96 Chicago Bulls vs 89 Detroit Pistons

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It had to be destiny for the 96 Bulls to meet the Bad Boy Pistons in this tournament. It was, after all, the Pistons led by Thomas, Rodman, Dumars, and Laimbeer, who held Jordan and the Pippen back from reaching the finals in 3 straight seasons. That Detroit team taught Jordan and Pippen how to win, what it took from not only a talent standpoint, but also psychologically. It’s ironic that now, the 89 Pistons squad now has to deal with what they (unintentionally) created.

Can the Pistons compete with the 96 Bulls?

Absolutely! This Detroit team is capable of playing with anybody. Under Chuck Daley, the Pistons’ introduced the concept of help defense and rotations to nullify superstar players. Larry Bird and Michael Jordan still put up big numbers, but when they got to their spots they were often doubled (and this is after they had to battle with such renowned defenders like Rodman, Salley, or Dumars to even get to those positions). Teammates of these superstars were placed in situations that they were not comfortable with, which placed more pressure on those star players to try and overcome a genuine team effort. That Pistons team is the only squad that can boast that they beat Larry Bird’s Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and Magic Johnson’s Lakers. And, they were a phantom call on Laimbeer in game 6 of the finals away from accomplishing this feat in one playoff run. And they were one unbelievable steal by Larry Bird in the conference finals from having a real crack at a 4-peat. So yes, getting back to the question, this Pistons team was more than capable of hanging with the 96 Bulls.

Is this Jordan’s offense vs Detroit’s defense all over again?On that end of the floor, that’s a big part of it. But there are a few things to keep in mind. The Bulls in 96 had a lot more balance offensively than the team that was routinely beaten by Detroit. Pippen was a consistent playmaker and a much better shooter in 96 than in 89. His maturity came from playing alongside Jordan in the finals from 91-93. He also had to experience the responsibility of leading Chicago without Jordan in 1994. If Detroit dared Pippen to beat them like they did back in the day, they’re really playing with fire. In addition to Scottie, Toni Kukoc had the skillset and size to be a matchup nightmare for 95% (this number might be made up…) of the defenders in the league. Let’s have a look at what Kukoc did in the Finals in 98 when he was a starter and went up against Karl Malone, who was a fantastic defender for his position

 

Newsflash: Defense is played by both teams

Don’t discount Chicago’s defence here. Their starting 5 featured Harper, Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman; all of whom were fantastic (understatement of the century here) defenders. In 96, MJ, Pippen, and Rodman were all-defensive 1st team selections, and Harper was incredibly underrated in terms of ball pressure on the perimeter. Throw in Longley, who was a big body that could rebound, and that’s one hell of a defensive unit that understood the importance of that side of the ball and took great pride in shutting down opposing teams. Even when the Bulls brought in Kukoc, who was a weak individual defender, the core of MJ/ Pippen/ Rodman/ Harper could easily hide his flaws.

The offense for Detroit was heavily reliant on Isiah Thomas controlling the flow for the Pistons, Mark Aguirre in isolations or pick and roll situations, and Vinny Johnson having the green light off the bench. They also benefited from the offensive rebounding of Dennis Rodman. But, that aspect is negated by the defensive rebounding of the Bulls version of Rodman. Here’s the likely defensive matchups for the Bulls, with both teams using their best line-ups:

Position Pistons Bulls
PG Thomas Harper
SG Dumars Jordan
SF Aguirre Pippen
PF Rodman Rodman
C Laimbeer Kukoc

The Bulls look a little light and vulnerable in terms of rebounding here, but don’t forget what excellent rebounders that Jordan and Pippen were. What has me fascinated by this matchup is the versatility that both teams have here. Jordan, Pippen, and Harper can take turns on Thomas. Dumars and Rodman can go at Jordan. The Pistons could also go small and have Rodman at centre, with Thomas/ Dumars/ Aguirre/ Vinny Johnson on the perimeter if they need to soften the Bulls defence up. The problem is, with Jordan’s advanced post game in 96, Rodman would have to guard him, and there is next to nothing in terms of rim protection or rebounding in that scenario.

So, who wins?

When I first looked at this matchup, I thought the Bulls in 7. Now, I love the Bad Boy Pistons. I have an Isiah Thomas jersey which I proudly wear, so it hurts me to say this, but I think the Bulls win this in 5 games. They match up so well, and the Pistons biggest weapons of defence and mental toughness are negated by the Bulls mental toughness and defence. If Detroit was going up against the 91 Bulls, I’d be leaning towards them winning the series. But this Bulls team is a horror matchup for them. I can’t see them winning more than one game.