With the Warriors off to an incredible start the natural inclination is to compare the Warriors to some of the All-Time greats. Could the Warriors beat the best of All-Time? This kind of hypothetical question isn’t really answerable but hypotheticals are fun. If we are going to go down that road, there are really two ways to assess the issue. First, compare the teams’ dominance of their peers. The second is to run through a lineup dream matchup and make educated guesses about the how the matchups would play out.
With respect to the dominance against peers issue, the Warriors, so far, look really, really good. Their 13.36 SRS exceeds every team in NBA history. But SRS, at this point, doesn’t have the same meaning as it will after the Warriors play a more balanced scheduled (they have yet to play the Spurs, Thunder, or Cavs and we haven’t factored in those inevitable lulls that every team has). This is not to downplay how great the Warriors have been but no team has ever maintained this pace for a full season. For a frame of reference, the 2014-15 Warriors also measured out as really dominant. In fact, they rated out as the fourth best team since the three-point line was put in. Notably, the top three teams were all Michael Jordan Bulls teams (1995-96, 1996-97, and 1991-92 respectively). It is fair to say that by the numbers, the Warriors looked as dominant as the “average” Jordan title team. That’s pretty good and we have every reason to think the Warriors may end up being even better this season.
Turning to the head-to-head matchup game between the Warriors and the consensus best team of the modern era, the 1995-96 Bulls….there is a ton that has been written already. It is fun to speculate (and I read a lot of this stuff too) but remember one thing…until we know the rules for the fantasy matchup, it is not real inquiry. In the mid-1990s, the NBA did not allow zone defense and the vaunted Derek Harper hand check strategy was allowed a bit more (though the NBA started trying to outlaw it as early as the 1993-94 playoffs). It is hard to think a team like the Warriors could be quite as effective on offense in the 1990s, where the defenses would be given more latitude to hold them down.
On the other hand, the NBA has steadily improved its three-point shooting to the point where the inability to shoot the shot effectively makes it tough for the old Bulls (or any older team) to compete with modern teams. The inability to shoot three does not stop a team from being good but is a pretty good indicator of an issue. Last season, only Memphis and Washington were any good from the bottom three-point shooters.
The Bulls shot an average amount of threes in 1995-96 (15th in the NBA) and third in percentage (.403%). So, there is some evidence that the Bulls were good enough to adjust to a higher rate of shooting of the current NBA. The counterpoint to this thought is that, in 1994-95, the NBA actually moved in the three-point line and this helped the Bulls shoot threes quite a bit. When the line was moved back in 1997-98, the numbers dropped way below even the lowest 2014-15 numbers. Here is the Bulls three-point shooting during that time period:
The 1997-98 drop is so abrupt that it would be unsustainable for a team to play like that in the 2014-15 NBA. Still, overall, the Bulls have the better stats (so far) and they had a team that was not typical for the 1990s. They had a few bangers but they were not wedded to traditional beefy power forward prototypes of that time (see Otis Thorpe, Charles Oakley, Dale Davis). The Bulls would throw a center platoon of blah centers like Luc Longley and Bill Wennington and would sometimes even slot in Dennis Rodman at center and Toni Kukoc and Scottie Pippen as forwards (thereby removing any vestiges of a traditional power forward).
Having said all this, here is what we know if the Warriors played the Bulls in a series:
-If the series was played by 1995-96 rules, the Warriors could be held down a bit more than is acceptable today and the Warriors could not play zone defense. On the other hand, can you imagine Stephen Curry & Co. shooting from the closer three-point line?
-If the series was played by 2015-16 rules, the Bulls three-point rate would be so absurdly low it would be hard to compete. Still, the Bulls had a very malleable lineup and could easily use Pippen or Kukoc as a stretch power forward. If three-point proficiency was an issue, Ron Harper would lose minutes to Steve Kerr, who could hoist them up at a modern rate. In addition, Harper played because of his defensive ability. With zone permitted, Kerr would become much less of a defensive liability, providing the Bulls with more areas improvement.
If the teams were played in some relatively neutral environment, you have to think the Bulls would have a modest edge. Curry is unbelievable but not quite Michael Jordan (for a full season). After the top match up, no one on Warriors is quite as good as Pippen. Based upon that fact and the fact that the Bulls dominated its peers like no one else (yet) and are better at the top, I think the Bulls would probably beat the 2015-16 Warriors. This is a preliminary assessment. We’ll let the season play out and we can revisit the match up in more detail come April.