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The Last Dance

What if "I'm back" never happened? Michael Jordan and the fax that changed everything

"I'm back."

That's all it took for Michael Jordan to once again return to his place atop the NBA heirarchy.

25 years ago, Jordan announced his return halfway through the 90s in the most 90s way possible.

We all know what happened next:

A few dazzling performances in No. 45 including the vaunted double-nickel in Madison Square Garden allowed for MJ to shake the cobwebs off and set the stage for yet another 3-peat which began the following season with a record-breaking 72-10 campaign. You don't need me to spell out why Jordan's return played a significant role in shaping the next several years.

Those two words restored order in the NBA.

But what if it never happened?

What if the best basketball player in the world kept playing baseball? What might the NBA have looked like if that fax never arrived?

Here are 13 potential butterfly effects.

1) The Rockets still win the 1995 title

Let's start with what wouldn't have changed. The Rockets won their second straight title over the Orlando Magic, who two rounds earlier eliminated Jordan and the Bulls.

2) Scottie Pippen wins an MVP

During the first year of Jordan's retirement the Bulls still managed to win 55 games, just two fewer than they did in 1992-93 when they went on to win a third straight title. Pippen finished third in MVP voting that season and it's not difficult to imagine a world in which Pippen emerges as the league's top player, either in Chicago... or elsewhere.

3) Bulls trade Pippen

Perhaps more plausible than the Bulls building around Pippen would have been a trade? Pippen had been the subject of trade speculation before, during and even after the 1994-95 season. A serious rift had developed between Pippen and Bulls' front office to the point that Jordan himself didn't know what was going on. "I don't know what Jerry Reinsdorf has in store for Scottie Pippen and you don't know what Scottie Pippen is looking for," said Jordan after the Bulls were eliminated in the 1995 playoffs. "But whatever it is, I think he's worth it. I think he should stay in Chicago." With no need to appease Jordan, odds are that Pippen would have continued on elsewhere.

4) Allen Iverson or Tim Duncan in the Windy City?

If the Bulls traded Pippen for draft picks prior to the 1995-96 season, it's safe to say that the Bulls might have struggled. Mightily. In their first two years post-Jordan/Pippen (1998-99 and 1999-00), only the Clippers won fewer games. Fasttrack those bad seasons to 1995-96 and 1996-97 and the Bulls would have been a few bounces of the ping pong ball away from landing either Iverson (1996) or Duncan (1997).

5) No Spurs dynasty

If Duncan never lands in San Antonio, the Spurs never become The Spurs. That's another story for another day but you can basically toss out the next two decades as it changes the landscape so dramatically it's not even worth arbitrarily selecting a few things here or there.

6) Shaq never leaves Orlando

Shaquille O'Neal signed with the Lakers in the summer of 1996 after a year in which the Magic went 60-22 but got smoked in the Conference Finals by Jordan's Bulls. With no Jordan around, the Magic would have been a good bet - and probably favourites - to reach the NBA Finals again and potentially win the whole thing. Staring down Jordan's Bulls in the East made it far more feasible to jump ship to LA but would he really have left Orlando on the heels two straight trips to the Finals? Maybe eventually, but in the summer of 96? Seems doubtful.

7) Kobe takes over LA much sooner

Suffice it to say, the Los Angeles Lakers probably still end up with Kobe Bryant. But if Shaq stays in Orlando, it becomes unquestionably Kobe's team nearly a decade sooner. Perhaps Phil Jackson still finds his way to Hollywood.. or perhaps not? The Lakers without Shaq and Kobe means a 3-peat probably doesn't happen. It also means a far different story unfolding for a Lakers' legend.

8) Rings for Malone and Stockton

The Jazz were a juggernaut. Two straight Finals appearances and more wins than any franchise not named the Chicago Bulls spanning 1994-95 through 1997-98. Safe to say that with no Jordan standing in the way, the duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton win at least one ring.

9) Mailman joins Mt. Rushmore

Let's say the Jazz win at least one title. Let's also give Malone one more MVP, specifically the 1997-98 MVP in which he finished second behind Jordan. That would have been three straight MVPs and a championship for a player who would go on to finish as the NBA's second all-time leading scorer. If he wins in Utah, odds are he never leaves to ring chase anywhere either which means he's a one-team legend with serious hardware. All of a sudden, we're talking about Malone in the same breath as Jordan, Bird, Magic, and Russell. Is he suddenly a top-5 player ever and in contention for the NBA Mt. Rushmore?

10) Seattle SuperSonics... NBA champions?

The Sonics came closer than most give them credit for in the 1996 Finals. Yes, they fell down 3-0. But they forced a Game 6 and did a better job of slowing down Jordan than almost anyone, even if they didn't figure it out until too late. Maybe they would have lost to Shaq's Magic in the 1996 Finals in our alternate universe. Or maybe they would have won it all. Which means...

11) Seattle SuperSonics... still a thing?

If the SuperSonics managed to win an NBA title, would they have ever left for Oklahoma City in 2008? The year after losing in the Finals proved to be Shawn Kemp's final year in Seattle. Had they won in 1996, perhaps he stays longer and the pairing with Gary Payton becomes so synonymous with basketball in Seattle that the Sonics simply stay put. Perhaps Kevin Durant is still wearing the same jersey he wore as a rookie.

12) LeBron James, undisputed GOAT?

There are some who already think LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all-time. Without Michael Jordan's legend looming large, would there even be much of a debate? After delivering a title to Cleveland in 2016, James mentioned his new motivation in an interview with Sports Illustrated. "My motivation is this ghost I'm chasing. The ghost played in Chicago." Might we collectively view James differently? Might there have been less pressure to win the first time around in Cleveland? Might things have played out differently even for James?

13) The Knicks are still the Knicks

Let's be honest... nothing changes here. Even if we're hanging imaginary banners in the Eastern Conference the Magic, Pacers and Heat all got closer with Jordan in the mix than the Knicks.

In the words of the cast from Frozen II... "some things never change."

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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