Michael Jordan's Bulls vs. Magic Johnson's Lakers: Which Dynasty Was Greater?
Throughout NBA history, dynasties littered with legends dominated various eras. Not only were these teams remarkable for their accomplishments, but they also helped popularize the league.
Some of these dynasties experienced their success without other dominant teams in the NBA. These dynasties include the Minneapolis Lakers of the 1950s, the Boston Celtics of the 1960s, the New York Knicks of the early 1970s and the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s.
We witnessed a rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics in the 1980s, as well as one between the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs from 1999-2010. In both of these cases, it is generally considered that the Lakers franchise was more dominant, as the team won the most championships and more head-to-head meetings in the playoffs.
However, trying to compare the dynasties from different eras proves difficult because they did not play each other directly.
Take Magic Johnson’s Lakers teams and Michael Jordan’s Bulls, for instance. Even though they met in the 1991 NBA Finals with Chicago being victorious, one cannot easily proclaim Jordan’s teams to be more dominant.
First, one of the main staples of the Lakers dynasty—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—had retired a few seasons earlier. Second, the Bulls were on the rise while the Lakers were clearly in the twilight years of the dynasty.
As part of the NBA Debate Series on Bleacher Report, featured columnists Rich Fernandes and Ethan S. compare and contrast various elements of the two dynasties.
Feel free to express your opinions in the comments section. Which writer has put together stronger arguments? Which dynasty overall do you feel was the better team?
In Starting a Team, Would Magic or Jordan Make the Better Centerpiece (Rich)?
When you talk about Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, you are arguably talking about two of the top three players to ever walk on the NBA hardwood, and they were both "Lords of the Rings."
These two superstars exhibited the type of dominating strength that has set them apart from every player that came before and after them.
Magic revolutionized the point guard position, while Jordan took Julius Erving's game and turned it on its ear by adding new meaning to the word dominance for a pure and explosively exciting scorer.
So who makes the better centerpiece for an NBA team?
Championships, MVP Awards and Other Accolades
In six NBA Finals appearances Jordan has won six times, reflecting a perfect batting average. In contrast, Magic and his Showtime Lakers won five times in nine finals appearances.
But Jordan’s finals accomplishments and dominance over Magic don’t end there, because when it comes to winning the finals MVP award, Jordan has six to Magic’s three.
Ditto for the regular season MVP awards (Jordan has five to Magic’s three)
With regards to the other NBA accolades, Jordan has the longest list of accomplishments of any player, and it actually runs off the page.
Jordan wins hands down.
Only Wilt Chamberlain has the stats to make an argument with Jordan as to who the best scorer in NBA history is—not Magic. Wilt owns the highest career regular season scoring average, and Jordan is second, but Jordan owns the highest career playoff scoring average and effectively pushed Wilt to second in the more important postseason category.
Not to mention that Jordan has 10 scoring titles to Wilt’s seven.
By comparison, while Magic could definitely score when needed, his main priority was to facilitate, a big reason why his individual scoring was not higher than it was.
Jordan wins hands down.
Magic is still considered the best point guard in the history of the game and was the major cog in the Showtime Lakers' engine—it was he who quarterbacked that team to such tremendous success.
Magic was an uncharacteristic 6'9", a height that is still considered tall for a point guard—a position that is reserved for the league’s shorter players. But height gave Magic a vision advantage to go along with his extremely high basketball IQ.
On the other hand, Jordan’s role on the Bulls was not one of a facilitator, but to score and defend. It should be noted, however, that Jordan did play point guard for a minimal amount of time during the 1989 season and became a triple-double machine.
Beginning at the end of March of that season, Jordan racked up an incredible 10 triple-doubles in 11 games, including seven straight, in Doug Collins’s mini point guard experiment. It was a brief but impressive feat that shocked fellow players and coaches alike.
It was a powerful, jaw-dropping glimpse of what Jordan could have done if he was a point guard for most of his career, and he most definitely had the ability to be an elite point guard.
Magic wins hands down.
Both Magic and Jordan were subpar perimeter players, though Jordan later developed his shooting stroke and became a legitimate threat from downtown.
