The Last Dance recap, episodes 3 and 4: Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, and a villain

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The Last Dance may be a documentary in form, but it follows a far more traditional story arc: It is the hero’s journey. With Michael Jordan as the hero.

Every hero’s journey needs a mentor. Enter Phil Jackson. There needs to be a shapeshifter, someone who blurs the line between enemy and friend. Enter Dennis Rodman. And, ultimately, there needs to be a villain to vanquish. Enter Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons.

Episodes 3 and 4 of “The Last Dance” — the ESPN documentary about Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls, which aired Sunday night — focused on those parts of the journey. And it was a bumpy ride.

Dennis Rodman was the best part of the show so far

Can there just be a “Hangover”-style documentary only about Rodman’s mid-season vacation-turned-bender in Las Vegas?

It would make Tiger King look tame. “It was definitely an occupational hazard to be Dennis’s girlfriend,” was how Carmen Electra put it, which is a mild understatement considering Rodman later faced domestic abuse charges a couple of times.

It was fascinating to watch how Jordan and Scottie Pippen understood how much Rodman helped them on the court, so they worked with his “complex” and impulsive nature. The Bulls needed what he brought to the game. “Dennis Rodman was the f*** up person,” was the brilliant quote from Gary Payton, describing Rodman’s ability to disrupt the opposing offense.

The peak of all things Rodman came in the 1997-98 season for the Bulls (the focus of The Last Dance). While Pippen was out for 35 games to start the season following foot surgery, Rodman took on the responsibilities of the No. 2 role on the team. While Pippen was out, “Dennis was a model citizen to the point where it was driving him f****** insane,” was how Jordan put it. So after Pippen returned, Jackson granted Rodman a 48-hour “vacation” in Las Vegas to blow off steam.

And you thought they didn’t have load management in the ’90s.

Of course, Rodman didn’t come back in 48 hours. Or 72. Or… you get the idea. Jordan had to go to Rodman (why was it Jordan’s job?), knock on the door and send Electra scurrying behind the couch as she tried to hide, and he got Rodman.

Rodman walked back in the door and was good for the rest of the season; he didn’t miss another game.

But long before he was central to the Bulls winning titles, Rodman was central to the Bulls learning some hard lessons.

The Bad Boy Pistons are the villains Jordan needed to overcome

Every heroic epic is only as good as its villain. Star Wars works not because of Luke Skywalker but because of Darth Vader. The best James Bond movies are the ones with the best villains. It’s storytelling 101: without someone (or something) to push the hero to a new level of greatness they didn’t know they could reach, no story arc is compelling.

Enter the Bad Boy Pistons.

Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, John Salley, Bill Laimbeer, and the Pistons are the villains in Jordan’s story. They literally beat down Jordan until he could reach a new level where he was strong enough, the team around him was good enough, and Phil Jackson’s triangle system made Bulls other than Jordan a legitimate threat. It took all that to beat Detroit.

It just took years to get there.

Jordan was unquestionably elite — in 1988 Jordan won both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year — and the Bulls were a team on the rise. The Last Dance talked about how the Bulls climbed past the fast-rising Cleveland Cavaliers, focusing on “the shot” from 1989.

“They had Craig Ehlo on me, which honestly was a mistake,” Jordan said in a moment of brutal honesty. Jordan said Ron Harper played him better — and Harper agreed. Harper said he got in the huddle before that play and begged Lenny Wilkins “coach, I got Michael,” but Wilkens went with Ehlo on Jordan, and the rest was history.

Still in the way were the Pistons and their “Jordan Rules.” What were the Jordan Rules?

“As soon as he steps into the paint, hit him,” was John Salley’s honest answer.

Dennis Rodman was more honest: “Chuck Daly said this is the Jordan Rule: Every time he go to the f****** basket, put him on the ground. When he goes to the basket, he ain’t gonna dunk. We’re gonna hit you and you’re gonna be on the ground. We were trying to physically hurt Michael.”

The core of the rule was don’t let Jordan in the paint, and if he gets there foul him — hard. Because in that era you could. And make sure you did it before he left the ground. It worked.

It forced an evolution in the Bulls, in terms of roster and playing style, plus just commitment — Jordan added 15 pounds of muscle to handle the pounding — to overcome the obstacle.

That’s also how things were then, in an era before player empowerment, shorter contracts, and constant turnover. It took time for a team to learn how to win. The Bad Boy Pistons got their heads handed to them by the Celtics for years until Detroit got good enough to overcome Boston. Then Chicago took its lumps from the Pistons.

The Bulls also needed the right coach to take that step.

Phil Jackson was the coach the Bulls needed

That doesn’t mean Jackson was the one Jordan wanted — MJ was happy with Doug Collins and his Jordan-centric offense.

“I wasn’t a Phil Jackson fan when he first came in. He was coming in to take the ball out of my hands. Doug put the ball in my hands,” Jordan said.

Jackson came in with Tex Winter and the triangle offense. It was what the Bulls needed because it made players other than Jordan a threat, forcing the defense to either spread out or pay the price for loading up on Jordan. It worked, the Bulls offense improved by three points per 100 possessions jumped from 12th to 5th in the league. That still wasn’t enough to beat the Pistons in the playoffs the first year under Jackson.

The next year, the Bulls had the top offense in the NBA, handled the Pistons with ease in the playoffs, and then went on to beat Magic’s Lakers and win a title.

The documentary touches on Jackson’s odd path — from winning titles with the Knicks through coaching in Puerto Rico — to the Bulls bench. But the best mentors, the most interesting leaders, have unconventional paths. Jackson typified that.

And it turns out, typified winning when he was done. Even if he did unconventional things, like give Dennis Rodman a mid-season vacation.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci


The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.


Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.