Could the Golden State Warriors Beat the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls?
If you have browsed around an Internet article’s comment sections for longer than six seconds, you will inevitably find someone asking if (insert noun here) could beat the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
You can even find this classic Internet tag line in non-sports articles. Outside of the crying Michael Jordan meme, it’s probably the most overused cliché in all of the Internet (sorry, crying Jordan meme fans).
However, now that the Golden State Warriors have beaten the Bulls' single-season wins record by winning their 73rd game, the discussion of whether the 1995-96 Bulls could have beaten this year’s Warriors -- or vice versa -- is going to go on for years, or maybe even decades.
Let's break it down.
Hand Checks, Forearms, and Illegal Defenses
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has been asked constantly about the comparisons between the two teams and who would beat whom.
When Scottie Pippen said the Bulls would sweep the Warriors, Kerr had one of the best answers to the question, which shouldn’t be surprising since he played on those Bulls and coached the Warriors to the best record in NBA history.
"Because the game is different and it's officiating differently, it's hard to compare the eras, to compare 20 years ago to now,” Kerr said.
"For example, if you actually put the teams in a hypothetical game, my guess is the Bulls would be called for a million hand-check fouls and we would be called for a million illegal defenses when we overloaded the strong side.”
In 2009, NBA.com's David Aldridge detailed all of the rule changes that came into effect throughout the last half of the 1990s, from the elimination of hand-checking, to barring the use of the forearm, to the institution of defensive three-seconds.
Aldridge notes that almost every offensive category went up since those changes, from points to per game, to field goal percentage and -- of course -- the pace of the game.
But the hand-check rules has its own caveats. The NBA tried to change the rule twice: once in 1994 and banning it entirely after the 2004 season.
However, while comparing points per game in the new era versus the old is fine, you have to take a look at advanced statistics as well, which tell an even deeper story.
Here is a look at the average statistics from the two different eras; before and after hand-checking was abolished.
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||48.3%||49.6%|
|True Shooting Percentage||52.8%||53.8%|
|Field Goal Percentage||45.5%||45.5%|
|Points per Game||98.9||99.4|
Even though it’s true that points per game and efficiency went up some after hand-checking was outlawed, Pace actually dropped a little before it started going back up over the last five or six years.
While there was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s that offense and Pace took a nose-dive, the difference isn’t enough to say that the Warriors would suddenly not be as good of an offensive team in the hand-check era, nor is it enough evidence to support the theory that the Bulls would still dominate in today's NBA.
The rules have led to different approaches for the Bulls and Warriors, and both teams dominated their respective eras.
|Stats||'95-'96 Bulls||'15-'16 Warriors|
|Points per Game||105.2||114.9|
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||51.7%||56.3%|
|Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage||48.2%||47.9%|
Once again, it's hard to account for the rule differences between the two eras, but the two teams had pretty similar numbers when you account for the difference in rules and pace. While the Warriors were the second-fastest team in the league this season, the Bulls of the mid-90s ranked 20th (of 29 teams) in Pace the year they went for 72 wins.
The Bulls have an edge in Net Rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions), but Jordan played 37.7 minutes per game in 1995-96, and Pippen played 36.7. No Warriors player topped 34.8 minutes per game, and their most frequently used five-man lineup owned a Net Rating of 13.2 points, nearly identical to that of the Bulls' overall total.
This debate boils down to the simple fact that it's an impossible question to answer. There are so many differences in the league between now and when the Bulls won 72 games that -- unless we invent time travel in the near future and can bring the Warriors back to 1996 or bring Jordan's Bulls to 2016 -- there is almost no way we can solve this question.
It will of course always be one of the great NBA debates, and if there is an answer, it's probably that if the Bulls were forced to play a game against Golden State with today's rules, they would get blown out.
The '95-'96 Bulls ranked 24th in their opponent's three-point percentage at 35 percent, but three-point percentage isn't a great way to measure three-point defense. Considering the league-average Three-Point Attempt Rate was only .200 compared to .285 today, it wasn't something they worried about too much back in the day.
But how the Bulls adapted to the Warriors' three-point barrage (their Three-Point Attempt Rate of .362 ranked second this season, and the 1995-96 Dallas Mavericks' .274 mark would have ranked 20th this season) could have a massive impact on a seven-game series.
Of course, if the Warriors were forced to play in an era where they would have defenders hanging all over them and also lose the ability to load up their defense on the strong side, MJ and the Bulls might force Golden State into a half-court and physical matchup that they would win by forcing the Warriors to the line.
The Warriors ranked 25th in Free Throws per Field Goal Attempt this season at only .191 and were just above league average (.209) on defense (.208). The physical style clearly wouldn't benefit Golden State.
Needless to say, "Bulls or Warriors" now ranks near the top of the all-time best sports debates.
But like all of those, the answer is simply that it's impossible to know for sure.