In the latest installment of The Last Dance, the 1996 Finals between the Bulls and the Supersonics was highlighted. It’s history; Chicago won the series 4-2, MJ won finals MVP, and the first rung of the second three-peat was vaulted.
I’m all for going back in time, reminiscing on a great series, a great player, and a great team. But, when that comes at the devaluation of another’s ability or achievements, I have a problem with that. I understand that this documentary is all about displaying Michael’s story and career. I have no interest in disputing whether or not he is or was the greatest player of all time; it’s empirical that MJ has the case to be at the top of the pyramid (1 or 2) at this current time.
There is no denying Jordan’s greatness. I’m not trying to debate who’s the best, but I’m certainly going to remember and reinforce excellence. Gary Payton was the definition of such. While he was never deemed as being at MJ’s level (few ever have been or will be), Payton is one of the great player’s of the 90’s and of all time.
“The Glove…I had no problem with The Glove.”
Frankly, this is bullshit. Once Gary Payton was put on MJ as his primary defender in game 4 (He inexplicably wasn’t before then…don’t get me started. I love Detlef Schrempf, but he didn’t have the foot speed and gets roasted by MJ multiple times), he shot 22/60 from the field, equivalent to 36.7%, which is well below what he’d done the first three games, 46%. After pouring over all of his playoff gamelogs, there is not a single worse shooting/finishing stretch in MJ’s playoff tenure, other than the 1993 Eastern Conference Semifinals’ first three games (32.5% from the floor) against the Knicks.
I’m not going to paint it as if he was completely shut down; MJ took 30 free throws (10 per game), although he took less free throws per game with Payton on him than he did across the first three games. He got to the line 12.3 times per game in the first half of the series which is insane in retrospect.
The point is, Payton most definitely bothered him and provided some of the toughest defense Jordan ever faced in a playoff series. Michael could not be stopped; his greatness was inevitable, but Payton stemmed the tide better than anyone.
The 96 Sonics went 64-18, obviously overshadowed by the Bulls 72-10 record setting season. However, I sifted through the last 24 years of net rating data to see where this Sonics team stacks up.
(By Net Rating since 1996)
|1||96′ Bulls||13.4||72-10||Won NBA Finals|
|2||97′ Bulls||11.8||69-13||Won NBA Finals|
|3||17′ Warriors||11.4||67-15||Won NBA Finals|
|4||16′ Spurs||11.1||67-15||Lost WC Semifinals|
|5||08′ Celtics||10.8||66-16||Won NBA Finals|
|6||20′ Bucks *(Season Suspended)||10.7||53-12||TBD|
|7||16′ Warriors||10.6||73-9||Lost NBA Finals|
|8||15′ Warriors||9.9||67-15||Won NBA Finals|
|9||13′ Thunder||9.9||60-22||Lost NBA Finals|
|10||97′ Jazz||9.8||64-18||Lost NBA Finals|
|11||09′ Cavs||9.6||66-16||Lost EC Finals|
|12||07′ Spurs||9.2||58-24||Won NBA Finals|
|13||99′ Spurs *(Lockout season)*||9.1||37-13||Won NBA Finals|
|14||00′ Lakers||9||67-15||Won NBA Finals|
|15||12′ Bulls||8.8||50-16||Lost EC First Round|
|16||19′ Bucks||8.6||60-22||Lost EC Finals|
|17||97′ Sonics||8.5||57-25||Lost WC Semifinals|
|18||18′ Rockets||8.4||65-17||Lost WC Finals (0-27)|
|19||05′ Spurs||8.3||59-23||Won NBA Finals|
|20||08′ Pistons||8.3||59-23||Lost in EC Finals|
|21||01′ Spurs||8.3||58-24||Lost in WC Finals|
|22||03′ Mavs||8.3||60-22||Lost in WC Finals|
|23||13′ Heat||8.2||66-16||Won NBA Finals|
|24||96′ Sonics||8.2||64-18||Lost in NBA Finals|
You can’t justify everything based off of net rating and win total, but it goes without saying that the 96 Sonics were one of the best teams to grace the hardwood that never won a title, and best teams period. In another year against another Eastern contender, perhaps we have a much different perspective on this team. I would kill to see this team play today with Shawn Kemp bumped up to the five, Schrempf at the four, and Nate McMillan or Vincent Askew thrust into the starting lineup. The team already had phenomenal ability to space and Kemp’s verticality and athleticism was damning for the Bulls (sorry Luc Longley, that’s not your ideal matchup).
One player off that team who would really fit into today’s game is Hersey Hawkins. He’s rather undersized at the two at 6’3, especially in the 90’s, but his offensive game was fantastic at the time and would slide into today’s game so well. The one time All-Star was an incredibly efficient off-ball threat who made the most of his time on-ball, with a true shooting of 59.6% from 1991-97 (his prime), well above league average now and at the time. He shot above 40% multiple times prior to the line being moved in and consistently hovered around that percentage his entire career, finishing with a career 39.4% from three. Hawkins is an analytics darling that was well before is time!
I’m not here to be a sore loser. MJ & the Bulls won and deserve to be remembered as the best. I care about the legacy of player’s, and I think it’s an injustice to flash by some of these teams and individuals. History is written by the winners, but that doesn’t mean we should eschew the 29 other teams. There’s more to the game than winning; it’s incredibly difficult to win a title, let alone six.
I’m all for remembering the greats, but not at the expense of those that built them into what they became. Tearing down aspects of Gary Payton’s game to build up Michael’s just doesn’t make sense to me, and that goes for any former player. Respect and admire both of them and what they were capable of rather than diminishing their value with false narratives and rewritten history.
Enjoy the last episodes of The Last Dance tonight.