The 1996 Chicago Bulls
The 90’s occupy a special place within the NBA conscience. We tend to romanticize the past and compare today’s game and players to the 90’s. so many former players love to claim their era was the peak of competition, their players were tougher, the talent was evenly distributed throughout the league and the idea of a “Superteam” was just the ramblings of the insane. Even just a cursory look at basketball in the 90’s shows Hall of Famers everywhere, and while many teams came and went through the decade, no one came close to challenging Chicago Bulls as the team of the decade.
We all know how great their run was, winning 6 titles in 8 years, 2 separate three-peats. The unquestioned best player of the decade, Michael Jordan, used both his individual and team success to elevate himself and the game of basketball to worldwide popularity unparalleled in sports history. While the early 90’s bulls were undoubtedly a great squad, it is the late 90’s edition of the Bulls we remember most fondly. Without a doubt, the best team of the 90’s has to be the 1996 Bulls.
The first title team of Jordan’s second three-peat, the ‘96 team won 72 games, at the time a record many thought would never be matched. Michael Jordan, fresh off his baseball sabbatical, was determined to prove to his doubters he still had that killer instinct and competitive fire that drove him so relentlessly. The Bulls had flamed out in the playoffs the previous year, still adjusting to Jordan’s return late in the year after having become accustomed to playing without him for essentially two seasons. The Magic defeated the Bulls in 6 games in the second round, and with Jordan on board once again the Bulls decided they needed a little extra spice to get them past Orlando. The Bulls flipped Will Purdue for Dennis Rodman, who had become unhappy in San Antonio. Rodman immediately moved into the starting lineup at power forward. Rodman is the pre-eminent rebounder in NBA history, and he helped replace the void Horace Grant left when he signed with the Magic a few years earlier.
Jordan picked up where he had left off, averaging over 30 points a game on the season. Scottie Pippen had blossomed into one of the best players in the league in Jordan’s absence, and adding Dennis Rodman to the mix made the bulls unstoppable. Toni Kukoc, the swing-man from Croatia, came off the bench and won the Sixth Man of the Year award. Ron Harper, while no longer as explosive as he was in his younger days due to injury, was a great fit next to Jordan in the backcourt because he didn’t require the ball to be effective. The new and improved Bulls stormed out of the gate, reaching the halfway point of the season with only 3 losses. They finished the year 72-10, the best record ever at the time.
By the time the playoffs started, the bulls were in peak form. They swept their first-round match-up with the Heat, and were rewarded with the Knicks in the semifinals. The Bulls made short work of New York, winning in 5 games with Michael Jordan averaging 36 points for the series. The Eastern Conference Finals gave the Bulls exactly what they wanted; a showdown with the Magic, the team that eliminated them the year before. This time, the Bulls got their revenge, sweeping the Magic in 4 games.
The Finals matched the Bulls against the Seattle Supersonics, featuring Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, who had won 64 games and were coming off a very difficult 7-game series against the Jazz in the previous round. The Bulls won the first 3 games to take a 3-0 lead, but Seattle would win the next 2 games to get back into the series. Games 6 was in Chicago, and the Bulls didn’t want to let the opportunity to clinch a championship on their home floor go to waste. The Bulls won game 6 87-75, completing the most accomplished season in NBA history.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com