It’s gotta be the Bulls.
This is what I initially kept telling myself when the question hit my email. Which team would win a seven-game series: the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls or the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors?
I mean, where do you begin? The Bulls went a record-breaking 72-10 that year and bludgeoned their way to a fourth championship in six seasons with 34-year-old Dennis Rodman joining the juggernaut.
Most importantly: Michael Jordan. How could I possibly bet against MJ?
Yep, it’s gotta be the Bulls.
But then I thought about it some more.
The Bulls weren’t invincible that season, were they? No, they weren’t. In the Finals, the Bulls lost twice to the Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp-led Seattle SuperSonics. These weren’t close losses that could have gone either way. Each Bulls defeat came by double-digits after their high-powered offense hit a wall. After losing twice in Key Arena, the Bulls eventually won in six games, scoring just 86, 78 and 87 points in the series’ final three games.
The Sonics were no slouches by any stretch of the imagination. George Karl’s squad won a franchise-record 64 games before reaching the Finals. If the ‘17 Warriors were to beat the ‘96 Bulls, that would mean they were better than that Sonics team, which they were. But were they two games better than the ‘96 Sonics team?
My first gut reaction: Of course, they were!
Putting it that way, I started to sway. Now, I wasn’t so sure about the Bulls.
Time to dig deeper. I hopped on the phone and asked some people around the NBA. When canvassing the league with the parlor game, here was the most common response:
“Fun idea, but uh, what rules are we playing with?”
It’s a great question. It’s not as simple as, put these 10 players on the floor, who wins? Rules are the variable that swings this discussion the most. So much so that one NBA head coach went as far to tell me this: “They’re playing two different sports.”
Let’s run through a quick history lesson to understand why the rules variable is so important.
Entering the 21st century, the NBA began cracking down on hand-checking in an effort to open up the game and promote movement. And boy, did it need to.
With back-to-back-to-back games and out-of-shape players (ahem, Shawn Kemp), the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season was an absolute slog. The average team scored just 91.6 points per game, the lowest output in 40-plus years. To wit, here were the New York Knicks’ point totals in the 1999 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs:
77, 67, 89, 89, 77.
Yeah, change came quickly and swiftly. The following season, in 1999-00, the NBA implemented a new guideline that prohibited defenders from making contact with his hands and/or forearms on an offensive player except below the free throw line extended. As a result, perimeter defenders could no longer initiate contact and wrap up ball-handlers with on-ball pressure. Move your feet or see ya.
More needed to be done. Ahead of the 2004-05 season, the NBA and its referees further tightened up enforcement on hand-checking, trying to eradicate the strategy from the game altogether, writing hand-checking language into the points of emphasis. Over time, it worked.
Scoring totals went way up. In 2004-05, the scoreboard lit up, especially for the little guys. Outlawing the hand check resulted in a golden era of undersized guards, setting the stage for point guards to win MVP awards like Steve Nash, Derrick Rose and, yes, Stephen Curry.
Until the hand check rule changes went into place, the smallest guy on the floor could never win MVP of the league. It was almost unheard of. Isiah Thomas was undeniably a brilliant basketball player, but in his career, the original Baby-Faced Assassin finished just once in the top seven in MVP vote, never higher than his fifth-place finish in 1983-84.
To further drive home the point: In the four decades before 2004-05 hand-checking rules went into place, only one MVP was the smallest player in his starting lineup: Allen Iverson in 2000-01. Every other MVP was either a big or a big point guard (6-foot-9 Magic Johnson and 6-foot-5 Oscar Robertson).
In 15 seasons since 2004-05 there have been six; the small guy winning the top trophy almost every other season. Keep this in mind when considering how Curry would fare in the hand-checking era: It’s very likely Curry would have been great in any era, but it can’t be ignored that he happened to play in the era that was most friendly to players his size.
