You've been delivered a secret message from the past.
The message is postmarked April 17, 1998.
The entire roster from the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls has mysteriously disappeared. Luckily, everything else is somehow frozen in place. You've also been given directions to a hidden time machine with room for 12 other passengers. Your mission?
Find the 12 current players who most resemble those from the 1997-98 Bulls and transport them back in time. The goal is to recreate that original team with players from 2019-20 so that as few people as possible even notice. It's like Space Jam crossed with Back to the Future.
MORE: Fast facts on the 1997-98 Bulls
Ridiculous concept? Of course.
But we do the player comparison game all of the time, so let's just take it several steps further to re-create an iconic squad.
A couple of house rules.
- It's not an exact science. Clearly.
- Stats AND style matter. This isn't just about base-level production. Two players with similar stats from different eras might also be two incredibly different types of players. Similarly... production matters. You can't replace a 25-a-game scorer with someone who occasionally lights up and at times looks the part.
- Age is important... to a point. Look, this is an absurd exercise to begin with, but all things considered we'll try to stray from drawing comparisons between 36-year-old vets and 19-year-old rookies even if the stats, style and roles match up.
- Stature, hierarchy, pedigree, etc. It all counts. It's why even though Khris Middleton is having a great season as a sidekick, he's still no Scottie Pippen even if everything else kind of lines up.
And that's it. So... flip the ignition on the Old Team Time Machine and let's get weird.
The Contenders: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, James Harden
There's no other place to start. If you mess up with MJ, there's no point in even carrying on with the rest.
Durant didn't even play in 2019-20 due his Achilles injury and yet if we're trying to replace a 10-time scoring champ, it's worth mentioning the active player with the most scoring titles and someone who be the best pure scorer in league history. Did I break my own rules with the first nominee for the very first player? Yes. Do I care? Not in the slightest.
As for Harden, he's just on another level than any other two guard. Harden is the most dangerous isolation player in today's game and someone in the midst of a two-year scoring binge we haven't seen since Jordan himself.
MORE: Nobody won on MJ's watch
And yet stylistically, it just doesn't jibe. Jordan and Harden get buckets no doubt, but this is twilight-phase Jordan, not the late 80s version more reminiscent of The Beard.
The mention of Durant and Harden is more a sign of respect than a legitimate comparison. Because the only two who you can REALLY compare are James and Leonard.
In terms of actual basketball ability, it's Leonard. A reigning Finals MVP, a prolific scorer, a mid-range assassin, one of the best perimeter defenders, a capable playmaker for others... Leonard fits the bill and even though he's six years younger now than His Airness in 1997-98, is at about the same level of athleticism.
James, on the other hand, more closely resembles Jordan as a figure. An entirely different player and leading the league in assists, he's not nearly as clean of a fit on the floor as Leonard.
But this is one where stature trumps all. If a 35-year-old four-time MVP that's unequivocally the biggest name in the game suddenly goes missing - he wasn't awarded his fifth until May of 1998 - then I'm replacing him with a 35-year-old four-time MVP that's unequivocally the biggest name in the game.
The Pick: LeBron James
The Contenders: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jimmy Butler
The best two-way wings in the league with enough star clout to warrant a discussion. That second part is important and it's why someone like Khris Middleton doesn't make the cut even though his production and role seem similar enough.
If we're being honest, Leonard is the only one of these three who matches the pedigree component. He's a far more accomplished scorer than Pippen and he isn't the level of playmaker, but he's on Pippen's level as an All-NBA lock year in and year out. Had Leonard played next to Jordan, he too would probably be hovering in the high teens or low 20s as a scorer.
MORE: This one play shows Pippen's defensive brilliance
In terms of sheer box score numbers, Butler is probably the closest comparison. The scoring, rebounding and assist numbers are all roughly the same, as is the overall field goal percentage. Butler is one of the very best in the NBA at drawing fouls and getting to the line, something that was not a big part of Pippen's game.
