Each team featured a top-five caliber player of NBA history, each had something to prove after a disappointing previous season, each tore through the regular season like it was nothing and each swept the first round, lost once in the second round, swept the Eastern Finals and lost twice in the NBA Finals.
There are other teams that conjure thoughts of “best ever,” like the ’83 76ers, ’72 Lakers or any of the Bill Russell-led Celtics, but none of them are quite in the class of the ’86 Celts or ’96 Bulls.
So which of these two juggernauts was the better? Let’s go in depth to figure out the answer.
Defending the superstar
As previously mentioned, these teams were led by arguably two of the best five players ever. Both Michael Jordan and Larry Bird could score whenever they wanted in their heyday. So, if you’re going to beat either of these teams, you must first stop the star.
There’s really no stopping Bird or Jordan, but you still want a great defender on them to make them work for their points. The Bulls had Scottie Pippen, maybe the greatest defensive small forward of all time, so he could limit Bird’s production. The Celtics’ best defender was a point guard, Dennis Johnson, who is also considered one of the best perimeter defenders ever. Jordan had two inches on Johnson, but Johnson could still irritate MJ and cause a key turnover or two.
But, the Bulls still win this battle. Jordan was better than Bird, and Pippen was a better defender than Johnson.
It seems absurd to suggest any team could ever possess a better front line than the ’86 Celtics. Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were all in their primes, and they were all named to the NBAs 50 Greatest Players list. They trio combined for 63.2 points, 27.4 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game on 53.2 percent shooting.
And, they had the Sixth Man of the Year in Bill Walton, who averaged 14.1 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes on 56.2 percent shooting. The Bulls had Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, but that was about it. Both are all-time greats, but four always beats two.
This one obviously goes to the Bulls. The Celtics had a nice combination of Johnson and Danny Ainge, who was a very good knockdown shooter. But in the Bulls backcourt played the greatest player ever, a solid starter in Ron Harper and maybe the best pure shooter ever in Steve Kerr, who shot 51.5 percent on three pointers in ’96.
And no, that’s not a typo.
Although he was technically a forward, Toni Kukoc was another good perimeter scorer for the Bulls.
Depth undoubtedly goes to the Celtics. If you’re ranking every player on both teams, the Bulls have first, fourth and sixth, while the Celtics own second, third, fifth and seventh (then there’s a noticeable drop-off between seventh, Johnson, and eighth, Kukoc).
The Celtics had four guys average over 15 points per game. The Bulls only had two. And, as previously mentioned, the Celtics had the Sixth Man of the Year. The Bulls starting center, Luc Longley, may be the worst starting center to ever win an NBA Finals.
As for chemistry, I would also give the edge to Boston. Larry Bird is one of the most unselfish superstars to ever play the game, and his passing was contagious. The Celtics rarely took any bad shots because they would almost always find the open man.
Michael Jordan was an underrated facilitator, but Chicago’s overall cohesiveness was just not as strong as Boston’s. That doesn’t mean the Bulls had bad team chemistry. A more fitting explanation is that Boston’s was just untouchable.
K.C. Jones was a fine coach, but let’s be honest here. There are only two guys in the highest echelon of NBA coaching, and Phil Jackson is one of them (the other is of course Red Auerbach). He was one championship away from completing an incredible fourth three-peat.
Sure, he always had mega-stars on his roster, but he made them understand the team concept. I firmly believe that with no Phil Jackson, there’s no way Jordan wins six championships. He probably would have eventually figured it out and won a few, but the Zen Master really helped him get there quicker.
Boston definitely gets the edge here. The late 1990s and early 2000s was one of the driest talent runs the NBA has ever seen, and it really started in 1996. The Celtics, meanwhile, played during the league’s golden era of talent. In their respective runs to their titles, Boston had to go through young Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Sydney Moncrief and the twin towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.
Chicago’s toughest opponents were Alonzo Mourning, a declining Patrick Ewing, a 23-year-old Shaq and Gary Payton. Had the ’96 Bulls played in ’86, there’s no way they would have won 72 games.
Out of six categories, each team won three, so these two clubs were extremely close. But, I think I’ll give the slightest edge to Boston. The Bulls have the best player, which usually determines the winner, but here are my reasons for awarding Boston the trophy, in no particular order.
- Quality of competition is huge. The ’96 Bulls are known as one of the best teams ever because they won 72 games, but Boston won only five fewer in a much better NBA.
- Bird was right in the middle of his prime, while Jordan was just starting to decline from his peak. ’96 MJ is still better than ’86 Bird, but the gap is not as far as most people think.
- MJ’s greatest asset was his competitiveness and will to win. I would say Bird is second in that category, which would help nullify some of Jordan’s advantage.
- Chicago would just get manhandled up front. The combination of McHale, Parish and Walton would be too much for Rodman to take on by himself. Plus, Boston’s frontcourt depth would give them that many more fouls to hack away at Jordan every time he came flying into the lane. The size of Boston’s advantage up front is greater than Chicago’s advantage in the backcourt.