Win Totals Aside: Are the 2016 Warriors Better than the ‘96 Bulls?
The Golden State Warriors have been the top story in the NBA this season as they chase the title of the greatest NBA team in the history of the league. Prior to this season, the ‘96 Bulls were widely viewed as the greatest team in NBA history both qualitatively and statistically. After all, this team not only owns the record for most regular season wins, but it dominated opponents in the postseason and had Michael bleeping Jordan. Yet, I am sure many pundits and fans alike will proclaim that if the Warriors eclipse their mark and win the title, they will be the new “greatest team of all time.”
But I would like to brush aside the win total discussion. In other sports, the team with the record for most regular season wins isn’t necessarily considered the best team of all time. Take baseball for example. The 2001 Seattle Mariners and the 1906 Chicago Cubs share the record for regular season wins at 116, yet I had trouble finding either team on many lists of the greatest teams of all time, let alone seeing them ranked at the top. It should be noted that neither the Mariners nor the Cubs won the World Series that year. I suppose that means that in order for a team to be considered the greatest of all time, they must own the record for regular season wins and win the championship. But I would counter that argument by bringing in an example from the NFL: the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Some pundits do say they are the best team ever, yet many others say the Dolphins may not even be in the discussion for greatest team of all time, and there are advanced statistics to support that belief.
All this brings me to my main question: since regular season win totals should not be the main measure to determine who the greatest NBA team of all time is, which team is truly better: the 2016 Warriors or the 1996 Bulls?
There are a number of ways I can go about this. But, since I am not really qualified to theorize how the game would play out like an NBA player or coach could, and because I don’t lend much credence to EA Sports video game simulations, I will turn to statistics.
I will start with point differential. The Warriors currently hold a +11.0 point differential per game, which, ironically, is not even best in the league this year: San Antonio holds a +11.7 mark, yet is behind Golden State in the standings, but that is a discussion for another day. Barring any blowout wins in their remaining games, the Warriors will fall short of Chicago’s +12.3 point differential. Though the difference is small, the early advantage goes to the ‘96 Bulls.
Next, let us look at how these teams stacked up offensively and defensively. On the surface, some clear differences arise between the two squads. Both Golden State and Chicago led the league in scoring in their respective years; yet, the Warriors have averaged 115.1 points per game this year while the Bulls only scored 105.2 per game. On the defensive end, Chicago held opponents to 92.3 points per game (3rd best that year), while the Warriors are a very mediocre 20th in opponent points per game (104.1).
These statistics might suggest that the Warriors are the far better offensive team, while Chicago was much more stout defensively, but that is very misleading. In fact, it is the opposite case when we look at offensive and defensive efficiency, which measure how many points a team either scores or allows per 100 possessions. Chicago led the league in both offensive efficiency at 115.2 and defensive efficiency at 101.8. As prolific as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have been this year, Golden State’s offensive efficiency rating is only 112.5. However, the comparison between their respective defensive efficiencies is interesting: Golden State’s is actually higher than Chicago’s at 100.6 despite the gap between the two in opponent points per game.
What’s the ultimate takeaway from these efficiency ratings? First, the differences arise simply because of the sharp contrast in the style of play between the two teams. Golden State loves to shoot three-pointers and plays at a very high pace. This results in an increased amount of possessions for both teams, which explains why the Warriors post absurdly high totals while also allowing a fair share of points as well. Meanwhile, the ‘96 Bulls had a more methodical approach that was in tune with the playing style of that era. As for the main takeaway, Golden State may appear to be the more prolific team, but it is actually Michael Jordan’s squad that had the more dominant offense. And on the other end, do not be fooled by the huge gap between the aggregate point totals because both teams are roughly even defensively.
Now, let’s move to the final component of the comparison: the assessment of the respective rosters. For this, it is not practical to simply look at whether Stephen Curry or Michael Jordan averaged more points or whether Scottie Pippen or Draymond Green had more rebounds. So yes, I am using advanced statistics once again. The main measure I will use to break down the lineups is VORP, which stands for value over replacement player. This is a realistic and practical tool to compare the strength of both rosters because it measures a player’s total value, which is more translatable across time periods.
Obviously, I’ll start with the main event: Stephen Curry vs Michael Jordan. Curry owns a higher VORP this year (8.9) than Jordan did in ‘96 (8.3), which is to say that Curry provides more value to the Warriors than Jordan did to the Bulls. However, if they were matched up head to head, than Jordan may have the advantage because he contributed more in both offensive and defensive win shares than Curry. Suffice it to say, both bring a lot to the table for their teams.
Here is where it gets more interesting. Let’s go by what VORP says, and say that Curry holds a slight edge over Jordan, mostly because of his shooting ability. After Curry, the Warriors only have two players with VORP’s higher than two, Draymond Green (4.9) and, surprisingly, Andrew Bogut (2.1). Meanwhile, the Bulls have five: Scottie Pippen (6.3), Toni Kukoc (3.5), Dennis Rodman (2.8), Ron Harper (2.2), and Steve Kerr (2.1). Overall, the Bulls top five overall players combine for a VORP of 23.1, while the Warrior’s top five combined for 19.1. Additionally, the ‘96 Bulls have the deeper bench unit as well (3.7 VORP for players 6-10 vs 1.8 VORP for players 6-10 on Golden State). Ultimately, the ‘96 Bulls have the far deeper roster than the ‘16 Warriors, even when accounting for the fact that Stephen Curry might have an advantage over Michael Jordan as the best player on the court.
With slight advantages in point differential and efficiency as well as a resounding edge in roster strength, the ‘96 Bulls are likely better than the 2016 Warriors. But though it’s reasonable to conclude that the Bulls are better statistically, I think it is more fun to imagine a series between these two teams. I have already analyzed the starting lineups, but let me break things down further. Though it’s nearly impossible to truly slow down Stephen Curry, the Bulls have what it takes to make his life difficult. They can put either Pippen on Jordan on him and leave whoever is not guarding Curry to contain Klay Thompson. The Bulls would also have the upper hand underneath, where Dennis Rodman would likely dominate the glass and completely eat up the Warriors big men.
There is one other major element that makes me skeptical of Golden State’s chances in this imaginary series. In last year’s NBA Finals, the Warriors struggled against a depleted Cleveland Cavaliers team. LeBron James completely took over the first three games of that series and had Golden State on their heels. Yes, the Warriors did recover to win the series, but their shaky performance in those Finals makes me believe that a much deeper Bulls team, with an even more dominant player than LeBron in Michael Jordan, would beat the Warriors on the grand stage.
So, as the Warriors close in on the ‘96 Bulls and potentially set a new standard for regular season dominance in the NBA, there are two things you should know. First, even though Golden State has reached 73 wins, it does not make them the greatest team of all time just yet. They still will need to go through either a historically dominant San Antonio team or a dangerous Oklahoma City Thunder squad to come out of the west—and that is before they meet what is likely to be LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers again in the finals.
Secondly, despite the fact that they have set numerous records this year, I still believe the Warriors need to do a little bit more before they can be considered better than the ‘96 Bulls.
Having said that, with the NBA playoffs poised to feature a few clashes for the ages, this debate will be ongoing as the Warriors set out to finish what might be the greatest season in NBA history.
Photo Courtesy of NBA.com