Upon first glance, George might seem like an odd pick. He finished second in the league in scoring last season whereas the highest Pippen ever finished was eighth in the first year that Jordan was off playing baseball. And yet feels more like an outlier as the George from this season is back down in the low 20s, which he's been throughout the majority of his prime. He also has dealt with a laundry list of injury issues this season, just as Pippen did during the 1997-98 campaign, which limited him to just 44 games.
Did you know that Pippen did not make the 1998 All-Star team as a result? Sounds familiar.
Pippen wasn't exactly a 3-point shooter but even in that era still managed to attempt twice as many as Butler is during this 3-happy season. George is the far better shooter but adjusted for era, the volume actually lines up quite nicely. Capable of being a number 1 option, George is best suited for the role of wiry overqualified second banana on the wing, a role that made Pippen one of the all-time greats.
The Pick: Paul George
The Contenders: Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell, Draymond Green
There isn't anyone like Rodman, who is on the short list of most unique players in NBA history.
A 6'7" forward who won seven straight rebounding titles in an era dominated by seven footers and that's in the Hall of Fame despite just once scoring in double figures. A defensive dynamo who could punch up several weight classes and never hesitated to speak his mind or occasionally find himself in hot water.
If you want a rebounding machine, go with Drummond. And yet while that was Rodman's defining basketball ability, Drummond doesn't fit the rest of the mould, which in the case of Rodman might be more important.
There are times when Harrell looks and acts the part, but he's just not on the same level as Rodman when it comes to stature or pedigree.
Even if the on-court product doesn't necessarily look the part, all other signs point to Green. He's a far more skilled offensive player even if he shares some of the scoring allergies that stayed with Rodman throughout his career. And though Green isn't in Rodman's class as a rebounder, he's probably as close as it comes with regards to defensive ability, versatility and toughness.
Rodman didn't back down and neither does Green.
The Pick: Draymond Green
The Contenders: Joe Ingles
There is only one pick.
A smooth lefty international wing with decent size.
Someone capable of running the show as a primary or secondary playmaker.
Someone who can stroke it from deep.
Someone who is unafraid to get in the ring with the elite.
Someone who can thrive as a starter or off the bench.
Someone who can low key talk some trash with the best of them.
Ingles may not have had quite the same peak as Toni Kukoc and certainly not the overseas success that Kukoc enjoyed in the early 90s prior to coming to the NBA, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone that checks more boxes. Apologies to Justise Winslow, Gordon Hayward and anyone else gunning for this spot.
It's the Aussie.
The Pick: Joe Ingles
The Contenders: Andre Iguodala, Danny Green, Evan Turner
In his hay day, Harper wasn't a point guard. A borderline All-Star even though he never actually made it, Harper averaged over 19 points and two steals per game over the first eight years of his career before joining the Bulls, moving to point guard and running the show for the entirety of the second 3-peat.
Iguodala's body of work most closely resembles Harper even if he never played point guard on those Golden State Warriors teams. Now 36 years old, he's also further on down the road than Harper in 1997-98, who still had enough left in the tank to join up and win a couple of rings with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
MORE: That time MJ came off the bench
Green doesn't have anywhere near the handles, but fits the bill in terms of heady defensive player that you would trust in the biggest moments on the biggest stage. Harper wasn't the shooter that Green is, but that's likely a byproduct of the era in which he played.
Turner is a wild card. Like Harper, he's got the size and length. And like Harper, he actually played some point guard. But given he never showed a ceiling that remotely approached Harper, I'm not sure Turner would be taken as seriously as Harper, a factor that can't be overlooked given he spent a majority of his time sharing the floor with the likes of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman. You really think Phil Jackson is trusting Evan Turner in an NBA Finals against John Stockton?
Which is why it has to be Iguodala. The triangle offence didn't require a true point guard and there's no doubt Iguodala could have played a similar role. Harper was in there to not bog down the offensive sets, to switch and play aggressive lockdown D and to not wilt alongside the pressures of playing with MJ, a role that Iguodala would have been more than happy to fill.
