What would Michael Jordan do if he soared toward the basket and met the massive presence of Wilt Chamberlain, in his prime, waiting for him? It's impossible to know, just as it's ultimately impossible to determine how the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls would have done against the only two teams who started a season faster: the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (37-3) and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (39-3), both of which had the legendary Chamberlain at center. The guess here is that if you put Chicago on an imaginary court with either team, the Bulls would put up a good fight but in the end would probably lose a close one.
In a hypothetical Bulls-Sixers matchup, Chamberlain would give Philly a huge advantage at center, the Bulls' weakest position. That year he not only led the league in rebounding, with an average of 24.2, but he also was fifth in scoring, with 24.1 points a game, and third in assists (7.8). However, Wilt made only 44.1% of his free throws, which suggests that he would have been hacked early and often by his Chicago counterparts, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington.
But that Philadelphia team, which finished the season with a 68-13 record, had two other Hall of Famers, guard Hal Greer and its sixth man, forward Billy Cunningham. They, along with forwards Lucious Jackson and Chet Walker and guard Wally Jones, gave the Sixers six players who had double-figure scoring averages. The Bulls have just three, Jordan and forwards Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc. "That Philadelphia team had much better balance than the Bulls do," says Jack Ramsay, the 76ers' general manager that season. "All of the players were pretty much in their prime and had years that were the best or among the best of their careers."
Jordan and Pippen would have had the edge in their matchups with Greer and Walker, but even a rebounder as extraordinary as the Bulls' 6'8" Dennis Rodman would have been hard-pressed to dominate the boards against the 7'1", 275-pound Chamberlain and the 6'9", 240-pound Jackson. And Philadelphia's superior depth might well have been the difference.
Chicago probably would have had a better chance against the 1971-72 Lakers team that won 33 in a row and finished 69-13, the best record in NBA history. Chamberlain averaged "only" 14.8 points and 19.2 rebounds, but Los Angeles got plenty of scoring from guards Gail Goodrich (25.9 points) and Jerry West (25.8) and forward Jim McMillian (18.8). These Lakers would not have hurt the Bulls inside as badly as the 76ers would have. But like the Sixers, they were a deeper, more balanced team than Chicago, with a bench that included guards Flynn Robinson and a long-haired fellow named Pat Riley.
As for the quality of competition in the league then and now, it's logical to assume that the Bulls benefit from the effects of expansion. But in the 10-team league that Philadelphia dominated, only three clubs finished above .500—the Boston Celtics and the San Francisco Warriors were the others—and the Sixers had the advantage of beating the first-year Bulls eight out of nine times. This season Chicago will play the expansion Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies a total of six times.
But perhaps it's unfair to compare this season's Bulls to any of history's great teams, not just because they haven't won the championship yet but also because they may not even be the best team in franchise history. The 1991—92 Bulls, the second of Chicago's three straight championship teams and one that included solid center Bill Cartwright, estimable power forward Horace Grant and clutch shooter John Paxson, got off to a 37-5 start and finished 67-15. "If we can do the things that that team did, I don't really care about history," says Jordan. "I'll be satisfied."