With the Golden State Warriors on pace to win 75 games, there has been plenty of talk all season about their place in history and the unavoidable comparison to the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls who just so happen to be on the 20th anniversary of their 72 win season.
Of course, you have the “old heads” like Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley and Ron Harper who say these newfangled Warriors would get beat up by the Bulls. There are others who say the young Warriors would run the old dudes crazy. Let’s get past the fact that comparing teams from different eras is an exercise in futility and match them up come up with our winner.
Coaching: Phil Jackson vs Steve Kerr. This matchup is closer than one would think. Despite Big Chief Triangle’s jewelry, he was largely very inflexible and would not bend his rotations or strategy much. Phil wasn’t just rolling the balls out and chilling but there was not much deviation in the game plan. Would he have adjusted to the pace and small ball of the Warriors? Would he have been willing to counter Kerr’s adjustments? Jackson’s greatest advantage was also the psychology with his players and media but Kerr is just as in tune with his guys as Phil. The Bulls advantage is actually with Johnny Bach and Tex Winter and their ability to scout and find the flaws. Advantage: Bulls
Point Guard: Ron Harper vs Stephen Curry. No brainer here. The question is how long before Scottie Pippen is forced to take Curry the way he did in 1991 against Magic Johnson. Pippen was still very much a premier defender and routinely gave Michael Jordan a break and took the other’s team’s best playmaker or offensive player. Advantage: Warriors
Shooting Guard: Michael Jordan vs Klay Thompson. Here is where the Warriors “positionless ball” comes into play. Jordan, of course has the advantage but remember this is 33 year old MJ where the athleticism has started to wane. The Warriors with Thompson, Iguadola, and Harrison Barnes can throw young athletic bodies to make an older MJ work and Thompson can keep MJ busy on the other end with his movement off the ball and ability to change ends. Advantage: Bulls
Small Forward: Scottie Pippen vs Harrison Barnes. Pippen would be the X-factor in this series. 1996 Scottie was still a prime athlete and Swiss army knife on both ends. His playmaking, defending, rebounding made him indispensable and in a series. He would be called on to guard everyone from Curry to Draymond Green and could be the real difference. Advantage: Bulls
Power Forward: Dennis Rodman vs Draymond Green. Dennis Rodman lived on defending guys like Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning, and Shaquille O’Neal in the low post where he was a great low post defender. Here is the rub: Draymond Green is not a low post player. Green’s ability in the screen/roll, pick and pop or passing would be a problem for Rodman who in 1996 was not always a willing defender on the perimeter. In the 1996 Finals, Shawn Kemp routinely faced up and drove around Rodman or made open mid-range jumpers. Green’s offensive versatility against a rebound happy Rodman could serve GSW well. Advantage: Even
Center: Luc Longley vs Andrew Bogut. Would Phil Jackson be willing to bench Luc Longley the way Kerr benched Longley to get favorable matchups? This matchup is not about the players but which coach adjust first. Rodman should play a lot of center in the series to combat Green. If Jackson sticks with Longley (or Bill Wennington) it plays right into the hands of the Warriors. Advantage: Even
Bench: The 1996 Bulls featured then Sixth Man of the Year in Toni Kukoc while the Warriors feature the reigning Finals MVP in Iguadola. Kukoc would be crucial with his offense and mobility once the Warriors go small as he is the only bench player on the Bulls who would thrive in small ball. Shaun Livingston provides further length and athleticism against Kerr and Randy Brown. With Leandro Barbosa and Festus Ezeli providing energy, GSW has a decisive matchup advantage here. Advantage: Warriors
Outcome: Despite what “old heads” think, the 1996 Bulls would not destroy the 2015 Warriors. Fact: the 1996 Bulls needed six games to beat the Sonics who were nowhere near as good as the 2015 Warriors and played competition that was a notch below what the Warriors face despite the “luck” people claim. In the end, I would take the 1996 Bulls in 7 games. The difference being that MJ even at 33 is not the one to bet against; Pippen, while not for 48 minutes, could do what Lebron James has done vs Derrick Rose and make just enough stops on Curry.
The overarching lesson in this discussion is to appreciate greatness. Golden State is in the midst of a historical run on par with the Lakers and Celtics of the 80s or any of the 90s Bulls. Whether they would win a mythical series or not has nothing to do with admiring the work they are putting in right now. Enjoy the view, you are watching all-time greatness.