Ron Harper's MVP night
In Game 1 of the 1996 NBA Finals, Harp was everything everywhere all at once.
“There are a lot of people who played sports — period — who do not have a shot at even getting a championship ring. … I felt that last year, once I signed and became a Bull, I thought that was my chance. Now it’s here.”
— Ron Harper, on the even of the 1996 NBA Finals
In 1996, Michael Jordan became the second player in NBA history to win the MVP, All-Star MVP and Finals MVP. Jordan and Scottie Pippen became the first teammates since the NBA-ABA merger to be named 1st team All-NBA and 1st team All-Defensive team. Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman became the first trio of teammates in over a decade named 1st team All-Defensive team.
Jordan won the scoring title, Rodman won the rebounding title, Steve Kerr finished 2nd in 3-point percentage. Toni Kukoc won 6th Man of the Year, Phil Jackson won Coach of the Year, Jerry Krause won Executive of the Year, Pippen finished 2nd in Defensive Player of the Year and 5th in MVP.
You might have heard the team set an NBA record with 72 regular-season wins.
And when I think of the first Finals game that record-setting Bulls team played, the first person who comes to my mind is Ron Harper.
“Ron Harper did a heck of a job on Gary Payton,” MJ said after the game, and Harp did indeed do that. During the dynasty, I thought of Harper as the best 3rd best perimeter defender in the league. Meaning, depending who you talked to, the best perimeter defender in the NBA was either Pippen or Jordan1. That meant that the best 2nd best perimeter defender on a team was either Jordan or Pippen.
As the Bulls’ 3rd best, Harper was a better perimeter defender than many teams’ best. He was a defensive #1 who, on this team, was #3.
That wasn’t always the plan. Harper arrived in Chicago for the 1995 season as a huge free agent signing, a man who would be a more lasting replacement for Jordan. Or so the thinking went. Instead, Harp lost his starting job in late February, MJ came back in mid-March, and Harper became the 12th man, playing in only one game in the first round against Charlotte and a total of 24 minutes across the first nine playoff games.
But in Game 6 against Orlando, Phil started to see Harp not for what he wasn’t, but for what he was.
“Well, you’ve got another 6’6 guy with long arms who can play the passing lane,” Kendall Gill told me about Harp two years ago. “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.”
I found it interesting that Kendall mentioned Kevin Johnson. Phil Jackson did too. In the team’s exit interviews, Phil recognized just how dynamic a backcourt of Harper, Jordan and Pippen (as a de facto point guard) could be — that they would give the Bulls the ability to match the big guards of Orlando.
The question, therefore, was who would handle the league’s smaller guards.
“I got kind of a confirmation from Pippen, Jordan and Harper,” Phil told Sam Smith just before the season started. “I asked them point blank, ‘Who’s going to guard Kevin Johnson?’” They assured Phil that between the three of them and Steve Kerr, they could handle smaller guards, too.
That set into motion Jerry Krause’s masterful manipulation of the 1995 expansion draft, in which the Bulls strategically lost B.J. Armstrong2. Phil named Harper the starting guard next to Jordan. Harp delivered. He started all 80 games he played while having a lighter minutes load at just over 23 a game. He picked that up a bit for the playoffs, but was still under 30 minutes a night while Pippen and Jordan were over 40.
This gave everyone what they needed: Harp wasn’t killing himself playing 40 minutes a night, and could hence maximize his time on the court with huge impact plays, especially defensively, where he often drew point guard duty with Pippen. Phil Jackson got to realize his aborted vision from 1993-94 of a unique, multi-faceted, malleable lineup. The Bulls got yet another player who could, in the blink of an eye, turn defense into offense.
“They’re long,” Tim Hardaway said after Game 1 of the first round series between the Bulls and the Heat. “They’re just… long.”3
Lastly, everyone got a favored teammate, the man who wrote the slogan “72-10 don’t mean a thing without the ring” and created the t-shirts with Pippen4.
For Ron Harper, who should have been an All-Star in Cleveland5 and was once suspended by the Clippers for saying that playing there was a “jail stint,”6 the Bulls were basketball heaven. As the great Phil Taylor wrote in Sports Illustrated in his NBA Finals preview, Harper became so reliable defensively that the Bulls picked one player in each series who they wanted to dominate — Tim Hardaway, John Starks and Dennis Scott — and made that Harper’s assignment.
“And in each case, he did the job,” Bulls assistant coach Jim Cleamons said. “Harp is the unsung hero of this defense.”
The man targeted for Harp’s net in the Finals:
Ron Harper kills Seattle
The ‘96 Bulls were insanely versatile.
I once described the lineup of Harper, Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc and Rodman as a “35-foot … flying octagon” in which all five players were between 6’6 and 6’11, four with point guard skills, four capable of defending three positions. Harper was in both of those groups, and my favorite game of his was Game 1 of the 1996 NBA Finals, where he showed off both sets of skills.
All these years later, the reason I remember his performance that day was his offense: 15 points on 6 of 10 shooting, with one three-pointer, an array of slicing layups, a put-back dunk off a Pippen miss and two late steals that he turned into layups. His three was the first basket of the game, and he had seven assists, dishing to everyone — a nifty flip to a driving Longley (who had a great game himself, with 14 points), a dart underneath to Rodman, a toss to Pip for a three of his own.
But when I re-watched the game this week, what stood out even more was his defense.
Harper spent much of the game on Payton, and similar to Pippen was Harper’s ability to move up, down and across the entire court on a single possession. He picked Payton up full court at times and followed him in the half court. In one early sequence, he defended Payton at the top of the key, followed him left as Payton passed to Detlef Schrempf in the post, reached down to pressure Schrempf while staying on the Glove, followed Payton yet stayed in the lane as Schrempf began to drive, saw Schrempf passing to Shawn Kemp on the right side and then darted out at Kemp to challenge his shot.
Kemp knocked it down — he led all scorers with 32 points — but Harper’s ability to cover that much ground was Pippen-esque.
Except, of course, Pippen was on the floor too.
“Gary Payton has missed his first four shots,” Marv Albert said early, “being played by Ron Harper, who has been just superb defensively throughout the playoffs.”
Harper played 30 minutes in Game 1 and packed in the impact. He shot inside and out, grabbed offensive boards, dished out assists, challenged shots at the rim and disrupted Payton enough to help drive the Bulls to a 107-90 win. He added 12 points in Game 2 before playing just one minute in Game 3 due to injury.
He started Game 4 but could only play 13 minutes in the Bulls loss, and played just one minute in Game 5. He was back at close to full strength in Game 6, scoring 10 points in 38 minutes as the Bulls won their 4th championship in six years — and Harper’s first in 10 years in the NBA.
In that sense, though Harper technically averaged 6.5 points per game in the Finals, in the three full games he played he averaged 12.3. Include Pippen’s 15.7, Toni’s 13.0 and Luc’s 11.7 and the ‘96 Bulls had the best Finals scoring spread of any Bulls team, with basically five guys in double figures. And that’s not even counting Dennis Rodman’s sterling series, averaging just under 15 boards a night and twice tying the Finals record with 11 offensive rebounds in a game.
In Bulls lore, the ‘96 Finals is a weird one, with no truly signature game. The most famous moment of the series is probably MJ crying in the locker room with the ball, thinking about his father. But I love the ‘96 Finals, and the whole ‘96 playoffs, because it showcased the second three-peat at its most balanced.
You don’t go 87-13 (their combined record for the regular season and playoffs) on the shoulders of just one or two guys. You need everyone. The MVP and the should-have-been DPOY. The rebounding champ and the 6th Man of the Year. The 3-point ace and the big yet lithe man in the middle.
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Here’s how Kendall Gill answered the Pip or MJ defender question: “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.”
Each team could only protect eight players, but only one player per team can be taken in the expansion draft. Krause rightly predicted that neither expansion team wanted Harper, who was now viewed around the league as a highly paid backup with bad knees, while also predicting that if he left Armstrong unprotected, a team would draft him. So Krause protected Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc, Kerr, their three centers, and lastly Dickey Simpkins, their 1994 1st round pick. The Raptors picked Armstrong #1. For more on how the ‘95 expansion draft helped create the ‘96 Bulls, my thread is here.
Harper in Alex Wong’s ‘96 Bulls oral history: “Before the playoffs, Scottie and I went to eat, and we were just throwing out ideas, 72-10 this, 72-10 that. I said to Scottie, ‘I got one. 72-10 don’t mean a thing without the ring.’ He’s like, ‘That’s kinda hot.’ We were just playing around when we said it, but Scottie had a good friend who made t-shirts. So we called him up, and told him our t-shirt idea. We wore them all throughout the playoffs.”
For more on Harper’s time in Cleveland, and how he matched up against MJ — and the Batman shirt he wore and buttons he passed to teammates during the ‘89 Bulls series as a counter to MJ being “Superman” — check out my piece from May 7, looking back at The Shot from Ohio’s perspective.
Harper in the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 1994: “I’m just doing my jail time. In about 65 or 70 more days my time is up and I’ll be out on GB: good behavior.”