A while back, I had a conversation while waiting for food at Taco Bell with my buddy Sean (my cohost on The Weekly BS, coincidentally). This was prior to the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Golden State Warriors had nearly broken the Bulls record for most wins in an NBA regular season and seemed like an unstoppable war machine. Now, being the Warriors haters that we are, when I posed the question of whether or not the 2016 Warriors could beat the 90s Bulls whom they were about to pass in history, I expected a response to the effect of, “not a chance in hell”. However, Sean hit me with something I didn’t expect. “Depends on the era,” he said, almost immediately, “Like, the Bulls are the better all-around team, and nobody is touching MJ, but if they were playing in a modern game half the Bulls would foul out by like, the third quarter.”
While that answer threw me, I didn’t think much on it at the time other than that it was a good point. Mostly because I assumed that even if the Bulls struggled with the lack of physicality in today’s game, and the trouble today’s officiating would give them, I felt like having Michael Jordan on the roster alone would always give them the edge…and then I watched Russell Westbrook drop 58 points in a game that his team lost.
Now, before I elaborate, understand that no, I don’t think Russ is as good as Michael Jordan at basketball. Russ is a phenomenal player – easily one of the best to play the game today – but he’s no MJ. However, his performance last night brought me back to that conversation a year ago, and it brought me to this conclusion: on that Bulls roster, in today’s game, MJ wouldn’t be enough.
There’s a oft-made comparison and equally made argument for the example of LeBron James. Whenever James’ legacy is stacked against Jordan’s, the go-to response for the naysayers is to examine the twos teammates. After all, Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, but James had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami (some also point to Mario Chalmers, which, LOL) and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, among other key pieces, in Cleveland. The thing is, this argument doesn’t really account for eras, which is ultra-important when considering NBA talents. There’s a reason it was unthinkable that anyone could average a triple-double in today’s NBA, simply because it was so much easier in the era in which Oscar Robertson did it (not to diminish the feat). That’s also why it’s so incredible to see Westbrook close in on that mark this year: it just didn’t seem possible.
Not only is recognizing the era important, but the competition can’t be overlooked as well. The second-best teams in the East for the 95-96 season was the Indiana Pacers, who won 52 games with Reggie Miller and practically nobody else. 52 wins would have been good enough for the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season, behind Cleveland and a Toronto team that looks even better this season. “But the Bulls won 72 games that year! With them dominating the conference, how could other teams compete and win games?” Good point! Except that last season, when the Warriors won 73 games, 52 wins in the West would’ve landed a team the fifth seed, behind Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the Clippers, so an imbalance of power argument doesn’t really work here.
But back to the era thing. We live in an age of basketball where multiple stars is no longer a luxury, but a necessity to compete at the highest level. There’s a reason that Golden State is better than San Antonio and Houston. While those two teams are some of the best in the NBA, a team whose second-best players is LaMarcus Aldridge or, I don’t even know with the Rockets, Ryan Anderson? Eric Gordon? Yeah, that team isn’t competing with a team that has Steph Curry as a second-best player, and Klay Thompson as a third-best player. They couldn’t even compete with the Warriors before Durant, let alone after.
But what does this have to do with the Bulls, though? Well, for starters, outside of Jordan, what do the Bulls have? They’ve got Pippen who, while a great player, would not be a viable second option in today’s NBA, Rodman, who draws comparisons to Draymond Green for all the right and wrong reasons, and I guess Luc Longley? There’s not a chance that team stacks up to a lineup of LeBron, Kyrie, Kevin Love, and co. in a seven-game series. The Bulls would have their hands full with Toronto, and even Boston and Washington, let alone the team with the guy that’s been to six-straight finals.
The typical argument in favor of the Bulls though, is how much tougher they played than modern teams, and that’s probably true! Except that in today’s game, officiating has changed with the level of physicality. Pippen, and especially Rodman, would never be able to stay in a game with the way it’s officiated. Even Jordan would have trouble, if only because his crazy athleticism would be mitigated by having to guard players that are as big as or bigger than he without the same level of physical play. I mean, LeBron has two inches and about 35 pounds on Jordan. Asking MJ to guard that without being able to bump and bother him much like Jordan did in the 90s is a nigh impossible ask. With Pippen and Rodman in foul trouble, and the rest of the Bulls roster largely ineffective, MJ would have to shoulder the load himself…except as we saw last night, anymore, that isn’t enough.
Now, does this mean you could drop any of the top-tier teams from today’s game into the 90s and have them beat the Bulls? Almost certainly not. Unless a team like Golden State or Houston walked in and shot the lights out of the United Center, the Bulls would likely be too physical and bully them out of the gym. But today’s NBA is still changing, and depending on the night, a barrage of threes and spacing could certainly give them a challenge unlike any other they’d have seen in those years. Also, it’d be wild to see Steve Kerr play against a team that was coached by Steve Kerr, but that’s neither here nor there.
So, while the 90s Bulls are rightfully celebrated as one of the best teams to ever play the game, let’s stop pretending like they’re the end all, any-era best team ever. The game has changed too much for that, and so should our perspectives.