As a kid, I played an extraordinary amount of basketball in my driveway. I had a good imagination, so games involving me pretending to be various heroes of the hardwood from Pettit to Chamberlain to Oscar to Cousy to Bird to Magic to Jordan to Hakeem at an earlier age became a full blown league of made-up players, including myself and my friends and family during middle school…I even kept stats (points, rebounds, and assists), handed out year-end awards, and had a draft quickly followed by free agency. Chad’s Basketball Association had seven seasons of quite a lot of my spare time. Honestly hated to end it heading to college. That was one of my first true passions.
Recently watching this incredible Bulls documentary, I started to think of a fun exercise in old school imagination meets present day writing passion. I remember the ’96 Bulls as the greatest team I ever saw, but I wondered how they’d do if they played some of the other candidates for greatest team of my 25 year NBA basketball fandom. I picked ten teams, ranked them, and dreamed up the fantasy tournament that you’re about to read.
Round 1: 1995 Houston Rockets (10th seed) vs. 1997 Chicago Bulls (3rd seed)
The Rockets were the first NBA Champions of my basketball fandom as I know it. The ’95 Orlando Magic resonated with me like no previous basketball team and truly jumpstarted my passion for the league. The McIntyres have a long history with Orlando, and I fell quickly for the Disney city’s Magic, led by my favorite childhood player, Penny Hardaway (along, of course, with Shaq). Yeah, and that Magic team got throttled by the Rockets. Hakeem Olajuwon ended his peak with a second straight title, but his team was gassed after that season and didn’t have a three-peat run in it. Had they, Jordan’s 72-win, record-setting Bulls would’ve been waiting in the ’96 Finals. That would’ve been fascinating.
The ’96 Bulls get a bye to the Semis as one of the top 2 seeds, but Jordan’s ’97 Bulls were arguably better and they land as the #3 seed to get a shot at the Rockets that bridged the gap between the Chicago three-peats. Olajuwon would have been a true handful for either version and it was him being such a force and winning those two titles, even though they were the 6th seed in 1995, that compelled me to include the “Heart of a Champion” Rockets in the tournament. They had a good core around him from 1994, but in 1995 they added Clyde Drexler to “Big Shot” Robert Horry in his reputation-starting years, Mario Elie, Sam Cassell, Vernon Maxwell, and Kenny Smith. Amidst stiff competition from the ’04 Pistons and ’07 Spurs, winning back-to-back and going through the Stockton-Malone Jazz, Barkley-Suns, and Robinson-Spurs and sweeping the Magic team that handed Jordan’s Bulls their only playoff series loss from 1991 on made me feel confident in picking the ’95 Rockets to get their shot here.
Ultimately, the ’97 Bulls would remind Hakeem that the only reason he won his two titles was because Jordan retired for a season and a half to play baseball, but I suspect Olajuwon and his excellent group of supporting cast members would earn their utmost respect. Hakeem was that good.
Round 1: 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers (9th seed) vs. 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (4th seed)
LeBron’s Cleveland title team rolled through the East as it should have and made the greatest comeback in modern Finals lore to topple the 2016 Warriors, who broke the regular season win total record (73-9), but the ’01 Lakers were one of the most dominant playoff teams of all-time. To sweep their way through the West playoffs in 2001, the Lakers had to go through three perennial thorns in their side. Like the 2017 Warriors, they should have gone undefeated through the entirety of the playoffs, but they let one slip against Iverson in the Finals. Shaq was unstoppable and that was also the year that Kobe became absolutely lethal.
Could peak LeBron topple that dominant second straight championship-winning Lakers team? I just don’t see a window for them to squeeze through honestly, as memorable as they were. James might have earned his claim to 2nd best player ever with that championship comeback, but against the best version of the Kobe-Shaq combo, he would have to beat two of the best 10 players ever when both were utterly awesome. Gosh, it’s really not even a contest. History sleeps on that ’01 Lakers team. It wouldn’t be close, likely something akin or worse to the last two Warriors-Cavs series in ’17 and ’18.
Round 1: 2009 Los Angeles Lakers (8th seed) vs. 2013 Miami Heat (5th seed)
The world wanted to see it. I would not have traded the ’09 Magic making the Finals to see it, but I definitely chomped at the bit to see Kobe vs. LeBron in the NBA Championship series. Vince McMahon would have booked it, but David Stern couldn’t. So, here we have it. Kobe’s best non-Shaq team against LeBron’s best team. I think that the ’09 Lakers took advantage of the league as it was that season, with Duncan’s Spurs retooling and Nash’s Suns fading; I also think that they were a great basketball team that could have won anyway because that’s how good Kobe had become once Pau Gasol showed up. I wonder how history is going to remember Gasol because I remember him being a complete game-changer in the Western Conference for three years.
