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NBA Sunday: Ron Harper Responds to J.R. Smith

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are a good basketball team, but would they actually have a shot at besting the 1996 Chicago Bulls?

One member of arguably the greatest NBA team in history thinks the mere assertion is laughable.

“That was a joke, right?” Ron Harper asked radio host Anita Marks on 98.7FM ESPN New York on Sunday morning.

Smith made news earlier this week when he said that, at their best, the Cavaliers could beat the 1996 Bulls.

“I mean, J.R. Smith better be worrying about what they’re doing right now against the Golden State team,” Harper said. “He needs to be worrying about Golden State right now, he shouldn’t be worrying about what they can’t do. He should be worrying about what they’re trying to do right now.”

Harper, a five-time NBA champion, played 15 seasons in the NBA and won championships playing alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Harper was the starting point guard of the 1996 Bulls, and with him running alongside Jordan and Pippen, the Bulls put together a 72-10 regular season before going 15-3 in the playoffs. The Bulls captured their fourth championship in what is regarded as the best single team season in NBA history and went on to win two more championships in 1997 and 1998.

Harper thinks that Smith has more important things to worry about than whether they could match up with those Bulls.

“Listen, we won championships, back-to-back-to-back,” Harper said. “[The Cavs] only have one championship. They’re maybe a fluke, as we say.

“As I was told, one was a fluke, two means you’re good, three means you’re really good…”

Last season, en route to their 73-9 record, the Warriors obviously drew comparisons to the 1996 Bulls. After squandering a 3-1 series lead against the Cavaliers, that acclaimed Bulls team continues to be considered the gold standard for NBA superiority. That’s probably why Smith mentioned them.

As a class, professional athletes are extremely confident. From the time they begin playing their sport, they are often taught that they control their own destinies and that if they play “their game,” everything else is immaterial. So Smith’s comments are somewhat understandable. However, with LeBron James recently drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan, any mention of the Bulls was bound to raise eyebrows.

While most people would think that any comparison between the 1996 Bulls and all other NBA teams is borderline blasphemous, a fair question to ask is how those Bulls would have guarded James and Kyrie Irving. James is a unique physical specimen while Irving has become one of the most unguardable players in the league. The Cavs, after all, were able to overcome their 3-1 series deficit in 2016 because the duo was unstoppable during the final three games of the series.

Indeed, it’s a fair question, just not to Harper.

“How are they going to play us?” Harper responded rhetorically when asked about his team matching up with James and Irving.

“We don’t worry about that, we were the number one ranked defensive team in the NBA for, like, three years straight. So we know we can guard, we can defend,” he said.

“Scottie can guard Kyrie. Jordan can guard Smith. We can put Dennis [Rodman] on LeBron. You’ve got a guy that don’t do nothing but rebound in Tristan Thompson. I can guard Kevin [Love] because he ain’t going to do nothing but shoot threes. So, they’re not that hard to defend,” he said.

While scores of NBA head coaches and All-NBA team defenders might disagree with Harper, the question as to how Jordan’s Bulls and James’ Cavaliers would have matched up against one another is fun to ponder. That’s especially true on the offensive side of the basketball, as the Bulls were a team that excelled playing the triangle offense. The system emphasizes cuts, spacing and off-ball movement, as well as midrange shooting. In today’s NBA, teams most employ offenses built around a singular ball handler and pick-and-rolls. 

“In this day of ball game, it’s all about shooting threes,” Harper said. “We don’t shoot threes, we shoot twos. If we need to shoot a three-pointer, we can, so our team was great. Who’s going to guard a guy like Toni Kukoc? Who’s coming off? Who’s going to guard Steve Kerr? So we had the same thing, it’s not like we couldn’t play basketball. We were very good!”

Although Harper defended his former team against the Cavaliers, he did show the defending champions some respect and didn’t take any credit away from the Cavaliers for the circumstances under which they were able to erase last season’s 3-1 series deficit. Harper believes that the Cavaliers will adjust and compete with the Warriors after suffering a tough defeat in Game 1.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a sweep,” Harper said when asked by Marks whether he agreed with her prediction for the series. “I really don’t think so.”

“Cleveland has to make an adjustment, they had a sloppy game, they had guys trying to play one-on-one basketball and now they have the next gear adjustment. It’s going to be good to see what they’re doing to tighten the game. I think it’s going to be a closer game and a better one, I think.”

With the 2017 NBA Playoffs being marked by non-competitive games and the Cavaliers and Warriors entering the NBA Finals with a combined 24-1 record, the masses have been hoping for a competitive Finals.

According to Smith, when the Cavaliers are at their best, they are unbeatable. While Harper might not agree, Smith’s opinion and confidence in his team is quite easy to understand. Now, it’s time to see if it is well-founded.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.