The Sporting News just came out with its 10 greatest NBA teams of all time. And, of course, it lists the 1996 Chicago Bulls team at #1.
I could go into how the league was terribly watered down at that point, having expanded three times in seven years… adding six teams over that span… including the year before the big 72 win run. But I'll spare any further ranting about that (not really. It's a running theme). The '96 Bulls were good. Very good. But they weren't the best ever.
That title belongs to the 1986 Boston Celtics (4th on this list)
The Big 3 of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish was dominant, combining to average about 63 points and more than 27 rebounds per game. Add to that Dennis Johnson, whose 15.6 ppg, 5.8 apg, and 3.4 rpg didn't even do justice to his overall impact on the game and his defensive prowess. Add to that the sharp shooting Danny Ainge, who shot 50.4% that year. Add to that the C's bench, anchored by Bill Walton.
The Celtics had five Hall of Famers on their roster, four of whom were named among the 50 greatest players in NBA history (though, granted, Walton had clearly passed his prime. But still, his name is on that list).
The Bulls had two on that list. The only two hall of famers on that roster. Kukoc was a good player, but he doesn't compare to any of the Big 3 as a third option. Ron Harper couldn't hold Dennis Johnson's jock. And I'll guarantee you Dennis Rodman doesn't come close to grabbing 15 rebounds against that Celtics front line. I'll spare any comparisons with Bill Wennington, Luc Longly, Jack Haley or anyone else on the Bulls' bench.
Larry Bird was on ESPN Radio Dallas this week and he says, flat out, his '86 team is the best he's ever seen.
“We were gooood. It was the best team I have ever seen. We were strong; we had a lot of big guys; we had guards; we felt we were a smart team. And it was all because of Scotty Wedman, Jerry Sichting and Bill Walton coming off our bench. We were deep. It was just a good team, it was easy to play for, and I knew when we started training camp if we stayed healthy we were probably going to win a championship. I never had that feeling before. We won a lot of games and we took care of business when the playoffs came around.”
There was no expansion in 1986. That was the league at its apex. Larry, Magic, Ewing, Jordan, Dominique, Dr. J, Kareem, Drexler, Dream, Isiah… all among the greatest of all time at their positions. All of them in the league at the same time. Go look at the All Star and All NBA rosters (scroll to the bottom). Look at the legends on those teams.
The NBA was stacked in 1985-86. And the Celtics won 67 games. SIXTY SEVEN. Only five fewer wins than the vaunted Bulls.
In 1996? Vin Baker was an All Star. Juwan Howard. Penny Hardaway. Glen Rice. Some good players, but no sustained greatness. A lot of those guys were having good seasons, sure, but most of these guys will fade into oblivion.
The '96 Bulls were a great team. You don't win 72 games if you're not. But I can only imagine what that '86 Celtics would have done had they had the chance to play '96 competition. The league had changed radically over that 10 year span. The NBA in the mid-90's was not very good at all. The league was in the process of remaking its identity. The NBA in the mid-80's was as good as it would ever get. To me that makes 67 wins in 1985-86 more impressive than 72 wins in 1996.
Boston Globe photo