Why the 2016-17 Warriors would beat the 1995-96 Bulls in a series

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Why the 2016-17 Warriors would beat the 1995-96 Bulls in a series

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.

Hand-checking 

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.

‘96 Bulls
Regular season: 72-10, plus-13.4 NetRtg
Postseason: 15-3, plus-12.1 NetRtg

‘17 Warriors
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.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Why now? It’s one of the great underlying questions around the Michael Jordan-centric “The Last Dance” documentary.

The behind-the-scenes footage that provided the bedrock of the amazing 10-hour ESPN series had been locked away in Secaucus, N.J., for about two decades. For any of that film to see the light of day, as agreed upon by then-head of NBA entertainment and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan himself would need to sign off on any sort of project using it.

For years, it sat there locked away without Jordan’s key to unlock it. We waited and waited and waited, until the morning of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in 2016, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. That day, after an in-person meeting with Mandalay Sports Media executive Mike Tollin, Jordan finally decided to greenlight the documentary.

The timing is undeniably fascinating. LeBron James had just beat a Golden State Warriors team that not only featured NBA history’s first unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry, but one that broke the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a regular season. James also delivered a championship to Cleveland, ending the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The triumph was enough for James to declare himself the GOAT in 2018 during ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete:” “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt. Everybody was just talking about how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all-time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’”

Did that backdrop make Jordan nervous about his place in the history of the game? Did Jordan feel that a generation of young fans needed a reminder of his greatness?

We may never know the answer to that, but we do know that the documentary has, in some circles, become something of a Jordan haymaker in the GOAT debate. In many eyes, this wasn’t just a documentary; it was a verdict.

In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson on Monday, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, unsolicited, made his stance in the debate extremely clear.

“‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time,” Reinsdorf said. “In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.”

He continued.

“I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary.”

It’s interesting that Reinsdorf didn’t mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird in those quotes to NBC Sports Chicago. He mentioned LeBron James, perpetuating the notion that the Jordan documentary was, at some level, a James counterstrike. 

But is Jordan actually head and shoulders over everybody? Not even close with James?

At the risk of wasting Reinsdorf’s time, it’s definitely a topic worth exploring, especially since the overall numbers don’t agree with Reinsdorf’s assessment.

* * * 

“The Last Dance” might as well be named “Six” for the lasting image of Jordan flashing his digits after the 1998 Finals, symbolizing his championship total. Yes, the documentary used the 1997-98 season as a storytelling anchor, but it felt more like a celebration of Jordan’s glorious career than a blow-by-blow examination of the 1997-98 season. Jordan last faced the Bad Boy Pistons on the playoff stage in 1991, but they received far more play in the docuseries than the Bulls’ actual 1998 Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Jordan’s 6-0 record is spotless and beautiful and irretrievable for James, who has instead gone 3-6 in the Finals. For Jordan's strongest supporters, this is the nail in the coffin. However, reducing the GOAT debate purely to one’s Finals record would mean that John Havlicek (8-0), K.C. Jones (8-0, Tom Sanders (8-0) and Robert Horry (7-0) all have better cases than Jordan. And that’s before mentioning Bill Russell’s baffling 11-1 Finals record.

The James-vs.-Jordan debate needs a little bit more nuance than that. Jordan may have 6-0, but James has longevity in his corner. James has simply lasted longer than Jordan, both in career seasons and in deep postseason runs. 

James is in the midst of his 17th season and still playing at an MVP level. Jordan played 15 seasons, electing to retire twice during his prime years. Part of that gap in career length can be explained by James skipping college and entering league as an 18-year-old, which Jordan did not. 

What gets lost in the discussion is the fact that both Jordan and James have made 13 postseason appearances, but Jordan fell short of the Finals seven times. Whereas Jordan failed to reach the Finals more often than he made them, James has only fallen short four out of his 13 appearances. So not only has James been in the league longer, but he has had much longer playoff runs than Jordan, even if they didn’t always end in a Larry O’Brien trophy.

