How putting Gary Payton on Michael Jordan sooner could have changed the 1996 NBA Finals


(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

It’s August, some of the darkest days of the sports calendar, so it’s as good a time as any to pay credence to the “hindsight is 20/20” cliche and turn our analytics lens backward to examine the basketball battles of yesteryear. Welcome to NBA Retrometrics! The 1990s was a simpler time for basketball fans. We didn’t have analytics companies such as  Synergy Stats or SportsVU logging and quantifiably evaluating every play. We didn’t have intricate offenses, with multiple pick and rolls, off-ball movement, rapid passing, all creating split second defensive rotations and matchups.

A team like the 2014 San Antonio Spurs would’ve looked about as out of place in 1998, as Russell Westbrook wearing a pair of John Stockton’s crotch-hugging shorts. During the next few weeks, we’ll revisit the players, playoff battles, and debates from the pre-analytics movement, while applying a bit of modern analysis (win shares, PER, points per 100 possessions), to see what we unearth. To that end, if there are any specific players or games you would like to see featured, let us know in the comments below.

We start things off with Game 4 of the 1996 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Seattle Supersonics. The full game is also available on Youtube.

Context:

Nearly 20 years later, it’s almost impossible to think of basketball in 1996, without Chicago’s record-setting 72-win season popping to the forefront of your memory. Michael Jordan was 32 and enjoying his first full season back from his baseball sabbatical. Scottie Pippen was 30 and settling back into his supporting actor role, after his two most individually successful seasons. It was also Dennis Rodman’s first season with the Bulls and he joined Jordan and Pippen on the all-defensive first team.

The Bulls faced the best Supersonics team of the Gary Payton era. Led by a 26-year-old Shawn Kemp and a 27-year-old Payton, who both made the all-NBA second team, it seemed like a safe bet that Seattle would be a Western Conference contender for years to come. But the SuperSonics serve as yet another reminder of how quickly championship windows can be slammed shut— Seattle never again made it past the second round.

Payton vs. Jordan

Chicago won the the first three games of the series and were on the brink of a sweep, before George Karl finally made a key adjustment, allowing Payton, ‘The Glove,’ to guard Jordan. Because Payton was battling a calf muscle injury, George Karl was hesitant to use Payton to defend Jordan, despite Payton’s pleas. It wasn’t until Seattle was on the brink of elimination, down 3-0, that Karl finally relented. The part that doesn’t make sense is Payton still played 45.7 minutes per game. How exactly is that protecting Payton?

Once Payton finally had the green light, the individual battle was captivating. Jordan had  at least 30 pounds and two inches on ‘The Glove,’ but Payton’s unrelenting tenacity made up for the size difference. Payton’s defense calls to mind Tony Allen’s— constant fronting in the post, quick hands prodding at the ball and standing as close to Jordan as humanly possible, making every effort to get him out of his comfort zone.

Let’s get nerdy:

In a particularly top-heavy season in which two other teams eclipsed 60 wins — Seattle won 64 games as well — that ’96 Bulls team was on a different level. The Bulls led the league in both points scored per 100 possessions (115.2) and points allowed (101.8). Chicago’s average margin of victory was 12.24 in the regular season. To put that in modern context, San Antonio led the league last season and theirs was 7.72.

The Bulls finished third in the league in three-point shooting (40.3 percent), while also smothering three-point shooters on defense, holding opponents to 35 percent, sixth in the league. Their dominance in this area of the game is very 2014, but the big difference between then and now is the sheer volume of attempts. The Bulls attempted 1,349 three-pointers that year, which would’ve been the third-fewest number in 2014.

Chicago’s victory can be attributed to a few factors beyond, “they had Jordan.” The slower pace favored the half-court Bulls. The Sonics played at the third-fastest tempo in the regular season, averaging 93.8 possessions per 48 minutes, while the Bulls ranked 19th. The pace in the Finals crawled to 83.5 possessions per 48 minutes, following the old adage of the game slowing down in the postseason, which still applies today. In the 2014 Finals, the pace was only slightly quicker (87.4), which was considerably slower than San Antonio’s (95) and Miami’s (91) regular season tempos.

Over the six games, Chicago grabbed 22 more rebounds and forced 16 more turnovers. However, Seattle was the more accurate team, shooting 44.5 percent overall and 31.4 percent on threes, compared to Chicago’s 41.6 percent and 26.3 percent respectively. That came in spite of two if its best shooters dropping off considerably. Hershey Hawkins went from shooting 38.4 percent on threes in the regular season, to 27.3 percent in the Finals, while Sam Perkins went from 35.5 percent to 23.5 percent.

In hindsight:

Not to pick at old scab, Seattle residents, but you have to wonder how Seattle would’ve fared had Payton defended Jordan the entire series. Just look at Jordan’s numbers:

First three games: 31 points, 46 fg%, 50 3fg%, 12.3 FTA.
Last three games: 23.7 points, 36.7 fg%, 11.1 3fg% 10 FTA.

Best quote:

“You’ve got to get back at Jordan,” Payton said. ” You can’t back down on him. If you do, he’s like a wolf, he’s going to eat everything. He knew I wasn’t going to back down. I had to realize or see if he is really about being a dog, about this neighborhood stuff. I went at him. It was just me being me.”

That moment alone underlines the broader disappointment surrounding Seattle’s drop-off the following years. Payton was one of the few players from that era with the brash confidence to fearlessly take on Jordan, who famously lacked contemporary rivals. It’s a shame we only had one Seattle-Chicago Finals.

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