Illegal defense/Defensive three seconds
Hand-checking was one thing. Zoning up was another. In 2001-02, the NBA tossed out the illegal defense rules that prohibited zone defense, allowing defenders to guard an area rather than strictly his man. This was probably a good thing. The 1990s era saw a ton of players standing around watching one-on-one “clear-out” isolations or post-ups on one side of the floor while eight other players camped out on the other side.
I once asked Heat president Pat Riley about the evolution of the game and he spoke longingly about how he used to send weaker offensive players to “the parking lot” in the far corner to take advantage of illegal defense rules.
“For a while we could take two offensive players and put them in the parking lot and the two defensive players had to be out in the parking lot with them,” Riley said. “[The league] didn’t like to watch three-on-three basketball with two guys out in the parking lot.”
When asked about 1990s ball by the New York Times in 2005, Jerry Colangelo, who led the NBA Rules Committee that nixed the illegal-defense rule and moved away from iso-ball, said plainly: “It was boring.”
(Of course, at the time, Colangelo was the Phoenix Suns chairman and CEO and oversaw the “Seven Seconds Or Less Suns” that immediately took advantage of the rule changes and helped turn Nash into a two-time MVP.)
Zones were common in college ball, but it didn’t take over the league. The league also implemented the defensive three-second rule which prohibited players from camping out in the paint for longer than three seconds without closely guarding offensive players. The Syracuse 2-3 zone defense wasn’t going to fly in the NBA.
But zone-heavy defensive principles did take hold in the league, thanks to Tom Thibodeau who served as the Boston Celtics’ de facto defensive coordinator under Doc Rivers in their championship run in 2008. In 2010-11 with the Bulls, Thibodeau won NBA Coach of the Year after implementing a “strong side” defense that overloaded the court with help defenders on the side of the ball.
Defenses became more sophisticated. Analytics and film technology made scouting and game-planning become that much more important; every play is now catalogued, analyzed and strategized.
For the purposes of this exercise, I’m splitting it down the middle and allowing the 1995-96 hand-checking rules while implementing the light 2016-17 illegal defense rules that freed defenses to play how they wanted as long as they didn’t camp out in the paint. I’m also giving the hypothetical home-court advantage to the Bulls, since they achieved a superior regular-season record.
After much consternation, here are three reasons why I’m siding with the Warriors.
1. Too much talent
The Warriors had two MVPs in their prime in Curry and Kevin Durant, who were both in their age-28 seasons. The Bulls had one MVP in Jordan, in his age-32 season. This isn’t a knock on Scottie Pippen, who might have been the most underrated star of his generation, dubbed “the greatest No. 2 ever” by my pal J.A. Adande on “The Last Dance.” Even if you want to nudge Pippen into that same MVP tier, the Warriors outclass the Bulls in the broader talent department.
Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were All-Stars in the season before, during and after the 2016-17 season. The Bulls had no All-Star players in the season before, during or after 1995-96 other than Michael Jeffrey Jordan and Scottie Maurice Pippen. The Bulls’ supporting cast of Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr each starred in respective roles, but the Warriors were an embarrassment of riches with four All-Stars and Andre Iguodala coming off the bench.
How could the Warriors have a better team if it was the Bulls that went 72-10? Historians will be quick to note that the 1995-96 season was an expansion year, adding the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies to the NBA’s mix. Filling out two 15-man rosters diluted the talent pool for the rest of the league and made it easier for the haves to beat up the have-nots. Even still, the Bulls actually lost to the 21-61 Raptors in March that season, further underlining the fact that the ‘96 Bulls weren’t Teflon.
If the ‘96 Bulls were beating up on expansion-weakened teams in the regular season, then the postseason should offer a clearer picture of their greatness. Unfortunately for the ‘96 Bulls, the ‘17 Warriors’ postseason campaign was more impressive.
