It's finally here.
ESPN's The Last Dance documentary on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls is set to release Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. The 10-part series will air over the course of five weeks, featuring never-before-seen footage of the team throughout its final season together.
Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest player of all time. His countless accolades, including six championships in six tries, five MVPs and more, were bolstered by his Bulls setting a record by winning 72 games during the 1995-96 season.
Since Jordan left the Bulls 22 years ago, the debates about where he and his teams rank among the all-time greats have never been hotter. LeBron James has come along, building a case to unseat Jordan for basketball's greatest. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors overtook the Bulls' record in 2015-16 by winning 73 games.
Is Jordan's seat still safe?
Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin and Will Gottlieb take turns comparing various aspects of the 72-win Bulls and 73-win Warriors, from star power to bench support to greater impact on the game. Ultimately, they make their picks for a winner in a seven-game series.
When the Warriors upended the Bulls' 20-year hold on the NBA wins record, Stephen Curry was at the peak of his powers. Entering his prime at 27 years old, he was the most beloved player on the planet, briefly usurping LeBron and leading the Warriors to 73 wins and capturing the first-ever unanimous MVP.
Curry averaged 42.5 points per 100 possessions and is the only player to ever average 30 points per game with 50-45-90 shooting splits. He also owns the only season of 2,300 or more points with a true shooting percentage above 66 percent. It was the single greatest offensive season ever.
While Curry was at his best during the Warriors' 73-win year, Jordan was heading toward the end of his prime. In 1995-96, he was in his first full season back from his first retirement. He was 32, and though he won the MVP and averaged 30.4 points per game, he was not the same scoring machine he had been during the first three-peat and in the '80s.
The Warriors' secondary stars also had the benefit of playing at their respective peaks. Draymond Green, then 25, was having a career year, averaging 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists while shooting 38.8 percent on threes and delivering a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber performance. Klay Thompson, 25, did his usual thing: 22.1 points per game, 42.5 percent on threes and elite perimeter defense.
Jordan's sidekick, Scottie Pippen, was in the middle of the best stretch of his career. At 30, the original point forward averaged 19.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists and was perennially on the All-Defensive first team.
For this specific instance—1995-96 Bulls vs. 2015-16 Warriors—it's a bit unfair to compare peak Curry Warriors to post-peak Jordan Bulls. The Bulls had been through it all. Jordan and Pippen get the edge when it comes to body of work, but the Warriors were in their physical primes, had three stars instead of two and had the advantage of the three-point revolution on their side.
In a head-to-head matchup, things might be different, but relative to their time, the Warriors were at their individual and team peak.
But even past his prime, no one ever stopped Jordan. — Gottlieb
Bulls: Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Steve Kerr
Warriors: Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa
Jordan's supporting cast was plenty capable. Steve Kerr was one of the best shooters in NBA history, and Toni Kukoc would have thrived in the modern NBA with his 6'11" size and shooting ability. Dennis Rodman, at 6'7", averaged 14.9 rebounds per game.
But Andre Iguodala, a starter-level player coming off the bench, was one of the best defenders of his generation and, though not known as a shooter, was a respectable 35.1 percent from long range that season. Harrison Barnes, while not great at any one thing, was a skilled all-around player who slotted in perfectly in the Warriors' system, as did Shaun Livingston as the third guard.
Where the Warriors' supporting players really set themselves apart was up front. The 1996 team started Luc Longley at center and gave minutes to Bill Wennington and Jud Buechler, none of whom had the scoring or passing ability of Bogut. The Warriors were at their best when they went small with the "Death Lineup" (more on this in a minute), but when they needed to go big, the talent gap was obvious. — Highkin
Bulls: Harper, Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc, Rodman
Warriors: Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, Green
The Warriors made their Death Lineup famous by upending the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals when they slid Green to the 5 and brought supersub Iguodala in to help defend James and make it possible to switch 1 through 5.
With all the spacing and ball movement, the Warriors offense was unstoppable and remains one of the most unsolvable puzzles to this day. But what made the Warriors so deadly was they didn't give up anything on defense. With four 6'7" bodies and an elite team defensive IQ without sacrificing rim protection, this Warriors lineup was one of the greatest five-man units of all time.
The Bulls also had length in the backcourt (6'6" Harper, 6'6" Jordan, 6'8" Pippen) and four scoring threats and Rodman gobbling up offensive rebounds.
The Warriors' three-point barrage and off-ball movement would give anyone problems, but the Bulls—especially in a more modernized hypothetical—had the savvy, length and go-to scoring options that would put them over the top. — Gottlieb
Wild Cards: Green vs. Rodman
Last fall, I interviewed Rodman ahead of the release of his ESPN documentary Rodman: For Better or Worse. I asked him if there were any players in today's game who reminded him of himself, and he only offered one name: Draymond Green.
It's not hard to see why Rodman singled Green out, both on and off the court. Like Rodman, Green is an undersized power forward who wreaks havoc on opposing offenses by creating mismatches. They're also both just as likely to drive their teammates crazy as they are their opponents.
Coming to Chicago, Rodman had a reputation so toxic that the Bulls were able to acquire him for Will Perdue despite the obvious gap in talent. Green, meanwhile, may have cost the Warriors the 2016 Finals when he got suspended for Game 5 for hitting LeBron in the groin.
But despite their flaws, Rodman and Green were the wild cards that made their teams function, and neither club would have been nearly as good without them. I'm giving the edge to Rodman, who was one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history and a completely singular character. — Highkin
Phil Jackson vs. Steve Kerr
It was often overlooked by the Bulls' success, but Phil Jackson had a lot of egos to manage. During the late '80s and leading into the first championship, he had to get a begrudging Jordan on board with the triangle offense. He later described all that it took to manage the personalities on the roster.
While the original is usually graded on a different scale, the inverse might be true for coaching.
Like Jackson, Kerr took on the zen personality. Having had the benefit of playing for two of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport—Jackson and Gregg Popovich—Kerr expanded the limitations of the game by blending the selfless nature of his team, their willingness to move the ball and the threat of the three-pointer to create a beautiful, ruthless brand of basketball.
Having played on this Bulls team, Kerr might also have some insider knowledge to benefit the Warriors. — Gottlieb
Both the Bulls and Warriors were plenty hated in their day. On March 10, 1997, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story asking if the Bulls' dominance was "bad for the NBA." It's not too dissimilar to the concerns many voiced about the Warriors during their run.
They blew teams out too easily. They were too stacked. Too much of a spectacle. It wasn't fun to watch because everyone knew who was going to win. The criticisms were the same.
The difference is that in 2016 there were more platforms for these critics to get their messages out than there were in 1996. If you wanted to avoid the Bulls, you could simply not read the newspaper. The Warriors were inescapable on every social media platform, none of which existed in the '90s. The debates and discussions could happen in real time with a mass audience, even involving the players themselves, in a way they could not two decades previously.
The Jordan Bulls never lost in the Finals, so we'll never know how it would have been received. But the Warriors' Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers created a cottage industry of "the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead" jokes and memes that are still going strong today. Anyone who wasn't a Warriors fan took immeasurable glee in their misfortune. — Highkin
The Last Dance will be a reminder of how much the Bulls changed the NBA.
No player had a greater impact than Jordan. No team had a greater impact on the growth of the league than the '90s Bulls. The NBA became the global brand it is now, in part, because Jordan's athleticism, skill and domination captured the imagination of the world. Every kid wanted to play like Mike, and that spurred two decades worth of fadeaway jumpers and Mamba mentalities.
Fast forward, and Curry and the Warriors created a fundamental change in how basketball is played, starting the three-point, small-ball, switching revolution. However, motion offense is an evolution of the Bulls' triangle offense. In 20 years, kids will be running around launching threes and shimmying back down the court.
Jordan and the Bulls were the starting point for everything that has led up to today's game, and though Curry has once again changed the game forever, so much of what the Warriors created was built on what the Bulls started. — Gottlieb
The Warriors had plenty going for them from this standpoint: Curry's viral pregame warm-ups and circus shots; the sense that whenever he crossed half court, he was liable to drain an impossible three; Green's outspokenness; all manner of social media trolling.
But there has never been a more electrifying viewing experience in basketball than watching Jordan. He was a superhero in a way that nobody in the NBA is now—there's too much access, and it's too easy to cut through the mystique to see how the sausage is made. Plus, the Bulls had Rodman, the most chaotic, unpredictable character in NBA history.
As entertaining as they were, the Warriors don't measure up. — Highkin
Who Wins a 7-Game Series?
The matchups and cross-matchups would make this an infinitely entertaining series.
Jordan was a ball hawk, preying on smaller point guards. He would quickly learn that pressing up on Curry doesn't exactly slow him down—it opens up driving lanes, kick-outs and relocation threes. It would be smart for Jackson to start Pippen on Green in order to trap or switch onto Curry in pick-and-rolls.
Harper would guard the more speedy and athletic Thompson, a matchup Kerr could look to exploit. Kukoc and Rodman would be left to check Barnes and Iguodala, respectively.
On the other side, the Warriors would hide Curry on Harper, baiting him into inefficient post-ups. Barnes and Thompson would take turns trying to slow down Pippen and Kukoc, leaving Iguodala as the best option to try to handle Jordan.
One X-factor would be the offensive glass. While the Warriors may want to try leaving Rodman altogether, if Tristan Thompson gave them headaches, you can only imagine what Rodman would do.
The question of the three-point line looms large in this exercise. If the Bulls are dropped into the modern game, they'd be better equipped to deal with threes, but if it's era against era, that becomes a massive advantage for the Warriors.
Though the Bulls were a dominant transition force themselves, the Warriors' speed and unabashed shooting would be nearly impossible to handle. The Bulls did have the length to get in Curry's way, but nothing could prepare a mid-'90s team for what Curry was doing.
If the Bulls could weather that initial shock, their intellectual and experiential edge would come into play. We know what happened to the Warriors down the stretch of the Finals against the Cavaliers, and even if we imagine this hypothetical without Green getting suspended, Jordan and Co. would be able to assert themselves.
Ultimately, the Warriors (10.7 net rating) were beatable. It took a herculean performance from the Cavaliers, but they were beaten. Even the Oklahoma City Thunder took them to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. With Kevin Durant, this is a different story, but no one beat the Bulls (13.4 net rating).
Maybe they weren't tested the way the Warriors were, but they also never showed the mental, emotional or physical lapses. And if we learned anything, "It don't mean a thing without the ring."— Gottlieb
Will's Pick: Bulls in 7
The 2015-16 Warriors were as complete a team as has ever been assembled, but they never felt invincible the way the Jordan Bulls did. They went down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals to Oklahoma City and completely fell apart in the Finals after Green was suspended.
A hypothetical 1996 Bulls vs. 2016 Warriors series would be close if we allow for fully healthy and available rosters on both sides. Curry wasn't himself in that run, still recovering from a knee injury he suffered against the Houston Rockets in the first round. Golden State also lost Bogut during the Finals.
Even still, this Warriors group went down 2-1 in the last three rounds the year before and would have lost to Oklahoma City in 2016 if not for an all-time game from Thompson. The Bulls never had a playoff opponent come close to them. It never felt like they were seriously in danger of losing at any point. The Warriors did lose and came close a couple of other times before that.
It may be a copout to say I don't know who would win a series between both of these teams at full strength in a vacuum, but it would be a lot of fun to watch. I'll give the slight edge to the Bulls, who were never beaten. — Highkin
Sean's Pick: Bulls in 7