WASHINGTON — We have an obsession in the sports world with arguing the unarguable. Call it “First Take Syndrome,” the product of the political talking (or screaming) head show leaking its way into sports. We insist on comparing everything, ranking who is better, even when there is absolutely no viable way to do so, spending all our time arguing instead of just enjoying what we’re lucky enough to be watching.
The latest debate taking center stage is whether the 72-win Chicago Bulls team of 1995-96, would beat this year’s Golden State Warriors, who will go for their record-breaking 73rd win in their final game Wednesday in Oakland against the Memphis Grizzlies. That Bulls record was thought to be unmatchable as recently as a few months ago, even as the Warriors raced off to a historic start.
Anyway, now that we’re here, nobody can help but compare the two teams.
Sure, it’s fun to think about Michael Jordan and Steph Curry matching each other shot-for-shot; Dennis Rodman and Draymond Green getting after every rebound; Steve Kerr the coach trying to take away Steve Kerr the player’s comfort zone beyond the arc. But you’re talking about two teams that play in fundamentally different eras of basketball, each optimized to win under the rules as they existed at the time.
But don’t take it from me. Here’s Kerr, the most direct connection between the two teams, on the topic.
“My initial thought are that it is literally impossible to even compare, because the rules are so different and the eras are so different,” Kerr told ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss back in November of last year, highlighting the crux of the fallacy.
With hand-checking allowed and illegal defense rules in the NBA that prevented help-side defenders from coming over to double-team, the game was driven around isolated, one-on-one action in the mid-90s. This favored those Bulls teams, who could exploit the simple fact that nobody could really guard Jordan. They could play a lineup where their top four players and nine of the top 10 in minutes played were 6-foot-6 and up, a plodding, physical team.
The Warriors are not that team. They aren’t built to withstand the beating of that era, and their defense is predicated on constant switching that the rules now allow them to do.
But the Warriors are full of athletes and great shooters, the latter aspect often the only thing anyone focuses on. But this team doesn’t just huck threes. They lead the NBA with 20.8 fast-break points per game, including a mind-blowing 23.8 per game at home, the best rate of any NBA team since the 2007-08 Warriors run-and-gunned their way to 27.2 at Oracle Arena.
You can say the Warriors wouldn’t be tough enough. You can say the Bulls wouldn’t be able to keep up on the break without adapting their lineup. The fact that we’ll never know for sure certainly hasn’t stopped people from affirming wild speculation as truth.
Want an idea of the idiocy this has provoked? Do a quick Twitter search for “Warriors wouldn’t.”
The real question we should be asking is why anyone feels the need to make declarative statements about something that clearly can’t be measured. Whether or not you think the Warriors are better than those Bulls, they have actually, in real life, matched their 72 wins. They have a chance to go for 73, to set a new record. This is the reason we play sports, to see if we can improve upon the marks that have been set.
Instead of focusing on what they could never accomplish in a hypothetical world that can never exist, let’s look at what this team is actually doing.
They are the first team in history to go the entire NBA season without losing to the same team twice. They will finish the season without losing back-to-back games, something the Bulls didn’t accomplish. By winning for the first time in 34 tries on the road in San Antonio, they became the only team in the NBA this year to beat the Spurs on their home floor. Had San Antonio won Sunday and again Tuesday against Oklahoma City, the Spurs would have been the first team to ever finish a home slate undefeated.
History is unfolding in front of your eyes. Whether the Warriors beat a tattered Memphis Grizzlies team in Oakland Wednesday night shouldn’t be a referendum on their status compared to the ’95-’96 Bulls. It will be to some — because 73 is a bigger number than 72 — but anyone with any sense of the game will tell you that Sunday night’s win deep in the heart of Texas provided far more validation for the season the Warriors have put together.
Those ’95-’96 Bulls will always be recognized as the pinnacle of a dominant era, the first year of the second three-peat under Jordan and Phil Jackson. The Warriors would need to win a string of titles to match that legacy. Maybe they will, and we’ll be relegated to whole other discussion about which dynasty was more impressive.
But for now, do us all a favor. Sit back, relax and enjoy watching a team aim for a historical moment most of us never thought we’d see. If you can’t enjoy this, it’s time to really ask yourself why you watch sports at all.