That has to matter in the larger conversation. Playing at a high level for that long begins to tip the scales in James’ favor, and that’s before we get into the individual barometers. 

The advanced metrics agree that this is a much closer affair than Reinsdorf would assume. Using win shares, which is an established all-in-one value metric that estimates a player’s contributions to overall team success, James has Jordan beat in cumulative value, according to Basketball Reference data. 

In fact, James eclipsed Jordan in that department years ago. At the moment the NBA halted play on March 12, James had 287.1 career win shares compared to Jordan's 253.8 figure.

Case closed, James is the GOAT, right? 

Not so fast. It turns out neither James nor Jordan possess the most win shares in NBA history. That distinction belongs to eternally-great Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons, with all but one of those being All-Star campaigns. 

If James plays two more full seasons at a high level, he will undoubtedly unseat Abdul-Jabbar in career win shares. Trailing Abdul-Jabbar by just 21.9 win shares at the career level, James averages 16.9 win shares per season in his career (this suspended season included) and appears to have several years left in the tank. If win shares aren’t your thing, James has already surpassed Jordan in other cumulative measuring sticks like career VORP and the championships added metric from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. 

Individual all-in-one metrics aren’t meant to be judge, jury and executioner in these debates, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that James has distanced himself from Jordan in measures outside of title count. And it’s here where the GOAT discussion becomes more art than science. Do you prefer Finals records or overall playoff records? Do you prefer longevity or peak seasons? 

If you prefer looking at peak seasons, Jordan has the upper-hand on James. If you rank Jordan’s best seasons by win shares and compare it to James’ best, it’s clear that Jordan’s peak years are superior to those of James.

The chart above is my favorite way to distill the Jordan and James debate. As you can see, Jordan’s best seasons are superior to James’ best, with Jordan’s red line resting comfortably above James’ purple line until their respective 10th-best season of their careers. After that, James far outpaces Jordan’s best. If we include his MVP-caliber ‘19-20 campaign, James has 15 high-level seasons while Jordan only had 11, due to his foot injury and his two retirements. (Jordan’s final two seasons with the Washington Wizards at the ages of 38 and 39, after three years away from the game, don’t move the needle in the GOAT discussion, but appear here near the back end of his red line.)

The fact that Jordan’s heights are taller than James was hammered home in Pelton’s recent ranking of the best individual seasons in NBA history. In that study, Jordan made five appearances in the top 25 at Nos. 1, 5, 12, 17 and 31, while James sat slightly lower at Nos. 3, 8, 9 and 23.

Jordan has higher ceilings and James has higher floors. That’s the crux of the debate.

The former will always resonate far more with the masses on an emotional level than the latter. And with good reason. Though James has already registered considerably more career value than Jordan by advanced metrics, Jordan’s six championship seasons continue to stand out -- not just in the minds of basketball fans, but also in the numbers.

Looking at the conventional GOAT standards, James’ biggest flaw may be that he took his teams too far. Take the 2006-07 season. James was just 22 years old, with Larry Hughes serving as the Robin to his Batman, when James led the Cavs to the Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. 

If James had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals like most expected, James’ NBA Finals record would be shinier. Instead, by getting to the Finals and losing, it’s a strike against him. Same goes for the 2014-15 Finals run when James’ Cavs swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were sidelined (Irving played two games of that Eastern Conference finals). If James simply lost earlier, again, his Finals record would be cleaner.

Because of his lopsided 3-6 record in the Finals, most fans may view James as an underachiever but, according to Vegas, the opposite is true. James’ teams were favored in just two of his nine Finals appearances (2011 and 2013) and overall, he actually surpassed expectations, ending up with three titles. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six Finals and won all six. Jordan took care of business.

But, for the sake of argument, what if the Bulls didn’t lose to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals? The Bulls entered the series as minus-165 favorites, according to Vegas, but the Magic went on to face (and get swept by) the Houston Rockets in the Finals. What if the Bulls didn’t blow that series and instead, like the Magic did, beat the Indiana Pacers and faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets for the title?

I recently caught up with former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich about that hypothetical (full podcast next week!) and he pointed to a conversation he remembers having with Michael Jordan at Charles Barkley’s house in Phoenix in 1996. Barkley had invited his new coach, Tomjanovich, and the team’s trainer to hang out at his abode, along with Jordan and Tiger Woods (!). That night, Tomjanovich and Jordan discussed the Finals match that never happened. 

“[Jordan] said we were the team they feared the most because they didn’t have an answer for Hakeem,” Tomjanovich said. “It would have been a great series.”

We will never know how the Bulls would have fared against a Rockets team that won back-to-back titles, but Jordan ensured his clean Finals record by retiring in 1993 and losing in the 1994-95 East semifinals. In a strange way, James reaching eight straight Finals doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the “five” in “three-and-five.” 

Fair or not, there’s only so much James can do to erase his Finals losses in the basketball world’s collective psyche.

* * * 

The hook to all of this is the fact that James is still playing -- at an MVP level, no less. Declaring Jordan the GOAT before James retires is like awarding an Oscar to a film after refusing to watch the last 30 minutes of its top competitor. 

James has a legitimate shot to change the conversation, but the pandemic shutdown hurts those chances. With regular-season games threatened, the league’s hiatus has all but ruined James’ chance to overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo and win his fifth MVP award. James was also on track to surpass 2,000 points for his 11th season as he chases down Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. In the past 14 months, James has passed Kobe Bryant and Jordan on the all-time scoring list and trails Abdul-Jabbar by 4,300 points. 

Depending on what route the NBA goes with a potential season restart, James could lose all or most of the Lakers’ remaining 19 regular-season games. Based on James’ 2019-20 scoring average of 25.7 points, that could cost James as much as 500 points. At current levels and without those 500 points, James would probably need three more seasons to catch Abdul-Jabbar. 

If he did pull it off and pass Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a world in which James’ supporters could use the trump card of James being the top scorer of all-time despite that not being his best basketball skill (that would be passing). Outside of that, James could also win a title or two alongside Anthony Davis to nudge closer to Jordan. But given the six losses on James’ ledger and Jordan’s “perfect” tally, it might be best to leave Jordan with that and change the conversation all together. 

James has a strong track record of doing that. Following “The Decision” fallout in 2010 and his 2011 Finals meltdown, even James’ strongest supporters would’ve had a hard time imagining a world in which James was largely beloved in northeast Ohio. Yet, after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers and opening the “I, Promise” elementary school in Akron for at-risk children, his reputation with local fans is fully restored. After James left Cleveland and joined a barren Lakers franchise, he helped lure Anthony Davis and returned the Lakers to title favorites. Equipped with his own production company, James is chasing Jordan on the silver-screen, starring in a Space Jam sequel with an on-the-nose title, “A New Legacy.” James has created an empire by patiently waiting to get the final word.

Ultimately, the verdict remains out on the greatest argument in basketball circles, although it is a lot closer than many, including Reinsdorf, would like to believe. “The Last Dance” may have ended with the enduring image of Jordan cackling at his vanquished foes, but James still has a chance to have the last laugh.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan dominated every Hall of Famer he faced, including the 20 fellow members he eliminated from the playoffs throughout his career. However, some superstars fared worse in their career matchups than others.

Charles Barkley finds himself at the bottom of the list as Jordan averaged 35.8 points against him in their 55 career matchups. Jordan logged his points per game record versus Hall of Famers against Chuck with 41 points in the 1993 NBA Finals.

While Sir Charles struggled against Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal held Jordan to an average of 28.7 points per game in their 21 career matchups, the lowest of those 20 Hall of Famers Jordan eliminated.

This ought to stir up some competition on the next episode of "Inside the NBA."

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