Superlatives have been heaped upon the Warriors for years now—and rightfully so. Over the course of three short seasons, they changed basketball en route to an NBA title, posted the first 73-win regular season in history and exacted revenge against LeBron James with a near-perfect postseason.
And while every year was impressive, the 2016–17 team stood out and will be compared to the best in league history. The Warriors’ regular season featured an absolute assault on the record books. They followed that up with a 16–1 postseason that produced the best net rating in postseason history.
Dominance of this caliber will warrant comparisons to Michael Jordan and the 1995–96 Bulls. Scottie Pippen and John Salley, who both played on that legendary team, have weighed in with surface statements, but it’s time to really find out how these two elite teams stack up.
The Bulls start this conversation with an obvious advantage. Jordan, the best player in NBA history, will win any matchup. He averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists for his career. A 14-time All-Star, Jordan captured five MVPs, six Finals MVPs and six scoring championships. Not even Stephen Curry’s otherworldly play and Klay Thompson’s pure shooting can win this matchup, even if Ron Harper, Steve Kerr and Randy Brown rounded out the Bulls backcourt.
Praised for their small-ball lineup, the Warriors actually have more serviceable big men than the Bulls ever did during their second three-peat. JaVale McGee has been useful in Golden State’s free-flowing offense, catching impossible passes and converting at a high rate. Similarly, Zaza Pachulia has filled his role, pissing off opponents at an alarming rate and defending ferociously.
In Chicago, none of these traits could be attached to Salley, Bill Wennington or even Luc Longley. The Bulls’ lack of presence in the paint came in a time when big men anchored most teams, and it was always seen as a feather in Jordan’s cap. His talent was so prodigious that he didn’t need a Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing or David Robinson.
You don’t have to be an expert to know that the Bulls ran Tex Winter’s famed triangle offense under head coach Phil Jackson, using angles and movement to create space for Jordan. Similarly, the Warriors use player and ball movement to free their stars and find open looks. The difference here is that the Warriors have four legitimate threats on the floor, while the Bulls offense was heavily dependent on Jordan, Pippen and Tony Kukoc.
Despite that fact, their offensive numbers are pretty similar, as Chicago’s league-best 115.2 pace-adjusted points offensive rating almost mirrors this year’s Warriors at 115.6, which was only behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. Still, the advantage has to go to Golden State because they have four potential Hall of Famers and three players who could score 50-plus on any given night.
These teams went about their business in different ways, but both were elite on the defensive side. The Warriors are revered for their team defense, with Klay Thompson shadowing the other team’s best player and Draymond Green taking on tough assignments in the post and roving as a helper. Curry and Durant are underrated defenders as well, and Golden State’s ability to play on a string is hard to duplicate.
But the Bulls still have the edge here. Their 101.8 defensive rating isn’t as stingy as the Warriors’ 99.5, but both rated as No. 1. Jordan and Pippen were dogged individual defenders who could pester opponents for the full length of the court. Dennis Rodman was one of the best defenders and rebounders in NBA history in his own right, and Ron Harper was a 6’6” point guard who could hawk the ball as well. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman could all steal the ball from a guard on one play and block the shot of a big man on the next.
Just as the Bulls had the greatest player of all-time, an argument can also be made that Phil Jackson was the greatest coach of all-time. He won 11 titles as a coach and the 1995–96 season was his masterpiece. Fresh off a loss to the Orlando Magic in the playoffs, he coached Jordan and Co. from defeat to dynasty, recapturing their old form and posting 100 wins in a single season.
Kerr, who was a key player on the ’96 Bulls, is no slouch on the sidelines. But he’s fought through back issues and some of Golden State’s most impressive moments came without him on the sidelines. The Warriors’ 24–0 start came under Luke Walton and Mike Brown coached the majority of their 16–1 postseason.
The increased pace plays a part here, but NBA teams averaged 27 three-point attempts this season, the most in league history. Based on that alone the Warriors will attempt—and make—more threes than Chicago. Add in the fact that the Warriors are historically great beyond the arc and the picture becomes even clearer.
The Warriors are the best three-point shooting team ever, with three of the best shooters in league history. And while their coach, Steve Kerr, was a sniper in his own right, his bit part can’t compete with the scale of Golden State. In fact, a quick glance at the numbers and you’ll notice the Bulls made only 544 three-pointers for an entire season. Curry, Thompson and Durant combined to make 709 this season, and Curry has made 261 or more for the past five seasons.
Draymond Green and Dennis Rodman are two guys who embody this topic. Each player does whatever his team needs to win on any given night. The different is that Draymond has more skill to pair with his heart and toughness than Rodman did. Green is a secondary ballhandler and decent three-point shooter, while Rodman rarely even wanted the ball.
The Warriors win that comparison, but the Bulls had more of the glue-guy type on their roster because of Jordan’s dominance on offense. Jordan had a 33.3 usage rate and 20.4 win share, so there wasn’t much ball to go around and players needed to show they belonged in other ways. Players like Harper, Longley and Kerr often proved their worth away from the basketball.
And if we venture into superstar territory, we have to touch on what made Jordan the greatest ever. He was the best blend of fundamentals and athleticism anyone had ever seen. Sure, he has the “Jumpman” brand for a reason, but there were other great leapers in the game. What gave Jordan a leg up was that he used the correct hand to get a steal in the passing lane and started every possession in a triple threat.
Conversations on this topic often devolve into shouting matches, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to debate. This is an interesting time to take it on, with Durant fresh off an NBA Finals MVP performance and Curry putting forth his best postseason performance yet. I don’t want to be cliché here, but Durant and Curry both blew a 3–1 lead in the postseason and Jordan won every NBA Finals he ever reached and didn’t even pack clothes for Game 7. And Jordan has so many moments, like the Flu Game, the cross against Bryon Russell and the shot over Craig Ehlo. Jordan’s history alone is enough to close this case.
It’s odd to write this, but the Warriors have the advantage as a team. This year’s team didn’t complete the feat, but Golden State owns the 73–9 record. The Warriors’ dominant 16–1 postseason rounds out this category. On an individual level, Jordan would obviously be a difference-maker because he has more MVPs than Curry and Durant combined and owns too many records to count. But this is simply the Bulls vs. Warriors, and even with this win going to the Warriors, the Bulls own the overall tally as the greatest in history.
Final tally: Bulls 5, Warriors 4