Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls

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Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#1 » by sansterre » Thu Apr 8, 2021 5:13 pm

The Actual Article Content is in posts #3 and #4 of this Thread

Overall SRS: +12.90, Standard Deviations: +2.47, Won NBA Finals (Preseason 4th)

PG: John Paxson, +0.3 / -0.8
SG: Michael Jordan, +12.0 / +14.6
SF: Scottie Pippen, +5.8 / +6.5
PF: Horace Grant, +2.5 / +2.2
C: Bill Cartwright, -2.6 / -1.2

Regular Season Metrics:

Regular Season Record: 61-21, Regular Season SRS: +8.57 (14th), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +6.7 (11th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -2.7 (64th)
Shooting Advantage: +2.8%, Possession Advantage: +3.4 shooting possessions per game

Michael Jordan (SG, 27): 39 MPPG, 32% OLoad, 33 / 6 / 6 / 4 on +7.1%
Scottie Pippen (SF, 25): 38 MPPG, 23% OLoad, 19 / 8 / 7 / 4 on +2.7%
John Paxson (PG, 30): 25 MPPG, 16% OLoad, 9 / 1 / 4 / 1 on +6.2%
Bill Cartwright (C, 33): 30 MPPG, 15% OLoad, 10 / 6 / 2 / 1 on -1.2%
Horace Grant (PF, 25): 35 MPPG, 15% OLoad, 13 / 9 / 2 / 2 on +5.1%

Scoring/100: Michael Jordan (42.7 / +7.1%), Scottie Pippen (24.3 / +2.7%), Horace Grant (19.0 / +5.1%)
Assists/100: Scottie Pippen (8.5), John Paxson (7.6), Michael Jordan (7.5)

Heliocentrism: 54.3% (4th of 84 teams) - Jordan
Wingmen: 44.7% (16th) - Pippen & Grant
Depth: 1.0% (82nd)

Playoff Metrics:

Playoff Offensive Rating: +6.48 (36th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -7.92 (18th)
Playoff SRS: +15.73 (6th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +6.38 (3rd)
Shooting Advantage: +6.2%, Possession Advantage: -1.7 shooting possessions per game
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +2.92 (28th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -1.18 (69th)

Michael Jordan (SG, 27): 43 MPPG, 33% OLoad, 33 / 7 / 9 / 4 on +6.6%
Scottie Pippen (SF, 25): 44 MPPG, 26% OLoad, 23 / 10 / 6 / 4 on +3.0%
Bill Cartwright (C, 33): 32 MPPG, 15% OLoad, 10 / 5 / 2 / 1 on +0.9%
Horace Grant (PF, 25): 42 MPPG, 14% OLoad, 14 / 9 / 2 / 1 on +8.6%
John Paxson (PG, 30): 31 MPPG, 13% OLoad, 9 / 1 / 3 / 1 on +3.4%

Scoring/100: Michael Jordan (41.8 / +6.6%), Scottie Pippen (28.5 / +3.0%), Horace Grant (18.5 / +8.6%)
Assists/100: Michael Jordan (11.2), Scottie Pippen (7.7), John Paxson (5.9)

Playoff Heliocentrism: 52.7% (4th of 84 teams) - Jordan
Playoff Wingmen: 40.0% (40th) - Pippen & Curry
Playoff Depth: 7.3% (80th)

Round 1: New York Knicks (-0.4), won 3-0, by +20.0 points per game (+19.6 SRS eq)
Round 2: Philadelphia 76ers (+2.5), won 4-1, by +8.8 points per game (+11.3 SRS eq)
Round 3: Detroit Pistons (+4.0), won 4-0, by +11.5 points per game (+15.5 SRS eq)
Round 4: Los Angeles Lakers (+8.8), won 4-1, by +9.8 points per game (+18.6 SRS eq)

Offensive / Defensive Ratings from Opposition Regular Season Average:

New York Knicks: +8.8 / -12.9
Philadelphia 76ers: +10.8 / +0.8
Detroit Pistons: +17.0 / +0.3
Los Angeles Lakers: +10.7 / -7.6

Shooting Advantage / Possession Advantage per game (unadjusted):

New York Knicks: +5.1% / +10.2
Philadelphia 76ers: +1.0% / +6.5
Detroit Pistons: +6.1% / +0.5
Los Angeles Lakers: +4.3% / +4.3

Postseason Usage/Efficiency Change adjusted for Opposition:

John Paxson: -2.1% / -1.3%
Michael Jordan: -0.2% / +1.0%
Scottie Pippen: +3.4% / +1.8%
Horace Grant: -1.2% / +5.0%
Bill Cartwright: -0.3% / +3.8%

Sorry, the content of this article is so large that even cutting the glossary the site still wouldn't post it. So the stats are here, and the article will be posted this afternoon.

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Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#2 » by Max123 » Thu Apr 8, 2021 5:24 pm

As someone who is not that well acquainted with all time teams in terms of their strength, this was a bit of a surprise to me. My first thought is to just say: ”Well yeah... that’s what happens when you have a decent team around peak Jordan.” It will be interesting to read the article and see just how much of this is Jordan and how surprised will I be about the supporting cast’s strength.

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Re: Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#3 » by sansterre » Thu Apr 8, 2021 8:52 pm

Pre-Recap Article

The Chicago Bulls sucked. They had for a while. Their best team was probably the ‘72 edition, which won 57 games and posted a +7.91 SRS in a watered-down league, and was promptly vaporized in the first round by the ‘72 Lakers. They had two more seasons above 50 wins, and they wouldn’t break 50 wins again for the next decade. Leading up to the 1984 draft, the Bulls had made the playoffs once in the last seven years, finishing below 35 wins in five of those years. They were awarded the third pick in the draft.

With the first pick the Rockets selected Hakeem Olajuwon, the consensus (even in retrospect) #1 player in the draft. With the second pick in the draft the Portland Trail Blazers completely crapped the bed and took Sam Bowie. Let’s take a moment to talk about Sam Bowie, shall we?

His last year in college he averaged: 10.5 points per game on 9.2 shots, 9.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.9 turnovers, 0.6 steals and 1.9 blocks.

That is *not* a dominant college stat line. Shooting at league average and scoring only 10.5 points a game against college defenders, respectable (but not dominant) rebounding, high turnovers and mediocre blocks . . . what was exciting about this guy again?

For comparison, here’s Hakeem’s average:

16.8 points per game on 12.8 shots, 13.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists to 1.6 turnovers, 1.6 steals and 5.6 blocks

Now *that’s* a stat-line!

Seriously, Sam Bowie was so ‘good’ that he only made All-SEC 3rd team his senior year. Yeah, sure he’d made first team SEC (3rd team all-American) as a freshman and then didn’t play for two years. And when he came back he posted a pretty mediocre stat line. So, legit, Portland had the #2 pick in the draft and blew it on a rehab project who wasn’t even good enough to be a Top 10 big man in his college conference!

Compounding the matter, available on the board (and taken quite happily by the Bulls) was Michael Jordan, coming off an outstanding season at UNC, where he’d won both Player of the Year awards as a Junior. Everyone thought that Jordan could be something really special.

1985 (Odds +5000, 21st of 23, finish 14th of 23, 1st Round): Jordan led the league in Points and was 3rd in points per game as a rookie. He not only won rookie of the year, but he finished 6th in MVP voting as well. Heliocentrism of 76%.

1986 (Odds +4000, 17th of 23, finish 18th/20th of 23, 1st Round): Jordan broke his left foot early in the season and missed 64 games. Because of a weak conference (and 16 of 23 teams making the playoffs) the Bulls made the playoffs anyways. Playing the vaunted ‘86 Celtics, Jordan averaged a 44/6/6 (earning gushing praise from Larry Bird), even as his team was swept by double digits.

