Bulls' 1998 defeat of Hornets a lesson in how fast good teams can collapse

Mark Schanowski
NBC Sports Chicago

Watching the 1998 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Bulls and Charlotte Hornets, I've been struck by how quickly a team on the rise can unravel.

The Hornets looked poised for championship runs after starting the '90s by landing Kendall Gill, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning with top-five picks in consecutive years. They also had a decent group of supporting veterans in Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry, Johnny Newman, J.R. Reid and David Wingate.

Kendall has told me on many occasions that one of the biggest regrets in his career was leaving that up-and-coming team in a trade that sent him to Seattle in September 1993. The Hornets had advanced to the conference semifinals in the 1992-93 season, knocking off an aging Celtics team in Round 1 before losing to the top-seeded Knicks

Building around three highly skilled top five picks sounds like a great plan, but Kendall said it also created competition for shot attempts, individual honors and media recognition. Kendall has always maintained Johnson - a 6-foot-6 power forward with tremendous strength and athleticism - was the most talented teammate he ever played with before a back injury cut his career short.

Older NBA fans will remember the famous "Grandmama" campaign for Converse, with Johnson flying to the rim for dunks wearing a dress, hat and grey wig. Johnson became one of the league's most popular players, but he too left Charlotte, dealt to the Knicks in 1996 for Anthony Mason and Brad Lohaus. 

The Hornets drafted Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick in 1991, and in 1992 they finished second in the draft lottery, missing out on a chance to add Shaquille O'Neal to the mix. Of course, the consolation prize wasn't all that bad. Mourning, who they selected No. 2, was regarded as one of the best defensive big men to come along in years, and provided shot-blocking, rebounding and low-post scoring. 

But Mourning played just three seasons in Charlotte before he was traded to the Miami Heat in a multi-player deal in November 1995. Mourning wound up playing 16 years in the NBA, winning a championship ring as O'Neal's backup with the Heat in 2006.

By the time the Hornets played the Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Conference semis, this rising power had become an odd mix of NBA veterans with limited long-term potential. Glen Rice, 30, who came over from the Heat in the Mourning trade, led the team in scoring at 22.3 points per game, while the former Knicks enforcer Mason averaged 12.8 points and 10.2 rebounds. Former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong, who was a key reserve on the first three-peat team, played limited minutes off the bench. 

The Hornets were coached by Dave Cowens, who helped the Boston Celtics win a pair of championships in the 1970s as an undersized 6-foot-9 center battling the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Bob Lanier, Bill Walton and many other bruising 7-footers. 

Cowens had a pair of decent centers in Vlade Divac and Matt Geiger, but Geiger was injured coming into the Bulls' series, and outside of Rice and the reserve guard Curry, the Hornets didn't have a lot of offensive options. Remember, the Hornets traded the rights to Kobe Bryant to the Lakers for Divac in an ill-fated draft night trade in 1996. 

RELATED: What if Kobe Bryant was a Net for their 1998 first round matchup with Bulls? 

The Hornets had some quickness in the backcourt with Bobby Phills and David Wesley, but those teammates were later involved in one of the saddest chapters in franchise history. Phills was killed in an auto accident in January 2000 while racing with Wesley following a practice at the Charlotte Coliseum. Phills lost control of his car about a mile from the arena traveling over 75 miles per hour and crashed head-on into an on-coming vehicle. 

Wesley retired from the NBA in 2007 after a 15-year career, and is now a television analyst for the New Orleans Pelicans

After losing to the Bulls in the 1998 conference semifinals, the Hornets would make the playoffs three more times over the next four seasons before moving to New Orleans after the 2001-02 season. Charlotte would get another franchise when the Bobcats debuted in 2004-05, but basketball fans in that city will always wonder what might have been if the organization had built around Mourning, Johnson and Gill.

Through May 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing every 1998 Chicago Bulls NBA Playoff game (21 total). Find the full schedule here.

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Bulls' 1998 defeat of Hornets a lesson in how fast good teams can collapse originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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