The modern Warriors are making their mark as one of the greatest teams of all time… which means every sportswriter with a keyboard is happily pounding out think-pieces about how they’d measure up against the greatest teams of yester-year. This “Warriors What-If” series is how we’re doing ours.
After breaking Chicago’s 72-game win record two years ago, then following it up by adding Kevin Durant, the Warriors have invited endless comparison to that hallowed ’96 Bulls team.
This is both fair (they’re both really good) and unfair (they played under completely different rulesets and circumstances against completely different competition). For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to assume the modern ruleset, both because it’s more familiar to current fans and because under the 90s ruleset Rodman would probably break Steph Curry’s neck about seven minutes into the game and the Bulls would win in a route, which is somewhat less interesting of a hypothetical.
Before getting into the overall, let’s look at the head-to-heads.
Point Guard: Steph Curry is a two-time MVP and the greatest shooter in basketball history. He’s also a gifted passer, an above-average rebounder at his position, and a decent defender. He’d be lining up against Ron Harper, a 6’6 defensive specialist with a sneaky competent offensive game.
Harper’s job wouldn’t be to outplay Curry, or even to contain him. It’d just be to wear him down (basically the same strategy OKC and Cleveland usually deploy against Curry in the playoffs). Harper’s pretty well-suited to the task, with the size/length/athleticism to bother Curry defensively, and a bruising physicality on offense that could punish the smaller superstar.
That said, Curry’s incredible range takes away some of Harper’s value as a help defender; one of Harper’s super-powers was lowering the viability of post-ups by popping into the paint to swipe at a posted big man. Normally, his speed and length let him recover from that risk-free, but that wouldn’t be the case against Curry’s ludicrous range and pistolero release speed.
Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson is perhaps the greatest shooting guard in the league today. Michael Jordan is the greatest shooting guard in the league ever. This matchup obviously goes to the Bulls, but the margin might be narrower than you’d think.
The good news for Golden State is three-fold. First, while nobody can really stop Jordan, Klay is at least a gifted defender with the size and length to keep Jordan from just straight up overpowering him. Second, Klay’s range and off-ball cutting/screening can help keep Jordan honest on defense (similar to the way Reggie Miller used to), minimizing his ability to jump passing lanes or help in the paint. Finally, Thompson is a human flamethrower who, on a given night, can be just as deadly a scorer as Jordan. While the game to game consistency isn’t there, when Klay (holder of the all-time record for points in a quarter) is feeling it, he can run up the score even faster than MJ, once nettng 60 in just 29 minutes (Jordan’s career high is 69, but it took him 50 minutes to get there).
Now the bad news (for GSW): Jordan’s night-to-night scoring blows Klay’s away, and his floor game is way more complete. He’s a better passer and rebounder by a wide margin, and a better defender by a decent one. Obviously, as good of a defender as Klay is, he’s not good enough to lock up MJ; nobody was. It gets worse, too.
Remember, we’re looking at current ruleset, which means no hand-checking. Michael averaged 30.4 ppg in 1996 against defenses that were allowed to put hands on him; he could probably average 45 against a D forced to keep its hands to itself.
Golden State also lacks the elite rim-protection needed to discourage Jordan in the paint, which means somebody’s ending up on a poster, and MJ’s going to the free throw line whenever he feels like it.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. Scottie Pippen is the one, true marquee individual matchup here. Durant is the more decorated superstar, with an MVP, scoring title, and Finals MVP on his resume, but Pippen’s playoff resume and overall game are both more complete.
The million dollar question is whether or not Pippen could guard Durant (it’s fair to assume Durant could slow but not stop Pippen; that’s basically the effect he has on poor-man’s Pippen types like Kawhi Leonard). On the one hand, Durant is one of the most electric scorers in basketball history. On the other, Pippen is in a two-horse race with Bobby Jones as the greatest defensive forward ever (or at least, the greatest perimeter defensive forward).
Best guess? Durant could probably get the best of Pip for a game or two, but we’ve seen other defensive players (Leonard, Tony Allen, Iguodala) figure out how to bother Durant over the course of a series; Pippen was the king of figuring out how to bother. Moreover, Pippen’s combination of defensive skill and length is the Bizarro to Durant’s offensive Superman; many of the athletic and technical advantages Durant has over even the greatest defenders of the modern era vanish against Pippen.
Both players would benefit from the absence of the hand-check rule; Pippen had an underrated offensive driving game that he generally sublimated to make room for MJ (but unleashed in a near-MVP performance in ’94), and Durant has been feasting his whole career on defenses forced to play him with footwork instead of force.