Assistant coach Tex Winter would later say, “I don’t know if Kobe [Bryant] is a better shooter than Michael was at his best.” Obviously that’s a huge compliment to Jordan’s shooting game.
Magic, on the other hand, remained an average shooter throughout his career.
Jordan wins hands down.
Magic was never nominated to All-Defensive teams in his career. Jordan, on the other hand, won the Defensive Player of the Year Award after averaging 1.60 blocks, 3.8 defensive rebounds and 3.16 steals per game in 1988. Additionally, Jordan also made the All-Defensive Team nine times in 15 seasons in the league.
Jordan wins hands down.
There is no argument that Magic Johnson was the best team player in the history of the game, a proclamation that logically can only be applied to a pure point guard—a facilitator whose main goal is to make his teammates better. Magic did all that in leaps and bounds.
But prime Jordan was truly the best piece to start a team for the ages, and the argument for second-best starts and ends with Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.
Winner: Michael Jordan
In Starting a Team, Would Magic or Jordan Make the Better Centerpiece (Ethan)?
When it comes to talking about the greatest basketball player of all time, most people usually choose Michael Jordan (and I would agree with that assessment). His all-around game, including dominance on both ends of the court, made him one of the most effective players in league history.
In regards to Magic Johnson, some people argue that he is the greatest of all time, and many think he’s the greatest point guard in history. Regardless, few would argue that Johnson is not one of the top five players in NBA history.
Both Johnson and Jordan were exceptional players who were proven winners and shined in the clutch. Clearly, it is hard to go wrong with either pick as the centerpiece for any team.
But in order to make the best decision, one must realize the difference between both players and what made them each unique.
Comparing Magic to Jordan is not an apples-to-apples scenario. Magic, for instance, represented a playmaker who could also score. On the other hand, Jordan was a scorer who could also make plays.
It could be argued that Jordan was the best scorer ever to play in the NBA. His athletic gifts were a rarity in the league. He also was one of the best defenders of all time at his position.
But to what effect did he make players around him better?
Jordan certainly helped his teams by leading them in scoring in crucial fourth quarters and excelled in bail-out shots. His play forced double-teams that left teammates wide-open for easy looks—and Jordan, with his fine passing skills, often found them.
However, Jordan also had a selfish habit that was often to the detriment to his teams. Re-watch several games that Jordan played in, and it will become obvious how often he forced shots while failing to pass to other players who had better looks at the basket.
This is where Magic Johnson excels over Jordan. While Jordan was probably the best scorer in NBA history, Johnson was probably the best playmaker in NBA history. Being 6'9" and towering over other point guards, Johnson could easily see over the defense to find players just as they became open.
Almost always Magic set his teams up to take high-percentage shots. Granted, league defenses were not quite as effective during the 1980s compared to the 1990s and the 2000s, but it’s quite impressive to note how the 1987 Lakers team made 52 percent of its field goals. Over the past two decades, shooting 50 percent for an NBA team has seemed to be nearly an impossible task.
Nevertheless, no one was better at making players better than Magic Johnson. He helped make James Worthy into a perennial All-Star and helped to extend the career of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar into his 40s. Johnson even contributed to Byron Scott producing near an All-Star level. Making players better and prolonging careers of key players is what makes Magic the ultimate foundation-type player for a team.
Finally in the Jordan and Magic comparison, let’s consider who the rarer breed is. In looking at the past couple of decades, there have been some dominant and well-rounded wing players that could compare to Jordan (not saying any were his equal), including Clyde Drexler, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade.
Yet there has been no player that has come close to Magic Johnson. Chris Paul may be the closest talent since, but he lacks the size to rebound as dominantly and command double-teams in the post. Paul also lacks the height to see over opposing defenses, and his fast-break offense pales in comparison to Magic’s “Showtime” attack.
Furthermore, no point guard in NBA history other than Magic Johnson was able to dominate from every position on the floor (yet alone win a finals MVP award in the process).
For being the more unique player historically and better at elevating his teammates’ play, Magic Johnson has to be the logical and non-biased choice as the centerpiece of a team.
Winner: Magic Johnson
Better Trio: Kareem, Magic and Worthy or Jordan, Pippen and Rodman (Rich)?
The Showtime Lakers had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, while the Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant (first three championships) and Dennis Rodman (last three championships).
