Arguably, the ’96 Chicago Bulls are the greatest team of all-time. You had (again, arguably) the greatest player of all-time in Michael Jordan, a top 50 NBA player in Scottie Pippen, one of the greatest rebounders of all-time with Dennis Rodman and the Zen Master himself, Phil Jackson, roaming the sidelines. Then you have their 72-10 record (best in NBA history) and the fact that they won the championship that year – the first of three. It’s hard to build a case why they aren’t the best squad ever.
While the Lakers are off to a league best 23-4 start, they certainly aren’t on pace to win 72. But they have one of the most stacked teams since that Bulls team. There is no doubt, this would be a great game. Almost 13-years after MJ and Co. steamrolled through the NBA, the game has changed a little bit. The athletes are better, the game is less physical and there have been plenty of rule changes. I took a look at what might have happened if the ’96 Bulls met the ’09 Lakers in a game on a neutral court.
Center: Luc Longley vs. Andrew Bynum
From a statistical standpoint, Bynum takes this matchup. In ’95-96, Longley averaged 9.1 ppg and 5.1 rpg, while Bynum is averaging 15.9 ppg and 8.1 rpg. But Longley played less minutes and shared the center duties with Bill Wennington. Bynum is a much better athlete and more skilled than Longley. But the Aussie center was smart and crafty, so he would have held his own against Bynum. After all, he played in an era where good centers were more plentiful: David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, etc. Still, Bynum would take this matchup. Advantage: Lakers
Power Forward: Dennis Rodman vs. Pau Gasol
How funny would this matchup be? This would be a great test for Gasol to see whether he is really soft and how mentally strong he really is. Rodman was the king of mind games on the court – he was even able to get under John Stockton’s skin. Rodman would definitely frustrate Gasol and would easily out board him. But Gasol has gotten a lot tougher in the last few years and I think he could handle Rodman and his antics. Plus he’s got a four inch height advantage and a solid offensive game, so he would take this battle. Advantage: Lakers
Small Forward: Scottie Pippen vs. Ron Artest
There is a good possibility that if this game were to occur, both teams would probably switch defensive assignments. Pippen would use his length to guard to Gasol and Artest (the new age Rodman) would go all WWE on Rodman. But if they kept the matchups based on position, this would be an intriguing pairing too. They would most likely combine for just 15 points together because the D would be so great. Pippen is longer and has better hands, while Artest is stronger, bigger and a more physical defender. Pippen has the advantage because he has a more complete offensive game. And how could you not pick a Top 50, future Hall of Famer over a guy who won’t even be on the All-Star team this year? Advantage: Bulls
Shooting Guard: Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant
Thinking of this matchup is plain scary. They’ve played before, but when MJ was in his prime, Kobe was just a rookie. And when Kobe was dominating this matchup, Jordan was a 40-year-old Wizard. Now that they’ve met somewhere in the middle, this could be one of the greatest (correction, the greatest) one-on-one battles ever. No way, Kobe could stop MJ’s fadeaway jumper that he perfected during his second tour with the Bulls. On the flip side, Bryant has a better jumper and is probably quicker and more athletic now than the ’96 MJ. Both are extreme competitors with ice water in their veins. But I feel Jordan has more of a killer instinct, and that’s saying a lot since Kobe is as cold blooded as they come. Plus, I feel Kobe would be trying to do too much to out-shine Jordan. I’ll give the slight, slight advantage to number 23. Advantage: Bulls
Point Guard: Ron Harper vs. Derek Fisher
Harper is a 6-8 point guard with grace and lock down defense, while Fisher is a solid leader, with a great three-point jump shot and good defense. The two were even teammates for the Lakers’ first championship run. Again, this is a matchup where it all depends on when they meet. If the ’96 Harper has to face the 2002 Fisher, than it’s going to be the 6-1 guard out of Arkansas-Little Rock that will win. But if you are talking about a ’96 Harper versus a slower and older D-Fish circa 2009, than I’d say Harper wins this round. Advantage: Bulls
Sixth Man: Toni Kukoc vs. Lamar Odom
These two are about as similar as you can get. Both are nearly 7-feet, both are southpaws and both can play like guards. And ironically, both have been accused of being underachievers at times. While Odom rebounds better, is stronger and has better court vision, Kukoc is a better offensive threat. Plus, I think Toni was more consistent than Lamar. Advantage: Bulls
Rest of the Bench
This one isn’t even a comparison. Shannon Brown vs. Jud Buechler? After Kukoc, coach Jackson really just used Steve Kerr, Buechler and Wennington. All the Bulls bench players played their roles well and Kerr had an elite stroke and was extremely money in the clutch but they couldn’t even handle the Lakers’ bench. Farmer and Brown would run circles around them and Sasha Vujucic and Luke Walton have the ability to make meaningful contributions if they get consistent burn. Advantage: Lakers
Coach Jackson vs. Coach Jackson
Ironically, Phil Jackson would be going against a younger or older version of himself depending on which side you start on. Phil hasn’t changed up his offense in those 13 years, but I think he trusted and liked Michael a little more, so the edge would have to go to the Windy City version of the Zen Master. Advantage: Bulls
No doubt, this game would be neck and neck and down to the wire. Besides having to find a solution to guarding MJ, the Lakers would have a tough time dealing with a Bulls squad that plays flawless basketball. There’s a lot of experience on this squad and they could play both a physical style of ball and a finesse style of ball. Plus, they were a better offensive squad (the ’96 Bulls averaged 105.2 ppg vs. the ’09 Lakers, who are averaging 103.6 ppg). Chicago also held teams to a less points (’96 Bulls held opposing teams to 92.9 ppg while the ’09 Lakers are holding teams to 95 ppg). The Bulls on the other hand, never had to deal with a team that was so big, so talented and so athletic like the Lakers are now. If they are forced to double on Kobe and guys like Brown, Vujacic and Odom are knocking down threes, it could be a long night for the Bulls. But in the end, I think the Bulls were a smarter team that could adapt their game and they have a better closer in MJ (sorry Kobe). Winner: Bulls
Who do you think would win between the ’96 Bulls and ’09 Lakers?