Beating the 2013 Heatles would be a tall task. That team was special. They won 27 games in a row that season. On paper, their run through the playoffs and needing the full fourteen games to win both the East and the NBA Finals was not enough to put them on the level of the ’01 Lakers, but the Heat much like that Lakers team of the Kobe-Shaq days defended their title that season and clearly owned the league in terms of hype and confidence. The ’13 Spurs vs. Heat series is the best NBA Finals I’ve seen, hands down, all respect due to the comeback Cavs. LeBron ascended that year in the Finals, for me. I think it really comes down, comparing the ’09 Lakers to the ’13 Heat, to exactly what you’d expect from the match-up: your preference for peak Kobe vs. peak LeBron.
Personally, I think LeBron’s pair of Game 7 NBA Finals performances suggest that he should be the pick over Kobe, who could be more volatile. That said, Kobe was able to will that ’09 team and there’s an intangible to give that Lakers squad with Phil Jackson coaching. I’m a big fan of Coach Spo, personally, but that was Phil’s 10th title team. Kobe was unflappable; LeBron has proven flappable. Give me Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh plus the Finals savvy of 2013 hero Ray Allen, though, over Gasol and the other key Lakers. It’s a tough call. If it was the 2012 Heat, I’d give the nod to Kobe because of experience, but by 2013 LeBron had gotten the title monkey off of his back and it was his 4th NBA Finals. He was the best, and as he has proven throughout the past decade, if talent is relatively similar, he is going to be the deciding factor that pushes a team to the promised land. Chalk continues.
Round 1: 2008 Boston Celtics (#7 seed) vs. 2014 San Antonio Spurs (#6 seed)
Of all the Spurs teams that won titles, the 2014 version stands out to me most because of the team that they battled to a split of the championships in back to back years. Getting out of the West in the 2000s was wild, if you will, going against a litany of that decade’s titans, from Webber to Garnett to Kobe/Shaq to Nash to Dirk. Trust me, leaving a Spurs team featuring Tim Duncan at his finest off the list felt weird, and perhaps the biggest thing that detracts from my list is a lack of respect (perceived) for the ’04 Pistons and the ’05 Spurs. I am confident, however, that the ’14 Spurs, motivated as they were to get their win back after Ray Allen ripped their hearts out in Game 6 the prior year, had a little something extra; they would have beaten the slow it down Duncan teams.
Then you have that awesome Celtics team from 2008. They dominated the league in the regular season, their first year together with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining Paul Pierce, but they showed their nerves in the playoffs, needing twenty of a possible twenty one games just to get out of the East, which was not that strong. At first glance, you would pick the ’14 Spurs for the same reason the apex Duncan teams were left out at their expense. KG was never better, though, Pierce emerged as an all-timer, and that team when healthy was one of the best of the century to date, without question. Defensively, they could be a nightmare.
Looking at the match-ups, the two things that would swing it in favor of the Spurs are Kawhi Leonard, Finals MVP in 2014 for defending LeBron so well and rising to the considerable offensive challenge as well, and the ball movement style that made the Spurs so pretty to watch those couple of years. Steve Kerr’s Warriors borrowed from the Popovich-led shift to pace and movement from 2012-2014. Rondo vs. Parker would have been an interesting chess match because Rondo was such a good defender and Parker was so shifty. Kawhi might’ve gotten the better of Pierce eventually, though Pierce was so scrappy. Prime Ray Allen could have been the biggest difference maker for the Celtics. I think it’s a 7-game series ultimately. In the end, the Spurs would edge them out, even if just by the slimmest of margins because of that added chip on their shoulder.
Round 2: 2014 San Antonio Spurs (6th seed) vs. 1997 Chicago Bulls (3rd seed)
Everything I just said about Kawhi defensively? That type of talk would have been chum for the shark that was Michael Jordan. His Airness had a competitiveness bordering on a disorder. “Jordan Stopper” Kawhi? That wouldn’t have worked out well in all likelihood for Leonard. Nevertheless, he would have made MJ expend a lot more energy. The Bulls vs. the Warriors has been a common discussion in recent years, and the argument for a Warriors win has centered in part on their style of play. Again, the Spurs helped shape that style, so it would give the Bulls trouble played at elite level by either team.
