Data Dimes: Comparing this year’s Warriors to the 72–10 Bulls season
Seventy-two and ten. That’s where the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls set the bar for the best single-season record in NBA history. Fast-forward two decades later, and the reigning champion Golden State Warriors are gunning for that extraordinary mark through exemplary team basketball.
There’s a real possibility the Dubs will overtake it by going 73–9 (or better). So for this week’s iteration of Data Dimes, the PointAfter team decided to compare and contrast the 72–10 Bulls to this season’s Warriors.
Note: Stats referenced are through Golden State’s first 25 games, prior to their Dec. 16 matchup against the Phoenix Suns.
Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network.
The Opening Streak
Golden State’s continuity and team chemistry translated into an all-time best 24–0 start. The seemingly unbeatable Warriors had their streak snapped on the second game of a back-to-back against the Milwaukee Bucks (after eking out a double-overtime victory against the Boston Celtics the night prior). It seems the Dubs’ only kryptonite is a combination of fatigue, playing away from home, and wearing sleeved jerseys.
But even with the loss—which was all but inevitable at some point—the Warriors look stronger than ever. Comparatively, while the record-setting Bulls only won their first five games, they boasted a 23–2 record through their first 25—only one off the pace Golden State set early on.
Yes, the Warriors undoubtedly have a shot at the Bulls’ all-time record. Still, it’s not as if they’ve been shattering the pace set back in 1995, even though the Warriors’ grade on the eye test thus far has been “A” for aplomb.
Top of the Class
If there’s one comparison we can lock in with absolute certainty, it’s that each of these two juggernauts relish scoring the rock. Golden State’s offensive rating through 25 games leads the league. And yet, its 114.7 points per 100 possessions is actually slightly behind Chicago’s league-best 115.2 pace-adjusted points.
On the flip side, both squads make their presence felt on defense as well. The Warriors have been better than Michael Jordan and Co. on the less glamorous end of the court. Oddly, the Bulls’ defensive rating in 1996 ranked No. 1 in the NBA, while the Warriors’ defense rates better by the numbers and lands them No. 10 overall this year.
It’s inherently difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison across different eras, but the point here is both of these rosters are ridiculously good at basketball. At least relative to the league at the time, though, perhaps the Bulls were more dominant.
The Long-Range Contrast
Alright, so the Bulls and Warriors both came out of the gates like gangbusters. Golden State rattled off an astonishing 24 wins in a row. Chicago won 23 of its first 25. They’re also comparable by offensive and defensive rating, though Chicago was “better” defensively relative to the rest of the league at the time.
So where exactly are we going to start seeing a distinct difference between the 1995–96 Bulls and 2015–16 Warriors? To embrace the Star Wars hype, we’ll channel Master Yoda by saying, “Beyond the arc, the answer lies.”
In what should not come as a surprise, the Warriors are draining their three-point attempts at a more consistent clip compared to Chicago in its first 25 games. That’s impressive in and of itself, but you must also factor in the timeframe. The 1995–96 season was one of three in NBA lore featuring a shortened three-point line. In theory, that gave Chicago a distinct advantage, but the Bulls didn’t exactly embrace the change.
On a game-to-game basis through their first 25 matchups, the Bulls finished 5–of–14 from beyond the three-point line on average. By contrast, Golden State launches more than double the amount of triples per contest and makes approximately 13 of them night in and night out—nearly as many as the Bulls attempted.
In 2015–16, the Warriors are second only to the Houston Rockets in three-point attempts. Back in 1996, Chicago shot 1,349 total threes, putting the Bulls close to league average (No. 15 in the league).
Truly, that’s the biggest difference between the two teams. Chicago was ruthlessly efficient offensively, but didn’t utilize the three-point shot much. Behind sharpshooting “Splash Brothers” named Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State makes three-point shooting a huge priority and a lethal weapon in its arsenal.
Curry has upped his game so significantly from an MVP campaign a season ago, he’s actually staking a claim to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. After averaging 23.8 points en route to Most Valuable Player honors, “Chef Curry” is tipping the Scoville scale by averaging 32.2 points while shooting 51.7% from the field, 45.8% from three-point range and 90.8% from the charity stripe.
For the Bulls, of course, it was Michael Jeffrey Jordan who led the way. He averaged 30.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.2 steals for the season. He ranked first on the team in scoring, second in rebounding and second in assists (Curry ranks first in scoring, third in rebounding and second in assists).
The dynamic duo of Jordan and Scottie Pippen clearly did most of the damage, as only Toni Kukoc averaged double-digit scoring aside from those stars.
Curry easily leads the Warriors in scoring, but three other players—Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes—join him by averaging double-digit points. While that may make the Warriors look more balanced on paper, the two teams seem to have more similarities than differences.
Held Together by Glue (Guys)
Alpha dogs like MJ and Steph are the catalysts, while Pippen and Thompson function as super-wingmen. But neither of these teams would be what they were (and are) without glue guys holding it all together.
Chicago’s Dennis Rodman ripped down an average of 14.9 rebounds per contest—a whopping 28% of the team’s boards overall. His glass-crashing prowess and defensive intensity is a combination the NBA community hasn’t seen since.
For the Bay Area’s wrecking crew, Green acts not only as an on-court leader, but also as a Swiss army knife of production. Remarkably, he leads Golden State in assists, accounting for 26% of the dimes that have been dished out thus far.
Rodman has said he doesn’t care if the current Warriors break Chicago’s record because, in his words, “We did it first.”
Indeed, but we’re witnessing a team urging us to think of and draw comparisons to the ’96 Bulls no matter how you slice the numbers.