The following is a ranking of these players starting from the best, which illustrates the superiority of the Bulls' Big Three.
No. 1: Michael Jordan
Jordan had an unbridled focus to win. His explosive, rim-shattering, high-flying dunks were reminiscent of the days of Dr. J. His ability to shoot the three evolved to a level that the likes of Ray Allen and Reggie Miller could appreciate.
He could go toe to toe in the post with elite goliaths that included Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal—all giants of the game that he frequently cut down to size. Jordan was elite on both ends of the court as well.
No. 2: Magic Johnson
Magic was the ultimate general, guiding his troops into battle and often pushing their already high potential to ensure a victory. Since Magic’s dominance, many pure point guards have followed in his footsteps, including current stars Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo. However, none of them have Magic’s height advantage.
The only criticism of Magic’s game is that he was not the elite defender he was capable of being.
No. 3: Scottie Pippen
Pippen was a superstar in his own right, and his legacy would have been much greater had it not fallen under the heavy weight of Jordan’s shadow. Analysts today compare Pippen to LeBron James—a player capable of filling up the stat sheet. Not even Jordan could boast of that intrinsic ability to not only score and rebound, but to also dish out assists in a high number on a consistent basis.
Many fans still think of Pippen as the Robin to Jordan’s Batman, but Pippen was as much a Batman as Jordan and had as much to do with Chicago’s six championships as His Airness did. He was also an elite defender.
No. 4: Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman is another extremely underrated player and possibly the most effective role player in the history of the game. The Worm’s job was to grab rebounds, and he was highly potent in that role. He was the league’s most dominating rebounder, and no one could touch him in that category. He may not have had a big role in the Bulls' offense, but he definitely had the biggest role in their defense.
No. 5: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem has an amazing legacy that rivals Jordan’s, but he was not as dominant with the Lakers as Lew Alcindor was with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Lew would have been higher on this list. Nevertheless, he was still a force with Los Angeles and a very efficient player. Kareem was still dominating in the post and proved to be Showtime’s go-to guy on offense.
No. 6: James Worthy
James Worthy was a very good player that Johnson worked magic on and made even better. Worthy knew his role on the Showtime Lakers. According to ESPN writer Sam Smith:
“James Worthy was perhaps the ultimate coach's player, the one man most willing to sublimate his ego for the team. Perhaps no one ever in the NBA with as much natural talent was willing to show less of it than James Worthy.”
Winner: Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman
Better Trio: Kareem, Magic and Worthy or Jordan, Pippen and Rodman (Ethan)?
Every NBA fan knows that the Lakers dynasty between 1982-1988 centered on Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, while the Bulls dynasty from 1995-1998 revolved around Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
These legends, with the recent inclusion of Rodman into Springfield, are all Hall of Famers. In Kareem, Magic and Jordan, we have three legitimate candidates for the greatest basketball player of all time. It can also be argued that Pippen is the greatest wing defender and that Rodman was the best rebounder in NBA history.
In short, these six players represent some of the best talent in hoops that we have ever seen. Similar to the previous Jordan vs. Johnson debate, one cannot go wrong with either pick.
However, to figure out which trio is better, let’s consider the individual accomplishments during these eras (only from the years specified above), when both teams won three championships.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the finals MVP in 1985 and made the All-NBA team four times (two times each on the first and second teams). He also made the All-Defensive Second Team in 1984. Kareem was fourth in MVP award shares in both 1984 and 1985.
Magic Johnson made the All-NBA First Team each year and won the MVP award three times as well the 1987 NBA Finals MVP award. Johnson also led the league in assists three times during this span.
Worthy ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage three times and earned the 1988 finals MVP award.
Meanwhile, Michael Jordan led the league in scoring all three seasons and earned three Finals MVPs, two regular season MVP awards and two All-Star MVP awards. He also made the first teams for both the All-Defensive and All-NBA teams each year.
Scottie Pippen made the All-Defensive First Team all three seasons while also earning three All-NBA team nods (one for each team).
Dennis Rodman led the league in rebounds all three years, earned All-Defensive First Team honors in 1996 and had one of the top six defensive ratings each season.