It’s hard to imagine a Jordan-led team losing, because we never saw peak Jordan lose. Each of these other teams eventually got to a point where someone knocked them off their championship pedestal. Could the 2014 Spurs really beat Jordan’s Bulls? I’m looking at this as a 7-game series, and five of the six Bulls dynasty title teams took six games to finish off their opposition in the Finals, so it’s logical that the Spurs would steal two games at least. The Bulls would have to adapt to the pace and take their level of perimeter defense up several notches, but if this is a typical home-and-away series, the time machine version means that the top seed gets the deciding game played in their era…and I’d predict this would go seven.
Jordan would slice through modern defenses like a knife through butter without hand-checking rules to hinder him. Kawhi is among the best defenders of his generation, so he’d take full advantage on the flip side of being able to play more physical ’90s defense. Still, that’s advantage MJ. The thing that I think is interesting to consider is how seamlessly the Spurs would potentially adapt, because they bought into a new style to emphasize Tony Parker’s strengths when Duncan started to decline, but they were throughout the 2000s a defensive-oriented team known for its grit; they could be the best of both worlds.
Home era advantage to Jordan makes me question any thought that the ’14 Spurs could beat them in Chicago in 1997. Jordan was 35-0 when he had home court advantage. Read that stat again. 35-0 in playoff series with home court in his favor. Rodman handles a last-legs Duncan, Jordan and Pippen take turns frustrating the tired legs of Tony Parker, and Steve Kerr makes his presence felt late to give the ’97 Bulls the win.
Round 2: 2013 Miami Heat (#5 seed) vs. 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (#4 seed)
Teams that won back-to-back championships are rightfully held in high esteem. Title-winning mettle is that quality which defines a team as the greatest of its era. The Lakers and Heat dominated the league a decade apart. I find it extremely difficult to pick between them. On paper, the Lakers who three-peated from 2000 to 2002 and ripped through the 2001 playoffs should handle LeBron’s Heat, who had the opportunity to four-peat, but just didn’t have it in them and who never at any point dominated elite competition like the ’01 Lakers demolished the Spurs and Kings. This is the kind of match-up that James-led teams tend to lose historically, too. The Lakers were clearly better in the Shaq-Kobe days. So, as good as LeBron was, this screams one of those brilliant “goes down swinging” series for The King. No long breakdown necessary. Shaq would be unguardable. The same Kobe vs. LeBron dynamic from Round 1 would largely exist again, but Shaq owned the championship series for 3 straight seasons and I see no reason to bet against him here. I almost roll my eyes at my own fantasy exercise since all the top teams advanced; I suppose, though, that there’s a reason why seeding exists and this thought process at least acknowledges the value in it.
Semi-Finals: 1997 Chicago Bulls (3rd seed) vs. 2017 Golden State Warriors (2nd seed)
Now, we’re talking. Don’t worry about recency bias from me, as though I respect the Warriors dynasty, I do not believe that they faced the kind competition that would give me an accurate gauge of their historical potential against a team like Jordan’s Bulls. Such is why – I wouldn’t say that I scoff but – I generally tend to keep my cards close to the vest when evaluations of the Warriors at their peak with Kevin Durant come up in sports conversation. The bottom line is that, when they were motivated and healthy, nobody could really beat them. So, in essence, they were what the Heatles proposed they’d be in 2010 but never truly became. Offensively, they were the greatest team in the current era of basketball. Defensively, their best line-up featured four players that could make the opposition’s life miserable.
It’s the 1997 Chicago Bulls, though. How motivated do you think Jordan would have been to be the lower seed in a tournament featuring historically great basketball teams? Him, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman presumably would rise to the challenge of trying to shut down an offense considered so superior. I feel like the argument here is similar to the ones had about the ’92 Dream Team and the 2012 USA Team considered the modern equivalent; a ’90s team would have the physical advantage and attempt to intimidate with it, and would be further unleashed by less restrictions in the modern game. On top of that, you then insert the Chad-specific tournament dynamic of the ’97 Bulls getting used to playing against a pace-and-space precursor in the ’14 Spurs.
