By John Schmeelk
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As the Golden State Warriors begin to get closer to the Chicago Bulls‘ record-setting mark of 72 wins back in 1996, the debate over which team would win if they played has reached a crescendo. The older NBA players, now analysts, claim the ’90s Bulls team would sweep Golden State. It’s the angry old man “it was better in my day!” argument at its best.
On the other side of the fight are many of analytic-based NBA reporters of today, and some of the younger players in the league. They believe the Warriors have helped invent a superior brand of basketball that can’t be matched by anything that has come before. The 3-point shot is a weapon that was not fully realized in the ’90s, and the Warriors use it so well that few can beat them. “Those dinosaurs can’t hang with the athletes of today!” say those who stick up for the Warriors.
Both sides take it too far. The Warriors are great. The Bulls were great. If they played, the series would be close, and it would be a lot of fun. Figuring out which team would win is nearly impossible and a waste of time. The basketball of today is far different than the basketball of 1996. There are so many rules and points of emphasis that have changed. It is almost like watching two different sports.
Before the question can even be approached, the first question that has to be asked is what era the game would be played in. It really does change everything.
If the game was played back in 1996, the Warriors would have a lot to adjust to:
- The 3-point line was moved in to 22 feet from 1994 to 1997. Can you imagine Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson shooting 3’s from 22 feet?
- Hand checking was outlawed after the ’93-’94 season, but there was a lot more contact allowed on the perimeter than there is now. Further rules limiting contact in the backcourt were implemented in 1999 and then again in the mid 2000s. Curry would have far less freedom of movement.
- There was no defensive three-second rule, but there was a more strict illegal-defense rule making it tougher to use many of the zone principles used today.
- Illegal screens were called far more frequently, and Draymond Green would have to adjust his screening or get into foul trouble early and often.
- Flagrant fouls in today’s game were mere common fouls then. If Curry went to the basket, he would have to deal with a lot of excess contact in the lane and survive to drive another day.
If the game were played in 2016, the Bulls would have to adjust as well:
- The entire way the Bulls played defense would have to change. Their ability to get physical would be very limited, and if they didn’t adjust, the entire team would foul out.
- The Bulls would have to adjust playing small, but it could be possible if they went with Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman.
- With the more generous rules allowing more zone principles on defense, the Warriors would never have to guard Rodman and would be able to send help to defend Jordan constantly.
- Jordan would be in heaven, with the limited amount of physical play that would be allowed on the perimeter and when he would take the ball to the basket. It might be impossible to stop him.
- The Bulls team of that era never saw an offense quite like the Warriors, and playing against a team that shoots so many threes would be an adjustment on its own.
So who wins? Who cares! There’s no way to know. Obviously, the Bulls have the advantage under their rules, and the Warriors would have the advantage today. Both teams are great and played in different ways. What’s wrong with simply leaving it at that?
Insisting on a declarative statement of which team is better is flat-out stupid. There’s no way to know who is right and who is wrong. Comparing teams from different eras in any sport is tough, and it is no different in basketball. No era is better than another; they are just different. All sports are cyclical and glide from one style of play to another. It’s organic and fluid. It will change again at some point in the near future.
Neither the teams of the modern era nor the ’90s have to justify the way they played the game. Both ways helped two teams win 70 games. Isn’t that enough for everyone? Apparently not.
Follow John for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports on Twitter at @Schmeelk