CHICAGO – It’s the defense, stupid.
That’s a famous paraphrase from the 1992 U.S. presidential election. George H.W. Bush had been so popular after the Gulf War in 1991 that few Democrats even wanted to run for president. So a little known southern U.S. governor named Bill Clinton took a shot, and famously his campaign manager said to forget the fireworks of war and peace. It’s the economy.
Similarly, when you watch the Golden State Warriors, like the team some believe they are chasing, the 1995-96 Bulls who won a record 72 games, it’s the defense, stupid.
Don’t be fooled by the shell game of offense, as impressive as it was with Michael Jordan and now Stephen Curry. It is beautiful to watch and, after all, you do need points to win the game.
But the true success of those Bulls championship teams was their defense, first the so-called Dobermans with Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, and later with Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman. And a striking similarity does exist between those record-setting Bulls and these new record-setting Warriors, who opened the season racing to tie a new record for consecutive wins (15).
It’s the versatility of their defenses, a rare combination of five players who can switch virtually every play with so-called “small men,” being Rodman then and Draymond Green now, who can defend every position from guards to centers.
That was the Bulls’ secret weapon in those championship seasons, and it is so now for the Warriors with a five that often closes the game of Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Green. Agreed, the Warriors do lead the NBA in 3-point shooting at 41 percent. But Sacramento and Indiana are not far behind.
Those 1995-96 Bulls did lead the NBA in scoring that season. But the 41-41 Phoenix Suns were less than a point behind. It was the defense, but particularly that rare ability to be able to put on the floor together five players who were long-armed and could switch everything in the pick-and-roll even if all were not exactly all-league defenders, like the Bulls’ Toni Kukoc and the Warriors’ Barnes.
“We had a mobile, manipulative ball-handling group of guys,” agreed then-coach Phil Jackson. “People had a very hard time against that lineup. It was that mobility of that lineup that could be implemented in end game situations, that had guys 6-8, 6-8, 6-9, 6-10, all capable of pushing the ball, rebounding the ball, organizing and playing any position in the offense.”
Similarly for the Warriors, who have started to ask for nicknames for their “small” closing five who were the crucial players also in the 2015 finals win for the championship over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Those Bulls didn’t start quite as historically as these Warriors with a loss in Orlando and one in Seattle against their eventual finals opponent to go 10-2. Though the Bulls did start 37-0 at home. Thus there wasn’t the early discussion of being some all-time team, like there is now with the Warriors.
But the Bulls then had 13- and 18-game winning streaks to sandwich a loss, and suddenly they were answering questions at 41-3 about the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who were 69-13. It’s started much more quickly for the Warriors being defending champions and bolting out of the starting gate ahead of everyone.
That’s different than the Bulls, but there are other similarities.
Certainly Jordan and Curry are different types of players because of Curry’s incredible shooting and ball-handing and Jordan’s overwhelming physical athleticism, and by the intimidation factor. Though the Warriors won the 2015 title, many immediately dismissed them as a one-hit wonder.
The conventional wisdom often was they were fortunate they faced so many teams in the playoffs with injured stars; the Spurs were knocked out early and Kevin Durant was hurt.
And then no Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love in the finals. Even Clippers coach Doc Rivers this season used the word “lucky,” which he had to figuratively eat when the Warriors last week had a 23-point deficit comeback win in Los Angeles. And the players’ association inaugurated its own awards and named James Harden MVP over Curry.
Similarly, the 1995-96 Bulls were coming off a second -round playoff defeat to the Orlando Magic and what was to be the dynasty to replace the Bulls with Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. Magic player Nick Anderson even said No. 45 (Jordan’s new number) didn’t look like No. 23 when the Magic won Game 1 after a Jordan turnover.
So there was plenty of motivation for the stars.
The Bulls players then denied anyone could get to 72 wins. But when they got close they chased the record. Perhaps the greatest indicator of that kind of dominance is margin of victory. That Bulls team and the 1972 Lakers had the best in NBA history at 12.3 per game. The Warriors now are above 14 per game.
It will be difficult for the Warriors to sustain with so much early attention on their pace. And as good as Curry is, he’s not quite Jordan.
I asked Warriors coach Steve Kerr about this before the season. He hoped then to be back from his summer back surgeries, but he’s had complications and has had to stay out to start the season. He told me then the Warriors would be better than in their title season, but he didn’t believe they would break the Bulls record even after winning 67 games last season.
“It was one of those years where everything went right,” recalled Kerr who played for those 1996-98 Bulls champions. “There was incredible motivation and everything clicked. As motivated as Michael always was, that year was another few degrees higher based on what he had been through, the absence from the game, the loss the previous year to Orlando. The motivation was just incredible. It carried on the entire season and that’s what made it so remarkable.
“I tell people all the time that record will never be broken,” insists Kerr. “That’s going to be like (Joe) DiMaggio’s (56-game baseball) hit streak; it’s just not going to happen. Everything has to go right and even then it doesn’t matter. Everything went right for us and we had Michael.
“That’s the thing; if we ever got to a point where we were going to lose or we looked like we were going to lose, he would just take over.”
Curry, incredibly, has been that guy in many respects thus far. But this also is a new NBA era as far as the work ethic. The belief now is players cannot get through an 82-game season and be ready for the playoffs, like Jordan did then in not missing a game for three straight seasons after he returned from a 19-month hiatus from basketball.
LeBron James took two weeks off last season and felt that was crucial in the Cavs going to the finals. Many around the Warriors believe they’ll start resting players at some point, and Curry never has played all 82 games. Though he’s only missed 10 the last three years.
Jackson also believes it’s more difficult for a West Coast team because of the multiple time zone changes in travel, whereas, Chicago is in the middle of the country with fewer such changes in travel.
But since it’s all hypotheticals, who would win?
I’m obviously biased having been with those six championship Bulls teams.
But with their size on the perimeter with Jordan, Pippen and Ron Harper, it’s difficult to imagine Curry having the kind of success he’s been having.
After all, it is the defense.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”