1987 (Odds +10000, 21st of 23, finish 14th/8th of 23, 1st Round): Jordan is healthy all year and leads the league in the following: minutes played, shots made, shots taken, two pointers made, two pointers taken, shots missed, free throws, free throw attempts, points and points per game. He was only 2nd in steals (and 16th in blocks). He finished 2nd in MVP voting because his team only won 40 games. Once again the Bulls barely made the playoffs and once again they were swept by the Celtics as Jordan averaged a 36/7/6 (2 steals and 2.3 blocks) in the loss. Heliocentrism of 89.1%.

1988 (Odds +5000, 15th of 23, finish 6th/5th of 23, Semifinals): Jordan is healthy all year and leads the league in the following: minutes played, shots made, shots taken, two pointers made, two pointers taken, free throws, points, points per game and steals. He finished 2nd in free throws attempted and shots missed, and 14th in blocks. The Bulls had selected Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in the draft and the team surged to 50 wins, but those two were less of a factor than Jordan continuing some epic dominance. Jordan wins the MVP, but when interviewed he hypothesized that he wouldn’t win it again because as the Bulls got better they’d move away from him needing to shoot so much. The Bulls are knocked out in the Semis by the Bad Boy Pistons in four games; Jordan averages a 36/7/5 for the postseason. Heliocentrism of 85%.

1989 (Odds +2000, 9th of 25, finish 8th/10th of 25, Conference Finals): Michael finishes first in minutes played, shots made, two pointers made, points and points per game. He finished 2nd in FGA, 2PA and steals. He finished 2nd in the MVP voting behind Magic Johnson. The Bulls only win 47 games, but make the Conference Finals where they are beaten in six by the Pistons; Jordan averages a 35/7/8 a game for the postseason. Heliocentrism of 90.4%.

1990 (Odds +800, 5th of 25, finish 5th/9th of 27, Conference Finals): Phil Jackson takes over and the Bulls win 55 games. Jordan leads the league in shots made, shots attempted, 2 pointers made, two pointers taken, shots missed, steals and points. Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant develop further, but neither score more than 17 a game (while Jordan is scoring 34 a game). The Bulls again make the Conference Finals and again get knocked out by the Pistons (this time in seven). Jordan averages a 37/7/7 for the postseason. Heliocentrism of 79.1%.

Going into the 1991 season the Bulls were given +700 odds, 4th in the league, behind the defending champion Pistons, the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs (David Robinson had emerged as a rookie and led the team to 56 wins, so people figured that they were a team on the rise).

Looking back on it, the ‘91 Bulls being ranked #4 seems a little crazy, right? All the teams above them on this list were unquestionably ranked #1 going into the season (actually, possible exception of the '71 Bucks). #4 is as low as any team in the Top 10 was ranked until you get to the ‘14 Spurs. Jordan was *obviously* an absolute monster and his supporting cast was improving considerably (thanks to Pippen and Grant’s development).

Jordan being underappreciated by the oddsmakers is a curious trend. They absolutely low-balled the Bulls in ‘85, ‘87, ‘88 and ‘89 (if you’re counting the postseason, they were spot on with the regular season). Over and over again the oddsmakers just didn’t take the Jordan Bulls that seriously.

Were they simply dumb? I mean, Jordan is, well, Jordan, right? How could they have failed to understand how insanely dominant he was? You’ll note that none of the numbers I referenced were advanced stats; I only used stats that were available at the time. The guy led the league in points scored five of the FIVE years he was healthy through that stretch. In that stretch he finished 1st in VORP four times (2nd his rookie year). Yet he only won one MVP in that stretch and had his team routinely low-balled by Vegas.

I’m going to tell you right now that Vegas wasn’t being dumb. They were being smart, drawing the conclusions that best fit the data they had available to them at that time.

This is a long way of saying: nobody had ever seen *anything* like Jordan.

Let’s talk about it.

Riddle me this Batman; name every non-big to lead the league in points *and* win the title in the same season before, say, 1986.

It shouldn’t take you long. It’s a short list.

That crap had never happened.


Furthermore, it has never happened after Jordan either (though we’re talking about the data Vegas had available for Jordan, so that’s less relevant).

Let’s actually go through all the NBA points leaders since 1955, with records and playoffs (I’m adjusting records to 82 game seasons):

1955: Neil Johnston, 38 wins, no playoffs
1956: Bob Pettit, 38 wins, lost Conference Finals
1957: Paul Arizin, 42 wins, lost Semis
1958: George Yardley, 38 wins, lost Conference Finals
1959: Bob Pettit, 56 wins, lost Conference Finals
1960-66: Wilt Chamberlain, avg 48 wins, 1 Finals loss, 3 Conf Finals losses

Can I take a moment to point out that Wilt led the league in points for seven straight years? And that the first year he didn’t lead the league in points (1967) was also the year that Wilt actually won the championship? Kinda jumps out at ya doesn’t it?

1967: Rick Barry, 45 wins, lost NBA Finals
1968: Dave Bing, 40 wins, lost Semis
1969: Elvin Hayes, 37 wins, lost Semis
1970-72: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, averaged 62 wins, Lost 2 Conference Finals, One Championship
1973: Tiny Archibald, 36 wins, no playoffs
1974-76: Bob McAdoo, average 46 wins, 3 lost in Semis
1977: Pete Maravich, 35 wins, no playoffs
1978-80: George Gervin, average 47 wins, Lost once in 1st, Semis and Conference Finals
1981: Adrian Dantley, 28 wins, no playoffs
1982: George Gervin, 48 wins, loss in Conference Finals
1983: Alex English, 45 wins, loss in Semis
1984: Adrian Dantley, 45 wins, loss in Semis

So . . . we’re talking an average of 43 wins for teams with the leading scorer, 1 championship in 30, 2 Finals losses out of 30 . . . This is *not* a good set of teams. And if you take out the ‘70-72 Bucks it gets even worse. I’m not saying that it’s bad per se to have the leading scorer, but it emphatically has nothing to do with being a great team. And, frankly, the only one to have any serious success was Kareem. But he’s a bit of an exception to a lot of rules.

The above is to communicate the following: the Bulls having a player (Jordan) leading the league in scoring every year impressed the Vegas oddsmakers not at all from a winning point of view. And look at that list. It *shouldn’t* have impressed them.

Let’s take a look at this from a different angle. Here are Jordan’s estimated percentage of his team’s shooting possessions taken (normally I’d use usage, but I don’t have that for most of this timespan):

1985: 30.5%
1986: 40.1%
1987: 39.9%
1988: 35.3%
1989: 32.8%
1990: 34.8%

So, in his crazy unsupported days he averaged taking close to 40% of his team’s shots. As his team got more successful he backed off into the 33-35% range. Let’s compare this to the leading scorers on every title team through 1990 back to 1955 (regular season):

1990: Isiah Thomas, 24.5%
1989: Isiah Thomas, 23.5%
1988: Byron Scott, 23.5%
1987: Magic Johnson, 25.7%
1986: Larry Bird, 27.8%
1985: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 25.1%
1984: Larry Bird, 27.1%
1983: Moses Malone, 26.6%
1982: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 25.8%
1981: Larry Bird, 24.6%
1980: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 24.1%
1979: Gus Williams, 27.9%
1978: Elvin Hayes, 21.9%
1977: Maurice Lucas, 24.6%
1976: Jo Jo White, 21.9%
1975: Rick Barry, 33.2%
1974: John Havlicek, 24.1%
1973: Walt Frazier, 22.4%
1972: Gail Goodrich, 27.2%
1971: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 29.0%
1970: Willis Reed, 22.3%
1969: John Havlicek, 25.2%
1968: John Havlicek, 24.4%
1967: Wilt Chamberlain, 16.9%
1966: Sam Jones, 28.2%
1965: Sam Jones, 28.0%
1964: John Havlicek, 25.9%
1963: Sam Jones, 23.9%
1962: Tom Heinsohn, 28.2%
1961: Tom Heinsohn, 28.0%
1960: Tom Heinsohn, 25.9%
1959: Bill Sharman, 24.1%
1958: Bob Pettit, 27.3%
1957: Bill Sharman, 24.2%
1956: Paul Arizin, 27.3%
1955: Dolph Schayes, 26.0%

So, a few things. Note that Kareem in ‘71, despite leading the league in points, only took about 29% of his team’s shots when on the floor. Kareem wasn’t actually a super high-usage player; he simply didn’t miss that much. So despite leading the league in points, he was only 3rd in shots taken and 12th in shots missed.