Regular season: 72-10, plus-13.4 NetRtg
Postseason: 15-3, plus-12.1 NetRtg
Regular season: 67-15, plus-11.6 NetRtg
Postseason: 16-1, plus-13.5 NetRtg
With Durant in tow, the ‘17 Warriors swept Portland, Utah and San Antonio each in four games and only lost to the Cavs in Game 4 of the Finals -- a textbook gentleman’s sweep if there ever was one -- before wrapping up the Finals in five games.
The Warriors were relentless, finishing with the largest point differential of any playoff team in NBA history (plus-230). In terms of net rating (point differential adjusted for pace), the Warriors’ postseason run ranked second since 1984 when turnovers were officially recorded while the Bulls’ finished fourth, per Basketball Reference. (The 2000-01 Lakers nipped the ‘17 Warriors with a plus-13.8 rating when they went 15-1 in the playoffs and might have claimed all-time best if they hadn’t slept through the regular season).
The ‘17 Warriors’ dominant postseason run was buoyed in no small part by Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. But balanced against the expansion year of 1995-96 that helped boost the Bulls’ record, the Warriors’ talent depth shined brighter than the Bulls’ throughout the season. The historical team ratings from FiveThirtyEight agree that the Warriors’ peak in 2016-17 was slightly higher than the Bulls’ peak in 1995-96. Simply put, the Bulls had the best player, but the Warriors had the best players. However, that’s not the only reason I’m taking the Warriors.
2. Three is more than two
The 3-point shot would ultimately be the Bulls’ greatest challenge to overcome. The 3-pointer had been around for over a decade by the time Jordan’s reign began, but the Warriors’ attack would seem downright extra-terrestrial compared to anything the Bulls had faced during their run.
Curry, the best shooter of all time, would be seen as a cheat code off the dribble or off the pass. Durant is a near-7-footer with point guard handles who could effortlessly shoot from anywhere on the floor. And then there’s Thompson’s virtually unflappable shooting ability that has terrorized opponents for years.
Picturing Luc (“Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuc”) Longley trying to run Curry off the 3-point line in a pick-and-roll would have been a nightmare. In the 2017 playoffs, the Warriors made 12.7 3-pointers per game on 32.9 attempts (38.6 percent). The fewest 3-pointers the Warriors took in a 2017 postseason game was 26. The most the Bulls saw that playoff run was 27 in a first-round game against the Miami Heat (they made seven!).
Who knows how many 3-balls the Warriors would have made against a team that hadn’t faced that kind of deep attack? To put things further into perspective, Gary Payton was the Sonics’ most prolific 3-point shooter in the 1996 Finals and he shot a career 31.7 percent from downtown. Curry is a career 43.5 percent shooter from downtown.
It’s not just about three versus two. Curry made 3-pointers from nearly halfcourt. Longley and a 32-year-old Bill Wennington wouldn’t have a prayer guarding out to the logo against the Warriors’ shooting arsenal. They’d have to be Shaq or Hakeem offensively to stay on the floor. In all likelihood, they’d be rendered obsolete against the Warriors’ death lineup.
Rodman would fare much better as the tireless five, but he was 34 years old at this point and far from his prime. Pulling him out onto the perimeter to help defend the 3-point attack would also hamper his elite rebounding ability that made him such a formidable scourge.
Perhaps the hand-checking rules would dampen the Warriors’ 3-point attack. But I’d also have a hard time believing that Jordan would be as effective offensively if he had to spend energy bothering Curry full-court. The sensible thing might be to stick Ron Harper on Curry for most of the game and then switch Pippen or Jordan onto Curry late. But each of those permutations leaves one of the Warriors’ elite perimeter scorers -- Curry, Thompson or Durant -- without a defensive foil.
The Bulls did have statistically the most efficient shooter of all time in Kerr, who converted 45.4 percent of his career 3-pointers. As the coach of the Warriors, you might wonder how Kerr weighed in on this topic. In November of 2015, Kerr was asked about whether the Warriors would beat the ‘96 Bulls and the coach wondered if the player version of himself would even see the floor because of how difficult the Warriors would be to guard. After much hemming and hawing, Kerr finally gave his verdict on the hypothetical matchup, picking the Warriors on a Curry stepback over Jordan.