The kicker for the 2017 Warriors might be that their stars were all primed and experienced for a challenge like Jordan’s Bulls, their top four guys at the peak of their powers. The ’14 Spurs had a lot of worn-out, aging stars by comparison. Plus, you would think that Klay Thompson, Andre Iguadala, and Draymond Green particularly would embrace the challenge of stepping up in away-era games that were allowed to be more physical. Games 3 and 4 in 1997 would probably take some adjustment time, so I envision a split among the first four games with all four home-era teams winning, but by Game 6 in 1997 I believe the Warriors would have figured it out. The flipside to that, of course, would be that the Bulls would have time to figure them out, as well, and Phil Jackson has the coaching edge over Steve Kerr (who, I say in jest, might have a hard time looking over at the sideline at a younger version of himself playing for Chicago…I can see it crossing his mind that he might be inadvertently destroying the space-time continuum).
If Steph Curry got hot, Jordan would probably switch to defending him, then Pippen over to Klay, and finally Rodman over to Durant. It would be a fascinating game of switching on defense. Nobody could guard Jordan. In 2017, he would destroy them. He would average 45 points per game – maybe 50 – for the series. I question, though, if the Bulls could find enough scoring beyond MJ and Scottie. Toni Kukoc would have to light it up and would probably be in the starting line-up as a stretch 4, moving Rodman to center, by Game 5. Kerr would be a key weapon, taking a lot of open threes as the series progressed to elimination. The Bulls had that hardened edge from winning titles, but facing a former champion in the Finals did not hinder Durant from rising up to Finals MVP status in 2017, so that might not matter.
As evidenced by the lengthier discourse, I am not sure who would win really, but I think it would be disrespectful to the modern titan Warriors dynasty to sell them short and not at least give them a crack at my all-time Finals, where most modern historians agree they belong.
Semi-Finals: 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (4th seed) vs. 1996 Chicago Bulls (1st seed)
It’s a testament to the Warriors success – 3 championships in four seasons, plus 5 straight trips to the Finals and the 73-win regular season – that the ’00 to ’02 Lakers aren’t regarded to this day as the twenty-first century’s greatest basketball team. The Shaq-Kobe duo, with Phil Jackson as the anchor, when it was all said and done, normalized for me the three-peat by natural extension of the pair of three-peats I had seen the Bulls win in the ’90s. That had not been done since the Russell era Celtics, and then in 11 years we saw it three times…and we’ve never seen it since. Something that the Warriors and Lakers dynasties share is the single loss playoff runs. The Lakers went 15-1 to win the 2001 title; the Warriors bested that mark at 16-1 thanks to the 2003 first round increase to a best-of-seven series. I’ll always have a tendency to give more credit to the Lakers because the Warriors, having added Durant to a 73-win regular season team that had just split the last two NBA Finals with LeBron’s Cavs, stacked the deck against the rest of the league through a salary cap anomaly.
Could the Lakers beat MJ’s Bulls – his greatest team of the six champions – to earn a shot at the Warriors? It’s another fascinating hypothetical, pitting these two teams against one another. They had the same coach in Phil. Tex Winter, the triangle offense guru, was an assistant on both teams. Strategically, they would be evenly matched. So, what would it boil down to then? Surely, you know I’m going first to the MJ vs. Kobe match-up.
Kobe was essentially a Jordan clone, and I mean that in the greatest possible way. Competitively, Kobe was just like Michael. They both invented things in their own minds to motivate themselves, and they wanted to win at all costs and saw a very specific avenue through which to do it. Without a doubt, Kobe would have relished the opportunity to play against Jordan with a chance at all-time greatness at stake. The 2001 Playoffs were Kobe’s emergence to the next level of his stardom, too, when the Jordan comparisons started to materialize as something more than just media hype. Specific to this fantasy exercise, he would have also gained the confidence of having knocked out LeBron.
The 2001 NBA Finals MVP, recall, was Shaq. That’s where it gets more interesting to me. Shaq was practically unstoppable for three straight playoffs. He was The Man, and as such would expect to be fed early and often. I’m not sure Kobe at that age could have resisted the urge to make the Semi-Finals a Kobe vs. Jordan showcase, at Shaq’s expense. They always had a tenuous relationship, did Kobe and Shaq, and it would not take much to stoke the flames. Rodman being the ultimate irritant, as well, I think that this series would set up Shaq for intense frustration. The ’96 Bulls swept my 60-win Magic team in the Eastern Conference Finals, in part thanks to Rodman being the defensive anchor of that team. Peak Shaq would not have stood for a sweep, of course, and under Jackson’s tutelage, he was such a hoss that it’s not like he would have let the Lakers go down in a heap.
