Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls did it again in 1996-97, beating the Utah Jazz for their fifth title of the 1990s and ending what had been a harmonious season for the Jazz on a most discordant note. Karl Malone led Utah to a franchise-record 64 victories, but the Mailman was unable to deliver a championship in the Jazz's first trip to the NBA Finals.

Bulls

Chicago players, coaches and fans celebrate after the Bulls captured their fifth title.


The Bulls, 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, head 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.


The NBA' 50 Greatest Players appeared at the All-Star Game.

Malone and the Jazz help 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 and Antoine Carr, and came up with their best season ever. Malone captured MVP honors 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 posted a 64-18 record and outdistanced Houston and its veteran trio of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley by seven games in the Midwest Division.

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 Shaquille 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 before losing to Utah in six games in the Conference Finals.

THE NBA AT 50
A highlight of the season came during the All-Star Weekend at 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.