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Why “Who Would Win Between the ’96 Bulls and ’15 Warriors?” Is the Wrong Question

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As the Warriors roll through the regular season at a literally unprecedented rate, the question keeps popping up, “Who would win between the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors?” A host of responses follow, almost all of them knee-jerk, and almost all unsurprisingly confirming that the team with their allegiances would win.

One thoughtful response, though, came from the man with the most ability to speak on the topic, Steve Kerr.

Kerr was a point guard for the Bulls’ team and is the head coach (though, sidelined, for now) of the current rendition of the Warriors. If anyone can speak on behalf of both teams, it’s him.

In a Q&A with Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN, Kerr said,

My initial thoughts are that it is literally impossible to even compare, because the rules are so different and the eras are so different. We would overload the strong side on [Michael] Jordan, and they would call illegal defense; and they would put their hands all over [Stephen] Curry, and the refs would call a foul. That make sense?

Yes, coach, it absolutely does make sense…which is why many will just stiff-arm the statement and ignore it. But let’s understand why it’s impossible to say.

It’s like debating whether you want a boat or a cart. It all depends on what surface you’re traveling on. And the thing is, it’s not just a retroactive question.

One man says, “I need to get my goods over that ocean” so he builds a boat. Another says, “I need to carry my goods across a continent,” so, he builds a cart. Both men built what they did because of their differing circumstances. And so goes the current situation.

Strauss tried to compromise by declaring some rules from the former era (no zone defenses) and the some from the current era (no hand checking) would apply. But that doesn’t really fit either. That’s like asking whether you’d take the cart or the boat to the moon.

The problem is, both teams were deliberately constructed in order to compete in their era, so changing the rules for either one is akin to changing the surface over which the vehicle of choice travels. If you change the surface, then by default, you’re going to end up changing the nature of the vehicle.

If the rules were different, the team would be built differently and play differently. You can’t consider this question because basketball evolved.

For example, the hand-check rule wasn’t in effect in Jordan’s era. There were attempts at eradicating it, but hand checks, by and large, were permitted until 2004 when the league put a halt to them. Hand checks meant defenders could reach out and “check” a perimeter player with his hands. That gave him advantages in being able to know where he was going and being able to play closer to him.

That’s why if you watch old footage you see the point guards backing their defender down instead of facing them up.

And typically, when considering this, we think about how that affected the way players were able to drive to the basket. That’s why usually when you hear about the rule, it’s in the context of Michael Jordan dropping a 50-burger on a nightly basis.

But that changes everything for both teams.

May 23, 2015 - Houston, TX, USA - Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr reacts to a call during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference finals at the Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday, May 23, 2015

May 23, 2015 – Houston, TX, USA – Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr reacts to a call during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at the Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday, May 23, 2015

For the Warriors, if the hand-check rules were allowed, it’s going to be incredibly stifling to Stephen Curry. His bread and butter are his incredible handles and his ability to shoot from anywhere on the court off the dribble.

He is, without hyperbole, the best in the history of the game at that particular combination of skills. Some argue that’s all he does, which isn’t true, but even if it were, that alone is enough to make him not a just a generational player but even more a transitional player.

Kobe Bryant was a generational player, but not a transitional one. A transitional player is so great that he morphs the game around him. The league bends to what he does. Wilt Chamberlain was a transitional player. Michael Jordan was a one. Don’t confuse this with a player ranking. My objective here isn’t to quantify greatness, only delineate impact.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Jordan’s greatness is precisely why they did away with those hand-check rules and changed the illegal defense rules. The whole impetus was to get more open driving lanes to the basket so that players could become the “next Jordan” and have the same success in taking the ball to the hole. But a funny thing happened on the way.

Tom Thibodeau developed new defenses to adjust to the new offenses. Strong-side shifts and pushing the ball to the baseline became popular. Teams started forcing opponents to settle for long-twos and mid-range jumpers. The once illegal defenses, now legal, learned to adapt to the driving wing. While not strictly-speaking “zone” defenses, the modern game involves far more switching and help defenses than the man-to-man days of yore.

When many grapple with the question of which team would win, it gets postulated in a way where one queries the five individual matchups (and perhaps a sixth “bench” matchup) which isn’t realistic. The game isn’t five one-on-one contests. It’s one game of 12 players per side, five of which are playing at any given time, with substitutions and rotations and help defenses and so on.

So arguments like “Dennis Rodman would dominate Draymond Green” are just opinions farts, i.e. noise that does nothing but stink up the air.

It’s not about “who would win” each matchup, but how each of the players would affect their counterpart? For example, how would Green’s three-point shooting affect Rodman’s rebounding? Would his setting up to shoot keep Rodman on the perimeter, and would that prevent Rodman from using his maniacal and otherworldly zeal to snare every missed ball?

Or, if played under the previous set of rules, would Green’s lack of a polished (by 90s standards) post-up game devalue his offensive output, particularly going against a great defender like Rodman? And would his relatively small size for a 4 be more of a hindrance in the 90s game?

But then again, with Rodman being no offensive threat in his own right, would Green be able to play off him a lot and use his lateral quickness to help on Michael Jordan in today’s era where such things are permitted?

After all, a huge strength of the Warriors and the key to their success on defense is their versatility and ability to help.

Both Rodman and Green thrived in their era’s, but would either feel at home in the other.

Kerr cites this problem of how each player would square with his opposition in a pretty hilarious quote:

I would have had a nightmarish time playing against the Warriors because I wouldn’t have been able to find anybody to guard. Nobody can guard Steph, so I would have had an impossible time trying to do that. So, I don’t even know where to begin on that front.”

But back to Curry being a transitional player. Sure, it’s early in his career but it’s pretty obvious every team seems to be striving to duplicate the success he and the Warriors have had, playing with their own versions of “pace and space” offenses. None are quite finding the same level of success with it, though, because, duh, Curry.

The point being the ’96 Bulls were built a certain way, but Jordan wasn’t just a part of the cart. He was, it were, the equivalent of the invention of the wheel while Curry is akin to the discovery of buoyancy. They weren’t just elements of change; they were instruments of it.

They were the step in the evolutionary ladder by which the game itself changed.

The bottom line is that asking the question who would win entirely depends on which rules you’re playing under and that’s no slight on either team. I don’t care how nice your Lamborghini is; my paddle boat will beat it across the lake.

You build according to your needs, and both teams did that better than anyone in their era, with a player that enabled them to change the very nature of the game. That’s why the real question should be, “Who is the most dominant of their era?” which I will cover in Part 2 of this two-part series.

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