- There has been renewed interest in the Michael Jordan era Bulls lately due to the ESPN series ‘The Last Dance’.
- With so many sports shut down due to the Coronavirus pandemic there’s been plenty of time to debate the ‘best ever’ NBA team.
- The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls finished with a 72-10 regular season record and won the NBA Championship.
One of the most enduring topics for debate in any sport is over the honorific of ‘best ever’. This debate can be extended to any ‘micro’ topic within a sport but the most popular are over the best player ever and best team ever. There’s also plenty of recency bias involved–younger fans that weren’t around to see earlier teams and players in a specific sport will usually default to the current vintage as ‘best ever’. That’s actually one of the reason that Michael Jordan agreed to get involved with the ESPN series The Last Dance–he saw it as an opportunity to reassert his case as ‘best ever’ to younger fans. Ultimately, there’s no way to definitively settle these debates which is likely part of the reason for their ongoing popularity.
There’s plenty of debate over who is the best NBA player of all time. Younger fans and the talking heads at ESPN would say it’s LeBron James. Fans who were watching hoops in the late 1990’s would say it is Michael Jordan. There’s also plenty of other names worthy of consideration–Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Stephen Curry and we’ve just scratched the surface. A more salient debate would be over ‘best team ever’ with the top two contenders being the teams with the all time best regular season records: the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors who went 73-9 but lost in the NBA Finals and the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls who went 72-10 and won the Championship. Both teams also enjoyed long winning streaks during their exemplary seasons with the Bulls winning 18 straight and the Warriors taking down 24 straight.
LAS VEGAS BOOKMAKERS GIVE THEIR OPINION ON ‘BEST TEAM EVER’
The Las Vegas Review Journal recently posed these ‘best ever’ questions to a group of the city’s most respected bookmakers. The answers they gave were very interesting–and very diverse. The takeaway? They give MJ the nod for best player but their choice for best team is neither of the ones mentioned above with the best regular season record. They say the best team ever was the 2017 Golden State Warriors with Kevin Durant. The Warriors went 83-16 en route to the NBA Championship that year. Longtime sportsbook manager Robert Walker–now the director of sportsbook operations at US Bookmaking–makes the case for the Warriors based not only on talent but on tempo:
“That Warriors team demolishes any other team in history. That’s just because it’s a whole different style of basketball from the way the Bulls had to play. I don’t think that Bulls team was equipped to score with the Warriors under any circumstance. I know they played better defense, but they’re not going to stop those Warriors from getting their shots off.”
Westgate Superbook VP of Risk Jeff Sherman concurs–he would make the 2017 Warriors a -6.5 point favorite over the 1996 Bulls due to the changes in the nature of the game and the athleticism of the players:
“Good teams over the last 10 years now would probably be favored over the Bulls just because of the era they’re in and the evolution of the game. Players are bigger, faster and stronger now, and they have advanced analytics, which is why you see the 3-point shot taken into account.”
Sherman’s Westgate colleague John Murray went even further, saying that he’d make the 2017 Warriors a double digit favorite over the 1996 Bulls. That prompted Erin Rynning–one of sharper pro sports bettors in town–to say that were that the case he’d be all over MJ and the Bulls:
“I don’t think there would be any doubt. One of the biggest takeaways from this documentary is you don’t want to slight Michael Jordan. And to make him an underdog, that would be fun to see. To me, Michael is the greatest competitor and the best winner that I’ve ever seen in any sport. To make him an underdog, that would be a no-brainer.”
DIFFERENT ERAS = DIFFERENT GAMES…BUT ONE G.O.A.T
South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews makes the very good point that the outcome of the hypothetical Bulls v. Warriors matchup could hinge on the prevailing rules. He also throws the 1987 Lakers and the 1986 Celtics into the conversation for ‘best team ever’:
“Under the old rules, the Bulls would’ve won,” he said. “Under the current rules, the Warriors would’ve probably won. But I would never make them big favorites. Those Lakers and Celtics teams had to be able to compete with the Bulls. But I still don’t think any of them had the offense to compete with the Warriors.”
There was much more agreement over Michael Jordan’s status as ‘best ever’. Andrews and Sherman–along with Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito–give MJ the top spot. Andrews ranks Bill Russell and LeBron James in a tie for second but gives this rationale for Jordan in the top spot:
“To me, it’s a slam dunk. It’s Michael Jordan. LeBron’s a great player, and I don’t mean to take anything away from him. He just wasn’t Michael Jordan. One of the things we’re seeing in the documentary — and it’s definitely slanted, but it was true — is that when Jordan was at his peak, he was just not going to let his team lose.”
Esposito ranks Kareem #2 and LeBron #3 but says that Jordan is the best:
“It speaks volumes that Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals and was able to leave for two years and come back.”
Sherman gives the edge to Jordan based on his ability to play nasty defense:
“I have Jordan (No.) 1 and LeBron (No.) 2. After those two, there’s some separation. One differentiator is Jordan’s ability to be a lockdown defender, where overall defense is one of LeBron’s weaker areas.”
Several other bookmakers had dissenting opinions on ‘best ever’. Robert Walker–a self professed die hard Lakers fan–ranks Magic Johnson as best ever followed by MJ, LeBron and Larry Bird. William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich summed everything up nicely by suggesting that just being in the discussion for best ever is the most important thing:
“I’m probably in the minority saying it’s not clear-cut that Jordan’s No. 1,” he said. “It’s real close between a bunch of guys. Wilt (Chamberlain) and Russell, for sure. Bird and Magic and LeBron, for sure. Kobe. And once you’re in the conversation, that’s really all it’s about anyway, because there’s really no way to decide it.”
“Just the mere fact that you’re in the conversation makes you pretty damn special.”