Absent a time machine outfitted with extra-long, lie-flat beds - because that’s how NBA teams roll - we’ll never know whether these Golden State Warriors are as good or better than the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
But we do know they’re neck-and-neck.
So never mind that nonsense Scottie Pippen spewed last week guaranteeing a Bulls sweep. That’s easy for him to say, considering who was always there to back him up. But there’s a reason Pippen rarely wound up in charge, especially at crunch time. He and Michael Jordan were less Batman and Robin than Andy Griffith and Barney Fife.
(SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who don’t want to wade through the numbers in the next few paragraphs, Pippen isn’t that far off. The take here is that the Bulls would win a best-of-seven series in six games, but you’ll have to read on to find out why.)
Whether Stephen Curry & Co. hold serve in their home finale against Memphis, the teams’ regular-season records couldn’t be much closer.
And the best analytical tool - the Elo ratings - gives the Bulls a slight edge.
Elo ratings are a fluid measure of a team’s strength that allows for comparisons of teams decades apart. When the website FiveThirtyEight.com used that metric to chart the league’s history, the teams posted the highest two ratings all-time.
Michael Jordan-led Bulls of the 1990s came out on top. Those teams won six championships in eight seasons, stringing together three-peats on either side of Jordan’s first “retirement.”
The 1995-96 edition recorded the highest Elo rating ever (1853) peaking on the same night they beat the Seattle SuperSonics to build a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Small wonder: That team boasted three aging Hall of Famers on the floor (Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman) and a fourth on the bench (Phil Jackson), as well as a smallish, sharp-shooting guard who might turn out to be a Hall of Fame coach himself (the Warriors’ Steve Kerr) someday.
Golden State came into the season after winning the fourth championship in franchise history and the second since the Warriors lit out of Philadelphia to head west. They posted the second-best number ever recorded (1839) last December, shortly after opening the season 24-0 with a 124-119 win over Boston. Considering their record since, they haven’t slipped much.
If analytics aren’t your thing, then how do we choose between them? Having watched both, to answer the question we have to go beyond the numbers.
First, we need to reach some agreement on which era to play the series.
Going back to 1995-96, when zone defenses were still outlawed, would heavily favor the Bulls. It would force the Warriors to send big man Andrew Bogut to stand next to Chicago’s Luc Longley out on the perimeter and limit Draymond Green’s effectiveness by having him chase Rodman around. It would also open up more space for Jordan to slice and dice, never a good option.
On the other hand, playing the series now would free up the Warriors to leave both Longley and Rodman mostly unguarded. They could then hamstring Jordan by double- and triple-teaming him in some situations, or simply pack the defense in under the basket and dare the Bulls to beat them with the 3-pointer, something neither Jordan nor Pippen nor even Toni Kukoc came to master the way Curry has.
So for the sake of argument, let’s make it one half with each set of rules in place and say the big men cancel each other out. We’ll even call the coaching matchup - the Zenmaster vs. one of his best students - a wash.
That means Jordan, who also happened to arguably the best defender ever at guard, matches up against Curry, whose 3-point potency brings a 30 percent premium nearly every time he scores. Pippen gets Thompson and Green gets Rodman. What then?
The 1995-96 Bulls get our vote, based on the body of work. That edition was a veteran team, led by a relatively rested Jordan (who’d been playing baseball) at the start of a three-year championship run.
Coming into this season, the Warriors more closely resembled the 1990-91 Bulls than the 1995-96 edition. Their Elo ratings were close and both the age and experience levels of their core superstars, Curry, Thompson and Green tracked Jordan, Pippen and Horace Grant (who had Rodman’s job at the time).
Experience counts for something, and in this most unscientific measure, we’re counting it enough to nudge the Bulls over the line first. Come back if the Warriors cap this special season with a championship - and then another after that - and we’ll reopen the discussion.
Until then, we’re giving the last word on the subject to Kerr, since there’s no disputing this much: “To be with two teams that performed like this and won at this level for the entire season,” he said, “I’m pretty lucky.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to hi m at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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