Logo for the DFR Audible post categoryWe’ve all heard a great deal of the nonsense from former Chicago Bulls who proclaim that their ’96 team would surely beat, if not sweep, today’s Golden State Warriors.

Those Bulls are lucky in that they have many in the media who are willing to carry water for them, and largely agree with the victory assessment, if not the assertions that the Dubs would be swept away. The foundation for that belief largely rests upon two notions. First, those Bulls had Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson (as coach)…”So there!” Secondly, the NBA game back in 1996 was a much different game, a rough and tumble game that the poor, weak, jump-shooting Warriors just wouldn’t be able to flourish in.

There’s not much to say about the first argument. The Hall of Fame status of those individuals is undeniable; but that doesn’t mean they never lost any games. It’s largely a matter of sentiment, and few will be moved from such a position.

But the second idea? It doesn’t really make much sense–but not necessarily for the reasons that you may think.

There’s no doubt that the 1995-96 Bulls were playing in a different NBA. Mentioning “hand-checking” and “rules changes” hardly covers the difference. Defense back then could be more accurately described as “mugging,” if not “assault and battery.” Offense in that game suffered accordingly; you could hardly call the game as played then “pretty,” as one might often call the Warriors’ game today.

Here’s another thing you could barely call it: “basketball.”

That rough and tumble game wherein the ’96 Bulls excelled was an anomaly, not a representative style of play. Consider the game scores the NBA Finals at ten year intervals, before, after and including 1996:

Finals Year Number of Games Scores 100 or above Scores below 90
1966 7 12 0
1976 6 6 3
1986 6 9 0
1996 6 3 8
2006 6 2 3
2015* 6 5 1

*Last year’s Finals, since we don’t have 2016 scores yet. All figures from the schedule logs at Basketball Reference.com

Pay close attention to the fourth column. Of twelve team scores in the Bulls’ six-game victory over the Seattle Supersonics, eight of them were in the eighties or lower. That’s notable because, 1) it shows that even the presumed greatest team ever did not break 90 points in every game (of their non-sweep, it should be noted), and 2) the lack of scoring typical of that series was far out of line with what has been typical in NBA history. That series featured more than twice as many scores below 90 as any of the other series sampled above.

Other things to note from the table above: defense does win championships. Only the 1966 Finals–featuring Celtics and Lakers teams that fielded a blizzard of Hall of Famers–showed free-wheeling, high-scoring results. Most other series recorded relatively few 100 point games. But notice, too, that even the generally low scoring 2006 Finals–played while the Association was still in the aftermath of the 1990s era descent into brutality–still resulted in less than half the below-90 point games as ten years previous.

The plain fact is, the Bulls were playing a game that was very out of step with the rest of the Association’s history. Did they benefit from that style of play? Maybe. One suspects that a team with Michael Jordan leading the way would have achieved greatness no matter how the game was played (and officiated). The Bulls were hardly the team most representative of that era, as far as style of game goes; the true avatars of that brutish game had to be Pat Riley’s New York Knicks, an almost unwatchable winning basketball team.

Given these facts, why then are today’s Warriors expected to answer for that difference? Why hold Stephen Curry’s Dubs to a standard of 1996 basketball, when that style of play was such an outlier?

If we’re talking real basketball, it’s the ’96 Bulls who would have to adjust to today game, not the other way around. That is, to today’s better game. Maybe they would, and thus beat the Warriors in a series. But it’s not a given, and it’s certainly not the case that the Bulls would be able to take away the Warriors’ game–not without 1996’s ridiculous officiating.

Keep that in mind the next time someone spouts off about how the Bulls would demolish the Warriors.


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