Following their loss to Orlando in the 1995 playoffs, the Bulls worked in the offseason to rebuild a championship roster. GM Jerry Krause pulled off an excellent trade by acquiring former DPOY Dennis Rodman for Will Perdue, and Chicago stormed through the regular season winning an NBA-record 72 games. For this feat, Michael Jordan was awarded his fourth MVP award, Phil Jackson was named Coach of the Year, forward Toni Kukoc won the Sixth Man of the Year award, and Krause was named Executive of the Year. In the playoffs, Chicago easily swept the Miami Heat in the first round, then earned revenge against the two teams to eliminate them the previous two seasons by defeating the New York Knicks in five games and sweeping the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals to reach the franchise’s fourth NBA Finals.
The Seattle SuperSonics had seen playoff success in the early ’90s but had repeatedly been denied a Finals birth after losing in the 1993 Western Conference Finals, falling to the 8th seeded Denver Nuggets in the first round of 1994, and losing to the lower-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in 1995. In 1996, led by coach George Karl and All-Stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, the SuperSonics won a franchise-best 64 games, a conference-best. In the playoffs, Seattle easily dispatched the Sacramento Kings in four games then swept the defending champion Houston Rockets. In the Western Conference Finals, the SuperSonics led 3-1 against the Utah Jazz before losing two consecutive games to force a seventh, deciding game. Seattle won game seven to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since their championship season of 1979.
The Chicago Bulls started former Cavalier and Clipper Ron Harper at point guard alongside four-time league MVP Michael Jordan at shooting guard. Six-time All-Star Scottie Pippen started at small forward alongside five-time rebounding champion and two-time DPOY Dennis Rodman at power forward and seven-foot Australian Luc Longley at center.
Off the bench, the Bulls used sharpshooter Steve Kerr as the third guard, and Randy Brown served as the fourth. Sixth Man of the Year Toni Kukoc functioned as the first man off the bench at four positions but primarily forward, and Jud Buechler was the fourth forward on the roster. Bill Wennington backed up Longley at center, and former champion John Salley rarely played in the Finals.
The Seattle SuperSonics started three-time All-Star and 1996 Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton at point guard next to former All-Star Hersey Hawkins at shooting guard. Detlef Schrempf, a two-time Sixth Man of the Year in Indiana, started at small forward next to high-flying dunker Shawn Kemp at power forward and seven-footer Ervin Johnson at center.
The SuperSonics utilized Nate McMillan as Payton’s immediate backup at point guard, and Vincent Askew served as the primary backup on the wing. David Wingate was the fourth wing on the roster, and Sam Perkins played the role of first big man off the bench ahead of backup center Frank Brickowski. Rookie Eric Snow and Steve Scheffler played scarce minutes in the Finals.
Game One: SuperSonics 90, Bulls 107
The series began with the young SuperSonics hanging tough for three quarters in Chicago, but the Bulls’ relentless defense held Seattle to 5/18 shooting in the final period for just 13 points. Sixth man Toni Kukoc came alive in the fourth, scoring the first nine points of the quarter and 18 total in the game. Jordan delivered 28 points and 7 rebounds, Pippen scored 21 of his own with 3 blocks, Rodman pulled in 13 rebounds, and fellow starters Harper and Longley combined for 29 points. Shawn Kemp led all scorers with 32 points, Payton recorded a double-double in his first NBA Finals game, Schrempf and Perkins combined for 27 points, but the SuperSonics shot under 40% in the game one loss.
Game Two: SuperSonics 88, Bulls 92
The SuperSonics came out strong in the first quarter, but their slim lead faded by halftime. Both teams shot poorly from the field in the game and finished under 50%. The Bulls held on in the second half thanks to a 30-point third quarter. Jordan finished with a team-high 29 points as well as 6 rebounds and 8 assists, Pippen scored 21 points of his own, and Rodman pulled down an incredible 20 rebounds. Kemp led Seattle with 29 points and 13 rebounds, but Payton and Schrempf struggled from the field, and the SuperSonics now faced a 2-0 deficit heading back home.
Game Three: Bulls 108, SuperSonics 86
The Bulls smashed the SuperSonics in the mouth to start game three and had stretched their lead to 20 before the end of the first quarter, and Chicago easily coasted to a third straight win in the series. Jordan piled it on in the second half en route to 36 points, Pippen had a near triple-double with 12/8/9, Kukoc scored 14 points as a starter, and Longley scored a surprising 19 points. Payton and Schrempf combined for 39 points for Seattle, but Kemp was held relatively in check with only 14 points. The Bulls now held a commanding 3-0 series lead and stood on the brink of a championship.
Game Four: Bulls 86, SuperSonics 107
With their season on the line, Sonics Coach George Karl made a couple key adjustments to his lineup: 1) benching starting center Ervin Johnson in favor of Frank Brickowski, and 2) switching Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton onto Michael Jordan. The latter move worked to perfection as Payton held Jordan to an NBA Finals career-low 23 points on 32% shooting. Pippen also struggled from the floor, making only 4 field goals for a sluggish 9 points. Seattle ran away with this game in the first half and finished with a 20-point victory to stay alive. Payton (21/11) and Kemp (25/11) both finished with double-doubles, Schrempf and Hawkins combined for 32 points, and “Sleepy” Sam Perkins delivered 17 off the bench.
Game Five: Bulls 78, SuperSonics 89
Game five was an offensive struggle, as both teams shot under 43% in the game. Payton, Kemp, and Hawkins all managed to eclipse 20 points, and the Sonics’ point guard once again “limited” Jordan to 26 points and only 1 assist. Pippen once again shot poorly (25% from the floor), and outside shooters Kukoc and Kerr were off. With their game five victory, the SuperSonics forced the series to shift back to Chicago where the Bulls looked to eliminate Seattle once and for all.
Game Six: SuperSonics 75, Bulls 87
The Bulls controlled the tempo from start to finish in game six at home. Jordan’s shooting stroke was off again, making only 5/19 shots for another NBA Finals-low 22 points, but he managed to add 9 rebounds and 7 assists to help his team. Dennis Rodman pulled down a monster 19 rebounds, and even showed some life on the offensive end by converting a difficult lay-up in the second half. Kukoc and Harper chipped in 4 huge three-pointers, and the Bulls finally clinched their fourth world championship. Payton, Kemp, and Schrempf combined for 60 points, but the team as a whole shot merely 43% from the floor. This series win held special meaning for Jordan as the deciding game was played on Father’s Day–his father was murdered a few years previously.
Michael Jordan was once again named Finals MVP for his performance in the series, and the Bulls won their fourth championship in franchise history, capping off a record-setting season. The team regrouped in the offseason again, and nearly matched their win total from 1996 with 69 wins in 1997. Chicago charged through the postseason and reached their fifth NBA Finals, facing newcomers Karl Malone, John Stockton, and the rest of the Utah Jazz.
The Seattle SuperSonics stumbled in the coming seasons, losing in the conference semifinals in 1997 before trading Shawn Kemp for Vin Baker at the start of the 1998 season. The organization went through a rebuilding period in the 2000’s with the roster headlined by Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, but the team was unable to reach the NBA Finals again in Seattle. In 2008 the franchise was relocated to Oklahoma City and renamed the Thunder, reaching the NBA Finals in 2012.