History was made Sunday night. It just wasn’t the history that we all were expecting.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers accomplished the impossible, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit and stunning the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Not only did LeBron have an NBA Finals for the record books in leading the Cavs to their first ever NBA title, but he also snatched immortality away from Stephen Curry and Co, much to the delight of Chicagoland.
Pippen: '95-96 Bulls 'live on' as greatest team https://t.co/FeSk3pl8rD
— ESPNChicago (@ESPNChicago) June 20, 2016
The Warriors’ final loss killed the perfect end to a season that saw them overtake the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls as the winningest regular-season team ever, leaving them one win short of truly being in the discussion for the greatest team all-time. And I’m sure no one from our neck of the woods is particularly sad about it.
When the Warriors won game #73 at the end of the season, I wrote that even though the Bulls’ 72-win season was no longer the greatest regular-season total of in NBA history, Golden State’s record-setting 2016 campaign didn’t negate the 96’ Bulls’ success or reduce the memory of its excellence in any way.
At the time, the Warriors seemed to be the prohibitive favorite to win this year’s championship—putting them one consecutive title away from a Bulls-style three-peat—which would inevitably put the debates about whether the ’16 Warriors or 96’ Bulls were the greatest team of all-time. Now, the discussion is over before it really began, and the 1996 Chicago Bulls stand alone a little longer at the top of the roll.
I’m not typically the kind to just say that the old era of basketball is better than this one; each era is just different. I’m also not a person that believes the hometown heroes are automatically better than everyone else. In the end, all I want to see great basketball. And usually, I like to reference a lot of statistics to make my points about various sports. But in the middle of Sunday’s epic Game 7, I caught myself thinking something that surprised me, and by the end, the answer to that question told us everything about the difference between these two incredible teams as we needed to know?
If the ’96 Bulls had a 3-1 lead over the Seattle Supersonics—or honestly any other team—in the Finals, would they have let another team steal the series from them? Could you see Michael Jordan allowing someone to bite him and his team when he had his foot pressed down on their neck, seconds from a finishing blow? Perhaps we’ll never truly know the answer to that question, but I believe we saw the great difference Sunday night between the ’96 Bulls and this year’s Warriors: one team had one of the greatest competitors and leaders of all-time, and one didn’t.
It’s not just the basketball skill that Jordan displayed that makes that difference, though his scoring ability, All-NBA defense, and knowledge of the game certainly would’ve made any team he played on exponentially better (let alone this Bulls team). It was his insatiable, unstoppable desire for victory: a sense of seizing the moment in jaws of steel and wanting to destroy his opponents, not just defeat them.
Taking nothing away from the incredible season had by Curry—a 30 PPG/45.4% from 3-pt field goals/90.2% on free throw season highlighted by his 400 made 3-pointers—but the two-time, reigning MVP proved smaller than the moment these last 2-3 weeks, even when spotted a previously insurmountable lead. One could argue that Curry was more hurt than he let on (which I believe is true), but he was on the floor and therefore was expected to be himself. And throughout this series—aside from Game 4, when he scored 38 points—the man being touted as the face of the league was savaged by Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving and, of course, superhuman superstar LeBron James.
His ridiculous shots didn’t fall. He was exposed as an awful defender. He made unconscionable turnovers, showing the downside of the arrogance and carefree play that made him and his team so special this season. And he wasn’t the most valuable player on their team even if the Warriors did win—Draymond Green was by far the best player on Golden State when he wasn’t suspended. As a Bull, was Michael Jordan ever not the best player on his team, even for as great as Scottie Pippen was?
For some reason, I kept thinking back to the 1998 NBA Finals, which is one of my most vivid sports memories. The Utah Jazz, led by legends John Stockton and Karl Malone, did more or less what the Cavs did: down 3-1, they stole a game in Chicago to make the series 3-2. And because they had the better regular season record and because of the playoff formatting that year, the Jazz had Game 6 and a potential Game 7 at home. In that Game 6, the Jazz pushed the Bulls to the brink of a tie-breaker. But that Jordan guy turned in one of his greatest playoff masterpieces, scoring 45 of his team’s 87 points and hitting arguably the most iconic shot of his career.
Jordan famously never needed a Game 7 to secure a championship, but even if he had, how much doubt would you have that he would win it, especially with that ’96 team? I might not think that Jordan was a god among men on the basketball court that could never be defeated, but even I couldn’t doubt the man here. This year’s Golden State could certainly beat the 1996 Chicago Bulls in an exhibition team—in a given game, who knows what could happen—but in a series?
Though the Warriors have, in some sense, revolutionized the way that basketball is played—and Steph Curry could easily average 20+ a game in any era you could put forward—the Cavs showed the basketball world what can happen when you have an all-time great who decides he will not be denied, historic opponents be damned.
Irving starred, Tyronn Lue out-coached Steve Kerr the last three games of the series, and the Cavs emptied their souls onto the court in the most valiant effort ever seen in Cleveland sports history—or sports history period, for that matter—but LeBron James simply told Curry and his Warriors that he was king and that there was nothing they could do about it. That’s something you can’t teach or stop.
So if you throw up the merits of the ’96 Bulls and the ’16 Warriors, you can argue about statistics, eras, rings, or whatever you want to distinguish between the two teams (though most people will now just stop at rings at this point). The last three games of this now classic series, including last Sunday’s fateful contest, should leave no one in any doubt as to which of the two teams deserves to be called the greatest of all-time.
Historically great teams, and historically great players, also find ways to conquer in the end, whatever the circumstances. That’s why Steph Curry and the Warriors can only duke it for the second-greatest team ever while the ‘96 Bulls continues to remain the gold standard of basketball teams.