Editor’s Note: Over the next week, NBC Sports Chicago and NBC Sports Bay Area will try to settle the debate about which is the best NBA team of all time: the 1995-96 Bulls or the 2016-17 Warriors. Check out NBCSportsBayArea.com for the Warriors perspective.
Before getting to the crux of this question, it’s first important to water it down a bit (yes, I’m fun at parties).
Neither the Bulls nor the Warriors ‘ruined’ basketball — even in their most superteamiest iterations. In fact, at each of these teams’ respective heights, they played the game at the highest level it’s been played. For that, we should all be grateful.
Still, that doesn’t mean the question isn’t a valid one to ponder. But to me, at its heart isn’t the issue of who ‘ruined’ a game so many still clamor for so fervently. It’s more a question of: Which team’s greatness grew most stale? Which team inspired the least genuine, untainted awe?
The answer to that is resoundingly, and without question, the Warriors.
Some of that has to do with how the dynasty era Golden State teams were constructed — specifically, the 2016-17 squad that featured Kevin Durant.
The two contending Warriors teams pre-Durant could have been built in a basketball purist’s lab. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the two best players, are the sons of ex-NBA players, weren’t immediately heralded as superstars upon being drafted, but grew into that moniker with Golden State. Draymond Green was a second round draft choice many passed over — a true underdog story with a blue collar style of play.
Andre Iguodala was shrewdly acquired at a reasonable price just before their championship window blew open. Other role players that filtered through the Bay — from JaVale McGee, to Shaun Livingston, to David West and beyond — were perfect fliers to shore up the fringes of the roster.
Light years, indeed.
The introduction of Durant, though, seemed to shift the perception of the Warriors — for a few key reasons:
The sheer flukiness of it. Without the perfect confluence of a massive salary cap spike in the summer of 2016 and Steph Curry playing on what had already become a massive bargain of a four-year, $44 million contract, the Warriors would never have had the chance to even entertain pursuing Durant, much less sign him.
Durant signing with the Warriors was an act of defiance to the competitive dogma of the NBA that many still cling to. By signing with Golden State, Durant effectively neutered one of the most exhilarating rivalries in pro sports (Warriors vs. Thunder) and sucked any sense of parity out of the league, at large, all in one fell swoop.
The signing also seemed an admission of inadequacy by all parties involved. Durant couldn’t beat the Warriors, so he joined them. Fresh off soiling a 73-win regular season by squandering a 3-1 Finals lead to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, Green called Durant to recruit him from his car. Many saw that as each side ‘taking the easy way out.’
To their credit, the ‘easy way out’ worked. The Warriors promptly rattled off two consecutive titles with Durant in tow — dropping just one of nine Finals games to Cleveland in the process — before an injury-riddled 2019 postseason culminated in a six-game defeat to the Toronto Raptors. But their dynasty splintered early, as seeds of resentment grew. The current return is three titles in five years.
The Bulls meanwhile, rattled off six championships (going 6-0 in the Finals) in eight years, and didn’t lose a series after 1991, save for one that prominently featured a rusty, post-baseball hiatus Jordan in 1995. Underscoring the Warriors’ 73-win season is an unprecedented 3-1 blown lead to the Cavs, the immediate recruiting of Durant in defeat and the years of villainy that followed. The Bulls capped every full-throttle run they made with hardware, and inspired worldwide enthusiasm with every move — they were equal parts a superteam and a rock band, and it never got old.
Yes, the Bulls had their detractors (and, as “The Last Dance” is illuminating, their own share of tensions to contend with). But the widespread demonization that took place in the cases of, say, the Big 3 Miami Heat, or the 2000s New England Patriots, the 20th century New York Yankees or the aforementioned Warriors never took hold amongst neutral fans with the Bulls. The ’90s Bulls nearly single-handedly broadened the reach and influence of the NBA to unprecedented heights. If you weren’t a blood-thirsty fan of an opposing team, it was impossible not to appreciate them, while the Warriors inspired disdain with even the most casual observers (admittedly difficult to quantify, but try to deny it).
Further, while both teams were revolutionary in their own right, the Bulls have an argument for being more so. At the time of their dynasty, almost no team in NBA history had won a title without a dominant interior presence as the No. 1 or No. 2 offensive option — the Bad Boy Pistons being the most glaring exception. The Bulls’ offense was built around two perimeter creators in Jordan and Pippen, unprecedented for the time.
As was the positionless brand of basketball that they played, especially on the defensive end. Their death lineup during the second three-peat of Ron Harper, Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc and Rodman could switch anything, hold their own on the glass, flawlessly execute a smothering full-court press at a moment’s notice and get quality looks every time down the floor. Even swapping Luc Longley in for Kukoc or Rodman, their versatility was unmatched at the time. A foreshadowing of the interchangeability of the modern game.
And all of that’s without mentioning the on- and off-court fashion influence of Jordan, the aura of celebrity of Rodman, and the never-to-be-replicated coaching style and personality management (again, the Warriors splintered fast) of Phil Jackson that netted 11 titles for two different organizations over 20 years.
‘Ruined’ the game.
The Warriors own a few similar claims to fame. Their 2015 title run, bolstered by an offense predicated on guard play and outside shooting, was progressive in its own right. Curry and Thompson redefined the value of jump-shooting in the modern NBA. Green’s combination of defensive tenacity and playmaking was revolutionary for a small-ball center. But don’t dare call them finesse: All the while, they boasted an all-time defensive identity in many ways molded in the image of those ’90s Bulls.
But there’s the rub. Without the Bulls, the Warriors might never get the coach who put them over the top (he said so himself). Without the Bulls, the Warriors don’t have a barometer of dominance to chase, and eventually fall short of (don’t mean a thing without the ring). Right or wrong, the mythology that swirls about the Bulls’ six titles in eight years will endure far longer than the Dubs’ three in five. They were more dominant and demoralizing without it ever growing stale. Call me when the ten-part Golden State documentary airs, and takes over the sports world.
Put simply: The Warriors changed basketball. The Bulls changed the world, and the game with it.
So, which team ruined basketball more? Neither. Not by a long shot. But the Bulls laid the groundwork for most every advancement the Warriors eventually made, without sacrificing what many believe to be the essence of sport.
For that, the Bulls get the edge here.