Yesterday, I wrote about why asking who would win between the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls is the wrong question to ask. Today, I’d like to visit the right question to ask, which is “Which Team Was the Most Dominant.”
From the outset, let me state what should be obvious, but which needs to be stated nonetheless. It’s still fairly early in the season, and while a 16-0 start is impressive, it’s not 82-0 or even 72-10. That said, we’re not talking about a team that came out of nowhere. Golden State won 67 games and the championship last year, finishing the season with the seventh-highest Simple Rating System (Basketball-Reference.com’s statistical power ranking) in NBA history.
So while balancing out the early-season start, we need to balance the balancing too. This isn’t an upstart team, and to write off their improvement as merely “small sample size” is more hopeful thinking than sound logic. Barring injury, they have a great chance of being one of the best teams in history and the conversation is entirely valid.
But how can we compare the Warriors and 72-10 Bulls if we can’t determine who would beat whom?
By the same reasoning that determining a winner between the two is impossible because of different eras and different rules, we can compare them by determining how each performed in its own era.
As I stipulated yesterday, there are transitional players, and both teams have one: The Bulls had Michael Jordan and the Warriors have Stephen Curry. Now, as Internet discussions are wont to go, the gut reaction here is going to be that I just compared Curry to Jordan.
But let’s keep things in perspective. I said they were both transitional players. Of course, Jordan is still greater, and it’d take a remarkable continuation of Curry’s career to get to the point where there was even a discussion about who was better.
But he is a transitional player. And by that I mean he’s an agent by whom the game has transitioned into a new era. It’s no secret that the league is moving towards small ball, and this certainly isn’t a trend started or ignited by Curry and the Warriors, but it’s one that’s been accelerated by him and them.
And, as Zach Lowe writes for ESPN, not everyone can follow:
Perhaps the league is rushing to copy a model that can’t be copied. Curry is a revolutionary who makes even the tiniest lineups switch-proof; stick some ho-hum 6-7 wing on him, and Curry is snapping into a step-back 3 or blowing by the poor sap on the way to the rim. Green does the rest with expert shooters and playmakers dotting the floor around him. No team has ever had so many high-IQ wings, all 6-6 or taller, darting around as part of an unbreakable, always-yapping string on defense.
And the numbers underscore Lowe’s point. I broke down three-point shots into two types, unassisted and assisted, since 2012-13. These are the results:
Now, when you look at that, it’s pretty obvious that Curry is a world apart in terms of unassisted three-point shots. The next best after him, Damian Lillard and James Harden, have made over 100 fewer than him. But what’s really striking is that those two have made over 100 more than anyone else.
In fact, he has 50 percent more than either of them, more than double anyone else in the league and three times more than all but nine players. Then, factor in that the leader in assisted field goals, Klay Thompson, has been aided by Curry on over 36 percent of his assisted threes in that span.
Curry is the NBA equivalent of punctuated equilibrium in terms of the evolution of basketball. And the event that precipitated his rise is the rule changes, which were in large part instituted to help create a “new” Michael Jordan.
And Jordan’s impact on the game is well-enough established that I don’t need to detail it here. There’s ample reason to describe him as the greatest player of all time. But even he wasn’t always considered the greatest, I vividly recall listening to a debate on the radio as to whether he could assume the mantle on the heels of Magic Johnson’s retirement.
Jordan, for all his greatness, has the benefit of nostalgia on his side, and from nostalgia springs legend. And sometimes we like to remember things greater than they were. Jordan was the greatest who ever played, but he remained a mortal man.
“But Jordan” doesn’t answer every argument. Neither do mythical characterizations of his will to win.
After all, the Bulls were 72-10, not 82-0.
They were the toughest team in the history of the league to beat, but they were beatable. And they were beaten.
And remember that Jordan in ’96 was 32. He averaged a stout 30.4 points, 6.6 boards, 4.3 dimes and 2.2 steals. He had a robust Player Efficiency Rating of 29.4. He won the MVP, the Finals MVP and the All-Star Game MVP that year. But he was on the downward slope of his career, nonetheless.
Curry is averaging 32.7 points, 5.2 boards and 5.7 assists to go with 2.6 steals. And he has a higher PER of 33.5, though, there’s a good chance those numbers will show some decline as the season progresses. That said, he’s the reigning MVP and has shown a considerable uptick in his abilities this season.
That he’s on the incline of his career still is worth considering. Just as it would be foolish to presume that he’ll match Jordan’s legacy, so would it be rash to truncate his career to this point, not considering what kind of future he might hold.
Point being, in the abstract there’s a gulf between Jordan and Curry that’s greater than there is in substance, particularly when you remember the confines of this discussion.
For our purposes here we’re not comparing their careers. We’re comparing their seasons, and to date, that’s not nearly as outlandish a one as some would presuppose. In fact, apples-to-apples, in terms of per 100 possessions numbers, Curry holds his own quite well with Jordan:
So the point of all this isn’t to equate Curry with Jordan. Jordan was the greater player overall, but 2016 Curry has been arguably as impactful as 1996 Jordan. And if you take that as a slight to Jordan, then you’re just not giving enough credit to Curry.
The thing that people like to do when it comes to such things is to go down and look at player vs. player matchups, as though an NBA game consists of five individual one-on-one contests and whoever wins best of five wins the series. That’s just not the way the game is played.
It’s a team game, and more so now than in Jordan’s days, as much because of the rule changes spawned by his departure as anything.
What we can do is consider each team’s offense and defense against the league average to give us an inclination of who did better against the competition of their era.
So, here’s that picture:
And based on that, the Warriors’ offense early on looks to be a smidge better, but the Bulls defended slightly better. True, the Warriors’ strength of schedule is -2.33 compared to the Bulls’ -.44. Though, there’s a bit of a tautological logic there, as the Warriors’ SOS is impacted by the fact they’re curb-stomping everyone in their path. Bear in mind that 10 of their first 16 opponents were in the playoffs last year.
Another means of looking at things is Box Plus-Minus, which accounts for players’ production on the court, both offensively and defensively and also attempts to derive the non-statistical impact as well.
Adjusting for minutes, here’s how the two teams stack up in terms of box plus-minus. This is essentially an estimate of how many points, per 100 possessions, each team would be expected to outscore their opponents by:
Here the Bulls have a slight edge, but that too has a qualifier as the Bulls played their starters more minutes than the Warriors. That’s another product of the era. In Jordan’s day, no one balked at 40-minute nights. That’s not a judgment (as I believe that cutting down minutes is a positive thing), but it’s a reality.
Looking at the two teams, you can make an argument for either: one based on net rating and the other based on Box Plus-Minus. But in both cases even that argument holds a thin advantage.
For now, suffice to say that Golden State has a legitimate chance at vying with the Bulls for greatest single-season team ever. Don’t anoint them yet, but don’t write it off as just early-season noise either.