The defending champion Golden State Warriors are currently undefeated, prompting many NBA watchers to claim that they’re already one of the best teams ever. Some admirers go so far as to opine that the Warriors are actually THE best team ever.
Ron Harper recently stoked the conversation when he flat-out stated that his 1995-96 Bulls (winners of a record 72 regular-season games) would sweep the Warriors in a seven-game series.
For sure, historical comparisons are totally useless — but they’re also great fun. So here’s my shot at the imaginary matchup.
There are several man-to-man confrontations, and even more various lineup combinations, that must be considered. Let’s start with the former:
Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights vs. Luc Longley, John Salley, Bill Wennington and James Edwards.
Not much of real significance here. Both Speights and Edwards would be part-time scorers who wouldn’t see much action or many touches. Wennington was strictly a mid-range shooter who would draw Bogut away from his defensive comfort zone. Longley was a big body who could receive entry passes and make savvy passes to key the Triangle offense. Salley banged around in the lane. Bogut and Ezeli would rebound, set an occasional screen, but wouldn’t have anybody to guard.
In the end-game, none of these guys would be on the court.
Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Jason Thompson vs. Dennis Rodman and Jason Caffey.
Rodman would lock up either of Golden State’s primary power forwards and, except during a blowout or some dire foul trouble, Caffey wouldn’t get a glimpse of daylight. The same can be said for Thompson.
Barnes/Green/Andre Iguodala vs. Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc.
Pippen shuts down whoever opposes him here, while Kukoc would give and take in equal numbers against all comers.
Klay Thompson, Iguodala and Leandro Barbosa vs. Michael Jordan and Jud Buechler.
If you have to ask, then you should be reading Boys’ Life.
Stephen Curry and Shaun Livingston vs. Steve Kerr, Ron Harper and Randy Brown.
Curry would have his way with any of Chicago’s points — although Harper’s physicality might eventually wear Curry down.
Again, in the endgame, the point-guard matchups would be vastly different.
Given that the Warriors’ most potent offense is their small-ball lineup, here’s the five that they would play for much of the game: Curry, Thompson, Green, Barnes and Iguodala.
Here’s how the Bulls would respond:
CURRY VS. PIPPEN. Pip’s length, quickness, aggressiveness and defensive genius would put Curry in a cage. Sure, Curry might hit a few 30-footers, but not enough of them to put his team over the top. Plus, Pippen would also turn several of Curry’s fancy dribblings into turnovers. At the other end, Pippen would be too big, too long and too versatile for Curry to contain.
THOMPSON VS. MJ. At both ends of the court, His Airness would turn Thompson into the Invisible Man.
BARNES VS. KUKOC. The two would trade scores and even each other out.
GREEN VS. RODMAN. The Worm’s relentless defense, full-court racing and zany antics would have Green mumbling to himself.
IGUODALA VS. HARPER. A pair of wily veterans with Harp sacrificing his own (limited) offense to play stout-hearted defense, and Iggy being free to focus on scoring. This might be the only slot where the Warriors would have a significant advantage.
With virtually all of its defensive parts being interchangeable, the Bulls wouldn’t be unhappy if they had to switch on screen/rolls. The only caveat here being a situation where Kukoc would have to guard Thompson or Curry.
With Rodman on the loose, the Bulls would own the boards and could also outrun the Warriors.
Yes, Golden State plays excellent defense. But the Triangle, when executed to perfection by extremely talented players, is impossible to adequately defend. And the 1995-96 Bulls fulfill both requirements. Furthermore, Chicago’s defense was significantly better than Golden State’s.
Steve Kerr vs. Phil Jackson. The former’s mastery of the Triangle would be minimized by the latter’s awesome ability to make meaningful in-game and between-game adjustments.
If the series was governed by the rules that existed when the Bulls dominated the game, hand-checking would be a routine defensive tactic, as would banging a player making a weak-to-strong-side cut across the lane. Alligator wrestling in the low post was also permitted. Screens were also more physical. And extra-hard fouls were usually not penalized.
The game was rougher, tougher and more difficult for shooters to find open shots.
By the older rules, the Bulls would sweep, winning each game by double digits.
On the other hand, today’s game is dainty by comparison. MJ could’ve averaged at least 40 points per game if he was at his peak nowadays.
Given the current hands-off defense, the Warriors would win one — possibly two — games.
Of course, there’s no way to prove any of the above. And no realistic reasons to doubt the same.