Power Forward: Draymond Green is Pippen reincarnated as a 4; a jack of all stats on offense and a horseman of the apocalypse on defense. Unfortunately, Rodman’s a matchup that mitigates a lot of what he does well. Rodman isn’t a scoring threat at all (so Dray’s man-to-man skillset is largely wasted), but unlike most non-threatening offensive forces, he can’t safely be left alone due to his otherworldly rebounding. It’s likely the Warriors—who are always a bit too willing to punt on the boards—would instead deploy Green as something of a free safety (as they do against any team with an offensively limited big), hoping to harass Pippen and Jordan as a help defender.
This would be a mistake. Both Pippen and Jordan were the rare wings with point guard passing chops, and even Dennis Rodman can make an uncontested layup or putback. The Warriors may realize that fairly quickly and switch Green onto Ron Harper, in order to let Curry rest on Rodman. This stratagem has the benefit of preserving Curry, in theory, until you remember how physical and dirty Rodman really was. There’s no good place to play Green; he’s either forcing somebody else to eat Rodman’s elbows all night (and likely giving up 20+ boards in the process), staying on Rodman and forcing everyone else to play MJ/Pip straight up, or wandering off Rodman and giving up those same 20+ boards and a handful of uncontested dunks.
The news gets even worse for Golden State on the other side of the ball; Rodman is perhaps the most versatile defender in basketball history, doing good work over the course of his career on everyone from Jordan to Shaq. There’s no Warrior he can’t switch onto and at least inhibit, and his physical, bullying style of play would (assuming he can stay mostly out of foul trouble) wear down whoever he’s matched up on, and he can switch any screen without missing a beat. He’s also a one-man guarantee against a meaningful number of second chance points.
That’s not to say Green isn’t still valuable; even with Chicago’s personnel, a Curry/Green pick and roll is still a devastating Sophie’s choice for the defense. But this is a rare matchup where Green’s greatest assets can’t really shine.
Center: Zaza Pachulia and Luc Longley play similar roles for their respective teams; adequate center who doesn’t try to do things he can’t. Zaza does a bit more offensively, while Longley’s a more capable rim protector. Neither can meaningfully switch onto the other team’s stars, and neither will be playing in crunch time. Let’s call this one a wash.
Sixth Man: Toni Kukoc is a slightly better offensive player than Andre Iguodala, but Iguodala is a way better defensive player than Kukoc. The question is whether he’s better *enough* to give Durant and Thompson a break from chasing Pippen and Jordan around.
Three years ago? Probably. But he’s lost just enough speed and strength that it’s hard to envision him staying in front of Jordan or preventing Pippen from pushing him around, especially in a world without hand-checks. This matchup favors Golden State, but neither guy is going to determine the series.
The Rest of the Bench: Golden State romps here, with a deep and versatile array of bench weapons, ranging from no-conscience shooters (Nick Young) to savvy low-minute veterans (David West) to change-of-pace oversized point guards (Shaun Livingston) to 3-and-D specialists (Omri Casspi) to athletic rim-runner/rim-protectors (JaVale McGee) to whatever Jordan Bell is (Jordan Bell).
For their part, Chicago has an elite spot-up shooter (future Golden State coach Steve Kerr), a passable backup center (Bill Wennington) and not much else of value.
Coach: Phil Jackson is popularly considered the greatest coach of all time, while Steve Kerr boasts a ludicrous .832 winning percentage and has never coached a team that didn’t make the Finals.
Jackson’s team runs the triangle to perfection, but the edge actually likely belongs to Kerr. For all his prowess as a strategist and Zen leader, Jackson has never been great at in-game or in-series adjustments (see Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle completely out-witting him with weirdo lineups in ’08 and ’11), while Kerr is something of an adjustment savant (see adjustment-powered playoff comebacks against Cleveland and OKC in ’15 and ’16).
Moreover, Kerr knows the triangle as well as anybody but Jackson; he played in it, after all. Jackson, however, never coached against an offense quite like what Golden State runs (which is, at the risk of oversimplifying, a Frankenstinian assemblage of Popovich’s Spurs, D’antoni’s Suns, and Carlisle’s Mavs with dashes of Princeton and Spoelstra’s Heat thrown in for flavor).
As great as Phil is, he’s playing at a major experiential disadvantage given that Kerr had an extra twenty years of basketball history and evolution to draw on when building his schemes.
So, given all that, who wins?
Well, the cop-out answer is that it depends. The Bulls can counter GSW’s death lineup by switching in Kukoc for Longley and moving Rodman to center. Harper/Jordan/Pippen/Rodman can all credibly switch onto all five GSW players, and Kukoc can at least hold his own against Iggy. If forced to switch onto another Warrior, he’ll need help, but whoever would normally be responsible for Iggy in that case can afford to double and dare Iggy to shoot… especially given how dangerous Chicago’s perimeter guys are at jumping passing lanes, and how dominant they figure to be on the glass.
