The Golden State Warriors, fresh off an NBA championship last June, came storming out of the gates this season to a 9-0 record. Going back to last season, they’re now 46-0 when holding opponents under 100 points. Not only are they dominating on offense behind Stephen Curry, who is making a case for being the best shooter in the history of the game, but they’re playing stout defense as well.
The Warriors rank number one in the NBA in offensive rating (113.4), number two in defensive rating (95.9), and they’re winning by an average of 17.8 points per game. People have thrown around comparisons to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who will be celebrating their 20 year anniversary of winning an NBA record 72 regular season games. Some are already saying that the Warriors are better than the epic Bulls squad.
At this point, it’s not quite appropriate to try to compare the teams. The teams come from different eras of basketball, and though it might surprise you to hear it, the Warriors hold an edge in playoff experience. While Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had won three championships and Dennis Rodman had won two with the Detroit Pistons, the majority of the Bulls roster had never even been to the NBA Finals. They were expected to be a contender, but not many expected their historic 1996 season.
On the flip side, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has been a part of six championship teams (five as a player, and three of those with the Bulls) and essentially the entire roster has been part of a championship victory. Everyone knew this team was the best in the NBA coming in, so their start shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s fair to ask whether this team could break the Bulls 72 win record, even if it’s impossible to compare the teams to each other.
The 1996 Chicago Bulls are an interesting tale, and the story actually starts the season prior. Michael Jordan was now a full season removed from retiring from the NBA to follow his baseball dream, and the Bulls were molding their roster with the knowledge that Jordan wouldn’t be there. Gone were names such as Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, Horace Grant, and Craig Hodges.
Croatian sensation Toni Kukoc was in his second year with the team, and the Bulls had sharp-shooters B.J. Armstrong and Steve Kerr sharing time at point guard. They signed Ron Harper, who was coming off a season in which he averaged 20.1 points, away from the Los Angeles Clippers. While it seems laughable now, the idea behind signing Harper was to replace some of the scoring void that Jordan left at the shooting guard position.
But then Jordan surprised the world late in the season, returning to the Bulls and playing the final 17 games of the season. He was rusty, and the Bulls were fairly mediocre, but it was good enough to push the Bulls to the second round of the playoffs against the Magic. They would eventually lose that series, four-games-to-two.
The 1995-96 Bulls had a lot of questions. Many wondered if Jordan was still capable of being the best player in the NBA, after taking off nearly two full seasons of his prime and now at 32 years old. Would the ever-pouty Scottie Pippen accept no longer being “the man” on the Bulls? How would Kukoc fit, with the newly acquired Rodman soaking up the bulk of the minutes? And who would start at point guard and center?
With his scoring skills fading, the Bulls shifted Harper to the point guard position with Pippen often bringing the ball up the court, which allowed Harper to float around the perimeter on offense. Journeyman Luc Longley was initially the starting center and he ended up making 62 starts that year. The Bulls filled out their rotation with Kukoc and Kerr off the bench, along with young forwards Dickey Simpkins and Jason Caffey, guards Jud Buechler and Randy Brown, and backup center Bill Wennington.
While many suspected that the Bulls would be a title contender, despite losing Armstrong, and the nefarious Rodman being the only major addition from the previous season, nobody could’ve predicted that they’d come out of the gate 23-2.
Jordan finished the regular season averaging 30.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 49.5 percent shooting, Pippen adjusted well to his new/old role as Jordan’s wingman, Rodman’s off-court antics were held in check while he put up 14.9 rebounds per game, and the Bulls steamrolled the competition.
The Bulls won game number 70 against the Milwaukee Bucks on April 16, 1996, which was the new regular season record at the time. They went 72-10 and rolled into the playoffs against the Miami Heat, who were just 42-40. The opening series wasn’t even close, with the Bulls sweeping the three games by an average margin of victory of 23 points. The 47-35 New York Knicks weren’t much of a challenge in the second round, either, losing the series four-game-to-one.
The first real challenge for the Bulls was a rematch against the Shaq-and-Penny Orlando Magic, who won 60 games in the regular season. But the Magic lost Grant, an important role player, for all but one game of the series. What many expected to be an epic battle between the reigning Eastern Conference champs and the greatest regular season team in NBA history turned out to be a beatdown, with the Bulls sweeping the Magic out of the playoffs and sending Shaquille O’Neal running to Los Angeles in free agency.
The Bulls met the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA finals, taking the first three games and a dominating hold on the series. The Sonics did rebound to win games four and five in Seattle, sending the Bulls back to Chicago for game six. Jordan had an awful shooting night—just 5-for-19 from the field—but the Bulls got solid efforts from Pippen (17 points, eight rebounds, five assists) and Rodman (nine points, 19 rebounds) in an 87-75 victory, clinching their fourth title in six years and the first in a string of three consecutive in the late 1990s.
There will always be debates over which team is the greatest ever. Some might say it’s still the 1971-72 Lakers, who won 69 games behind Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich. Others could make an argument for the 1972-73 Boston Celtics, who lost the Eastern Conference finals in seven games to the Knicks, but could’ve won the championship had John Havlicek not gotten hurt.
No one will ever be able to accurately compare teams across generations because win totals only reflect how much better a team is than their competition, not another great team from a different era. If the Warriors win 73 games this season, that will be an amazing accomplishment worth celebrating—especially if they top it by winning their second consecutive NBA championship this summer. Will that make them better than the 1995-96 Bulls? There’s no way to know, but at that level of greatness does it even matter?