 1985 National Title. The No. 8 seeded Wildcats are one of the NCAA Tournament’s best stories, as they fought their way to the lowest-seeded title ever. One problem though — they played UNC in the Elite Eight and smacked them because the Tar Heels couldn’t generate good shots. I have a feeling Jordan changes that. Assuming UNC wins, they probably handle a Memphis team that also couldn’t really score on Villanova in the Final Four, and that sets up a 1982 Championship rematch that features 10 future NBA players. Whether Ewing or Jordan picks up a second national title, we all win.

1985 NBA Draft

  • One of the NBA’s most infamous moments gets even more incredible. Remember that between 1984 and 1985, the NBA instituted the draft lottery, leading to the conspiracy theory that the league rigged the lottery to get Ewing to New York. Well, now you’re giving the Knicks the right to pick between Ewing and Jordan! That only serves to further the legend of that conspiracy, especially if the Knicks grab Jordan and go win a bunch of titles. You can even get your tinfoil hat on and make the case that the league might suddenly flip the Clippers from the third to the second pick here too, to get one of those two in New York and one in Los Angeles. The idea of Jordan or Ewing on the Clippers and how much chaos that causes to our current timeline is too much, so we’ll assume that doesn’t happen and we keep the same draft order. That creates two equally amazing outcomes.
  • Jordan is drafted by New York. Assuming we’ve given Jordan another year of NCAA clout and either a second player of the year award or national title, the argument to take Jordan first is there. That means we get Jordan in the league’s biggest market, something the league is thrilled about, and the last 35 years of Knicks basketball are changed forever. We also get Indiana Pacers legend Patrick Ewing, which I don’t really know what to do with.
  • Or: Ewing still goes first to New York, and Jordan becomes a Pacer. This is the more wild concept, and honestly, probably more plausible. Ewing, like Hakeem and Ralph Sampson, was destined to go first in whatever draft he declared for. He was that big a name and that big a star at the college level. Franchise-changing bigs were the de facto No. 1 desire for NBA teams in the early 1980s, what with the impact of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone still being felt by everyone. So Ewing lands in New York and we get the same Knicks timeline, basically, but the league’s biggest star for the next 15 years is now playing in one of the smallest markets. Imagine every highlight of Jordan over his NBA career happening in navy and gold, and this fanbase figuring out it has the new best player in the league right as Hoosiers comes out in 1986 and Indiana wins its last national title in 1987. They would’ve had to make Indianapolis the U.S. Capital.

So in summary, Jordan staying for his senior year definitely kills the Bulls dynasty, definitely cements him as a top-three college basketball player ever with Christian Laettner and Kareem, and either creates the league’s much-desired New York title contender or turns the Pacers into a 20-year early version of the 2000s San Antonio Spurs. These are the things that you can be confident in happening. After Jordan makes the league, the impact of this decision gets a little tougher to project, but we can pretty confidently make a few more declarations.

Jordan’s NBA career

  • Phil Jackson does not become a legendary coach. Remember, he was a little-known Bulls assistant when he joined the NBA coaching ranks. If he doesn’t get the chance to coach Jordan, his career probably doesn’t get analyzed in the same way. Jackson coaching Barkley would be a fascinating hypothetical, but he certainly doesn’t have six titles in Chicago. That also probably means he doesn’t become the Lakers head coach, and now we’ve drastically altered Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant‘s careers and entered our third decade of ripple effects from this one decision.
  • Jordan is instead either coached by Pat Riley or Larry BrownBoth are incredible to consider. Jordan definitely buys into the Riley coaching philosophy in the same way that he did with Jackson, especially given how Riley was coming to New York with four rings to his name. With Jordan, the Knicks might be able to bring him on a year earlier too, directly after he left the Lakers in 1990. Brown, meanwhile, didn’t coach the Pacers until the mid-90s, so that might be a little more difficult to believe happening if Jordan is in Indiana. But Jordan’s fit with one of the coaching world’s more abrasive personalities would be an incredible storyline. We also would get Jordan’s formative years coming under Dr. Jack Ramsay, which feels like an upgrade over Doug Collins. Maybe as a Pacer, Jordan gets going from a winning perspective a little earlier.
  • The Sabbatical maybe never happens, or is at least wildly different. Figuring out how the Sabbatical would have worked in New York or Indiana is impossible. It’s probable Indiana would have been fine without him given their results as Reggie Miller peaked in 1994, and New York probably gets by as well. But since it’s impossible to say how many titles the Pacers or Knicks have in 1993, it’s hard to say how this impacts the league — or if Jordan has the same fire to get back in 1995. There’s also the fun what-if of his baseball career — without the Chicago ties, where does he go? Who does he play for? And how does that impact his performance or his willingness to return to the league?
  • Instead, we may have gotten a more terrifying spectre — Jordan Free Agency. If New York can’t get a team around Jordan to start winning, there’s the potential of Jordan considering leaving for another team. Something tells me this is almost certainly happening in the Indiana universe too, as Nike and the league probably work to get Jordan a little more exposure for his off-court exploits. Half the mystique about Jordan was that he was everywhere, particularly in Chicago — he’s probably not getting the same in Indiana. Where he goes — and when he leaves — are both amazing things to think about. Do the Lakers get a chance to rebound before they get Shaq? Do we get a super-team in Houston, Orlando or San Antonio? And when does this happen? All fascinating questions that would have burned the league to the ground in the same way “The Decision” did in 2010.
  • Either way the 1985 NBA Draft shakes out, Reggie Miller benefits. Assuming he’s still the pick for the Pacers in 1987, Miller getting an opportunity to play as a second star to either Jordan or Ewing is a huge boon to his perception. While Pippen probably has a similar outcome in terms of valuation — he was damn good, and him as a solo star in Chicago or No. 2 to a lesser star somewhere else still works well — Miller’s deficiencies are greatly hidden if he’s not the primary shot creator in an offense. Put him at the 3 next to Jordan and use him as an outlet, or watch Ewing ping post entries back out to him for quick 3s? Then you’re probably seeing Miller as more than a three-time All-Star, and you’re probably getting him at least one ring either way. The biggest loser in this exercise is the Indiana Pacers.
  • A quick rundown of other players impacted by this decision: 
    • Jordan in New York — John Starks ceases to exist in our consciousness without the opportunity to play 2-guard for the Knicks in 1992; Bill Cartwright probably stays in New York, so we never get Charles Oakley on the Knicks; Mark Jackson stays in New York long-term and wins a few titles; Kenny Walker and Jordan as a mystifying fast-break tandem; hypothetically, Dennis Rodman in the Big Apple in the late 1990s.
    • Jordan in Indiana — Rik Smits isn’t picked by the Pacers, who are not in position to pick second in 1988; Detlef Schrempf is remembered in the same way Horace Grant was for the first Bulls run.
  • And finally, the titles……stay pretty much the same. With apologies to the many teams in the West, the early 1990s Cavaliers, and the late-90s Heat, Jordan’s still winning plenty of titles throughout the 1990s. If Jordan stays in school, he ends up on one of the Bulls’ two biggest rivals in the 1990s, both with legendary coaches, good front offices and plenty of talent picked up along the way. It’s hard to really argue that the rosters end up bad enough to keep Jordan from winning. Maybe a Ewing/Reggie combo is good enough to steal a series in the Jordan Knicks universe; maybe things fall apart in Indiana at some point off the floor. But Jordan is still Jordan, and despite what Jerry Krause thinks, organizations do not win championships by themselves. Players, however, can.

Next. 5 things we learned from Episodes 1 and 2 of The Last Dance. dark