The Chicago Bulls’ Best Season: 1996

Let’s face it. If you want me to talk about Bulls teams you haven’t heard about a thousand times, just scroll to the bottom—there’s some fun stuff for you there in Honorable Mentions.

But I’m not here to be edgy, contrarian, or to show about as firm a grip on objective reality as a politician. We all know the 72-10, NBA champion, greatest of all time (thanks in no small part to Golden State choking away their case for that particular honor in 2016), glorious Michael Jordan‘s-back-and-you’re-gonna-be-in-trouble 1996 Chicago Bulls.

So without further ado…

The On-Court Record

It’s hard to overstate just how much the second Bulls trilogy exceeded the first. Sure, the 1992 Bulls went 67-15, but they lost seven games in the playoffs. Of course, the one time they lost three games in the same series, against the Knicks in the second round, they utterly destroyed Patrick Ewing and friends 110-81 in Game 7, but the ’96 Bulls didn’t mess around like that. They went 15-3, and the “and 3” was only because the Seattle SuperSonics decided to make it interesting by winning Games 4 and 5 in the Emerald City before getting their butts handed to them back in Chicago to close it out in Game 6. Seattle only scored 75 points in that deciding game, losing by 12.

The Bulls lost just one game by more than ten points during the regular season, when the Knicks blew them out 104-72. They went 18-3 in their last 21 games, and all three losses were by just one point. If you beat the Bulls in the ’95-96 season, you got lucky. Because you managed to avoid MJ ripping your throat out on the final possession. Those Bulls could easily have gone 75-7.

In the conference finals, Jordan remembered what Shaquille O’Neal had done to him, cutting short his comeback a year earlier, and he and his Bulls ripped Shaq’s throat out and made him go all the way to Los Angeles to find it and stick it back in. Chicago won Game 1 121-83 and never looked back on the way to a sweep that also included Orlando scoring only 67 points at home in Game 3.

Chicago was first in Offensive Rating. First in Defensive Rating. First in the standings. And their plus-13.4 Net Rating and plus-12.3 raw point differential remain the greatest of all time.

Any questions?

The Featured Players

“Well, duh, Michael Jordan,” you might be saying. You may also point out Scottie Pippen, who somehow manages to be one of the three best small forwards of all time (alongside LeBron James and Larry Bird) despite having been just the second-best player on his own team. MJ and Scottie’s run of dominance is the reason John Stockton and Karl Malone have to settle for being only the second-best pair of teammates ever to play together for a decade or more (yeah, I stacked the deck, apologies to Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn and/or Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West.)

But much like the ’86 Celtics we talked about earlier this week, the Bulls were stacked from top to bottom.

The rest of the starting lineup included Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley, and Ron Harper, guys whose job it was to not demand the ball and to let MJ and Scottie work. Rodman led the league in rebounds. Harper was a shutdown defender who could neutralize any opposing point guard in the league, all while His Airness remained one of the greatest defensive shooting guards of all time in addition to his scoring ability. There was no attacking the Bulls’ backcourt, full stop.

Longley and Pippen were shutdown defenders as well, and if you got to the Bulls’ bench? Well, they were all plus defenders too. Nobody who played more than 700 minutes had a negative Defensive Box Plus-Minus that year.

Chicago had 34.6 Defensive Win Shares as a team. They had 40.8 Offensive Win Shares—and yes, that total of 75.4 squares with my assertion earlier that Chicago could’ve gone 75-7 but for three one-point losses in the last 21 games of the regular season.

But 34.6 DWS is impressive. That’s “your offense could be league average and you’re still projecting to 55 wins” impressive.

You want more frosting on this cake? Let’s talk about Chicago’s bench unit.

Only eight guys played at least 1,000 minutes for the Bulls in ’95-96. Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, and Bill Wennington played significant rotation minutes off the bench, so let’s discuss them.

Kukoc averaged 13.1 points off the bench, the third-leading scorer on the entire team behind MJ and Scottie. He racked up 4.0 VORP…as the sixth man. Four VORP is worth approximately 8.3 team wins. This is like a National League baseball team using Mike Trout purely as the designated hitter in AL parks or as a pinch-hitter in NL parks and Trout still hitting 30 homers. Four VORP is better than anyone on the 1989 Detroit Pistons put up (Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer each posted 3.4) and they won the championship!

Kerr, meanwhile, shot 51.5 percent from 3-point land. Kerr put up a .492 3PAR in 1996. He was Bojan Bogdanovic before it was cool. And in 1996, that kind of efficiency was good for the second-best True Shooting percentage in the league (.663) behind only Tim Legler‘s .688 (on 52.2 percent 3-point shooting and a .533 3PAR for the Bullets.) This was during that weird 3-year stretch between the ’95 and ’97 seasons where the league moved the 3-point line in to 22 feet in order to either match FIBA rules or increase scoring or both, so of course those numbers have a Lot’s wife-sized grain of salt attached to them, but still. Moving the 3-point line two feet closer doesn’t explain 51.5 (or 52.2 in Legler’s case) percent from that range. If it did, players would make long twos from that range at that rate, and nobody does that except for maybe Chris Paul, but even he’s closer to 16 feet than 23 on his long-two jumpers.