And notice that, with the exception of Rick Barry, there are *zero* players that took 30% or more of their team’s shots when on the court that lead a championship team in scoring. It simply didn’t happen.


It’s mostly guesswork. I have a few hypotheses:

1) Players that want to take a lot of shots alienate their teammates and undermine an effective team dynamic; or
2) Teams that win championships are generally good enough to have enough shooters that their leading scorer doesn’t *need* to take that many shots.

And let’s think about it. The 60s were dominated by the Celtics, who had an ATG (perhaps *the* ATG defense) and merely a serviceable offense. Wilt started winning championships when he went away from taking most of his team’s shots and started focusing on defense and more team play. Then we head into the 70s, where the best teams are the ball-movement and defense Knicks, the Bucks (for whom Kareem didn’t need to take tons of shots to make a ton of impact) and the Lakers (who had a fairly balanced attack). Move into the rest of the 70s and (with the exception of Rick Barry and the Warriors) you get a bunch of defense & teamwork teams. Move into the 80s and you have the Lakers (notable by being run by an equal opportunity point guard), the Celtics (who have Bird, who doesn’t get very close to 30%, and has lots of team-centric skills), the Sixers (who had *three* main scorers and so didn’t need anyone to use too many possessions) and the Pistons (who were an archetypal defense & teamwork team).

With the exception of the ‘75 Warriors, there simply aren’t players that are carried by one player taking a ton of shots that have any success.

This was the track record that Vegas was referencing.

This is why Jordan was talking about how his scoring numbers were going to drop after ‘88 (they did some, but he’d still lead the league in points per game *nine* more times).

Because teams that won almost never did so by having one guy take a ton of shots.

Did teams (and the analysts of their day) still talk about having ‘clutch’ shooters to take it home? Of course. But absolutely nobody was looking at the George Gervins, Adrian Dantleys or pre-1967 Wilt Chamberlains of the league and saying “Without a guy like that you just can’t win”. Year after year those kinds of players would flame out. Some made the transition, like Elvin Hayes, going from high-volume scorer on a weak team to valuable team player on a great team. But high-volume scorers were rightly seen as somewhat antithetical to winning.

Which is really interesting.

Because in the modern game it’s almost the opposite. People point at great scorers like Kevin Durant and hold him in high esteem because of his other-worldly scoring (he’s great, of course, but his scoring is seen as a singular virtue). The number of times in conversations on these boards (and even more often off of them) it is considered borderline axiomatic that without a go-to scorer, a #1 option, an alpha, it is almost impossible to win a championship.

Here’s a crazy thesis.

Are you ready?

This position *did not exist* before Jordan (and if it did, it really shouldn't have).

I mean, you can get tautological with it; if a team wins a championship, they presumably have a top scorer, and championship + top scorer = championship alpha player.

This reasoning is, of course, garbage. Isiah Thomas may have been the Bad Boy Pistons’ go-to scorer in the postseason, but they won because of team defense and execution, not because Isiah Thomas lifted his merely mortal teammates to the promised land with his volume scoring.

Who was the biggest prospect of the 60s? A big man who could score (but didn’t take a ton of shots), rebound, defend and pass (Kareem). The biggest prospect of the 70s? A big man who scored really efficiently but didn’t take a ton of shots, was a monster rebounder, passer and defender (Walton). The biggest prospects of the 80s? Defensive monster big men who rebounded a ton and could also score (Hakeem and Robinson).

But after Jordan the players that got the most attention (this isn’t empirical, but it seems true) were scoring wings. Iverson, Kobe, Carmelo, Wade, Derrick Rose, LeBron, Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Curry, Kyrie, Dame . . . I’ll absolutely stipulate that the game in the last decade or so has shifted to more perimeter-skills driven, and that’s part of it, but I genuinely believe that the unconscious heuristic for evaluating greatness has changed.

Before Jordan, the unconscious heuristic was around Russell/low-scoring Wilt/Walton/Kareem.

After Jordan, there was a new heuristic for greatness.

How else do you explain Kobe being considered a legitimate GOAT candidate by so many, despite the fact that almost every single objective test puts him well below that standard? I maintain that it’s because GOAT became synonymous with ‘Jordanesque’ and Kobe was the most Jordanesque player since.

How else do you get players like Duncan and Garnett (quintessential pre-Jordan bigs in terms of being monster defenders, rebounders, capable passers and strong scorers) being dismissed with reasoning like “But are they a true #1 scoring option?” (this applies to Garnett more than Duncan.) But there seems a considerable blindness to the value of players that isn’t tied directly to their scoring - a guy like Duncan that contributed in literally everything (but never posted gaudy scoring numbers) gets dismissed as a system player. Because if he doesn’t check the boxes that Jordan checked, how good can Duncan really be?

So yeah. I honestly believe that Jordan was so good, so dominant, that he broke everybody's mind. That on some level before Jordan everybody was looking for the next Russell/Kareem, the next team-first transcendent big (Russell was defense, rebounding and some passing, Kareem was the complete package). And that after Jordan everybody was looking for the next volume-scoring wing.

But that heuristic shift hadn’t happened yet going into the ‘91 season. There’s a reason that even with Jordan’s gaudy scoring numbers he was compared unfavorably to Magic. Magic was a “winner”, who “made his teammates better”. And Jordan, it was thought, didn’t. Because he took a lot of shots (and his teammates early on weren’t very good).

Which is bullcrap, we know now; Jordan took tons of shots with quality efficiency *and* set his teammates up, both with passing and defensive attention. It’s just that nobody had ever done it that well at that volume before (and Jordan also added a ton of value on the rebounding/passing/defensive side of things, it’s just that his scoring was so nuts that’s what people focused on).

So here’s the question: was the obsession with Jordan-esque scoring after him misguided, or a predictor of new trends? Anecdotally we can say that there are a lot of teams after him that won with a lot of ball-dominance. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers were ball-dominant, the Spurs really weren’t, the Pistons weren’t, the Heat were, the Celtics weren’t, the Kobe Lakers were, the LeBron Heat/Cavs/Lakers were, the Warriors were and the Raptors were. It honestly seems that ball-dominant wings became better since Jordan . . . but did they?

So, here’s the way we’re going to check. I’m going to go through and check every single 30+% usage player since usage started being a thing. I’m going to note the percentage of these high-volume players relative to the number of teams in the league, and note how many teams they averaged beating (in this case I’ll say that missing the playoffs = 0, a first round exit = the number of non playoff teams, a second round exit = the number of non playoff teams + first round teams, etc. This is hardly thorough analysis, but it should nevertheless be a good suggester of trends (and a good barometer of success that can be ascertained by a casual fan). I’m going to do this by decade (minimum 2000 minutes, including 2020 in the teens, and I only have ‘78 and ‘79 from the 70s, and the 10-11 range would be completely average in a 30-team league):

70s: 9.1% of teams, 8.50 Superiority Rating, 0/4 Rings (0%)
80s: 10.8% of teams, 9.96 Superiority Rating, 0/25 Rings (0%), 100% rings no HV Scorer

So. From ‘78 to ‘89 teams with 30%+ usage scorers actually performed a little below average for the league. Of the 29 player-seasons in that timeframe they won zero rings. It’s not a huge sample size, but still. It’s pretty clear that no right-thinking individual circa 1990 would think “Man, without a high-volume scorer / #1 option you just can’t win a championship”. In fact, it would be totally intuitive to think the contrary. Now for the 90s:

90s: 9.0% of teams, 19.92 Superiority Rating, 7/25 Rings (28%), 30% rings no HV Scorer

Okay, well, we know that Jordan is seven of these twenty-five player-seasons, and Jordan’s teams did pretty well. Even still, it’s notable that 28% of the high-volume players won rings, and the Superiority Ratings averaged closer to a first-round exit (14 points in a 30-team league) than a SemiFinals exist (22 points in a 30-team league). But, interestingly, the 90s seemed to have even less high volume scorers per team than the 80s.

