What happens when an immovable object clashes with an unstoppable force? When two opposing factions chuck full of immortal combatants square off after they have left a path of decimated antagonists in their wake. On one side you have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen walking into the arena with the heads of conquered feudal kings in their stead. Swaggering in from the opposite direction would be marginally younger monarchs Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal chasing apparitions that exist in the far reaches of every fan’s memory, ghosts that can never be exercised because of the past accomplishments of opponents that can never be vanquished because they only exist in everyone’s mind. The 1996 Chicago Bulls and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were the two most dominant teams of the past 20 years, vastly superior to any other teams because of the combination of talent, coaching, intelligence, leadership, hunger and the competitive blood lust of their best players. It is beyond difficult to determine who would win in a best of 7 series between these two teams. A lot would depend on the home court advantage. Who would come out on top? Would it be the Jordan, the supreme basketball Apex Predator? Or Kobe and Shaq, both of whom possessed competitive mean streaks, when not directed at each other, that would devastate opponents.
The 1996 Chicago Bulls were the definition of dominance, 72-10 regular season record, which they followed with a 15-3 run in the playoffs. Oh and they just happened to go 69-13 the very next season. The 1996 NBA season should have just been known as “Michael Jordan Revenge Tour” after the Bulls were ushered out of the 1995 playoffs in the 2nd round by the Orlando Magic. But, with the addition of Dennis Rodman, a rebounding machine and defensive stalwart, the Bulls now had a triad of stars with varying skillsets that Phil Jackson could fit a solid group of role players around. Michael Jordan was still awesome, but this wasn’t Michael Jordan at his zenith, but Scottie Pippen had come into his prime when Jordan had his brief retirement, and was truly like water, a formless force that was capable at filling in any holes that the 1996 might have had.
The 1996 Chicago Bulls averaged 105.2 PPG, while only surrendering 92.9 PPG, frightening. They averaged 115.2 points per 100 possessions and only gave up 101.8 per 100 possessions, both tops in the league, which gives even a better snap shot for how dominant they truly were. Granted, the NBA was slightly watered down and top heavy in terms of the dispersion of talent and total talent in the league in general. In the Playoffs they crushed the Miami Heat 3-0, which featured Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning and not much else. In the Semi-Finals they locked horns with a New York Knicks unit featuring the usual suspects like Ewing, Starks, Oakley, and Anthony Mason. The Knicks, 2 years removed from an NBA Finals appearance, were in decline but still presented a tough physical and mental challenge. However the Bulls dispatched them in 4-1. The Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic were supposed to be a “clash of titans”, a true test of the OG’s versus a group of young challengers. However, in game one a 38 point thrashing of Shaq and Penny made it clear that the Bulls were going to crush the young Magic until they tapped out. They did throw in the towel, suffering a 4 game demolition at the hands of the hungry Bulls, losing each game by an average of 13.4 points. The 1996 NBA Finals versus the Seattle Supersonics were interesting because the Bulls ran out to a 3-0 lead, but then dropped two in a row as the Sonics stormed back, before eventually suffocating them in game 6, 87-75. The Sonics coach George Karl made a serious error in judgment by not letting Gary Payton, the best defensive Point Guard in NBA history, guard Michael Jordan until game 4. Jordan abused Seattle in games 1-3, but Payton chased, harassed and agitated Jordan into 3 subpar games, but by then it was too little, too late. Payton and Seattle’s overall speed bothered Jordan “2.0” a bit, but Pippen’s constant traps and defense coupled with Rodman’s rebounding helped carry the Bulls to a 4-2 series victory.
The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were a frustrating team during the regular season due to their two stars complete apathy towards one another and the lethargic nature in which the slogged through their 82 games, registering a 56-26 record. The defending champs were sitting at 48-26 before coach Phil Jackson was able to reign in young superstar Kobe Bryant and bring him back on the reservation after a season long feud with Shaq and the coaching staff. They were able to secure the number two seed in the western conference on the last day of the season, riding an 8 game winning streak into the playoffs, which is when all the fun began. The Lakers were the 23rd ranked team on defense in the NBA during the regular season turned into a defensive killing machine in the playoffs, only surrendering 100 plus points 3 times in 16 playoff games ,frustrating opponents by running them off the 3 point line, funneling them into O’Neal, and using their big perimeter players like Ron Harper, Rick Fox and Kobe Bryant to trap other team’s big men. It was also a huge luxury to have the two best players in the NBA on the same team mixed in with skilled role players such as Robert Horry, Horace Grant, Derek Fisher and Brian Shaw who were just focused on winning and helped assuage the tension between Bryant and O’Neal. Sound familiar?
The 2001 Lakers opened the NBA Playoffs on a tear and kept on rolling, sweeping the Portland Trailblazer team that took them 7 games in Western Conference Finals the year before, winning by margins of 13, 18 and 13 again. The Blazers were a very solid team that went 50-32 during the regular season, and featured Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudemire and Steve Smith. The Lakers then turned their attention to their “pseudo rivals” the Sacramento “Queens”, as Shaq fashioned them, and promptly swept them out of the playoffs. It’s easy to see that the Lakers were in a “zone” because the year before Sacramento pushed them to 5 games in the first round, the maximum amount of games at the time, and then pushed them to 7 games in 2002. The most eye popping thing about the Lakers 2001 playoff run was the absolute destruction of the number 1 seed San Antonio Spurs, spearheaded by a red hot Kobe Bryant. It’s so interesting to watch Kobe dominate Western Conference powers and then to see Shaq destroy whatever JV squad came out of the East. The Lakers crushed the Spurs, including 39 and 29 point slaughters of the spurs in games 3 and 4. The Lakers dropped their only game of the playoffs to Allen Iverson, and the Philadelphia 76ers in game 1 of the NBA Finals, with Iverson dropping 48 points. The Lakers took the next 4 games from the Sixers, including 3 straight in Philly, on their way to their 2nd straight NBA Championship.
A matchup between the 1996 Chicago Bulls and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers would be a VERY competitive, well played and hotly contested series, but the real question is who would win? I think the Bulls would have their hands full with a “in his prime” Shaq, who was a destructive force, and “afro” Kobe, but I still think that they would find a way to claw their way to a victory. Jordan would struggle a bit with Kobe’s quickness and length, Robert Horry’s constant trapping and Shaq patrolling the middle. The difference for the Bulls would be Scottie Pippen’s defense and ability to play Point-Forward, which in turn would create huge match-up problems for the Lakers. The Lakers could keep throwing the ball to Shaq in the middle until the Bulls cried uncle, but I think all the missed free-throws would sink them in the end. Watching all the games that have been on NBATV the past few months has got me hyped!!! I got the bulls in 7, who do you have?