Guarding Jordan: How Kendall Gill Attacked the GOAT
Kendall Gill's strategies against the triangle offense... finding small weaknesses in Jordan and Pippen... trying to kick MJ out of the house playing late-night cards...
Kendall Gill dreamt of being a Bull. Fate had other plans.
In the 1990 NBA draft, the Bulls’ first pick was 22, which they traded on draft day for Nets guard Dennis Hopson. Their actual first pick was 291, early in the 2nd round, well after Gill was projected to be off the board. The Hornets selected Gill 5th overall, sending him not to the Bulls but to the Bulls’ division, giving him five games a year against his hometown team.
These were battles, and Kendall embraced them without fear. He studied the habits of MJ and Scottie and found what little there was to exploit.
But finding a modicum of vulnerability doesn’t always bring a win. In this bonus portion of my conversation with Kendall Gill, the 15-year NBA pro explains the small ways to attack Michael offensively, why he worried about the triangle offense, and the time he and Jordan played cards for hours until he just wanted MJ out of his house.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
November 10th, 1990 was your first game against the Bulls. What do you remember about that game?
Just his speed and his strength. I did not know he was as fast and as strong as he was. Most guys in my position, athletically, I can handle them, but I felt like Michael was on another level, athletically and strength-wise. No wasted movement, rarely fell down. All the times I’ve played against, I can’t remember whether he fell down. It means he always had perfect balance.
Just a freak of an athlete man. He and Vince Carter are the only two guys that I played against who, when they jumped, I could see the bottom of their shoes.
They talk about his competitive drive all the time — it is true. They don’t stretch the truth as far as his competitiveness is concerned. One day he was at my house when I was in Charlotte. We were playing cards2 from about twelve o’clock that night all the way to seven in the morning, because I was beating him out of his money. He would not let me stop playing until he won all his money back. That ended up about 7:30 in the morning.
Most people would be like, ‘Oh my God, Michael Jordan is in my house.’ Most people would love that. I was ready for him to leave. I wanted him to go.”
Ha, no doubt. So you put up a video fairly recently talking about the small ways that you could attack Michael and Scottie.
Tell me about MJ as a defender. How as an offensive player did you go at him?
He would always jump to the left — his right, my left — if you dribbled that way. You can see him do it — he tried to do it against me in the video that I posted, and then I spun on him. I knew he was going to do that.
He will always ramp his defense up in the playoffs. You could tell a distinct difference in him, regular season and playoffs. His defense went up about three or four notches.
What does that mean? What happens when MJ’s defense goes up?
His intensity. He’s going harder at you, his shuffles are harder, a lot quicker. His hands are a lot more active. You can see it on his face. This is game time. He’s not playing around.
That and also, you can lose Michael sometimes in the heat of battle. If you moved a lot, sometimes he will lose you.
You mean off the ball?
Off the ball. Yes. He can recover, but sometimes you can burn him because his head would be turned. He’s such a competitor. He might try to play his teammate’s position. That’s how you can lose him sometimes.
Jordan’s watching the ball and you’re moving without the ball.
He’s watching the ball, he’s watching his teammates. He may be going to help defense and that’s when you will be open for a shot. But it’s rare. It’s rare that you can take him off of the dribble one on one. The best way to do it was wait for him to jump to his right and then go the other way. I’ve watched it. It’s a habit.
As a matter of fact, we can go back to — and I hate this play — but you can go back to when he had that dunk on me in the playoffs, when I tried to chase him down and he dunked the basketball and I fouled him. He stole the ball from Kerry Kittles. If you go back and look at the play, Kerry Kittles was going left and MJ jumped right. He stole the basketball from him.
You go back to the playoffs against the Orlando Magic. He did the same thing against Nick Anderson. Jump right because, that’s one of his habits, stealing the basketball. That’s what I tell my son. Hopefully he has a chance — he’s talented, he works hard. I tell him, “Don’t study your opponent’s strengths, study his habits. If you can study his habits then that's when you really know him.”
What about Scottie? Any defensive areas to exploit?