00s: 22.0% of teams, 16.08 Superiority Rating, 7/65 Rings (11%), 50% rings no HV Scorer

Okay, Jordan’s out of the picture, but the number of high-volume scorers per team has more than doubled. The 16.08 Superiority Rating is a little better than a first-round exit (not by a ton), but the average team posts around 10-11 points, so having a high-volume scorer is clearly an asset. Only 11% of high-volume scorers won rings, but half of championship-winning teams didn’t need a high-volume scorer.

10s: 23.9% of teams, 17.72 Superiority Rating, 8/79 Rings (10%), 27% rings no HV Scorer

The number of high-volume scorers has gone up, as has their success (though not as high as it went in Jordan’s era), it has become increasingly rare for championship-winning teams not to have a high-volume scorer. About 10% of high-volume scoring-seasons end in rings.

Let’s look at the estimated odds-shift (the expected odds are +0%) for teams with and without High Volume scorers (-50% means that the odds go down 50%, +100% mean that the odds double):

80s: HV Scorer = -100%, No HV Scorer = +12%
90s: HV Scorer = +678%, No HV Scorer = -56%
00s: HV Scorer = +127%, No HV Scorer = -36%
10s: HV Scorer = +205%, No HV Scorer = -65%

So post-Jordan, having a high-volume scorer means that your odds of winning are somewhere between doubling and tripling, while not having a high-volume scorer means that your odds drop by about half.

In other words, since about 1990, a high-volume scorer like Jordan is almost exactly what you want for winning a championship (not that you need it, but it certainly helps), but before 1990 it’s almost antithetical to winning. So what to us is obvious (that Jordan was *going* to win because he’s the best Alpha scorer in a league where Alpha scorers are a huge asset) is almost purely after-the-fact bias. Because the league only became that way *after* Jordan. Nobody in 1990 would have any reason to think in this way.

So . . . why?

I mean, why did all of this happen? Was it just that Jordan transformed the league and everyone started imitating him (both players and teams)?

I don’t think that holds water for the larger trend (though there was unquestionably some such imitation).

Was it rule changes? Everybody knows that the release of tighter defensive rules in the aughts opened up the effectiveness of wing scorers.

But I don’t really buy that either, since high-volume scorers had a pretty reasonable amount of success before that time (Hakeem, Shaq and Kobe leap to mind). The aughts show pretty comparable *numbers* of high volume scorers, though the teens certainly show them as being more valuable (then again, LeBron emerging is kind of a big deal just as Jordan emerging was in the 90s).

So I think imitation is a part of it. And I think that rules may have played a role. But my best guess?

The salary cap.

The cap rolled out in ‘85, but it took a while for the NBA to adjust. Before that, loading up on players was totally doable if you were winning. If you’re the Russell Celtics you can absolutely keep Sam Jones on the bench for several years behind Bill Sharman. If you’re the 80s Celtics you can absolutely keep McHale on the bench behind Cedric Maxwell for several years. If you’re the 80s Lakers you can absolutely have Kareem, Magic *and* Jamaal Wilkes, *and* Norm Nixon *and* Bob McAdoo *and* Michael Cooper. If you’re the ‘83 Sixers you can field a team with Dr. J, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones *and* Moses Malone.

Winning teams before 1990 or so simply didn’t need a high-volume scorer, because they almost certainly already had enough quality players to reduce the lead-scorer’s burden below the 30% threshold. But as the salary cap increasingly made it difficult to assemble lots of strong scorers on the same team (with some obvious exceptions) it meant that teams had to find a way to win with teams that had multiple weak links on the scoring side of things. And in such a scenario, a player who could take a lot of his team’s shots without sacrificing too much efficiency became increasingly valuable. Making a team work with Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and old Horace Grant? In the early 80s that just meant that you were probably done-zo. None of those guys can take many shots efficiently, and you’re going to have a hard time competing with the teams that have 4+ solid scorers. But in the salary cap era you’re going to have to figure it out. Suddenly, a Shaq or a Kobe (or both) can go a long way to making that offense function. In a weird way the Bad Boy Pistons were the precursors to this whole pattern (even if they didn’t have any 30+% scorers) by mixing and matching high-ish volume scorers (Isiah, Vinnie Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Mark Aguirre) with low-usage specialists (Rodman, John Salley, Rick Mahorn). The Spurs consistently cheated this pattern, by having both an ATG jack of all trades big and developing an extremely team-centric approach that integrated lots of skilled players. They (especially later) are weirdly the ideal 70s/80s team; consistent success, lots of team execution and rarely a 30%+ usage scorer.

Anyhow. I’ve wandered far afield here. And I’ll absolutely admit that a lot of this is speculative.

But I got really curious about why Jordan’s teams were so consistently underrated.

And perhaps this gets back to that running thread about Jordan vs LeBron vis a vis their preseason rankings. Because the OP there had a point: there was *absolutely* a lesson there. We just disagree about what it was.

My thesis about the whole thing is that before 1991 a high-volume scorer leading a team of limited scoring ability to a title was simply a non-starter (minus Rick Barry and the ‘75 Warriors). So when oddsmakers were estimating how good the Jordan Bulls would be, they were doing it with that in mind. They were wrong, but only because the paradigm for what made a successful team had changed with the salary cap (so I speculate) and they hadn’t realized it yet. So Jordan’s teams pre-1992 were pretty consistently underrated.

Fast forward to LeBron James’ career. Was Vegas looking at young LeBron and going “A high-volume scorer from the wing? That’s not winning basketball.” Hell no they weren’t! They had just seen three teams post three threepeats in a 12-year stretch, and all nine rosters had a ball-dominant high-volume scoring wing.

With LeBron, their response was, “We’ve seen something like this before and it totally worked.”

With Jordan, their response was, “We’ve seen things kind of like this before, and it never worked.”

This is the basketball world we live in: where the salary cap makes having a high-volume scorer valuable enough to mean that they can be a critical part to winning a championship even if their scoring is by far the best part of their game. It is a complete paradigm shift from how basketball was before 1990.

And Jordan was the crest of that wave, the harbinger, the one whose coming made clear that we were watching the dawning of a new era. He is hardly unique in being a ball-dominant high-volume scoring wing (even if he was the best of them) but he was the first in this era. And it completely changed everything.

You know that really old (and totally underrated) chess movie “In Search of Bobby Fischer”? Check it out, you’re looking at Ben Kingsley, Lawrence Fishbourne and Joan Allen, it’s a great cast. Anyhow, the basic narrative thesis of the movie is that once upon a time the Russians completely dominated chess. And the style of play was reasonably consistent (specifically erring on the cautious and defensive side). And out of nowhere comes this American kid, Bobby Fischer, who changes *everything*. He didn’t come from any grand tradition or anything; he simply had amazing instincts for the game and was unconcerned with the idea that he was trying to win with strategies that were simply not used. He went out there, played as himself, and absolutely wrecked *everyone*. His success redefined everything from who could be good at chess to how to be good at chess. And his ELO score dwarfed every prior champion; he dominated his era as few ever would. (There are a lot of other interesting comparisons between the two, like how both struggled with a lot of anxiety about their role as an icon in their sport (even if they manifested it in totally different ways) and both of them left a lot of their career on the table by retiring early multiple times.)

