Appreciating evolution in real time is difficult because the shift isn’t obvious until it’s passed, usually long after. Realizing what the 2016 Golden State Warriors are doing while it happens is what makes this squad so special. Watch them play the sport, in particular point guard Stephen Curry, and you witness more than just five tall humans passing around an orange sphere. This isn’t just basketball. It’s high-level performance art, the comparison of basketball and jazz come to life on the real stage, a paradigm shift happening on your television screen every night.On 73 of the available 82 evenings over the past six months, Golden State has been victorious.The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls — who went 72-10 are the gold standard for NBA teams. Or were anyway. That squad featured two Hall of Fame players near the end of their primes (Michael Jordan, the greatest player in basketball history, and Scottie Pippen), was led by Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson and topped the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The storyline existed all season are the 2016 Warriors better than the 1996 Bulls? but now that 73-win Golden State has run the gauntlet and eclipsed Chicago’s record total, it’s time we get to the bottom of this debate: Warriors or Bulls? And why?Competition levelThe theory the Warriors were able accomplish this feat because the league now features competition inferior to the mid-1990s is bogus. The NBA is in the midst of perhaps its greatest talent boom ever. In the contemporary NBA, there’s more information and more data available to teams that allows them to scout and prepare better than years past. Golden State also defeated the San Antonio Spurs a 67-win juggernaut with a historically good point differential three times this season.The 1996 Bulls won their 72 games in an expansion year, the first season of play for the Toronto Raptors and the Grizzlies, then based in Vancouver. One could argue the talent in the league was more dispersed during that campaign because of the expansion draft and other factors coming with the addition of two new teams. The game has also become far more global in its reach, increasing the competition level over the last two decades. There were over 100 international players on NBA rosters opening night this season. Compare that with 2000-01, when only 45 international players suited up for NBA teams.The crux of the matterIt’s fun to dream about Golden State and Chicago facing off on some imaginary basketball court. But if we’re going to hash out this hypothetical, we need to note what set of rules the two teams are playing by.In the early 2000s, the NBA made two significant rules changes which have had a profound impact on the style of basketball you see now: in 2001 the NBA removed its ban on zone defenses and in 2004 the league re-worked its hand-checking rule. Without going into excessive detail, these alterations were implemented to open up the game offensively, and they’ve done just that.Starting with the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns of 2005 (one of the greatest offenses in NBA history, led by two-time MVP Steve Nash), the new rules ushered in an era heavy on passing and shooting. Slash-and-kick is the name of the game, and three-point shooting has never been more important. The Warriors are the greatest three-point shooting team in league history: their 1,077 made 3-pointers are a single-season NBA team record. Golden State’s Klay Thompson, the perfect spacing agent, finished second in the NBA in 3-pointers (276) behind only Curry’s 402 bombs from deep.The days of isolation and post-ups stuff the 96 Bulls excelled at being the genesis of an offense are gone. Although it would be fascinating to see this Bulls roster matriculate into today’s NBA, they’re better suited for this style of play than you may think. After all, Jordan and Pippen both posted career highs in shooting percentage from beyond the arc in 1996.But let’s not forget for three seasons in the 1990s (1994-97), the NBA moved in the 3-point line. If given the time to adjust to the increased importance of long range shooting, the Bulls would be able to adapt. However, in short series, I’m not so sure they’d be able to keep up with the Warriors.Golden State unlocks their most prolific scoring lineups when they slide power forward Draymond Green to center. The 96 Bulls approached this kind of positionless nirvana when they moved their own rebounding magnet, Dennis Rodman, from forward to center, and added Toni Kukoc’s shooting to the mix. They could downsize and match Golden State, but with a deeper bench, the Warriors would be well-positioned to counter if need be.Steph Curry, a cheat codeCurry’s mastered this modern day iteration of basketball. He shoots the ball faster, from further away and more accurately than anyone in the history of the game. Cover him too tightly, and he’ll right by you. Give him a crack of daylight to shoot, however, and it’s death for your defense. Oh, by the way, as soon as he crosses half-court, he’s in his shooting range.The Bulls have never seen anything like Curry before, because, well, he’s without precedent. Chicago would have a variety of long, savvy perimeter defenders to throw at Curry: MJ, Pippen and Ron Harper. But it might not matter, especially once Chicago’s restricted in their ability to push, hand-check and maneuver Curry, who’s essentially impervious to any defender sent his way.Golden State’s offense is an amoeba, constantly moving and countering every defense. They spread the court with shooting, while Curry and Green run pick-and-roll action. Double-team Curry off the pick and he’ll dump it to Green, who all of a sudden has a 4-on-3 break to the hoop with dangerous shooters, like Thompson and Harrison Barnes, dotting the perimeter.Grand ChampionI’m not sure who would win (newsflash: no one does!), but I believe what Golden State accomplished is slightly superior to the Bulls. We’re operating on a razor’s edge here, and it feels sacrilegious to bet against Jordan, but if we’re matching these two teams up with today’s rules (a crucial distinction), I’m picking Steph Curry and Golden State to come out victorious.
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