Scottie had a tough time guarding the right-to-left crossover. He couldn’t for some reason. That was the only weakness defensively Scottie had. For some reason he just didn’t open up very well going that way. You go back and you look at Kobe cross him over —
Yes, Grant Hill used to do it. I did it a couple of times in the playoffs, because I just studied him and I’ll watch where his weakness was. But he didn’t have too many.
What about attacking the rest of that team? Team defense, first three-peat, Horace and Bill Cartwright. You get past the perimeter. How good were they in the front court, down low?
They were very good because Horace was big, strong, blocked shots, knew what his job was. Yes, he wants to score a little bit more, but Horace and Bill could control that lane, man. Then you had guys like Bill Wennington, Will Perdue, and all of those guys patrolling there as well.
The Bulls were just tough, but you know what I tell people all the time? During that era, I wasn’t afraid to play against Scottie and Michael. I wanted to play against them. I wasn’t one of those guys that suffered the Mike Tyson effect, meaning that I was beat before I even got into the ring or into the arena. You got a lot of NBA players that were beat before they even got to the United Center or Chicago Stadium, because they were playing against Michael and Scottie.
I was more worried about the triangle offense than Michael and Scottie. Okay? Because the triangle offense, when it’s run correctly with players with high basketball IQ, you cannot stop it. It’s like trying to punch Floyd Mayweather. They are trying to find out what you're going to do before they do what they do. They have so many counters.
Jerry Krause did a great job of drafting smart players. A lot of people say, “Well, the triangle offense couldn’t work today.” I say, “Bullshit.” You give me five smart, intelligent players, and I guarantee you I'll win a championship with it.
You look at the Golden State Warriors — Steve Kerr runs some facets of the triangle. And with today's game, the way that they shoot three-pointers all the time, the triangle offense gives you so many open three-point shots.
The people, well, “You got to have Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant.” You need good players in any offense. I don’t want to hear that.
Forgetting the personnel, how much different is the triangle to defend compared to other offenses?
Well one, you can’t defend it when it’s run correctly. The only thing you can do is try to push them off the spots, try to make them catch the ball two or three feet away from where they normally catch it. That’s the only way you can defend against or have any type of success against it. Have them catch the ball out of position.
But when you do that, they have counters to that as well. It is very hard. I believe that you can run a triangle and be successful with talented players. You need good players. Can you run it without superstars and be successful? Yes, I believe so, because it’s just that efficient.
It’s based on a premise of giving you all freedom that exists within structure. It gives you a structure but it gives you freedom. It spaces the floor the correct way, so you have opportunities offensively to explore it. A lot of times your defensive players are out of position when the triangle was run correctly. You can take advantage of that. If I was the coach today yet, I would put the triangle in. I’ll make people guard me.
When you’re playing defense against the Bulls, you’ve got three key challenges. You've got the talent on the floor, you’ve got the system on the floor and then, I want to read you this quote. This was from a feature a couple of years ago that Melissa Isaacson did on John Paxson. Pax recalled a preseason when Darell Garretson visited the Bulls during training camp to go over new rules:
“Garretson told us, ‘Look, we all know the fans are here to see the great players like Michael Jordan. If there’s a play where Jordan and Paxson are together, and there’s a foul and Jordan smacks the guy in the arm, I’m giving the foul to Paxson because the fans don’t want to see Jordan fall out of the game.’”
Did it make it harder to go at Michael knowing that it’s harder to get him to foul out because they might not call it on him, even if he committed the foul?
Absolutely. I can remember playing him in ‘98, and they were blatantly fouling, but the ref would not call it. They’d have to call the obvious ones, but they would not call the ones inside. I was fouled by Michael several times, I was fouled by Scottie several times, I was fouled by Dennis several times — no calls whatsoever. But if you sneeze anywhere near Michael or Scottie, there’s going to be a foul on. The NBA knew where the bread was buttered. They weren’t cheating, but we knew they were given the benefit of the doubt.
