(Editor’s note: We are running this article again, nearly a month after it was first published, because Golden State is going for the all-time regular season wins record tonight. If they win it all this year, we will most likely trot it out again at that point. Because it makes us look smart…or at least it makes Michael look smart and we want to live vicariously through that.)
In 1996 the Chicago Bulls completed the greatest season in NBA history. They went 72-10 in the regular season to break the all time wins record. They followed that up with a 15-3 playoff record and their fourth title of the decade. Their title run included a sweep of the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was the same Magic team that eliminated them from the playoffs in 1995. Many consider the 1995-96 Bulls to be the best team in NBA history. Even though it may seem blasphemous to some, I contend that the current Golden State Warriors team would beat that Bulls team in a 7 game series.
But before I get to my reasons I need to disclose a couple biases:
- First, I am not a Michael Jordan fan. I rooted against him for most of his career. I acknowledge that he is a great player; maybe even the greatest of all time. He had more huge playoff moments than anyone else and it is hard to criticize anything about his game. Even so, I find it annoying how many fans and even some media members today seem to think that he never lost a game and quite possibly never even missed a shot. He was human and actually did NOT win the title in 9 of the 15 seasons that he completed. I know that will come as a shock to some so I will give you some time to recover.
- Second, I like 2016 basketball better than 1996 basketball. The golden age of the NBA was the 80s and early 90s. By the mid-90s, all the way until the mid-2000s, the league had become much more physical. Teams fouled a lot more and were able to get away with it. Other teams attempted to slow down the pace of the game by using up the entire shot clock. Fast breaks were down as well as scoring and excitement. The 90s was also the era before the rookie salary cap was instituted. Unproven players were getting huge long term contracts and their incentive to improve was greatly reduced. Does anyone remember Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson demanding 100 Million dollars before he would agree to play a minute in the NBA? With a couple of rule tweaks to help the product on the court, the addition of a rookie salary cap and shortened contract lengths, the league has been steadily improving for the last decade.
Time’s up. Back to the article:
So why do I think the Warriors would win? First, the Warriors have perfected the pace and space style that has taken over the modern NBA. In 2004, The NBA put in restrictions on hand checking on the perimeter. This allowed small and quick guards to move more freely and offenses to be more effective. It was a great and much needed rule change. The Phoenix Sun’s were the first team to really take advantage of it this change. Under Steve Nash they made several deep playoff runs from 2004-2010. Still, they never had a great defense and were never able to win a title. The San Antonio Spurs, who had won several titles with a more traditional style, realized that they needed to adapt to the new rules with a more up tempo style. So they started playing faster, shooting more threes and passing it much more around the perimeter. Their changes worked and they made back-to-back finals in 2013 and 2014. They won it all on their second trip after crushing the Miami Heat in the finals. The Warriors have taken this style to another level. They shoot threes more and at a better rate than anyone has ever done before. They run, run and then run some more. They pass the ball early and often. They play small lineups that allow them to be quicker and space the floor more. They went 67-15 in the 2014-2015 season and won the title. They are even better this year and on pace to break the Bulls record for wins in a season. In other words, they play this style better and more effectively than any team in history. You won’t beat them by trying to out run or out shoot them so teams need to try something else.
The logical move would be to go big to combat their ultra-fast small ball lineups. This might work for some teams with great big men. Unfortunately, the 95-96 Bulls were not one of those teams. Their starting center was Luc Longley. He might be the least scary Australian ever. Their starting power forward was Dennis Rodman. He is an all-time great rebounder, but at that point in his career did nothing on offense. Their big men off the bench were the immortal Bill Wennington and 187-year-old James Edwards. Nobody was afraid of the Bulls’ big guys and the Warriors would run circles around them if they tried to go big.
Another tactic would be to play the Warriors physically. If the refs allowed the Bulls to get away with holding, grabbing, tripping and similar tactics, they might be able to beat the Warriors. Ironically, this was the same strategy that the Bad Boy Pistons and the Pat Riley Knick teams used against Jordan and the Bulls. Sometimes this strategy worked, but other times it did not. Jordan complained about this type of play constantly (and with good reason) so it would be sad if he had to stoop to the same strategy that he despised.
I don’t want to make this article all about statistics, but we need to look at a few to see if my theory has merit. The Bulls scored 105.2 points per game (PPG) and allowed 92.9 PPG while the Warriors score 115.6 PPG and allow 104.6 PPG. The easy conclusion would be that the Warriors have a better offense and the Bulls have a better defense. This may be true, but a big reason for these numbers is that the Warriors play at a much faster pace than did the Bulls. When we compare the teams to the rest of the league we see the Bulls were number one in offensive efficiency and number one in defensive efficiency in 95-96. This is remarkable and just shows their greatness. The Warriors are also impressive with the number one offense and number six defense this season. Both teams outscore their opponents by over 11 points per game, which is a very strong indicator of their greatness. The Warriors are accomplishing all of this without a single player on the team averaging over 35 minutes a game. In other words, they are blowing a lot of teams out and resting their starters in the fourth quarter quite a bit. If they kept their foot on the gas by playing starters more minutes, who knows how badly they would be outscoring their opponents. The Bulls did have two players that averaged over 35 minutes per game. The conclusion I take from all these numbers is that statistically speaking these teams are pretty even.
Now, let’s look at the rosters. The Bulls started Ron Harper at Point Guard, Jordan at Shooting Guard, Scottie Pippen at Small Forward, Rodman at Power Forward and Longley at Center. The Warriors start Steph Curry at PG, Klay Thompson at SG, Harrison Barnes at SF, Draymond Green at PF and Andrew Bogut at Center. Jordan and Pippen had a clear advantage at their positions while Curry and Green had the advantage at their spots. But in the case of Curry vs Harper it is a HUGE advantage for Golden State. I would argue that Bogut is definitely a better all-around player than Longley although neither guy is essential to what their team did/does. The Bulls had Tony Kukoc and Steve Kerr as an excellent duo off the bench, but beyond that their bench was made up of very limited, one-dimensional role players. The Warriors go at least ten deep with multiple guys that have started or would start now for many other teams. The Warriors are also younger and more athletic than the Bulls team so in terms of roster I give a slight edge to the Warriors.
Looking at coaching the edge has to go to Chicago. Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach, appears to be headed for legendary status. He played for two of the greatest coaches in league history, but he has a long way to go be in the same stratosphere as Phil Jackson. Advantage Bulls.
After looking at style of play, match-ups, roster composition, coaching and statistics the teams appear to be pretty even. If they played in a series I would expect it to go the distance and come down to a memorable game 7. My main reason for picking the Warriors (besides the fact that it makes for a more interesting article) is their superior depth. Golden State has at least five players between 6’4” and 6’8” that are athletic and versatile defenders. They would make things just difficult enough for Jordan and Pippen to keep these games close and enable Curry’s otherworldly shot making to seal the deal.
Ultimately it does not really matter though because the 1986 Celtics would beat either of these teams. But that is another article for another day! Golden State may not break the wins record. They may not even win the title this season. The Spurs or Cavs could both beat them in the playoffs. Steph Curry could hurt his ankle tomorrow and derail their title hopes. However, I expect them to both win the title and break the all-time wins record. By accomplishing these two feats they will put themselves in any discussion of the greatest team of all time. They are already on the short list for most entertaining team of all time.