The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls is still the greatest team in NBA History.
This team was a completely dominant force, going 72-10 in the regular season. That was the best regular season record for a long time, until it was beaten by the 2015-2016 Warriors. In those 72 wins, their average winning margin was a whopping 15 points. Unlike the Warriors, that regular season dominance carried through the Playoffs, where they only dropped only three games en route to a championship.
But what would happen if that exact same team were somehow transported to 2020? Would they still be the same juggernaut that terrorized their opponents?
Of course, no discussion about that iteration of the Bulls would be complete without talking about Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time.
Much has been made about how Jordan would fare in today’s NBA, but I firmly believe that His Airness’s game would translate pretty well in the modern league. He averaged a whopping 30.4 PPG (on an efficient 49.5/42.7/83.4 shooting splits), along with 4.3 APG and 6.6 RPG that season, but these stats don’t tell the whole story. Jordan was the ultimate two-way wing player: a volume scorer who can score from all three levels efficiently, facilitate for his teammates, and still be a disruptive force on the other end. His presence alone makes the Bulls a competitive team in any era of NBA basketball.
That Bulls’ squad is also similar to a lot of the top teams today with how their roster was built. They follow a “heliocentric” model (credit to Seth Partnow of The Athletic and Ben Taylor of the Thinking Basketball channel for this concept) in their roster makeup. This particular model has one central star playmaker surrounded by talented complementary pieces. In the Bulls’ case, they surrounded Jordan with players like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, and Ron Harper.
Pippen functioned as the secondary playmaker behind Jordan while also being a terror on defense with his long arms. Most people said that he was the Robin to MJ’s Batman, but Scottie was definitely more than just a sidekick for MJ’s greatness. Rodman, on the other hand, was a hard-nosed undersized forward who served as the anchor on defense and grabbed every single rebound within his vicinity.
This model can be seen in a lot of today’s top teams. The Lakers have LeBron James leading the charge, the Warriors are headed by Stephen Curry, the Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo at the helm, and the Rockets have James Harden leading them. This model has also proven to be highly successful, with the Warriors, the 2019 Raptors (led by Kawhi Leonard), and the 2016 Cavaliers (with LeBron) winning titles following this roster make-up.
The era that the ’96 Chicago squad dominated is completely different from the era we know and love today.
The NBA has undergone a massive shift in play style in the last few years. Gone are the days of bully-ball and midrange pull-ups. Instead, teams are now hunting more efficient shots, trading in contested long twos for threes and layups, all in the name of analytics. The pace of play has also sped up significantly (100.2 average possessions in 2019-2020, compared to 91.8 in 1995-1996), which will definitely throw off the Bulls.
The biggest factor for the Bulls though is the rule changes from back then to today. Hand-checking and defensive three-seconds are now illegal in the modern NBA, and foul calls tend to be “softer” now because of the league’s emphasis on freedom of movement. These factors will hurt the Bulls’ ability to defend, as they played in a league that had physicality as the core of most defensive principles.
On the offensive side of things, the “modernization” of the game hurts how they will run their offense. The ’96 Bulls only had five players that shot over 35% from the three-point area (Jordan, Kukoc, Kerr, Pippen, and Jud Buechler), with only Pippen, Jordan, Kukoc and Kerr attempting more than three threes per game. In contrast, here’s how many above 35% shooters and players with more than three treys attempted per game the top teams in the 2019-2020 season have:
The Bulls primarily played in within the arc. This lack of spacing, along with the new defensive philosophies implemented by teams today, will severely stifle the Bulls’ vaunted offense. Defenses will sag off the non-shooters like Rodman and Harper, clogging the lane for Jordan and Pippen to penetrate the lane and create for themselves.
Some teams might even dare to try something unorthodox in the Playoffs like a box-and-one or a triangle-and-two, similar to the Raptors’ approach to defending Stephen Curry in last season’s Finals. Teams today are just much more adept at handling and punishing a cramped offense than the teams that Jordan and the Bulls faced before.
Finally, the talent that current teams have is just overall better than the talent back then. Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman together are the best three-man core any team can have. Kukoc, Kerr, and Harper were solid players that held the team together. But depth is crucial in today’s NBA game, especially with the unpredictability of injuries.
Using Box Plus-Minus as a guide, here’s how many players in the Jordan Bulls squad were classified as at least replacement-level players (-2.0 BPM and above) compared to the top teams mentioned above. Any player below the “replacement-level” of the BPM are considered end of bench guys who won’t contribute much to winning games.
Simply put, players are just more productive in this era compared to before. Having multiple reliable players allows a team to have a lot more flexibility and versatility. Having a large pool of reserves is also more vital today, where a lot of teams can switch from small-ball lineups to ultra-big lineups in a pinch. Sure, rotations tighten in the Playoffs, but when the going gets tough, it’s always nice to have a few hugots to change up the look of the team.
There’s a But
The 72-win Chicago Bulls were the best team to ever step foot on the court in NBA history. The combination of Jordan’s greatness, the seamless meshing of the pieces orbiting His Airness, and Phil Jackson’s coaching contributed to the reign of terror of this squad during that season.
Things evolved, and it’s no different in the NBA. Based on the statistics and my personal analysis, The 1995-1996 Bulls, at the very least, a 50-win team in today’s NBA. It just seems like there’s too much that have changed around the league today for the Jordan and company to handle.
BUT, this is Michael-fucking-Jordan we’re talking about here. If there’s anyone that can destroy all the doubts about this Bulls’ potential dominance, it would be him, the greatest player of ALL TIME. The Last Dance documentary only further proved that nothing could get in the way of him winning everything. Every adversity he and the Bulls faced, they took them head-on, obliterating any doubts people had about them.
There’s no doubt in my mind that despite everything I mentioned earlier, MJ and the 72-win Bulls could just as easily say, “Hell no”, and prove me and the numbers wrong if they did play in 2020.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com