That was before the Warriors added Durant.
3. The Warriors’ speed and athleticism would overwhelm the Bulls
If you’re wondering if today’s athletes are generally more athletic than previous generations, just flip on a modern-day dunk contest and compare it to decades’ past. In 1996, Brent Barry won the dunk contest by dunking from the foul line, copying Jordan’s signature moment from 1988. These days, Zach LaVine is dunking from the foul line -- with a windmill and a 360. Aaron Gordon dunked over a 7-foot-5 human being this year and didn’t even win.
Of course, 1996 wasn’t that long ago. Jordan was an athletic marvel with an unrivaled set of quickness and hops. You don’t get nicknamed “Air Jordan” for being a stiff. Outside of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman could fly around the court with just about anybody.
But it’s worth wondering how the Bulls’ entire roster would fare against modern-day athletes with life-long trainers and ever-expanding sports science staffers looking to maximize performance. On that note, NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes asked Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who played 20 games against Jordan in his career, what he thought of the notion that the ‘90s Bulls were just beating up a league of “plumbers and electricians.”
Brooks got a kick out of it, telling NBC Sports Washington: “Oh my god. That’s funny … Jordan would dominate any era. I don’t know how basketball is going to be played 100 years from now, but he would still dominate it.”
Point taken. The Warriors are anything but plumbers and electricians. The versatility of the Warriors’ wings would be unlike any opponent the Bulls had seen in their run. Iguodala, whom Kerr told me once was “on par” with Pippen as a defender, would be a luxury to throw at Jordan if Thompson or Durant wasn’t up to the task. Iguodala, armed with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, still had fresh legs in 2016-17, finishing with 25 dunks that postseason; only LeBron James and DeAndre Jordan tallied more.
The Warriors could mitigate the Bulls’ swarming man-to-man defense by moving the ball and leveraging their athleticism with relentless speed and passing. With Curry, Iguodala, Thompson, Durant and Green equally able to run a fast break, the ‘17 Warriors led all teams in fast-break points with 22.6 per game. Fast-break data on NBA.com/stats only goes back to 1996-97, but even then, the Bulls averaged just 12.4 and 13.2 in the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons, respectively. The Warriors were just on another level.
The Warriors’ fleet of elite wings would also help them create turnovers, which is no small thing against the Bulls. The Bulls excelled offensively without an array of 3-point weapons because Jordan’s mid-range game was just about unblockable and the one-on-one grind-it-out style also kept turnovers to a minimum. Mobile and long defenders like Thompson, Durant and Iguodala would give them a puncher’s chance at limiting Jordan. Limiting. Not stopping. No one does that.
With Jordan, Pippen and Rodman on the wrong side of 30 in this series, the Bulls would be best served to turn it into a mental game more than a physical one. I would watch a documentary that focused just on Rodman and Green’s shenanigans in this hypothetical series. Who gets ejected first?
Chris Mullin, the Hall of Fame shooting guard for the Warriors, talked about his 1992 Dream Team teammates on the Habershow pod this week and pointed out Jordan or Harper would hunt Curry defensively in post-ups -- something the Cavs tried to do with varying levels of success. In the end, that wasn’t a large enough edge for Mullin to pick the Bulls when I asked him about it. He sided with the Warriors -- but only if they had Durant.
If the Warriors had a blind spot to exploit, it’s on the boards. They ranked 29th in defensive rebound rate while the Bulls were the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA, led by the tireless Rodman. But again, my sense is that the athleticism factor would close the gap enough that the Warriors would hold their own on the glass.
Ultimately, it’s not the Bulls’ fault that the league has gotten more athletic and sophisticated over time. If the 1996 Bulls were able to train all their lives physically and tactically for the modern-day game, things would be different. But absent that, to me, it’s gotta be the Warriors. In seven.