So yes, not only are you playing against two of the greatest players of all time, one perhaps the greatest, between him and Kareem Abdul Jabbar — but Scottie’s top 50 — then you throw in the greatest offense the game has ever seen, then you throw City Hall in there. We know you can’t beat City Hall, right?
Did Michael ever mention that? Would he make note of the advantage that he had with the officials and essentially what the league office?
No, he would never do that, but we always knew it was an unwritten rule. We always knew that to beat the Bulls — I’m a boxer, so I use a fight analogy — you had to knock them out twice to get a draw. That’s how hard it was to beat them. It was almost impossible to beat those guys in a seven-game series.
Who was a better defender: Scottie or Michael?
Oh, man. I’d have to say lockdown, MJ. Off the ball, Scottie, probably because Scottie blocked shots. Michael did the same thing, but Scottie can guard four positions. Michael guarded three. I give a slight edge to MJ because whenever he wanted to, he could do whatever he wanted.
My feeling as a fan watching was that if there was one area that MJ had a little bit of trouble, it was with smaller guards. Am I right on that?
Damon Stoudamire, Kevin Johnson, Iverson —
Rod Strickland. Tim Hardaway.
Strickland, Hardaway, John Starks, Mark Price. Right. And that brings me to another key guy: Ron Harper.
Scottie and Michael were the two best perimeter defenders in the league, but no team had a third-best perimeter defender as good as Ron Harper.
What was the value of Ron Harper?
Well, you’ve got another 6’6 guy with long arms who can play the passing lane. Johnny Bach used to say, we want our guys to be like Doberman Pinschers, patrolling the lanes. That’s what Harp was. Harp could guard point guards as well. By the time he got to the Bulls, he had lost a lot of the quickness that he had with the L.A. Clippers and the Cavaliers, because of the knee injuries, but he still had to have veteran savvy on how to play help defense, how to play lanes and, maybe once in a while, come from behind and block the shot.
Those are the things that he provided, which were key for the Bulls, because Michael and Scottie couldn’t do it always. Harp could take a guy for four or five minutes, give Scottie and Michael a little break. I think that’s where he was most important because he filled in as a utility guy. Let me give Scottie a break, let me give Michael a break, go guard Kevin Johnson. Things like that. It’s always a luxury for a championship team to have that.
That’s why Phil Jackson always wanted big guards in his lineup, because they were all interchangeable.
I always say that after Michael hit the last shot against Utah, we still had a defensive possession. It was Harper guarding Stockton. Stockton had a pretty good look at a three except he had Harper in his face who changed that shot.
Ron Harper made the final play of the Bulls dynasty.
He sure did. He sure did. That’s why you like big guards, man. 6’5, 6’6 — that’s what you want.
One final note on Kendall Gill and the Bulls…
Michael Jordan is central to Kendall Gill’s major early-career what-if: replacing him. Gill became an unrestricted free agent after the 1993 season, pushing the Hornets to trade him3. They did so on September 1, sending him to Seattle. Jordan retired a month later, leaving the Bulls scrambling for a replacement.
“Had I waited (a few) more weeks, Michael would have retired, and I would have been a free agent still, and you never know what could’ve happened,” Gill says. “I might have signed with the Bulls at that time. I would have been only 24 years old.”
Next up from me: An interview with longtime TV man Mark Schanowski, followed by my in-depth conversation with Will Perdue. Read these and more with a paid subscription starting at $5 a month!
I hope everyone is having a great Labor Day holiday!
This was the Kukoc pick.
MJ’s game of choice: Tonk.
Kendall on the Sonics move: “I was actually the first player in NBA history to have an opt-out on his contract. I opted out after the third year and signed a free agent deal which I did not really want to do. I got talked in to it. I really want to go back to Charlotte. Nothing against the people of Seattle. I mean I love the people of Seattle. I think that that franchise was great. They had one of the best fan bases in the world, in the whole league, I believe. They deserve to get that thing back up there in the Northwest. I just really didn’t want to go to Seattle. I got coerced into it. I always felt like I was a Charlotte Hornet, but unfortunately for me, it didn’t work out the way that I wanted it to work out.”