Anyhow, the movie is about how Fisher was such a game-changer that great chess teachers (in America anyways) are, on some level, not trying to create the next great player so much as trying to find/create the next Bobby Fischer.

So when you get players that on paper are like Jordan but play differently (like LeBron passing out of big shots to open players) there is often a visceral recoiling. It’s not because passing to open players is bad, it’s because *it’s not what Jordan would have done* (or what he is reputed to have done). When a player scores a lot, is associated with winning and (ideally) has at least one big clutch shot, there is an instinctive urge to celebrate this player whether or not it’s entirely appropriate (Kyrie Irving leaps to mind). And it’s not necessarily because that player is actually great, but instead because he’s doing things that *remind us* of Jordan.

On a subconscious level, a huge number of NBA fans are in their own quest, searching for Michael Jordan. It’s perhaps a credit to his career and singular heights that in many ways he has become the embodiment of greatness. And it’s a big part of why so many people react with revulsion to the idea of *anyone* else being considered the GOAT. It isn’t because Jordan’s *value* can’t be eclipsed; it’s because, in their mind, Jordan *is* what it means to be great. In a weird way, their ability to actually weigh player value has been broken by how great Jordan was.

And it leads to a lot of dodgy analysis. Consider the following player: guard, high 20s usage, efficient scoring, led his team in assists per 100 many years, was an outstanding rebounder for his position, was a very athletic defender and definitely added value on that end, but in the playoffs his scoring tended to drop off.

Think about that player in a pre-Jordan context.

He sounds great. Actually, he sounds like Bird (totally different style of play from Bird, but the statistical footprint is similar even if Bird was better in pretty much every way). There is *nothing* about that description that doesn’t sound like an excellent pre-Jordan player on a championship team (certainly not Top 25 all-time, but you could absolutely win championships with him). The lack of playoff-resilient scoring isn’t ideal but plenty of guys had success without a resilient scoring game in the playoffs (again, Bird leaps to mind).

But put him in a post-Jordan world and he falls way short. His volume is too low, his scoring isn’t resilient enough, and who cares about the other things he does to add value? If you’re dependent on that guy being your #1 option (the reasoning goes) you have no real chance of winning a title. And it doesn’t help that in the ‘92 Finals we literally saw the contrast play out.

But Clyde Drexler catches a pretty tough break historically. Value-wise, he’s clearly a really good player. But a lot of people think ill of him because he was *like* Jordan in many ways, but *clearly* worse. Falling short of Jordan is the ultimate sin, because with Jordan and Greatness so intertwined, Drexler falling short of that ideal so nakedly is something that few can forgive him for. And there’s a reason why the biggest slams on Garnett are basically the three Jordan tests: 1) did he win, 2) was he a playoff-resilient high-volume first option and 3) did he make any big clutch shots? Garnett’s defense and other contributions simply don’t enter into it. Jordanliness is next to Godliness; that Garnett was so unlike Jordan means he is disqualified from any serious ‘greatness’ conversation for many fans.

This is the post-Jordan world. For better for worse.
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Re: Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#4 » by sansterre » Thu Apr 8, 2021 8:58 pm

Recap Article:

And it’s also complete BS. Because Jordan was way, way more than just a scorer. And he would prove it in 1991. Here are some of Jordan’s other bona-fides, from ‘89 to ‘91 (minimum 4000 minutes):

Of all guards (or guard/forwards) Jordan ranks 5th of 87 in Defensive Rebounding Percentage, and 10th in Total Rebounding Percentage. Jordan was one of the top 15% of rebounding guards in the league.

Of those 87 players, he ranked 19th in Assist%, putting him in the top 25 percent of passers in the league. In fact, in light of Jordan’s ability to draw defensive attention, he may have been even better than that number in setting his teammates up. Ben Taylor has a stat called ‘Box Creation’ which is an estimate of how many shots a player creates for his teammates based on a bunch of box-score stats. From ‘89 to ‘91 the three Magic Johnson seasons are ranked highest by this metric (as one would expect) and two John Stockton right after. But if we ignore two of the greatest distributors ever, Jordan’s three seasons in this timeframe rank 3rd, 4th and 12th. By this standard, Jordan’s playmaking ability is considered similar to or better than that of Isiah Thomas and Kevin Johnson, and better than pretty much everyone not named Stockton and Magic. So it’s not crazy to think of Jordan as one of the Top 5 playmakers in the league for this stretch, perhaps even Top 3 (by which I mean 3rd, nobody’s arguing for him ahead of Magic and Stockton).

In this timeframe, there were 51 players that averaged 20% assists or higher. Of these Jordan’s turnover% ranks . . . first. Of course, evaluating Jordan’s turnover economy is something of a challenge. Three things lead to turnovers: trying to pass first and foremost, trying to score leads to less and simply having the ball at rest leads to the least of all. Jordan passed a lot but he “tried to score” an absolute ton. So his turnover% is probably artificially low because of how many shots he took. But using Assists/Turnovers isn’t really fair either, because he took so many shots (increasing the risk of turnovers but dropping the numbers of assists). Ben Taylor’s creation-adjusted turnover rate has Jordan seasons (from this three-year stretch) 1st and 2nd among players with a Box Creation of 5 or higher. This is all something of a mix, but the aggregate is that Jordan was one of the best in the league at not turning the ball over, which is pretty great since he had the ball in his hands a lot.

Of 172 players in that three-year timeframe (with at least 4000 minutes) Jordan’s steal% ranks 4th, and his block% ranks 57th (but 5th among the 74 guards). Those are pretty incredible numbers. He has the highest DBPM (which is a short step away from a complete garbage stat, but we have what we have) of all guards and tied for the highest Defensive Rating. Even if we include bigs his defensive rating is tied for 9th, and his DBPM is 4th. If we take these on their face, we would conclude that he was the best defensive guard of his era, and one of the very best defensive guards ever (if not the best). I don’t entirely know how convincing this is. One thing most sources agree on is that Jordan played a fairly high-risk style, gambling for steals more than most. This would mean that box-score driven stats would inflate his value somewhat. You know those defenders in the Joe Dumars/Dennis Rodman/Kevin McHale mould who have great defensive reputations but never racked up a lot of steals/blocks? It’s because their value came from *not* taking risks and simply playing consistent and excellent defense. Even as DBPM (and the like) underrate those players, it cannot help but overrate Jordan some. So Jordan may not have been the best defensive guard of this three-year stretch, he may only have been one of the Top 3-5 defensive guards in the league or something. I’m totally guessing; we don’t have impact data here which is usually the most reliable indicator of such things.

But here’s my point. Jordan was the best scorer in the league (and, you know, ever). He was also in the top 15% as a rebounder among non-bigs. He was also in the top 25% of passers, and the top 5% of playmakers. He was either the best or one of the best at not turning the ball over. And he was either the best defensive guard of this time or one of the Top 10%, depending on how you interpret the data.

Jordan was either the best or one of the best at every meaningful part of the game. That he was such a transcendent scorer means that the rest pales a bit by comparison. But I’m saying right now that Jordan would probably have been an all-star even if he’d only been an average scorer. Jordan may well have been the GOAT (depending on your criteria) and this ‘89-91 may well have been the highest peak ever (by modern metrics, it probably was) but to attribute both of those things to his scoring is to completely miss the sheer breadth of his excellence.

Here are two fun experiments about how good Jordan was from ‘89-91. Let’s imagine that we paired Jordan with another player, a replacement-level guard to form a backcourt that was half Jordan and half replacement level. I hunted around in that timeframe and I found Darrell Griffiths, who played the last three years of his career in this timeframe, and in those years posted about 0.3 VORP, so was barely above replacement level. Let’s blend their minutes and stats to see what two players look like who are a blend of their contributions. They would each look like this:

2386 minutes, 29.4% Usage on +3.7% shooting, 9.3% TRB, 22.2% AST, 3.1% Stl, 1.1% Blk

They would each be worth about 6.9 Win Shares and 3.6 VORP.

Would these players be All-Stars? Almost certainly. Ricky Pierce in ‘91 posted the following:

2187 minutes, 29.7% Usage on +5.0% shooting, worse at every other stat and a VORP of 2.4. He was an All-Star. So it’s safe to say that Jordan and a replacement level guard beside him average out between them to an All-Star level player or better.

In the other direction, if we split Jordan into two players, one with his scoring and one with everything else, would they both be All-Stars? Well, certainly the scorer half would. Even if he was average at every other thing, scoring at peak Jordan’s level would be a guaranteed All-Star. But the non-scoring half? The closest I can find to that would be someone like Alvin Robertson, who rebounded well, shot about average, passed well and played great defense. He made one All-Star team in the two years he fit the criteria I aimed at (and it could be argued that Jordan’s defensive impact, minutes (he played an extra 600-700), superior ball control and playmaking would put him well above Robertson). It wouldn’t be a huge exaggeration to describe Jordan by saying “Take an All-Defense 1st team player, with strong rebounding/passing numbers for a 2, drop his turnover rate by 40%, make him one of the top 3 creators in the league . . . oh, and he’s the best scorer of all-time.”

These are all long ways of saying that Jordan from ‘89-91 was really, really good. Really good. At literally everything. So to only remember him for his scoring is to really sell him short.

Speaking of players with all of Jordan’s strengths except scoring . . . Scottie Pippen fails the Jordan test hard in every way, except for the winning. Pippen, prior to 1991, was simply not a very good scorer. His usage was consistently above 20%, which was nice because you needed at least one player to take a little load off of Jordan, but before ‘91 he’d consistently shot below league average. Among the more notable changes from ‘90 to ‘91 is that Pippen went from a -0.9% shooter to a +2.7% shooter. That may not sound like a big deal, but that change alone was worth over 1 SRS. The ‘90 Bulls were a +2.74 SRS team, the ‘91 Bulls were a +8.57 SRS team, which means that they came up with 5.83 SRS out of somewhere. 15-20% of that was Pippen shooting better. That counts. So Pippen could score (on decent efficiency on decent volume) but he wasn’t blowing up anyone’s skirts with it.

But he was also a strong passer. This was a big deal because the Bulls didn’t have a strong distributing point guard. Purely anecdotally I’ve found that these ATG teams have one of two models: 1) an outstanding distributor that runs the offense or 2) a combination of distributors posting 8+ Assists/100 with big minutes. The Bulls couldn’t do the first, so they needed someone besides Jordan to run the offense. Pippen stepped in and started helping; here are his and Jordan’s assists/100 from ‘89 to ‘91:

1989: Jordan 9.9, Pippen 5.2
1990: Jordan 8.1, Pippen 7.0
1991: Pippen 8.5, Jordan 7.5

To call Pippen the ‘primary’ distributor of the offense is a little overblown (even if he dished more assists per 100 than any other starter) but he grew into a primary hub of what came to be an outstanding offense. He also grew into an excellent rebounder, in the top 15% of wings. Oh, and did I mention, that Pippen grew into an absolute wrecking-ball defender? Jordan was an excellent defender, but Pippen was better. Whether or not Jordan had the *capacity* to be better than Pippen is an open question, but since we don’t really get to see Jordan *not* carrying a massive load on offense, we’re addressing their abilities within those constraints. Having Scottie Pippen gave the Bulls the best pair of defensive wings . . . ever? I’m sure somebody will think of a better combo, but it’s a historically aberrant pairing. Pippen was extremely quick, long and strong. He would often be deployed on the other team’s most important offensive player and in that role he could change games; the ‘91 Finals would showcase that ability loud and proud.

Pippen wasn’t anywhere near Jordan’s level as a player (of course, who was?). But the fact that his contributions were comparatively low-scoring added to Jordan’s reputation. For a casual analysis that looks at scoring first, Jordan really had no secondary scorer to share the credit. It looked like Jordan carrying a bunch of talented role-players to the promised land. And there was, of course, something to that. But it’s impossible to overstate how much Jordan never being paired with an ostentatious secondary scorer improved his reputation. Notice, for example, how LeBron’s reputation for the ‘16 Finals suffered *because* he had a notable secondary scorer on his team. While Pippen was capable of posting high-ish scoring numbers (peaking around 22.5 points per 75 while Jordan had retired the first time) with Jordan he always stepped back a bit from the spotlight to focus on everything else. This is a long way of saying that Pippen in ‘91 was ideally suited to pair with Jordan’s skillset (minus the lack of a three-point shot) but was *also* ideally suited to enhance Jordan’s historical reputation even farther by never challenging him as a volume secondary scorer.

Speaking of guys ideally suited to pair with Jordan, let’s talk about Horace Grant. Grant was the team’s power forward. He was never a volume shot-taker, but he made his shots at a high rate of efficiency. He played strong (if not Pippen-level) defense and he was an excellent rebounder (top quarter of the league’s power forwards). And for a big, he didn’t turn the ball over much at all. He was, in other words, the perfect addition to Jordan and Pippen. At that point you didn’t need more distribution or volume scoring, you wanted scoring efficiency, rebounding and defense. Grant brought those in spades.

John Paxson was the normal Jordan point guard. He took threes and made them well, he passed some, he didn’t turn the ball over and he didn’t take a lot of shots. Bill Cartwright . . . I know that he has a defensive reputation, and he was brought in to handle the post. Perhaps he did that well. All I can say is that it’s really hard to find data that supports his value on the team . . . at all. He was barely a better rebounder than Pippen, posted a quarter of the blocks of Pippen, Grant or Jordan, passed less than Grant but turned the ball over more than anyone besides Pippen, was the only starter that shot below league average . . . it’s not great.

And that was the ‘91 Bulls. One transcendent volume scorer who was also really good at everything else. One secondary scorer who was even better at everything else. One perfectly suited big who did everything besides passing and volume scoring well. One floor-spacing point guard and one center of questionable value. On the face of it the team doesn’t seem super-great.

But they were. And they were massively better than the year before.

I realize that may seem weird (because they made the Eastern Conference Finals in 1990, but they got a *lot* better in ‘91.

Wins: 55 wins -> 61 wins
Expected Wins: 50 (9th) -> 63 wins (1st)
SRS: +2.74 (9th) -> +8.57 (1st)
Offensive Rating: 112.3 (5th) -> 114.6 (1st)
Defensive Rating: 109.0 (19th) -> 105.2 (7th)

The wins make it look like a small jump. But they went from being a pretty good all-offense team to being by far the best team in the league. Was this improvement driven by Jordan?

Usage: 33.7% -> 32.9%
TS%: 60.6% -> 60.5%
ScoreVal: 2.5 -> 2.8
PlayVal: 1.4 -> 1.2
OBPM: +9.1 -> +8.9
DBPM (BP): +1.6 -> +2.8
VORP: +10.6 -> +10.8

In other words, within the limits of stats that are limited to the box score, Jordan was basically the same player both years (though BackPicks DBPM thinks he got better on that end). And yet they jumped by more than five SRS in that span. Let’s look at Pippen and Grant:


Usage: 21.2% -> 21.8%
TS%: 52.8% -> 56.1%
ScoreVal: -0.2 -> +0.5
PlayVal: +0.5 -> +0.9
OBPM: +0.4 -> +3.2
DBPM (BP): +2.9 -> +3.5
VORP: +3.0 -> +5.9


Usage: 16.7% -> 15.3%
TS%: 55.5% -> 58.5%
ScoreVal: 0.4 -> 1.0
PlayVal: -0.1 -> -0.2
OBPM: +1.3 -> +2.2
DBPM (BP): +1.4 -> +1.9
VORP: +2.1 -> +3.0

Grant took a fair step forward and Pippen got *way* better. Jordan didn’t have to get better in ‘91; he did as much as he could have with that team. It turns out that one of the best seasons ever plus a crummy supporting cast gives you an SRS under +3 and a solid run through a weak conference to the Conference Finals. It’s when the supporting cast becomes actually decent that the team can get this good.