If we compared these two trios with every player in his peak, I think many would pick the Los Angeles players as the better group. However, Kareem was in the twilight years of his career during this era, while Scottie Pippen was at the peak of his. Even though Jordan and Rodman were on the wrong side of age 30, they still were among the most effective players in the entire league.
When just considering the years specified, I have to give the slight edge to the Chicago trio.
Winner: Jordan, Pippen and Rodman
The Better Coach: Pat Riley with LA or Phil Jackson with the Bulls (Rich)?
Phil Jackson and Pat Riley have won more championships than any of the other coaches of the modern era. Riley’s four titles with the Showtime Lakers and Phil Jackson’s six titles with the Chicago Bulls are the ones specifically under discussion for this debate.
So who was the better coach, Riley with Los Angeles or Jackson with Chicago?
While both their coaching styles were different, they had one thing in common—they both emphasized the importance of defense.
Both the Lakers and the Bulls were explosively offensive teams that could run up the score almost at will, and they did it while taking their defensive games very seriously.
If defense wins championships, it was not a fluke that these two teams were able to win multiple championships and be regarded on the prestigious list of the best dynasties in all of sports.
The Lakers had two attack modes (fast and slow) that they could switch up when the best opportunities presented themselves on the court, a tactic that in itself would throw the opposing team off balance.
First there was Kareem waiting in the post ready to unleash his wicked and lethal trademark shot, the sky hook. Kareem was the sun, and the other Lakers were the planets revolving around him with the unrelenting goal of getting the ball to the big star in the sky.
Second, the Showtime Lakers got their name from the efficient execution of their run-and-gun-style offense (Magic’s trademark) that was exciting to watch. It usually started with a defensive turnover that sparked the fast break and ended with a slam, jam, thank you ma'am play.
Phil Jackson, on the other hand, employed the triangle offense, an attacking scheme that is difficult for players to pick up at first but is extremely effective when it’s run efficiently. Jackson’s 11 overall championships only substantiate this statement.
Riley and Jackson were master psychologists and were able to successfully motivate their players to win time after time and championship after championship.
These coaches also had much better-caliber players than most other teams, and it proved to be the right mix of coaching and players that led to both the Showtime Lakers and the Bulls dynasties.
Both coaches were great practitioners in their own right, and it’s really impossible to judge one to be better than the other when looking at just these two dynasties, so it’s probably best to call it a draw.
The Better Coach: Pat Riley with LA or Phil Jackson with the Bulls (Ethan)?
Pat Riley and Phil Jackson are nearly universally acclaimed as two of the best coaches in NBA history. Riley was known for showing more emotions during games, whereas Jackson was known as the “Zen Master” and seemed somewhat stoic during games.
When comparing Riley’s tenure with the Lakers to Jackson’s with the Bulls, the first obvious factor that stands out is the number of championships. Both were big-time winners, but Jackson won six titles with the Bulls compared to four for Riley with Los Angeles.
However, we need to take a more detailed look at the numbers in order to come to a strong conclusion as to which coach did the better job.
The regular season records for both coaches are nearly identical, as each spent nine seasons with his respective team. Riley, for instance, compiled a 533-194 record with a .733 winning percentage. In comparison, Jackson had a 545-193 record with the Bulls, translating to a .738 winning percentage. The similarity in these numbers is almost astounding.
Looking at the offensive and defensive ratings for the Bulls and Lakers tells more of the story. During Riley’s time with the Lakers, the team had the No. 1-rated offense six out of nine seasons. Two other seasons LA had the second-highest-rated offense. Riley’s worst season with LA saw the team with the fifth-best offense in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Riley was no slouch on defense with LA. All but one of Riley’s Lakers teams had defenses ranked in the top 10 in the league.
Phil Jackson also experienced success on offense, with four of his Bulls teams sporting the best offense in the NBA. When averaging the offensive rankings, Phil Jackson’s score was 4.9 compared to Riley’s 1.7. Although Jackson had a disadvantage when Michael Jordan temporarily left the league, Riley had to deal with an aging and eventually retired Abdul-Jabbar.
While it is probably safe to say the Riley was the better offensive coach, Jackson was the better defensive coach. Averaging the defensive rankings for Jackson yields 5.9 compared to 8.6 for Riley.