Then, of course, there’s the Jordan effect. MJ simply had no peers. Kobe was amazing, but he was MJ Lite (and again that is said with the utmost respect, very complimentary). Jordan would win that battle, if for no other reason than he was just that much more motivated on the basketball court and was, in 1996, so much more wily and determined. I keep going back to it because I’ve never seen anything like it, but when you have similar talent, it’s hard not to pick Jordan’s team because he was never defeated in the Playoffs at his apex. How could you pick against Jordan?
I have a sneaky suspicion that it would be a pretty substantial blowout, actually. Defensively, the Bulls in 1996 were just unreal. Jordan was one of the greatest defensive guards of all-time, while Rodman and Pippen were perhaps the most versatile defenders ever. Neither Bulls dynasty nor the Lakers dynasty had any real rivals, so you would have a tendency on paper to see the teams as relative equals, but I think the Bulls would go up 2-0, the Lakers would implode because of their typical locker room tension, and MJ and the gang would step on their figurative throats. I’d go 4-1 in favor of the ’96 Bulls.
The All-Time Finals: 2017 Golden State Warriors (2nd seed) vs. 1996 Chicago Bulls (1st seed)
So, here we go. It all comes down to the debate anyone reading this surely knew this would come down to. The Warriors come in the underdogs for me, especially after having completed my viewing of the instant classic documentary, The Last Dance, chronicling the team that shaped my basketball fandom, defined it, gave it meaning, and established context for every future discussion about NBA greatness. How can the Warriors compete with that legacy, even its very best team that should’ve become the first team to sweep the playoffs and that would have, with that “fo-fo-fo-fo,” probably sealed the deal as the greatest team ever accordingly? It’s confounding.
The 2017 Warriors scored at will during the playoffs, tallying over 100 points in every game as they roared to a 15-0 record through Game 3 of the Finals, most of their wins being blow-outs. They were a swiss-army knife of an NBA all-timer and it can never be understated just how much of a juggernaut they were when you consider that Durant was the second best player in the league behind LeBron when he joined Curry and the Warriors. It wasn’t like the Heatles either; the franchise did not have to strip the roster down to bit parts to facilitate the talent collection. Durant joined a champion fully realized. So many things had to go right for the ’17 Warriors to be plausible, and they did. The gap between them and everyone else was so wide, making the Warriors more comparable to a team from before the NBA-ABA merger, when fewer teams meant greater conglomerations of stacked talent.
Two decades prior, the Bulls scored over 100 points seven times in their fifteen victories during the 1996 playoffs. Different era, of course, with a far less aesthetically pleasing version of basketball that did not demand huge scoring, but the physicality of the 1990s was born of trying to stop the free-wheeling style that led to high scoring in the 1980s. “Put him on the ground” was the motto of the Bad Boy Pistons who changed the league defensively and influenced the 1990s. Combine that with talent dilution through league expansion and you have a recipe for a more grinding style of play.
The Bulls had archetypes for modern basketball, however. Kerr was one of the best 3-point shooters, by percentage, ever. Kukoc shot over 40% from three in 1996. Jud Buechler hit 44% from three that year. Jordan was the best hero ball, iso player in the history of basketball, but they had guys that could have adapted if needed. Nobody ever wanted victory more than MJ either, so to think that he would not have found a way underestimates his legendary competitive drive. “Rodman, get Draymond thrown out of the game,” I could see him saying, having studied tape of the 2016 Finals in this fantastical hypothetical. “Guys, make Durant doubt his teammates – we can get in his head,” he would surely suggest. To say that Jordan would lose to anyone at his apex has no historical basis.
Here’s the thing: the Warriors are the only other team in this tournament besides the Bulls that we cannot imagine losing largely because they never did. Durant was injured in the 2019 Finals. It’s a what if. So, it really boils down to which team had the versatility to adapt to the other era’s style. Since, in this scenario, the Warriors would have already had the chance to do that against the 1997 Bulls in the Semi-Finals, I think they would beat the 1996 Bulls. They were too long, too fast, too prolific at shooting threes, and too defensively dynamic to bet against; Kerr would be better able to prepare a team to face the Bulls dynasty than any other coach because of his pedigree as well. Take the tournament situation out of the equation and do the straight-up seven game series and I’ll take the Bulls, for the record, but within the context presented across this fantasy exercise, I think the Warriors would be too much.