The Pick: Andre Iguodala
The Contenders: Robin Lopez, Brook Lopez, Aron Baynes
There are a few compelling options for Longley, an understated yet solidly skilled big who more than held his own in an era littered with HOF giants like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Like Harper, it speaks volumes about Longley's game that he managed to hold down the fort as a starting centre on all three of the second 3-peat teams.
Longley ranked 19th among centres in win shares in 1997-98.
Brook Lopez ranks 19th among centres in win shares in 2019-20.
And while there are some similarities, Lopez is also a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and floor-stretching 3-point shooter. His brother might be the better fit. Decently skilled, well respected, a good enough defender, Robin Lopez is only two years older than Longley was in 1997-98.
Then there's Baynes. The New Zealander would bring the same regional feel as the Aussie-born Longley and certainly has the reputation as someone more than capable of holding his own as a serviceable counter to some of the more celebrated names. His numbers from this past season are strikingly similar.
Truth be told, you can't really go wrong. In the end, I'm leaning Baynes for the Australia/New Zealand symmetry as a nice cherry on top tiebreaker.
The Pick: Aron Baynes
The Contenders: J.J. Redick, Seth Curry, Kyle Korver
Kerr was widely regarded as the league's deadliest spot-up shooter, even if he didn't really do much else.
Redick might be the most respected non-Splash Brothers shooter, but he's just a different player than Kerr, who never really filled up with the same type of volume as Redick.
Seth Curry - not his older brother - actually leads all active players in career 3-point percentage and has shot over 45% in three of the last four seasons. He can do a little more off the bounce than Kerr, but he's got a similar build and is a trusted late-game chess piece
In terms of role, Korver is probably the most natural fit. That said, he's much bigger than Kerr and at this stage of his career, the 39-year-old Korver doesn't carry the cache that he once did. If this was four or five years ago, he might be the pick.
Kerr remains the all-time leader in career 3-point field goal percentage. The player right behind him? Seth Curry.
The Pick: Seth Curry
The other guys
1997-98 Scott Burrell... Alec Burks. The eighth man, a former first round pick and a wing with decent size that could knock down shots if left open.
1997-98 Randy Brown... Quinn Cook. A slight and shifty point guard, someone who can handle 7-8 minutes in a pinch in the NBA Finals.
1997-98 Bill Wennington... Tyson Chandler. The former champion big at the tail end of his career. Chandler's role on this year's Rockets isn't any more than what the Bulls asked of Wennington.
1997-98 Dickey Simpkins... Jordan Bell. Simpkins was a 25-year-old 6'9" power forward who once played for the Warriors and ranked 135th in win shares among forwards in 1997-98. Bell is a 25-year-old 6'8" power forward who once played for the Warriors and ranks 135th in win shares among forwards in 2019-20.
1997-98 Jud Buechler... Ryan Broekhoff. Every bench needs the 6'6" shooter. Broekhoff is also 29, the same age that Buechler was in 1997-98.
Ok... so what if they played each other?
This wasn't a part of the original plan and it has nothing to do with the premise given these guys are supposed to act as stand-ins for the 1997-98 Bulls, but whatifsports.com has a feature which allows you to build dream teams and simulate games. So I thought why not?
And besides, if a seven-game series went the distance then maybe it means I picked evenly matched players. So it's a way to kind-of-sort-of-a-little-bit-maybe figure out just how badly I did on this utterly ridiculous exercise.
Here's what happened, simulating a 2-3-2 series (the Finals format in 1998!) with the Bulls owning homecourt:
- Game 1: Time machine crew wins 89-87
- Game 2: Time machine crew wins 96-73
- Game 3: Time machine crew wins 95-91
- Game 4: Time machine crew wins 105-100
A 4-0 sweep with the Bulls getting manhandled. I think it's time to end the madness right here before anyone else gets hurt.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.