Given that both coaches had impressive regular season records, consider the fact that Chicago is more centrally located in the United States compared to Los Angeles. To travel between other NBA cities is much less time-consuming for the Bulls compared to the Lakers. This definitely makes a difference when it comes to player fatigue, which can affect the ability to win games.
Also take into account how the NBA only had 23 teams throughout most of Riley’s tenure with LA, yet during most of Jackson’s tenure with Chicago, the league had between 27 and 29 teams.
Since there wasn’t as much of an influx of international players in the early to mid 1990s, the league’s talents were spread thin. In other words, the average team had less talent compared to the more compact league in the 1980s. This made it easier for strong clubs like the Bulls to get wins over weaker teams.
Hence, Riley gets the nod over Jackson for the regular season.
Both coaches won a single Coach of the Year Award during their tenures (although they arguably each deserved more). While Jackson won two more championships than Riley, the Lakers won an additional conference championship.
Finally, we must consider the playoff records for both Riley and Jackson. During his stint with LA, Riley compiled a 102-47 playoff record (.685 winning percentage). In comparison, Jackson recorded a 111-41 playoff record, which translates to a .730 winning percentage.
Not only did Jackson have the better playoff record, but Riley’s teams had an advantage of only having to get through three rounds to win the title the first couple of seasons (compared to the modern standard of four).
However, let’s not forget two important factors. First, Phil Jackson never had to endure injuries to key players in the finals like Riley did in 1989 with Magic Johnson and Byron Scott. Can you imagine if Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen sat out of one of the finals series? One would be foolish to think that the Bulls would still be victorious.
Second, the Bulls did not face the same level of competition in the finals as LA did (although Chicago had to get through the Pistons the first couple of years to make the finals). On the other hand, Los Angeles had to face up against three strong teams (if not dynasties) in the Philadelphia 76ers featuring Julius Erving and Moses Malone, the Celtics featuring Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and the Pistons with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Many claim that the Celtics teams of the mid 1980s made up one of the top three or four dynasties in NBA history.
Thus, Riley faced much tougher competition than Jackson in the playoffs. The difference in competition and the injuries that LA sustained help explain the difference in playoff records. In the end, one must conclude that their playoff performances are about even.
With a tie for playoff performance, Pat Riley with his edge in the regular season stands out above Phil Jackson in this comparison.
Winner: Pat Riley
Which Dynasty Was Better: Magic's Lakers or Jordan's Bulls (Rich)?
In the previous slides I made arguments that Jordan makes the better centerpiece to start a team than Magic and that the Bulls' trio (Jordan, Pippen and Rodman) was superior to the Lakers’ trio (Magic, Kareem and Worthy).
In the next slide I will argue that the 1996 Bulls were superior to the 1987 Lakers (the two best versions of these dynasties).
So you shouldn’t be too surprised that my pick for the better dynasty is the Chicago Bulls when considering each one of those arguments.
But wait! There is still more to consider:
The Chicago Bulls dynasty (six titles) and the Showtime Lakers dynasty (five titles) are considered to be two of the three best reigns of dominance in the history of the game, and only Bill Russell’s 11 Championship Celtics was more dominant.
The Lakers had unarguably the best rivalry ever seen in the NBA versus Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. Bird should easily make every fan’s top-five list simply because of his dominating play at a time when many analysts considered Bird to be Magic’s equal.
While Magic met his equal in Larry Bird in the finals several times, Jordan had no equal during his reign of terror that brought the city of Chicago to the promised land six times.
What makes the argument of the Bulls’ dynasty vs. the Showtime Lakers’ dynasty a compelling one, however, is that Jordan’s first appearance and championship in the finals (1991) was Magic’s last finals appearance—so these dudes actually butted heads in the NBA’s championship round, although it was not exactly a prime Magic facing off against prime Jordan.
But the Lakers were not exactly the chump change that Jordan and the Bulls made them out to be, as they did make it all the way to the finals only to be "Kareemed" by Chicago. For Chicago, it was Act Two of the Bulls marking their territory in a preview of the league’s newest dynasty, which followed the Act One trouncing of the previously dominant NBA champions, the Detroit Pistons.
The last thing to consider when rating these two dynasties is what Fortune magazine called the "Jordan Effect." The impact Jordan had was tremendous from both marketing and playing perspectives. He made the league more recognizable and desirable by singlehandedly globally increasing the NBA’s audience by millions of fans.
Everybody wanted to see Michael Jordan, and suddenly it was possible for people to be Michael Jordan fans while not really being basketball fans at all. The NBA also profited in colossal amounts from the "Jordan Effect," and it could be seen from the massive network deals and the TV ratings that went through the roof.
In the process, Jordan put the NBA on center stage while his endorsers and the NBA made billions of dollars off his brand compared to the measly millions that actually went into his own pocket.
The Jordan Effect could not have occurred in such an enormous scale without the success of the Bulls dynasty, and it is the single most convincing reason that proves the Bulls dynasty is the greatest dynasty in NBA history.
The final nail in the coffin of this argument is that unlike the Showtime Lakers and every other NBA dynasty before and after them, the Bulls didn’t fizzle out because of decline. In fact, it was entirely possible that they could have won eight or more championships had Jordan not retired in between or the Bulls not disbanded after their sixth title.
Winner: Chicago Bulls
Which Dynasty Was Better: Magic's Lakers or Jordan's Bulls (Ethan)?
In my opinion, dynasties should be measured by a number of factors, including dominance, consistency, the level of competition and the quality of players and coaching staff.
A naïve person would proclaim up front that the Jordan’s Bulls dynasty was better than Magic’s Lakers teams because the Bulls won an additional championship. But like most honest analyses of highly debated issues, the answer is not so simple.
Both dynasties were incredibly successful, and few will deny this claim. However, some suggest that the Bulls would have won eight championships in a row if Michael Jordan didn’t retire for a season and a half in the middle of the run. Not only is this speculative, but it is almost impossible to prove. The Bulls surely benefited from early playoff exits in 1994 and 1995 that helped the team rest up for the dominant three years to follow.
People often forget that the Celtics teams from 1959-1966 that won eight titles in a row benefited from shorter seasons and playoffs that lasted half as long, not to mention Boston had a huge talent disparity over the league. With longer seasons and salary cap rules, it would be nearly impossible for a team today to put together a similar title-winning streak.
During the time off from the league that Jordan took, he developed a better jump shot and more potent post game, which helped keep him dominant through the second three-peat.
With Jordan gone, Chicago made decisions to rebuild and got certain draft picks that the team would not have gotten otherwise. The new additions of Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman were all instrumental in getting the Bulls three additional championships.
Meanwhile, the Lakers may have “only” won five rings with Magic Johnson, but the team could have easily won a few more. In 1981, Johnson suffered torn cartilage in his left knee that caused him to miss 45 games. Not only did that hurt the Lakers’ record that season, but his return caused several chemistry issues for the team.
In the 1989 playoffs, the Lakers started off 11-0 before facing the Detroit Pistons in the finals. However, with Magic going down with a hamstring injury coupled with a serious injury to Byron Scott, the Lakers had to play without their starting backcourt against Pistons legend Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. It can be argued that LA would have won a title in 1989 with the on-court dominance and fluidity the team showed during the playoffs.
The Lakers dynasty has to get the edge for consistency. In the 12 years from 1980 to 1991, Magic Johnson’s teams reached the NBA Finals nine times, including four years in a row from 1982-1985. The Bulls only reached the finals six times and never had four consecutive trips.
Few should argue that the Lakers dynasty didn't win more consistently for a longer period of time compared to Jordan’s dynasty.
Level of Competition: Lakers
As was discussed earlier, the Lakers faced tougher competition with strong teams like the 76ers, Celtics and Pistons (not to mention several tough Western Conference opponents). The Bulls were challenged by the Pistons early on, but no team came close to the Bulls during the three-peat years. Unlike the 1980s Lakers dealing with another dynasty in Boston, the Bulls were the sole dynasty from 1991 to 1998.
Quality of Players and Coaches: Lakers
From the previous section on coaches, we already can assume that while Jackson may be the best coach in NBA history, Riley’s run with LA was slightly more impressive than Jackson’s run in Chicago.
Regarding the players, Chicago’s teams revolved around two superstars in Pippen and Jordan. The Bulls also had great power forwards in Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman (though at different times).
Each of the core three sets of players were surrounded by solid role players like three-point specialists Steve Kerr, John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong, centers Luc Longley and Bill Cartwright, forwards Scott Williams and Stacey King and wing players like Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper.
Meanwhile, the Lakers teams were loaded with All-Star or close to All-Star talent. Surrounding the core of Magic, Kareem and Worthy were Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Bob McAdoo and Byron Scott. The Lakers teams also had defensive specialist Michael Cooper and role player forwards Kurt Rambis, A.C. Green and Mychal Thompson.
In fact, the 1986-1987 Lakers team featured four No. 1 draft picks in Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy and Thompson. That’s the only team that carried that distinction in NBA history.
Needless to say, the Lakers were stacked with more talent from top to bottom compared to Jordan’s Bulls teams.
With the Lakers being just as dominant as the Bulls but having the edges in consistency, competition and quality of players and coach, it is a fair statement to say that the 1980s Lakers were the superior dynasty to the 1990s Bulls.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
In a Series Between the 1987 Lakers and 1996 Bulls, Who Wins (Rich)?
The short answer to this question would be the Chicago Bulls on the premise that their defense was superior to that of the 1987 Lakers.
It’s interesting to note that both Magic Johnson (1987) and Michael Jordan (1996) won both the regular season MVP award as well as the finals MVP award.
The game has always preached that defense wins championships, and that proclamation favors the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ lockdown defenders over L.A.’s 1987 Lakers, who were also very effective defenders in their own right.
But the Bulls had many other advantages. For example, no one on that Lakers team could have shut down Michael Jordan—he would have definitely gotten his points like he always did. But possibly more harmful to the Showtime Lakers is that they also had no answer for the versatile triple-double threat of Scottie Pippen.
Furthermore, there was no rebounder on the Showtime Lakers that could have come close to Dennis Rodman’s dominance on the glass. A.C. Green’s team-leading 7.3 RPG in the 1987 playoffs (for the Lakers) is doubled by Rodman’s 13.7 RPG in the 1996 playoffs. In addition, Pippen’s 8.5 RPG would ensure that the top two rebounders wore a Bulls uniform and that Chicago would dominate the boards.
You also have to remember that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a good role player on this team and far from his dominating prime. Put Lew Alcindor on the Showtime Lakers and you have a much closer rivalry comparison between these two dynasties.
When Magic was in offensive mode, the stealthy and superior defensive Jordan would have thrown Magic out of rhythm. If Magic could be thrown out of rhythm (even by a little bit), it would exponentially decrease the Lakers' chances of winning.
The 1996 Bulls had three entries on that year’s NBA All-Defensive First Team (Jordan, Pippen and Rodman), while the Showtime Lakers had only one (Michael Cooper) in 1987. Cooper was a gutsy player that also won the Defensive Player of the Year Award that season.
This logic points out that the Showtime Lakers would not be able to approach their normal offensive prowess because of the suffocating defensive game of the 1996 Bulls.
Simply put, three of the league’s best defenders (Jordan, Pippen and Rodman) working in unison will overwhelm a team that has only one of the league’s best defenders in Cooper.
Consequentially, the Bulls’ record-breaking 72-win season (1996) is a testament to this fact.
Showtime’s defense was very good, but the Bulls defense was even better.
The 1996 Bulls would get their points while using lockdown defense to simultaneously ensure that Magic’s 1987 Lakers didn’t get all of theirs.
You cannot ignore the fact that the 1996 Chicago Bulls were both an offensive and defensive juggernaut.
Winner: Chicago Bulls
In a Series Between the 1987 Lakers and 1996 Bulls, Who Wins (Ethan)?
Watching a seven-game series between the 1987 Lakers and 1996 Bulls would be quite a treat for basketball enthusiasts worldwide. It would be a series pairing Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson in their primes, as well as a battle between the triangle offense and “Showtime!”
Since playoff series are often determined by matchups, this analysis will look at player positions.
Centers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Luc Longley
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have been pushing 40 by 1987, but he still averaged nearly twice as many points as Longley. No one on the Bulls roster would be able to effectively guard Kareem, and I have two words to mention: sky hook.
