The 1996-97 season marked the 50th anniversary of the NBA, and while the league's past was celebrated with the naming of the 50 greatest players in league history, fans got their first glimpse of the future of the NBA. Many of the league's eventual stars -- such as No. 1 Draft pick Allen Iverson and fellow rookies Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen and Steve Nash -- made their NBA debuts. The L.A. Lakers also made a power move by signing free agent All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal before the season.
A highlight of the season came during the All-Star Weekend at the then-Gund Arena in Cleveland, where the NBA's 50th Anniversary celebration culminated in a moving on-court appearance by virtually all of the players honored as the NBA's 50 greatest of all time.
Once again, though, Michael Jordan and the Bulls remained the top storyline in the NBA.
Led by scoring champion Jordan (29.6 ppg), versatile Scottie Pippen (20.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg and team-highs of 5.7 apg and 1.88 rpg) and rebounding king Dennis Rodman (16.1 rpg), glided through the regular season to a 69-13 record, matching the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers for the second-best record in NBA history. Only three losses in their final four games, by which time the Bulls already were focused on the upcoming playoffs, kept Chicago from unprecedented back-to-back 70-win seasons.
The Bulls easily outdistanced the field in the Eastern Conference, winning the Central Division by 13 games over the improved Atlanta Hawks, who added Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo (3.30 bpg, second in the NBA behind Shawn Bradley's 3.40) to ballhawking Mookie Blaylock (a league-leading 2.72 spg) and came up with very stingy defense. Surprising Charlotte, in its first year under Coach Dave Cowens, and resurgent Detroit finished with 54 wins apiece, two games behind Atlanta.
Miami climbed to the top of the Atlantic Division with a franchise-record 61 victories in its second year under Pat Riley, coach and team president. Alonzo Mourning (19.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg) was solid as always, but keys to the Heat's successs were point guard Tim Hardaway's resurgence (20.3 ppg, 8.6 apg) and surprising contributions from unheralded players like Voshon Lenard and Isaac Austin, who won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. Miami beat out Riley's former team, the New York Knicks, for the Atlantic crown, then bested the Knicks in a heated seven-game playoff series before bowing to the Bulls in the Conference finals.
Karl Malone and the Jazz took the spotlight in the Western Conference, although Utah point guard John Stockton's string of nine consecutive assists titles came to an end. Stockton was beaten out by Mark Jackson, who split the season between Denver and Indiana, 11.4 to 10.5 apg.
The Jazz, however, did not miss a beat as they blended youngsters like center Greg Ostertag, forwards Bryon Russell and Shandon Anderson and guard Howard Eisley into the playing rotation along with veterans like Malone, Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, Adam Keefe and Antoine Carr, and came up with their best season ever, a 64-18 campaign.
Malone captured his first MVP by ranking in the top 10 in scoring (27.4 ppg, second), rebounding (9.9 rpg, tied for 10th) and field goal percentage (.550, sixth) as the Jazz finished the season atop the West standings.
The Seattle SuperSonics, led by Gary Payton (21.8 ppg, 7.1 apg) and Shawn Kemp (18.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg), edged the Los Angeles Lakers, rebuilt around free agent addition O'Neal (26.2 ppg and 12.5 rpg but limited to 51 games due to injuries), by one game in the Pacific Division. In the playoffs, however, Houston unseated defending Western Conference champion Seattle in a seven-game thriller in the Conference semifinals.
After cruising through the playoffs, Malone and the Jazz were lifted into their first Finals appearance by a last-second 3-pointer from John Stockton in the Western Conference finals that knocked out the Rockets.
Once in The Finals against the Bulls, the Jazz hung tough and even squared the series at 2-2 after Game 4. In a memorable Game 5, though, Jordan overcame flu-like symptoms to lift the Bulls to a win and Chicago wrapped up their fifth NBA title with a Game 6 victory.
Eastern Conference first round
Chicago defeated Washington (3-0)
Miami defeated Orlando (3-2)
New York defeated Charlotte (3-0)
Atlanta defeated Detroit (3-2)
Western Conference first round
Utah defeated L.A. Clippers (3-0)
Seattle defeated Phoenix (3-2)
Houston defeated Minnesota (3-0)
L.A. Lakers defeated Portland (3-1)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Chicago defeated Atlanta (4-1)
Miami defeated New York (4-3)
Western Conference semifinals
Utah defeated L.A. Lakers (4-1)
Houston defeated Seattle (4-3)
Eastern Conference finals
Chicago defeated Miami (4-1)
Western Conference finals
Utah defeated Houston (4-2)
Chicago defeated Utah (4-2)
Points -- Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (29.6)
Assists -- Mark Jackson, Denver Nuggets/Indiana Pacers (11.4)
Rebounds -- Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls (16.1)
Steals -- Mookie Blaylock, Atlanta Hawks (2.7)
Blocks -- Shawn Bradley, New Jersey Nets/Dallas Mavericks (3.4)
FG % -- Gheorghe Muresan, Washington Bullets (60.4)
FT % -- Mark Price, Golden State Warriors (90.6)
3PT % -- Glen Rice, Charlotte Hornets (47.0)
Most Valuable Player -- Karl Malone, Utah Jazz
Rookie of the Year -- Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers
Defensive Player of the Year -- Dikembe Mutombo, Atlanta Hawks
Most Improved Player -- Isaac Austin, Miami Heat
Sixth Man of the Year -- John Starks, New York Knicks
Coach of the Year -- Pat Riley, Miami Heat
All-Star Game MVP -- Glen Rice, Charlotte Hornets
NBA Finals MVP -- Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls