The Golden State Warriors are the biggest story in the sporting world right now — with good reason. After taking the 2015 Finals in six games, the Warriors promptly rattled off 24 straight wins to start the season, before finally going down 108-95 in Milwaukee. From there, the shorthanded Warriors clawed through tight wins against Houston and Denver without league MVP Stephen Curry, racing to a 31-2 mark and putting the league on notice (they currently sit at a not-too-shabby 69-8). Not bad, you might say, and you would be right. Golden State has reinvigorated the game of basketball with their motion offense, unlimited range, interchangeable parts, and contagious unselfishness.
In setting the gold standard for the modern NBA, it’s inevitable for basketball junkies to start comparing these Warriors to the 72-10 Chicago Bulls of the 1995-96 season, especially since they’re looking like they could break that all-time single-season wins record. Back in December, Charles Barkley set off a firestorm of debates when he declared that Michael Jordan and his Bulls “would kill” the “little team” Warriors. More recently, Scottie Pippen offered a similar take, telling ESPN it would be “Bulls in four.”
Obviously Scottie has his own biases, and Sir Charles can come across as a bit of a blowhard — or at least a guy who thought everything was better “back in the day” (his day) — this time they’re right: the ’96 Bulls would overwhelm the ’16 Warriors for the following five reasons.
5. Steve Kerr vs. Steve Kerr
This mythical exhibition would match Steve Kerr, the player, against Steve Kerr, the coach. As a player, Steve Kerr put up 8 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists per game through five years of service in Chicago. Most importantly, of course, is the fact that Kerr knocked down 48% of his three-point shot attempts as a sharpshooting specialist off the bench. In 1997, Jordan drove the lane against Bryon Russell, before drawing a collapsing Jazz double team in the lane and whipping a pass out to a wide-open Steve Kerr, who, like clockwork, calmly drained the game-winning mid-range shot for the Bulls to take the Finals in six games.
Last year, Steve Kerr went 67-15 through his first regular season as a head coach, before outlasting LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in the NBA Finals. With Kerr at the helm, the Warriors often embraced a “small ball” approach, which featured point guards Stephen Curry and Shaun Livingston being flanked by versatile wing players in multiple combinations of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Leandro Barbosa.
In this scenario, Kerr, Bulls shooter, would be more valuable than Kerr, Warriors coach. As a Bull, Kerr would spread the Warrior defense thin, while also opening up driving lanes for both Jordan and Pippen to go to work. At the same time, Phil Jackson, the triangle offense, and his 11 rings would stalk the Chicago sideline.
For his part, the guard-turned-coach laughs off the concept, telling SFGate “[f]irst of all, it’s a really hard question to answer — not just because you’re comparing eras, but also because it’s literally tough for me to answer grammatically. I don’t know who ‘we’ is and who ‘they’ are. I’ll just say: ‘If the two teams played each other, there’s no question that we could beat us and they could beat them.'”
4. Rule changes
In 2004, Ben Wallace squared up against Ron Artest beneath the basket in Detroit after taking a hard foul from the future Metta World Peace. After being separated, Artest actually took to rest upon the scorer’s table, where an unruly spectator promptly doused the forward with beer. From there, the situation immediately escalated, with players openly brawling with fans up in the stands and out on the floor to close out one of the uglier incidents in the history of sports.
In response, David Stern and league executives quickly installed rule changes to “clean up the game” and ease some of the physicality out. The Golden State Warriors and their small ball lineups thrive beneath this new regime, where aggressive hand-checking, brazen trash talk, and physical play are swiftly and harshly penalized by technical fouls, ejections, and stiff fines. Steph Curry, a shifty point guard, excels in the modern game, where he can easily probe the defense at the top of the key or work off the ball through pin down screens for wide-open jump-shots.
The Dynasty Bulls first made their bones beneath the Jordan Rules, where the Bad Boy Pistons and Riley-era Knicks eagerly doled out hip checks, elbows, and rough fouls in an attempt to ground the high-flying Bulls. Battle-tested Chicago would be more prepared than the Warriors to adjust their collective game concerning rule changes. With today’s guidelines, Jordan and Pippen would have a field day out of isolation sets and open floor transitions, working over Warrior wings for cheap fouls. And the relatively frail Splash Brothers would barely see the light of day after being hammered through an old school rules format and grind-it-out style.
3. Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman is the ultimate X-factor in this Golden State versus Chicago clash of titans. In 1996, the Worm was in rare form, leading the league in rebounds with 15 boards per game. On the defensive end, he was more than capable of battling against the likes of Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal in the post and contesting shots, before anticipating caroms, boxing out, cleaning the glass, and snapping off a quick outlet to a streaking Jordan. Rodman, an underrated passer, rang up 3 assists per game out of the triangle.
The Warriors’ roster simply has no answer for Rodman. If anything, the primary responsibility for Rodman would likely fall to Draymond Green, who is more comfortable operating out on the perimeter in small ball lineups. After Green, Festus Ezeli and Andrew Bogut would face the impossible task of keeping Rodman out of the painted area and offensive glass. An active, feisty Rodman would quickly expose the Warriors for their lack of front-court depth.
On the defensive end, a versatile Rodman would switch out of the pick-and-roll, chase down the Splash Brothers on the perimeter, and still rotate back into the paint for help defense and board work. On the other side of the floor, Rodman would surely punish Golden State by chasing down loose balls and securing backbreaking second-chance opportunities for MJ and Co. to go to work.
The Chicago Bulls have the size and strength to overwhelm the Golden State Warriors at every position. Out on the wing, the Bulls can throw out Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Ron Harper as 6-foot-six-plus attack dogs able to drive the lane, operate in space, and shut down the one through three spots. In the front-court, the Bulls can roll out the aforementioned Rodman, and team him up with the likes of Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, and even Bill Wennington to control the paint. By the fourth quarter, the Bulls would have worn down the diminutive Warriors with timely post ups and physical play.
Most importantly, the Bulls feature four players in Rodman, Harper, Pippen, and Jordan who can switch off screens and guard multiple positions. In doing so, the Bulls can wreak havoc on the pick and roll, while also chasing down and suffocating the Splash Brothers working in and out of screens. On the other side of the floor, Chicago can control the tempo through the triangle and deliberate half-court sets. Both Jordan and Pippen would loom large as matchup nightmares for Curry, Thompson, and Barnes in the post.
The Chicago Bulls, with time and by drawing fouls, would impose their collective will upon the Golden State Warriors and force them out of their wacky lineups and into a more conventional style for significant minutes. The Warriors, with Andrew Bogut at center and Marreese Speights at power forward, are a far less dangerous ball club for any team to match up against.
1. Michael Jordan
The Golden State Warriors, of course, must contend with Jordan as the most competitive athlete to ever put on a pair of basketball shorts and step out on the hardwood. No. 23 appeared to take a sick pleasure in breaking the will of every opposing player and fan by halftime. For motivation, a machine-like MJ would have promptly dismissed any talk of the Warriors matching the Bulls, before coming out guns blazing to drop 50, while also demanding the Curry assignment at the other end.
Last season, James kept Cleveland in the Finals by himself, after both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving went down with injuries. For Game 2, James put up 39 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists to steal a victory on the road at Oracle Arena. In Game 3, James backed up this monster stat line to go off for 40 points, while also taking down 12 boards and dishing out 8 assists. We can expect Jordan to be even more efficient than James in this Bulls versus Warriors series, with the benefit of a healthy supporting cast at his disposal.
History may repeat itself if this series comes down to one final possession, after MJ came up with a timely steal deep in his own territory. After controlling the ball at the top of the key, Jordan could look to cross over, draw the double team, and elevate. In a split second, Jordan would decide to win the game himself or kick the ball back out to a wide open Kerr for the nail in the coffin. It’s gotta be the shoes.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.