That glass advantage matters on the other end, too, where Golden State’s vaunted transition game is likely to be limited to cameo appearances rather than its usual featured role. They may be sexy, but rebounds matter more than almost anything else in basketball; you can’t score if you don’t have the ball.
On the other hand, if Curry, Thompson, and/or Durant are feeling it on a given night, they’re essentially unguardable. The same is true of Jordan and to some extent Pippen, but the difference there is simply that three is more than two, both in terms of the number of guys who can go off for 40 on a whim, and in terms of the types of shots they take. GSW’s bombers can get to their forty in fewer shots than Pippen and Jordan can.
Jackson has always been a three-point skeptic, and nobody at the top of his rotation is dangerous from deep in the same way that the Splash Brothers are (though Jordan and Kukoc both had career-best seasons from three that season, neither’s numbers even then would crack the top three on GSW in terms of either efficiency or volume).
But the Warriors aren’t on fire every night in the way they’d need to be to torch the Bulls consistently. Most nights, a great defense can both contain their role players and turn any one of their stars into a relative mortal; their strength is that no modern team has the personnel to do it to Curry/Thompson/Durant all at once. But the Bulls do.
On a given night, I’m taking the Bulls for a single game.
In a series? It probably depends on home court, but the longer the series goes the more it swings Golden State’s way. You tell me it was a sweep, I’ll guess it was the Bulls on top. You tell me it went 6 or 7? I’m guessing Golden State won out. They can field more different types of personnel, play more different styles, and have a coach much more willing to adapt his lineups and stratagems.
Of course, how long is that series likely to be? That’s the final question. I think it goes six; Golden State can’t stop Jordan at all without the hand-check rule and he probably averages 50. Rodman bruises everybody who wanders within elbow range and controls the boards, while Pippen takes away a lot of what Durant does (and Jordan and Harper make sure the Splash Brothers are shooting contested jumpers more often than not). That’s enough to win 1 of the first 2 games, allowing for one of those nights where the Warriors just go God Mode from behind the arc; they always seem to do it at least once in the first two games, defense be damned.
Game 3, you’re looking at two teams who know each other, but only one that can adapt. On the flip side, by that point Curry’s wearing down physically from Harper bulldozing him all night, and Jordan’s probably switching onto him in crunch-time to prevent his trademark heroics. Balancing that out, by this point in the series, Pippen’s starting to get KD figured out, and it’s largely up to Thompson and the bench to make up the difference for GSW.
They could do it, but Klay’s probably wearing himself out chasing MJ around on the other end of the court (while MJ is famously indefatigable on the both ends), and I just don’t see him uncorking one of his three-point meteor storms while taking on that kind of workload on defense.
So, you’re looking at a 2-1 series coming out of three games. I think the worm turns here, as Kerr implements more back-cuts and handoffs to attack Kukoc before the defense can get there, and plays weirdo lineups earlier in the game (lots of Casspi and Livingston playing with Durant/Thompson/Green) to keep the Bulls in adjustment mode. Curry probably shifts to a more facilitating role from the top of the key, dragging Harper (or whomever) out of the play and hitting cutters with bounce passes.
I think you also see Thompson ceding minutes on Jordan (he can’t stop him anyway) in order to stay fresher on offense, and hanging back and daring Pippen to shoot more, as opposed to challenging him at the rim or letting him drive-and-dish.
Games 4 and 5 go to Golden State as Phil’s too slow to adjust, and the superior depth of the Warriors starts to wear on the non-MJ Bulls being forced to play 40 minutes a night.
I said 6 games up above, but I can’t seriously conceive of the 96 Bulls losing three straight games to anybody… unless it’s to the Warriors on one of their Reign of Fire nights. Those nights are tough to predict, but it’s fair to say that one’s pretty likely in either Game 6 or Game 7, especially with Thompson and Durant getting a little more rest on defense and Pippen/Harper/Rodman starting to suck wind. That combined with the inevitable fluky Draymond triple double or Curry 7/8 from deep or 50 points from the bench is enough to deal with what’s probably a 65 point last stand for MJ.
And that’s what it really comes down to; in a long enough series, there’s just too many different things that can go right for the Warriors. Any one of them might not come to pass, but on balance, at least one thing breaking their way is more likely than not… and with Kerr’s edge in adaptation, one thing breaking their way at the right time is enough to swing the series.
For what it’s worth, the first draft of this piece picked the Bulls; it’s that close. They play 101 series, the Warriors probably win 51 of them. That’s as close as it gets. But that’s still more than 50.
Or at least, that’s how I see it. Feel free to tell my why I’m wrong in the comments.