I have a weird theory about why the ‘91 Bulls are underrated. Not every list underrates them of course, but I’ve seen plenty that have the ‘92 or ‘97 versions ahead of the ‘91 team. And, of course, perhaps they’re right. My theory is that the narrative of the ‘91 Bulls simply isn’t consistent with the Jordan career-arc narrative that has been popularized. The ‘96 Bulls have one big narrative thing going for them (in addition to being obviously the best Bulls team); Jordan lifted that team. It was only a decent team in ‘95, then Jordan arrived and it became the best team ever (at the time). Sure it’s more complicated than that, but the narrative of Jordan as the savior writes itself. In ‘92 or ‘97? It’s Jordan delivering on the pressure of continuing to prove that he’s the best in the world.

But in ‘91? The narrative, for better or for worse, is that Jordan’s teammates lifted Jordan, not vice versa.

It’s not because Jordan wasn’t *by far* the best player on that team (or any team). It’s because Jordan simply didn’t get much better from ‘90 to ‘91, which means that the team’s leap was owed to his teammates.

But this, of course, has nothing to do with anything. Jordan still posted one of the highest Helio scores ever for one of the best teams ever. The narrative is irrelevant. Everyone was a lot more impressed with Jordan once he was a sure thing, once they already knew that he would win. Back when his ascendancy was more uncertain (rightly, as we covered before), it made the 1991 Bulls seem like more of a fluke, and less of an historical inevitability. Or so I speculate.

The Bulls defense in ‘91 was surprisingly league average in shot defense. It made up for it by rebounding decently, not fouling and most of all by generating turnovers (as is fairly common for defenses anchored by super-athletic wings). It was a good defense, but a little mediocre for this list (64th of 100 in the regular season).

Their offense, in contrast, was murderous. They had the best shooting in the league, the 3rd lowest turnover rate and the 4th highest offensive rebounding. Their only non-dominant category? Free throw rate. This may sound weird but the Bulls didn’t get to the line a lot. Of 124 players in 1991 to put up 2000+ minutes the four Bulls ranked: 38th (Grant), 43rd (Jordan), 71st (Pippen) and 80th (Cartwright). And the Paxson/Armstrong duo pretty much never attacked the rim. Still. They posted the 11th best offensive rating of this list in the regular season, which is damned impressive.

Put it together and they won 61 games and posted a +8.57 SRS (14th on this list). It was the best record in the East by a good margin, and the best SRS in the league. Their perpetual nemesis, the Detroit Pistons, had posted an unremarkable regular season (50 wins, +3.08 SRS) but they were also notable for playing much better in the postseason, so a rematch was a definite possibility.

In the first round they faced the up-and-coming New York Knicks (-0.4). You know how sometimes top teams will kind of mail it in on weak first round opponents?

The ‘91 Bulls did not do that.

They swept the Knicks by 20 points a game. On offense they blew the Knicks apart, shooting +3.7% as a team as Jordan averaged a 29/5/6 on +9.5% (with 2.7 steals a game) while Pippen averaged a 20/9/5 on +1.8% with 3.3 steals a game. And they completely shut down the Knicks’ offense, particularly by forcing turnover after turnover (over 12 steals a game). The Knicks weren’t any better than average, but it was still an impressive win.

In the second round they faced Charles Barkley’s 76ers (+2.5). And the result was very representative of Barkley as a player. The Bulls couldn’t stop Barkley. He averaged a 26/10/5 on +13.2% shooting and posted a sub-10% turnover rate. Behind his onslaught the Sixers shot above league average and actually posted an offensive rating above their regular season average (impressive against the Bulls’ very capable defense).

The Bulls won in five by 8.8 points per game.

How? Because it was a Barkley team, and that meant that the Bulls lit up the Sixers’ defense pretty hard (yes, this wasn’t all Barkley’s fault but his teams did have a weird habit of being strong on offense and tissue-paper on defense, paging the ‘93 Suns?). Jordan averaged a 33/8/8 on +1.4% while Pippen averaged a 23/9/6 on +7.5%. Combine their offense with a 6.5 shot per game possession advantage the Bulls still ran away with the series. It was their weakest showing in the playoffs . . . but they still won in five by 8.8 points a game, a double-digit SRS eq showing. If that’s your worst performance you’re doing pretty well.

In the Conference Finals they faced the inevitable re-re-rematch against the Detroit Pistons (+4.0). The Pistons hadn’t looked particularly strong in the playoffs, struggling to put away the ‘91 Celtics (getting outscored by 1.8 points a game in the series). OSRS thought that the Bulls were the massive favorite, but it’s never certain when you’re playing a team that’s eliminated you the past three years running.

The Bulls swept them in four straight by 10.5 points a game. Jordan ripped through them, averaging a 305/7 on +11.2% (2.3 steals and 1.8 blocks per game) while Pippen averaged a 22/8/5 on +2.9% with 3 steals and 2 blocks a game. It was never close. The Pistons’ time had passed, and the Bulls had asserted their dominance in emphatic style.

In the Finals were Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers (+8.8). This was billed as a matchup between the young scorer and the veteran winner that made his teammates better, everyone was excited. Bill Simmons made a big deal about how people were dismissing the Bulls in this series because “Jordan didn’t know how to win yet” but the odds going into the series were 2:1 for the Bulls. At the point where the Bulls had cremated the Pistons in four straight, they were a legitimately scary matchup. Compounding matters, James Worthy was injured in the Western Conference Finals and nobody was sure how well he’d play. The ‘91 Lakers were plenty good . . . but at this point Vegas was pretty confident about the Bulls’ chances. There were complications of course; Magic presented a unique challenge to defend (and always had). There was no universe where John Paxson was going to body-up Magic (who was far larger), but even Jordan gave up a lot of size in that matchup. And the Bulls were leery of pulling Pippen off of Worthy.

In Game 1 of his first NBA Finals, Jordan came out swinging. He posted a 36/8/12 on +11% (with 3 steals), with a game-level BPM of +20.8. The Bulls lost. Every other Bulls starter shot -10% or worse and the team as a whole shot -1.6%. On the other side Magic had a very Magic 19/10/11 on +47.7% shooting, leading the Lakers to shoot at +4.0% and pull out a two-point win in spite of the Bulls’ possession advantage (about 7 shots). James Worthy struggled (whether because of his injury or Pippen’s defense) with a 22/3/1 on -7.6% shooting. It was a redux of Jordan’s career to that point; a transcendent performance compromised by teammates unable to score (and you can’t say that Jordan didn’t pass enough; he assisted on 50% of his teammates’ made shots). Going into Game 2 Jackson shook things up, moving the assignment of guarding Magic from Jordan (which, for this first game had been something of a low-end disaster) to Pippen.

In Game 2 Jordan played even better (WHAAAAT!?) with a 33/7/13 on +30.1% (2 steals) and a game-level BPM of +26.6. And this time the rest of the team followed suit, with Paxson going 8 for 8 from the field, Grant going 10 of 13 and even Bill Cartwright hitting 6 of 9. On the other side of the ball Magic suddenly struggled to score, with a 14/7/10 on -9.4%, while Worthy scored well with a curiously empty stat-line of 24/5/1 on +7.7% with 4 turnovers. The Bulls blew out the Lakers by 21 points. The series was tied up, and nobody was quite sure how seriously to take the sudden change in result.