My point here is that Steve Kerr is one of the most ahead-of-his-time shooting specialists of the entire decade of the 1990s (and so’s Tim Legler.)

Finally, there’s Wennington, another one of those guys Chicago used to put out there at the center position because the rules of basketball dictate you need five players on a side and Wennington was tall.

Jokes aside, Wennington was a decent enough shooter (49.3 percent) for his era and role, an outstanding free throw shooter (86.0 percent, second best on the team behind Kerr’s 92.9—did I mention Steve Kerr was a beast?), and a good-enough defender. Sure, he had minus-0.3 VORP, but that’s why he only played 1,065 minutes and most of those mainly because Longley only managed to be healthy enough to play 62 games. Wennington started the other 20.

Behind them were the super-specialists and garbage time guys, the tier that includes Jud Buechler (kind of a Kerr Lite player role-wise, far less efficient but still pretty good by 1996 shooting efficiency standards), Randy Brown (lockdown defender, useless on offense), the unfortunately named Dickey Simpkins (a name that sounds like something 2021 Twitter would nickname a weenie who sucks up to girls and never gains their respect), and the more or less utterly incompetent Jason Caffey, a guy who managed .038 WS/48 and minus-0.7 VORP in 545 minutes on a 72-10 team.

But if you can go seven or eight deep and your sixth man posts four VORP while your seventh man shoots his way into the 50/50/90 Club…well, that’s the ’96 Bulls for you.

The Coach

Good ol’ Phil Jackson, the Zen Master, the guy who was smart enough to say in an interview once that the secret to winning 11 championships as a coach is to have Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Was the triangle offense some kind of amazing innovation that made a team win 72 games? Doubt it, and if Phil had coached the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies (who posted a league-worst 15-67 record), I don’t think triangles would’ve put them at even 25 or 30 wins, never mind a playoff run.

Was the triangle, run by guys who were intimately familiar with it because they’d been doing it for as many as seven years, part of Chicago’s success and not just a per se great idea on its own? Absolutely. This is what coaching continuity combined with longtime veteran talent buys you in any sport. Ask any NFL team whose quarterback has had the same coach and system for years and whose linebackers and defensive backs have run the same scheme for those same years how much easier it is to score touchdowns and keep the other team from scoring them.

Phil (and assistant Tex Winter, the architect of the triangle) was the right coach with the right roster at the right time and with the right motivation—Jordan’s revenge tour—to make things happen.

Honorable Mentions

Dick Motta is still alive at the age of 90. Bulls fans who are a lot older than I am might remember the teams he coached in the 1970s. Motta took over the team in its second year of existence and by the third year had them on what would become a run of six straight playoff appearances.

Yeah, I know, “big deal, the Milwaukee Bucks won the championship in their third year in the league.” But Chicago didn’t have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Motta’s best Bulls squad was either the 1972 team (57-25, lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Lakers) or 1974 (54-28, lost in the second round to eventual runners-up the Bucks.)

Motta would later cement his own coaching legacy by coaching the Washington Bullets to the 1978 title, their only win in four Finals appearances in the ’70s.

That old ’74 Bulls team featured two guys who’d later make their name as coaches—Jerry Sloan and Rick Adelman—and another, Bob Weiss, who would later earn honors as an executive with the 2015-19 Warriors. They had Bob Love—no relation to Kevin; Bob’s black, but Kevin’s dad Stan Love was an NBA player in his own right—as their leading scorer. Chet Walker was the second-leading scorer.

Finally, honorable mention goes to the 2012 Bulls, one of the great what-if stories in NBA history, as in “what if Derrick Rose hadn’t blown out his ACL and missed the entire playoffs and never been the same again after he came back?” That team won 50 games in a 66-game season. They went into the playoffs as a 1 seed. And without Rose, they were sitting ducks for a 76ers team that had its last hurrah before the Process gutted them (and, for all you Stan Hinkie stans out there, let’s note that the Process hasn’t even yielded a conference final appearance, they’re capped out financially with almost $100 million going to just three players this year, and Ben Simmons now wants off the team) a year later.

But really, no Bulls team that didn’t have Michael Jordan on it even cracks the top 5—in order, I’d say the ’96, ’97, ’92, ’98, and ’91 Bulls in that order are the top five in franchise history.

NEXT: Cleveland Cavaliers. In which we make fun of a meme and a baseball team while celebrating the most joyous moment of the 21st century for the city of Cleveland.