The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls’ 72 victories stood as the highest win total in an NBA regular season for 20 years. Although the Warriors won 73 games in 2015-2016, they failed to cap off the legendary campaign with a championship as the Bulls did.
That Chicago team, which featured an MVP-level Michael Jordan and prime Scottie Pippen, was commonly regarded as the greatest NBA team of all time until recently. The 67-win 2016-2017 Warriors, led by Stephen Curry and the newly-acquired Kevin Durant, plowed through the league en route to a title, with many calling them the most talented team ever.
It’s difficult to compare teams separated by over two decades, especially with the several rule-changes over the years, yet basketball fans and media members can’t help themselves from debating the greatest teams in history. Let’s analyze how these two teams would match up, taking into account modern rules, playoff rosters and assuming all players are healthy.
1995-1996 Chicago Bulls
Starters: Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley
Reserves: Toni Kuckoc, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, Randy Brown, Jud Buechler, James Edwards, John Salley
2016-2017 Golden State Warriors
Starters: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia
Reserves: Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, JaVale McGee, Patrick McCaw, Ian Clark, David West, Damian Jones, Matt Barnes, James Michael-McAdoo
Point Guard: Ron Harper vs. Stephen Curry
Golden State has the obvious advantage at point guard. Fresh off back-to-back MVP seasons, Curry was (and still is) one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league. His long-range shooting prowess revolutionized the league and would have stunned opponents had he played during Chicago’s reign.
Harper turned into a great perimeter defender and role player for the Bulls after joining the franchise in 1994. He transitioned from a 20-point-per game scorer into the steady veteran his team needed, only looking to score and initiate offense when called upon.
Harper’s physicality might stun Curry at first, but the Warriors superstar would run circles around him both off screens and in the pick-and-roll. The Bulls may need to put Jordan on Curry to slow him down.
Shooting Guard: Michael Jordan vs. Klay Thompson
Jordan and Thompson matchup quite well. They’re both listed at 6-foot-6, 215 lbs., and are superb two-way players. Jordan is the better player on both ends and is the focal point of his team’s offense, but Thompson can put up points just as fast when he’s got the hot hand.
The Bulls have a major dilemma to solve when deciding whom Jordan should guard. If he guards Curry, Thompson can torch the slower and older Harper off screens from anywhere on the floor. If Jordan guards Thompson, Curry has an easier time creating offense for others and himself with the slower and oversized Harper checking him.
Thompson also has more tools to contain Jordan’s offense than most. Thompson can match Jordan’s physicality and his lateral quickness is stellar for his size. His discipline is also high, which helps from Jordan baiting him into fouls, which he was adept at during his second three-peat.
If Thompson’s shot is off, Jordan can conserve energy on defense and attack Thompson in isolation situations. Chicago will need to neutralize at least one of Golden State’s backcourt stars.
Small Forward: Scottie Pippen vs. Kevin Durant
This is the best matchup in the game from a talent, athleticism and skill perspective. Both players are all-time greats at the small forward position, but Pippen never played a unicorn like Durant. Durant’s combination of size, handle and jump shot make him virtually unguardable, but if anyone can slow him down, it’d be Pippen, who’s arguably the greatest wing defender in NBA history.
Pippen can hold his own against Durant’s quickness and length. What he’ll have to focus on is being physical with Durant. Chicago’s defense was suffocating and intimidating, so Pippen would have to get Durant out of rhythm by picking him up full-court and poking the ball loose a few times, which he’s more than capable of. If all goes well, Pippen can take Durant out of his game better than anyone Durant has ever faced. Durant, however, wouldn’t be contained for long and would surely hit a few contested jumpers at some point and eventually get going.
Durant would also have to exert significant energy guarding Pippen, assuming that’s what his matchup would be. Pippen was the Bulls’ main offensive initiator — a true pioneer of the “point forward” — so Durant would have to try and get the ball out of Pippen’s hands as much as possible, especially in transition. Durant has to deny Pippen to make someone else like Harper or Steve Kerr handle the ball more. If Pippen is left space to create, he not only will rack-up assists but he’ll also gain more confidence as a scorer, which makes Chicago’s offense that much harder to stop.
Power Forward: Dennis Rodman vs. Draymond Green
This is arguably the most fun matchup in this hypothetical. Both Rodman and Green are hard-nosed hustle players who are defensive specialists. They each play with a fiery tenacity and take great pride in doing the dirty work to help their team and assist their superstar teammates.
Green is the more versatile offensive player since he can (sometimes) shoot from distance and is a dangerous passer and ball-handler in transition. Rodman, however, is the better athlete, rebounder and arguably smarter player when focused, so both players could cancel each other out in theory.
Rodman’s biggest hindrance is his lack of offensive skills, or rather, his unwillingness to keep the defense honest. He seldom tried to score, with most of his points coming from putbacks or open layups. Rodman had a decent shooting stroke but rarely showcased it. When he did, he often bricked the shot because he wouldn’t even shoot during warmups. If you aren’t already aware, he was a bit strange.
But Rodman’s minimal offensive presence could allow Green to use his defensive talents on Pippen and make him work much harder while also having to guard Durant. Green is one of the few players ever who can truly guard all five positions, so he would have little trouble matching-up with the similarly-sized Pippen.
Rodman could abuse Durant on the boards as a result, but Durant’s height and length could maybe minimize that advantage to some degree.
Center: Luc Longley vs. Zaza Pachulia
These two are the afterthoughts for each team’s starting five. Longley was the better player of the two, if nothing else because of his passing ability, but neither guy was integral to their team’s success.
These two are lumbering big men who would be funny to watch if this game occurred. They’d battle for boards in the paint and maybe block a shot or two, but besides that, they’d each be subbed out for more skilled bench players once both teams decide to go small. Longley may surprise everyone by hitting a couple of jumpers in a row, but his presence isn’t profound by any means.
The only hope is that Pachulia doesn’t give anyone a cheap shot, given his reputation.
Bench vs. Bench
Assuming this contest is treated like a Finals game, neither team would play more than eight or nine players max. The benches are therefore less important than they would be throughout an entire season, but both teams still sport some dangerous reserves.
For Golden State, Iguodala is always the first substitution and usually plays more minutes than Pachulia. Iguodala gives the Warriors an athletic defender and playmaker who can assist in guarding Jordan and Pippen. He’s clutch, fearless and experienced, so he’d be extremely valuable, especially when Kerr implements his “death lineup.”
Barnes, Livingston, McCaw and West are the only four who’d realistically get some run. They all provide defense and limited scoring ability but wouldn’t play beyond a handful of minutes. Barnes’ 3-point shooting could prove useful if he finds his stroke. The Bulls, though, are a formidable defensive bunch and are unlikely to concede many open looks to role players.
For Chicago, Kukoc is an integral part of the team, even off the bench. His playmaking and shooting abilities make him an ideal player to have in today’s NBA, so he’d likely find great success playing with modern rules that make the game less physical and more spaced. He’s clutch, unafraid of the moment, and although a bit streaky, he’s proved he can perform well in high-pressure situations. Kukoc could even start if both teams decide going small is the best option.
Kerr, Wennington and Buechler are the three others who could give the Bulls a few solid minutes. All three are dangerous shooters and stayed grounded in their roles, so they should help limit mistakes offensively even though they’re limited defensively. Kerr is capable of hitting clutch shots should his number be called, so the Warriors can’t sag off him to double too often.
Coach: Phil Jackson vs. Steve Kerr
For this hypothetical, let’s assume Kerr doesn’t have any insider knowledge of Jackson’s strategy and methods even though he played under Jackson during Chicago’s second three-peat.
Both coaches excelled in their eras. Jackson’s “triangle” offense honed Jordan’s talents while forcing him to get his teammates involved. The system consistently generated open drives to the basket, exploited mismatches and facilitated teamwork, so the Warriors would need to be 100% focused to stop it since the Bulls ran it to perfection. Yes, it’s a dated offensive strategy, but Chicago’s personnel was specifically built to play this way, so there’s no sense in imagining they’d adopt another style.
Kerr, on the other hand, ran his own form of revolutionary offense. His “motion” system encourages off-ball movement and screens, making the extra pass and shooting triples. This Warriors team was the perfect roster to play this style since it sports three of the best shooters in history, all of whom bought-in to Kerr’s unselfish philosophy.
