The Chicago Bulls came to Seattle in early June 1996 with a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals and the tentative title of the best team in the history of the sport.
But when the Sonics of Kemp, Payton, Schrempf, McMillan, Hawkins, Perkins, et al, took two of the three games in KeyArena, I suggested in print that the Bulls weren’t even the NBA’s best team that week.
Those Sonics proved the Bulls could be beaten, at least a couple times, and might even have made it closer if they sooner realized that Michael Jordan and his cronies were not as invincible as their regular-season record made it seem.
The Bulls eventually refocused at home to win Game 6 of the series to add the NBA title to their record 72-10 regular-season mark. They fully earned a reputation that hasn’t been challenged for 20 years.
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Wednesday night, the Golden State Warriors, now 72-9, take on the Memphis Grizzlies for the chance to break the record for regular-season victories.
With Golden State at least tying the wins record, it has spurred a hypothetical rivalry between the ’96 Bulls and ’16 Warriors.
The point of the remembrance of the Sonics’ rally against Chicago in ’96 is to suggest that the comparisons of relative greatness between the ’96 Bulls and the contemporary Warriors should be left until the real work is done — in the playoffs.
Even if the Warriors get to 73 wins, if they falter before defending their Finals win of last season, the title of all-time best still must remain with the Bulls of 20 years ago.
A couple matters remain worthy of discussion, though. Given that the San Antonio Spurs had 65 wins going into their final game Tuesday night, they should end up being a formidable obstacle to the Warriors in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Warriors had to battle all season to win the conference over those gifted Spurs, who won 39 straight home games before Golden State dumped them Sunday.
In ’96, the Bulls had a much easier time with Orlando finishing second in the conference with 60 wins, and the Pacers in third, well back at 52-30.
Marquee players Michael Jordan and Steph Curry had/have comparable statistics and indefinable qualities that gave/give them transcendent appeal and leadership ability. But they play different games in different eras.
As expected, the debate between these teams has triggered the two most-common responses: 1) Somebody had to pop off with a lopsided opinion. 2) Computer whizzes had to tap technology for an electronic competition.
The ’96-era Bulls all-star forward Scottie Pippen suggested that if these teams met, the Bulls would sweep the series in four games. However, when the Bulls won six titles in eight seasons, they never once swept a Finals opponent.
Meanwhile, the computers had a few problems. Yes, time travel is difficult even for computers.
Whose rules handle the game? Would it be like interleague MLB, where the designated hitter is only used in AL parks?
Played with today’s rules, the Bulls’ Dennis Rodman would foul out in the first three minutes and be suspended for the series. Played with ’96 rules, Steph Curry might take a fearsome physical beating.
Viewed from a different perspective, though, who would have a prayer stopping Michael Jordan without the benefit of aggressive hand-checking? Nobody.
Who would get homecourt advantage? Heck, who gets home-decade advantage?
The debate is entertaining but futile.
This remains true in any era: It’s almost impossible to win more than 70 games given the demands of an NBA season, the travel, the back-to-back road games, the small rosters. Only great and genuinely elite teams can pull it off.
I do get the strong sense that the contemporary Warriors could hold Michael Jordan under 30 points for most of the series if they played today.
Of course, he’s 53 years old now.