There’s been a lot of talk this season about the Warriors and whether they have a shot at winning more games than the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who went 72-10. It sounded somewhat laughable in late November/early December to even broach the subject, but now that Golden State is 33-2 … the discussion lingers.
It’s difficult assessing teams of different eras, but if we’re going to do it, the first natural question would be: Which era are we playing in?
On the surface, and most likely true, it would seem logical that a theoretical game staged in the mid-1990s would benefit the Bulls while a make-believe game played now would aid the Warriors.
The thinking is pretty simple: The Bulls, with elite defenders such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper, would be at a big advantage because the game was more physical back then.
Since 1997, the NBA has devised rules to limit that kind of play. In 1997-98, the league disallowed using a forearm to defend a player facing the basket. In 1999-00, it did away with all defensive contact in the backcourt. And in 2004-05, the NBA did away with hand-checking completely.
All that would give the Warriors a huge advantage in present times, the thinking goes, because their ability to spread the floor combined with a defense’s inability to make contact with them creates an almost unguarded-able team.
While this all may be true, there does seem to be an aspect of this matchup that has been overlooked: The 3-point line was shorter when Bulls had their historical season. That’s right. The line wasn’t as deep. From 1994-95 through 1996-97 — a three-year period — the 3-point line was a uniform 22 feet from the basket, including in the corners. After that year, the NBA went back to the original line, which was 22 feet in the corners and 23 feet, 9 inches at the top of the key.
That is a much different shot. And it’s scary to think what Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the rest of the Warriors would be doing with a shorter 3-point line. You might not think 21 inches makes a big difference, but it does. In a big way.
Consider the following numbers from those Bulls teams:
Jordan shot 42.7 percent from 3-point range in 1995-96, by far his best season shooting 3s of his career. His next best years were a couple of 37-percent years, and of course, one of those was 1996-97, also when the shorter line was in play. In 1994-95, you ask? Well, Jordan was shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc before getting hurt after 17 games. Jordan finished his career as a 32.7 percent 3-point shooter. But here’s the lede: With the shorter line, Jordan was a 40.4 percent 3-point shooter; with the longer line (the one used today), he was a 28.8 percent shooter.
These kinds of numbers also hold for the rest of the Bulls, such as Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr. Pippen shot 37.4 percent from 3-point range in 1995-96. But in 1993-94, before the shorter line, he shot 32 percent from beyond the arc. In 1997-98 he shot 31.8 percent from out there. Kukoc shot 40.3 percent from 3-point range in that 72-win season. He was a 33.5 percent 3-point shooter for his career. Kerr shot 49.8 percent from 3-point range from 1994-95 through 1996-97, including .515 percent in 1995-96. For the rest of his career, Kerr shot 42.4 percent from outside the arc.
Obviously, where these players were at a given point in their careers at this particular time is a factor, but the overall point remains: Back in 1995-96, with a shorter line, players were shooting it better from out there.
Now, I’m not saying the Warriors would have beaten the Bulls in this fictitious game. The Bulls still would have been able to hound defensively. But those 21 inches mean a lot, and if we’re playing the game 20 years ago you’ve got to also take that into account if you’re taking in the defensive rules, too.
What’s most crazy to think about though is this: What if these Golden State Warriors were playing with a 22-foot 3-point line at the top of the circle rather than the current 23-foot, 9-inch line?
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