Jackson has the edge in experience when looking at where each coach was at these respect points in their careers, but Kerr’s extensive knowledge from being a player, executive and broadcaster help him not only adapt mid-game but also make his players believe in him. NBA coaching is oftentimes more about managing personalities than X’s and O’s. Both of these coaches thrived in that aspect of the job.
This game is hard to imagine since each team played under different rules and with completely different styles. The Bulls were a hard-nosed, grind-it-out kind of squad that gained advantages through intimidation, physical defense and the offensive talents of Jordan and Pippen. In a game devoid of hand-checking and illegal defense, Jordan and Pippen would feast when driving to the basket and in transition.
Defensively, though, Chicago would need to adjust. Harper, Jordan, Pippen and Rodman would struggle initially to play without fouling, which would likely lessen the impact of their overall defense. This hurts them greatly because the Bulls won by holding teams to low scores and slowing the game’s pace down. It’s unclear how effective that strategy would be against a high-scoring and fast-paced team like the Warriors.
Golden State would have to adjust to Chicago (still) physical style and extreme confidence. Almost every team the Warriors faced during the Durant era was terrified of them and folded by the third quarter. These Bulls were led by some of the toughest and most competitive players ever, so the Warriors would have to man-up and recover from Chicago’s initial attack.
The first quarter would likely be sloppy. Both squads have to feel each other out and pinpoint advantageous matchups. The Warriors — like many modern NBA teams — liked to hunt specific matchups for either Curry or Durant to isolate, but the Bulls are extremely switchable with all their starters besides Longley. Chicago may not even want to switch since it wasn’t as popular a strategy back then. It’ll probably have to, though, since the team never faced players like Curry and Durant in high-screen pick-and-rolls before.
The second quarter would be Jordan’s times to settle-in. He’d likely find his spots and start hitting his patented post-fadeaway, while Kukoc and Kerr off the bench would hit some jumpers and be a new change-of-pace. Durant and Thompson would struggle to find the winning formula against their less-than-favorable matchups. Curry, though, probably scores 15 or more points in the half by shooting shots players never even considered taking back in the 1990s.
The Bulls controlled the first-half pace and got Pippen and Jordan in a rhythm. Chicago leading 54-46 at the half.
Everyone knows the Warriors owned the third quarter, and this game is no different. Kerr likely starts the frame with his “death” lineup, which immediately throws Chicago off-guard as its lead evaporates. Golden State gets out in transition, Durant and Thompson start hitting shots, and Jackson calls multiple timeouts throughout the frameto try and get his team back on track.
Jordan also cools off in the third as the Warriors start to double him and take the ball out of his hands. With Green now guarding him, Pippen struggles to get anything going offensively as well. Kukoc has to carry more of the load, which results in some bad shots and turnovers.
Down seven points heading into the fourth, Jordan leads two separate runs to close the gap. Jackson puts him in more isolation positions, but this time Kerr and Kukoc are ready to shoot once Jordan gets doubled. Pippen also finds a couple of backdoor cuts to the rim and finishes with dunks, helping him regain his confidence and inspire his team’s defense.
As the Bulls match Golden State’s small-ball lineup, Rodman now finds ways to impact the game. He grabs several offensive boards in the second half, some he lays back in and others he kicks out for open shots. Once engaged, Rodman is the spark plug the Bulls need to take a four-point lead with five minutes left.
Referees tend to “swallow” their whistles down the stretch of games — especially playoff-like contests — so the Bulls would gain a significant advantage in this game’s closing moments. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman all begin playing well at the same time, and Kerr and Kukoc are too significant of 3-point threats for the Warriors to help off of.
Being the greatest closer in history, Jordan is able to generate a couple scores near the end to overcome a low-scoring final quarter. Golden State failed to hit any late-game triples and didn’t get the benefit of the whistle despite Chicago’s increased intensity.
The game was competitive throughout, but Chicago was more clutch, experienced and had better chemistry.
107-101 Chicago Bulls win
MVP: Michael Jordan (37 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists)