1996 Chicago Bulls vs 2001 Los Angeles Lakers

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Is anyone actually surprised that the best regular-season team would wind up against the most dominant post-season team in the finals? The match-up between the 96 Bulls and the 2001 Lakers is perhaps the biggest dream match-up in the history of basketball and boasts a variety of incredible scenarios. Let’s get right into it.

Wait, didn’t we just have this match-up in the previous chapter?

Not even close. While it is true that the 01 Lakers did advance over 91 the Bulls led by Jordan, there are significant differences between the first Bulls three-peat and the second one, and remarkably some fans and historians actually prefer the first 91-93 Bulls over the 96-98 squad.

Since when!

Basketball fans love comparisons; we can’t help ourselves. Who is the next Jordan? Is Shaq better than Wilt? Is Kobe more accomplished than LeBron? Hell, this entire book is based on speculative comparisons. But perhaps the biggest one that irritates me is the notion that the first three-peat Bulls was superior to the second one. Sure, Jordan was in his prime during the first run, but that is the only advantage for the 91-93 team.

Jordan Championship Comparison

Regular Season

91-93: 31.4 PPG (52% FG, 32% 3PT, 84% FT), 6.4 RPG, 5.7 APG, 2.6 SPG, 0.9 BPG

96-98: 29.6 PPG (48% FG, 37% 3PT, 82% FT), 6.1 RPG, 4 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.5 BPG

Playoffs

91-93: 33.7 PPG (50% FG, 39% 3PT, 84% FT), 6.4 RPG, 6.6 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1 BPG

96-98: 31.4 PPG (46% FG, 30% 3PT, 82% FT), 6 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.6 BPG

Jordan was more explosive in 91-93, and produced some of the greatest moments in the history of the game during this run. But Jordan in 96-98 bottled his game more, and there were 2 major reasons for this. The first was the emergence of Scottie Pippen as a trusted floor general and leader, rather than simply a supremely talented role-player who followed Jordan’s lead. The second was the Bulls defensive depth and versatility. The additions of Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper, along with Pippen and Jordan, allowed Chicago to wreak havoc on the league.

“In the mid-nineties, most teams had small guards. It was dogma in the NBA that unless you had a Magic Johnson, the smart strategy was to go small in the backcourt to keep pace with the quick, undersized point guards at the time. But I learned from watching Scottie Pippen play point guard that having a six-seven player with extra-long wingspan in that position created all kinds of fascinating possibilities.”

“What would happen, I wondered, if we had three tall, long-armed guards on the court at the same time? Not only would it create confusing mismatches for other teams, but it would also improve our defence immeasurably because big guards could switch off and defend post players without resorting to double-teaming. With big guards, we could apply pressure more effectively inside the three-point line.” – Phil Jackson

With Harper, the Bulls now had 4 elite and versatile defenders (3 of who were named to the all-defensive 1st team), capable of disrupting any opponent’s offense. The Bulls depth did not end on the defensive end of the court. Chicago boasted Toni Kukoc off the bench. It goes without saying that Kukoc made a huge sacrifice by accepting his role in 96. A lot of analysts said that at the time, “Kukoc would be a starter on most teams.” Forget that. Kukoc would have been a starter on ANY other team. There is not one team in the league that would’ve had him coming off the bench. And on 80% of those teams, he would have been either the first or second option on offence. In many scenarios, he would have been an all-star. And Chicago had him coming off the bench! So that’s 4 elite defenders, the greatest scorer in NBA history in Jordan, a do-it-all playmaker in Scottie Pippen, and one of the most versatile scorers coming off the bench! To top that off, you had Dennis Rodman getting offensive rebounds and second-chance possessions. Tell me again how the 92 Bulls were better than the 96 Bulls.

The Man in the middle

The obvious weakness for the 96 Bulls is Longley starting at centre. At 7-2 and 290 lbs, Longley was one of the biggest centres in the league. He did lack coordination and foot speed, but his size meant that he was one of the the few players in the league that could take Shaq’s first bump as he bulldozed his way to the basket. It also meant that he could push Shaq and make him start from 12-15 feet from the basket, where he would have to make multiple dribbles before he would get to his sweet spots (almost always in the paint). This would give Chicago the opportunity to double with Pippen, Harper, Jordan, or Rodman.

Speaking of whom

Shaq’s individual physical dominance from 2000 to 2002 along with team success was unprecedented. The thing that must be acknowledged is that it was all physical and essentially predictable, and when you combine this with his horrible foul-shooting, there are questions regarding his ability to carry a team late in the 4th quarters of games.

The Kryptonite

Dennis Rodman might be the most versatile defender in NBA history. Have a look at the greats he has had the defensive assignment handed to him:

  • Magic Johnson in the NBA finals
  • Michael Jordan in the conference finals
  • Larry Bird in the conference finals
  • Karl Malone in the NBA finals

And…

  • Shaq in the conference finals

Magic is recognised as the greatest point guard in the history of the game, as is Jordan is considered the top shooting guard. Larry Bird is considered either the best or the second best small forward of all-time. At the time of the 97 and 98 Finals, Karl Malone was considered the best power forward to play the game, and an argument can be made that Shaq is the most dominant player of all-time. And Rodman has guarded them all in big games of the playoffs. In order for Rodman to be able to guard the likes of Shaq and Malone, he had to bulk up, which he did, and he became very effective in containing big men in the post.

Rodman vs Shaq

1996 Eastern Conference Finals

Shaq: 27 PPG (64% FG, 36% FT), 10.8 RPG, 4 APG, 1.5 BPG, 4.1 Turnovers per game

Those are some pretty big numbers, and it’s hard to understand how the Bulls swept Orlando. The reality is Chicago, as crazy as this sounds, did not view Shaq as a real threat. Instead, it was the perimeter scorers of the Magic that the Bulls were interested in shutting down.

1996 Regular Season

Dennis Scott: 17.5 PPG (44% FG, 43% 3PT)
Nick Anderson: 14.7 PPG (44% FG, 39% 3PT)

1996 Eastern Conference Finals

Dennis Scott: 7.3 PPG (27% FG, 16% 3PT)

Nick Anderson: 8.3 PPG (31% FG, 20% 3PT)

When Chicago did focus on stopping Shaq, they did it with relative ease. In game 1, when the game was relatively in the balance, they shifted Rodman onto O’Neal and held him to 2 points on 1/5 shooting with 2 turnovers as the Bulls blew them out. In game 3, Rodman guarded Shaq primarily and held him to 17 points on 8/19 shooting and had 5 turnovers. Shaq was never a concern for Chicago.

Was Shaq the same player in 2001 that he was in 96?

Absolutely not. With 2 post moves, Shaq was a far more complete offensive player. (Yeah, I’ll admit it; writing this sentence made me laugh) More importantly though was his maturation mentally. He had the mindset that nothing was going to stop him from getting his points, and he was a handful. This forced teams to swarm him to get the ball out of his hands.

2000 Western Conference Finals

Game 1: 41 points (14/25 FG), 11 Rebounds, 7 Assists, 5 Blocks

After that game, The Blazers decided to swarm O’Neal and make the perimeter players (who also included sharpshooter Glen Rice) to beat them. Here’s his stats for the rest of the series:

Games 2-7: 23.3 PPG (53% FG), 12.7 RPG, 3.8 APG, 3.2 TPG

Quite the drop-off, and outside of Pippen (who was no where near the same defender in 2000 that he was in 1996), the Blazers defenders that were doubling him were Steve Smith and Bonzi Wells (definitely not Jordan or Harper).

2004 NBA Finals
Shaq: 26.6 PPG (63% FG) 10.8 RPG, 1.6 APG (and they called Kobe the selfish one)

The 2004 Pistons had a very different approach than the Blazers. Instead of swarming, Larry Brown put Ben Wallace on Shaq and controlled the perimeter scorers of the Lakers. The result was a bloodbath, which is hard to fathom when you just look at the numbers (similar situation to the 96 conference finals).

When you consider the success that Portland had in swarming him with an older Pippen, and when the Pistons played him straight up with Ben Wallace (a player similar to Rodman in terms of post defence), what do we expect to happen when the 96 Bulls take on Shaq? At best, he makes the same impact he did against the Bulls in the 96 Conference Finals or the 2004 NBA finals, where (even with those impressive stats), his teams won 1 out of 9 games.

In short, the Bulls can play Shaq in single coverage with Rodman, and if O’Neal starts to cause chaos, they have the players that can double him from the perimeter. This raises the question of if the Lakers’ shooters can make the Bulls pay, but keep in mind that Chicago did exactly that to Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in the 97 and 98 finals.

1996/97 Regular Season

Karl Malone: 27.4 PPG (55% FG, 76% FT), 4.5 APG,

Jeff Hornacek: 14.5 PPG (48% FG, 37% 3PT, 90% FT), 4.4 APG

John Stockton: 14.4 PPG (55% FG, 42% 3PT, 85% FT), 10.5 APG

1997 NBA Finals

Karl Malone: 23.8 PPG (43% FG, 60% FT), 3.5 APG

Jeff Hornacek: 12 PPG (38% FG, 38% 3PT, 85% FT), 2.2 APG

John Stockton: 15 PPG (50% FG, 40% 3PT, 85% FT, 8.8 APG

Out of the three all-stars for Utah that season (yep, Hornacek was a replacement all-star in 1997), only Stockton’s numbers are close to what he did in the regular season. The drop in Malone’s production was understandable, but Hornacek was considered one of the top shooters in the NBA, and despite finding himself more open than not away from the ball, he couldn’t get into a rhythm.

1997/98 Regular Season

Karl Malone: 27 PPG (53% FG, 76% FT), 3.9 APG

Jeff Hornacek: 14.2 PPG (48% FG, 44% 3PT), 4.4 APG

John Stockton: 12 PPG (53% FG, 43% 3PT), 8.5 APG

1998 NBA Finals

Karl Malone: 25 PPG (50% FG, 79% FT), 3.8 APG

Jeff Hornacek: 10.7 PPG (41% FG, 33% 3PT) 2.7 APG

John Stockton: 9.7 PPG (49% FG, 22% 3PT), 8.7 APG

Unlike the previous season, Stockton joined Hornacek in being unable to get going despite often finding themselves open away from the ball. By the time they received the ball, the Bulls perimeter defence had recovered. Look at those numbers for Stockton again! Under 10 PPG and 22% from 3. This tells us that Chicago was outstanding at doubling a great post player and not compromising the outside shot.

On a slightly unrelated note, Malone’s numbers are somewhat deceiving in 1998. When Scottie Pippen was healthy, he was the primary player to double down on Malone. Let’s have a quick look at Malone’s numbers when Pippen was healthy in the first 4 games, and then his numbers in games 5 and 6 when he had injured his back.

Games 1-4: 20 PPG (44% FG), 2.8 APG

Games 5-6: 35 PPG (60% FG), 6 APG

The differences are incredible, and I expect Pippen to have a similar effect against the 2001 Shaq.

Jordan vs Kobe

Unlike last chapter, this is actually a question.

1995/96 Regular Season

Michael Jordan: 30.4 PPG (50% FG, 43% 3PT, 83% FT), 6.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.2 SPG

2000/01 Regular Season

Kobe Bryant: 28.5 PPG (46% FG, 31% 3PT, 85% FT), 5.9 RPG, 5 APG, 1.7 SPG

Statistically, Jordan has the edge (barely). But athletically, it’s a total debate. Jordan was not as quick or as explosive as he once was, but he was stronger. Kobe has the quickness advantage.

Mind over matter?

To a lot of fans, the second 3-peat Jordan is their favourite version of MJ. A huge reason for this is how he approached the game. It was a much more cerebral mentality, looking for weaknesses and picking and choosing his spots. This was different to the earlier version of Jordan who would see a locked door in front of him and kick it down. Now, he would figure out the best way to overcome that. Now, sometimes the best way would still be to kick it in, and he would do so. But there were times he’d go through the window, or allow his teammates to break it down. This is how I’d think he’d approach the match-up with Kobe. Instead of breaking down Bryant off the dribble and getting to the rim, expect Jordan to simply go into the post and begin to operate down there. A little known fact about Kobe during this part of his career was his weakness defending big guards in the post and Penny Hardaway, Steve Smith, Bonzi Wells, and Jalen Rose all took turns on him on the block during the 2000 playoff run. In 2001, he was never really tested, but I find it hard to believe that he could have gone from being so vulnerable against players that weren’t current all-stars to being able to defend the best posting up guard in NBA history.

Do the Lakers make a switch?

It’s entirely possible at this point the Lakers switch Kobe with Fox in order to slow down Jordan in the post. But here’s the thing: if they do that, then Jordan can face up on Fox and get to the rim. Pick your poison! Either way, Jordan will get his points, and I don’t think the Lakers can slow him down unless if they double him consistently, but Jordan at this point in his career was a master at making teams pay for doubling.

Forget containing; can Kobe counter? pay for doubling.
ce up on Fox and get to the rim. Pick your poisionmith, Bonzin of Jordan who wou

Kobe was an outstanding scorer in his own right in 2001, and was explosive on the perimeter. With Shaq as the centrepiece of the triangle, we never really got an opportunity to see Bryant in the post, but there were times when Shaq would be in foul trouble and the Lakers would place him in the dominant space on the offence. When you take into account the territorial battle between Shaq and Kobe during the 2001 season, I can’t envision the Lakers putting Kobe in the post with Shaq on the floor, and even if it wouldn’t cause chemistry issues between the two, where would Shaq go on offence if Kobe was playing in the post? This is where Shaq’s limited offensive game really hindered Kobe. If Shaq had anything that closely resembled a 15 foot jumpshot, then you could run a lethal pick and roll with Kobe and Shaq. It’s funny how when Shaq and Kobe played together, the perception was that Kobe was selfish and dominated the ball too much and it left people wondering what damage O’Neal could have done had Kobe simply passed him the ball more. But when we look back now at what a complete offensive player Bryant was, but he was placed on the on the perimeter and was told to go to work. Now, of course, Shaq did demand a hell of a lot of defensive attention, which opened up things for Kobe when teams doubled O’Neal and he kicked it back out.

How it all goes down.

The 2001 Lakers were a juggernaut. There is simply no other way to describe them. But despite having the most dominant centre of all time in Shaq, along with one of the most dynamic scorers in league history in Kobe, the Lakers were surprisingly limited on the offensive end. They specialised in spacing and ball movement (both trademarks of the triangle), but were far too reliant on isolations for Shaq or Kobe. This creates all kinds of problems if they come across a team that boasts 3 dominant defenders in Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman, and also boasts Harper and Longley.

The Bulls have all the tools to force the Lakers into situations that they aren’t comfortable with. If they simply throw it into Shaq, you have either Rodman or Longley behind him. Both of those guys are strong enough to at least hold their ground against Shaq until help arrives from either Jordan, Pippen, or Harper. Shaq kicks it out to the perimeter, but the Bulls can either rotate or recover. The Lakers can make the Bulls pay with Fisher’s shooting or Kobe’s creativity, but Chicago has serious depth, and with all 3 of their perimeter players having the ability to guard any of the Lakers perimeter players, they’ll force Fox to beat them from the outside. If the Lakers bring in Horry to spread the defence, that will allow Chicago to play Kukoc a lot more without any fear of being torched on the defensive end.

This leads us to the obvious question: what’s the next option for the Lakers? Can they go beyond the triangle? I don’t think they can, and their offence will stall under the Bulls defence. Now the Lakers also had a fantastic defence, but the Bulls have a variety of options. The first is Jordan, who at this point in his career, was primarily a post-up player, but also had the explosiveness to take anyone off the dribble. You can also run pick and rolls with Jordan, as well as have him work off the ball with screens. Scottie Pippen was also a threat facing up, along with being very effective in pick and roll situations. These screen and roll scenarios become even more concerning for L.A. when you take into account Shaq’s lack of willingness to challenge ball-handlers on the perimeter. Chicago could also isolate Kukoc against slower power forwards. In addition to all of that, you have Dennis Rodman going after offensive rebounds and giving Chicago second chance opportunities.

Outcome: Chicago in 6. The Bulls have an offence that adapts to attack the weakness of their opposition. The Lakers have an offence that never had to adapt, but they would be facing a Bulls defence that has all the tools to slow them down, and that’s the difference.