In Game 3 Jordan posted a comparatively weak game of 29/9/9 on -6.1%, but chipped in with 4 steals and 2 blocks (11.1 BPM). The Bulls didn’t shoot particularly well (besides Grant) but they pounded the Lakers on the glass, with Jordan, Pippen and Grant combining for 13 offensive boards (the Lakers as a team only grabbed 9). Magic had a solid game of 22/6/10 on +5.4% scoring, but marred by 5 turnovers, and Worthy was decent with a 19/1/4 on +2.9% with 3 steals. Ultimately the game was tied going into overtime, and the Bulls pulled it out by eight in the final period. So the Bulls held a 2-1 lead, but two of the games had been quite close.

In Game 4, Jordan went back into Nova mode, posting a 28/5/13 on +8.4% and only one turnover (BPM of +17.0). And while Magic had an excellent game (22/6/11 on +9.8%), non-Magic Lakers really struggled. Sam Perkins went 1 of 15 from the field, Worthy shot -16.9% and the Lakers were outshot by a ridiculous 12.4%. The Bulls won the game by 15. Suddenly what had been looking like it could be a tight series was looking like a route. And now it came out that Worthy wouldn’t be able to play in Game 5. The writing seemed to be on the wall.

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion by a long-shot, but the Bulls won Game 5 by seven points. They’d beaten a really capable Lakers team in five by 9.8 points per game. It was a dominant win, one of the more impressive Finals showings ever. And Jordan had won his first championship.

So, to dispel some myths.

Did the Lakers only lose because Worthy was injured? This seems like a seriously hard sell. I mean, the Bulls won by almost ten points a game. Unless you’re arguing that the gap between Worthy healthy and Worthy injured approaches 10 points a game (an insane position) it’s not really a discussion. The series may well have been closer, but it’s not like the Bulls snuck this one out. They kind of demolished the Lakers. It would have taken more than a healthy Worthy to balance that out (sure, you can argue that it was a small sample size of five games, but at that point you’re speculating. No evidence, whether from the regular season, playoffs or the series itself, suggests that the Bulls were not the better team).

Did Pippen picking up Magic full court win the series for the Bulls? Umm, hard to say. I mean, Magic was pretty much unstoppable in Game 1, but that’s just one game; Jordan looked kind of mortal in Game 3 but that’s hardly dispositive of anything. Again, I don’t think that Pippen guarding Magic swung the series by 10+ points. From the limited data we have it looks as though the change helped, but it hardly swung the series.

Both of these myths are centered around a shared idea, that there needs to be some explanation for how the Bulls beat the Lakers.

What about the Bulls simply being better? Here are all the relevant metrics:

Regular Season SRS: Bulls +8.57, Lakers +6.73
Regular Season Offense: Bulls +6.7, Lakers +4.2
Regular Season Defense: Lakers -2.9, Bulls -2.7
Playoff SRS: Bulls +15.88, Lakers +8.25
Playoff Offense: Bulls +10.98, Lakers +5.65
Playoff Defense: Bulls -5.06, Lakers -1.58

The Bulls were better. A pretty good amount better. We don’t need to concoct these theories to rationalize it. If Pippen hadn’t defended Magic and if Worthy had been healthy, would the series have been closer? Probably. The Bulls were still better.

Did you know that only two players ever have posted two 20+ BPM games in the same Finals series?

The first is LeBron James in 2016. His games in order:

+12.0, +9.3, +7.6, +9.6, +21.5, +23.5, +11.5

The other player, appropriately, is Jordan in 1991. His games in order:

+20.8, +26.6, +11.1, +17.0, +8.3

Here are those two series, adjusted for pace (to 100 possessions) and for opponent regular season shooting defense:

2016 LeBron: 32.3 points on +4.2% shooting, 12.3 Reb, 9.7 Ast, 4.8 TO, 2.8 Stl, 2.5 Blk
1991 Jordan: 36.4 points on +10.2% shooting, 7.7 Reb, 13.3 Ast, 4.2 TO, 3.3 Stl, 1.6 Blk

That LeBron series looks insane. And the Jordan series looks better. That shooting is crazy, but what’s even more impressive is the higher assists combined with lower turnovers.

Comparing series like this is always dodgy, and the ‘16 Warriors’ playoff defense was unquestionably better than the ‘91 Lakers playoff defense.

But if I had to pick, I’d say that ‘91 NBA Finals Jordan is as good as anyone’s ever been in a Finals in the modern era.

12 | Bulls
11 |
10 |
9 |
8 |
7 | Blazers, Lakers
6 |
5 | Jazz
4 | Celtics
3 | Pistons
2 | Sixers, Spurs, Rockets, Suns, Warriors, Sonics
1 | Pacers
0 |
-0 | Bucks, Hawks
-1 |
-2 | Knicks, Cavs
-3 | Magic, TWolves, Clippers
-4 | Hornets, Bullets, Nets, Mavs
-5 | Heat
-6 | Kings
-7 |
-8 |
-9 |
-10| Nuggets

How great were the ‘91 Bulls? Well, they posted a really good regular season and a playoffs where their closest victory was 8.8 points per game. They closed out the season against a Top 100 team (literally, #100 on this list) by 9.8 points per game. Their dominance that season is pretty unquestionable.

If I were to quibble? Their first three rounds are fairly weak. A sub-zero first round is definitely low, and a +2 second round is equally low. And a +4 for the Conference Finals? As far as a Conference schedule we’re not talking as weak as the ‘87 Lakers, but it’s not far off. The ‘91 Lakers were the only genuinely strong team they played and that team was a little hobbled by injuries. But the 9.8 ppg win is still really, really impressive. Under any circumstances.

Do I feel like they’re too high?

Maybe. I’m not sad that they’re here. They dominated their year hard and they blew out everyone they played. It’s a pretty unimpeachable resume.

That said, I do think their rating is a little fluffed by a weak postseason SoS. And v1 disproportionately loves blowouts (and probably doesn’t take into account opponent quality enough), so the ‘91 Bulls are kind of wired to be a team overrated by that formula. My instinct is that they’re a little lower, still in the Top 10, but probably not Top 5.

But I’m not sad at all that they’re here. I don’t think people remember how freaking dominant this team was.

And it was a lot of fun doing all that Jordan Heuristic research. Obviously a lot of it was speculative, but I hope it was an interesting journey.
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Re: Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#5 » by Vladimir777 » Fri Apr 9, 2021 2:43 am

Wow, I loved the analysis about the value of volume-scoring wings before and after Jordan. I also love that you brought up the Jordan vs. LeBron pre-season odds thread that has stuck to the PC frontpage for the last few weeks, and you treated it with respect.

Love it, sansterre!
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Re: Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#6 » by homecourtloss » Fri Apr 9, 2021 4:12 am

Just otherworldly good posting that shouldn’t be free to read. You explicated so well the greatness of Jordan, the leap by his teammates especially Pippen, the Simmons myths about underdog Bulls, and as always, how the team got to where it was and the relative similarities and differences with other great teams’ respective rises and so, so much more. Thank you.
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Re: Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#7 » by Redmoon » Fri Apr 9, 2021 4:34 am

Amazing post. I was really looking forward to this one, I never anticipated the 91 Bulls to be this high up ok the list tbh.
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Re: Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#8 » by tmorgan » Fri Apr 9, 2021 11:52 pm

I’m not sure you don’t, sansterre, but you need to get paid for this, boss. Send some resumes out. Use this pre-recap article as material.
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Re: Sansterre's Top 100 Teams, #4. The 1991 Chicago Bulls 

Post#9 » by giberish » Sat Apr 10, 2021 8:39 am

I still wish Portland hadn't massively chocked in the 1991 WCF (they looked to have a mental block against the Lakers and just didn't play well at all). I expect that the margin that they put on a hobbled Laker team really helps the 1991 Lakers here (I'd still have expected them to beat a fully healthy Laker team but not by near that margin).

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