Power Forwards: A.C. Green vs. Dennis Rodman
This matchup would be interesting, as neither player was a major factor in his team's offense. Green was a decent jump shooter, defender and rebounder. Rodman was a mediocre scorer but was a dominant defender and rebounder. Rodman would have an advantage at this position, but Green would find ways to make decent contributions.
Small Forwards: James Worthy vs. Scottie Pippen
A matchup of Worthy and Pippen may be the closest one between the two teams. With his all-around game, including playmaking and suffocating defense, normally Pippen might hold a strong edge over Worthy. But don’t forget that Worthy took his game to another stratosphere in the playoffs—which led to his nickname “Big Game James.”
Worthy would have a size advantage and would be able to do damage down low in the post. He was also an underrated defender who would make things a bit difficult for Pippen. In the end, however, Pippen’s skills would get the edge over Worthy.
Shooting Guards: Byron Scott vs. Michael Jordan
Byron Scott was a decent scorer in 1987, averaging 17 points per game while making 44 percent of his three-pointers. While Scott might be the better pure shooter at this position, I only need to mention “Michael Jordan,” and the edge becomes obvious to anyone living on this planet.
Point Guards: Magic Johnson vs. Ron Harper
Ron Harper used to be called a poor man’s Michael Jordan with his ability to score and defend, but by 1996 Harper was mainly a ball distributor and defender for the Bulls. Magic Johnson would own Harper in the post, and there would be little chance that Harper would be able to slow Johnson down.
Bench: Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson and Kurt Rambis vs. Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington
The Lakers bench would feature the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Michael Cooper, as well as a decent scorer and defender in Mychal Thompson. Being that Thompson was highly effective in containing Kevin McHale in the 1987 finals, he would be able to guard any of Chicago’s big men well. Michael Cooper could be used to guard any of the wing players, including Jordan or Pippen.
In addition, Kurt Rambis was the Lakers’ lesser version of Dennis Rodman—a hustle guy who made the little plays that made a difference in a game’s outcome.
Coming off the Bulls bench would be Sixth Man of the Year Toni Kukoc and three-point king Steve Kerr. Both players would help stretch LA’s defense and distribute the ball for Chicago. However, they would have less to offer on the defensive end. Also, compared to their averages from behind the three-point arc in 1996, their shooting would probably not be as accurate if the court had today’s longer three-point line (as it was in 1987).
Rounding off the core eight players would be Bill Wennington manning the middle.
Due to the versatility of the Lakers bench on both ends of the court, LA’s unit gets the edge here.
Once again, we are stuck with a matchup that seems too close to call with each team having the advantage in three matchups. However, the versatility and uniqueness of LA’s players would end up proving the difference.
Due to Magic Johnson’s size, Scottie Pippen would likely be assigned to guard him, as in the 1991 Finals. However, dealing with Magic a few years younger would make things slightly more difficult for Pippen. Pippen would spend a significant amount of energy guarding Johnson, but Magic would not do the same guarding the low-scoring Ron Harper.
If Pippen were to switch onto Johnson, matchup problems would occur if either Harper or Jordan tried to guard Worthy. Now, in addition to having no answer for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chicago would struggle to slow down Worthy.
With Michael Cooper guarding Jordan and Worthy guarding Pippen, the two main offensive weapons for Chicago would have to work hard to get their points.
In the end, the matchups and flexibility for the Lakers would prove to be too much for the Bulls. The Lakers would take the series in six games.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
About the Authors
Rich is a resident of Toronto, Ontario and is an avid sports nut. Rich’s favorite sports include NHL hockey, NFL football, NBA basketball and Ultimate Fighting. Rich also loves playing the game of squash and loves to go downhill skiing in the winter. Rich has found Bleacher Report to be an enjoyable experience as well as the ultimate platform for the serious sports fan.
Ethan currently lives near Seattle, Washington and has enjoyed engaging with the Bleacher Report community and being a part of the NBA Debate Team. His favorite sports leagues are the NBA and NFL. When not writing with Bleacher Report, Ethan enjoys spending time with family and friends and spending time outside. Few things are better than a warm sunny day in the Pacific Northwest.
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