Greatness is something many aspire to, yet few achieve. The label of “Greatest” though is a title only one person can wear at a time which is why it is an often debated topic as handing it out should only be done after the most careful of consideration. There are few athletes who hold the title of an undisputed greatest because of a combination of factors from era, role, expectations, and the number of worthy candidates.
Twenty years ago one could rattle off names like Pele, Ali, Gretzky, Ruth, Bradman, and Nicklaus. But as time marches on and memories fade, access to information, footage and opinions grow and a new breed of athlete is born with a new breed of fan. Over time the debate becomes more and more accepted as opposed to being sacrilegious. There was a time that suggesting Ali or Pele weren’t the greatest at what they did would’ve been met with widespread condemnation. Now you wouldn’t have to look far to find someone to challenge you on such an asssertion. Time diminishes the legacy of these immortal figures in their respective sports and in turn, their greatness.
The “young” fan will accuse the “old” fan of being a prisoner of nostalgia while the older fan will accuse the younger fan of being a prisoner of the moment. In terms of who the greatest is though there is no right or wrong answer, only popular or unpopular. People define and measure “greatness” by differing variables so to hope for a consensus might seem futile but we can do something when we do debate, use the statistics and evidence that is available and then give them the appropriate context.
Admittedly, I sit in the Michael Jordan as the basketball GOAT camp. I respect the Russels, Wilts, Kareems, Birds, Magics, Kobes and Lebrons but for me when all things are considered and weighed up, there is no player who brings as much to the GOAT table. This opinion isn’t so much about why he’s great but why the arguments against his greatness don’t hold the water those who put them forth would hope.
The main arguments I’ve seen against Jordan are he was protected and assisted by the referees/NBA, the Pistons and Celtics were past it when he finally beat them, he couldn’t win without Scottie Pippen, and he was a super athlete competing against smaller, slower and less gifted players than today. There are a lot of angles people take to diminish what Jordan achieved which I will look at and analyse as to how fair and accurate they are in the debate. Even the most outlandish claim can hold a grain of truth.
Jordan played in the NBA from the 1984/85 season until the 2002/03 season for a total of thirteen full seasons, two shortened ones (injury and retirement) and a few seasons out due to retirement. Over the course of his career he broke many records and set a benchmark for future stars to chase.
He was a bully
An argument against Jordan from the public on various social media platforms has focused around Jordan being taller and more athletic than other shooting guards in his era. Listed at 6’6″, it is true that Jordan was taller than the average shooting guard during his playing career. When he came into the league the average height of a shooting guard was 6’4.3″ as opposed to 6’5″ in 2014. If he were playing today, he’d still be taller than the average shooting guard.
During the playing career of Jordan when he was playing as a shooting guard (at the Wizards he played more as a small forward), the average height of shooting guards was either the same or taller than 2014 in four of those seasons. He won the league MVP in three of those four years, missing out to Karl Malone for one of them although he did go on to win the Championship and the Finals MVP. In 10 of his full eleven full seasons at the Bulls as a shooting guard, he led the league in points per game and in all eleven seasons he led the league in total points.
The true flaw in this argument is that Jordan was only faced with the opposing shooting guard when he played and only one on one. Typically Jordan was matched up with the best defender of the team if they were a point guard, shooting guard, or small forward. He would also face doubles and triples in numerous possessions. So let’s look at league averages to see how much of a physical advantage Jordan had on the league. The average height for an NBA player in 1984 and 2015 differentiates by .02 inches with it being around 6’6″ in both seasons.
How about weight though? Players are indeed heavier now and this weight is more down to time in the gym than Oliver Miller dietary habits. When Jordan came into the league he was listed as 195lbs compared to the league average in 1984 of 206.9lbs. Jordan was listed at around 205lbs by the time he started winning rings and finished up at around 216lbs by the time he had finished at Chicago in the 1997/98 season. In the early 90s (Jordan’s first three peat) the league average weight was between 207.8lbs and 217.3lbs in the mid to late 90s (MJ’s second three peat) the league average fluctuated around 213lbs to 220lbs.
The league average weight in 2015 was 216.1lbs so both height and weight data have the athletes in the NBA now around the same height and weight as a 35 year old Jordan. During most of Jordan’s career with the Bulls, he could have been considered undersized compared to the rest of the league so to say his size and stature was the difference of him being the greatest player ever and just another very good player is a stretch.
It is a reality that quite often the most dominant players in any position usually had physical advantages accompanying their basketball talent whether it be Magic Johnson at point guard, Shaquille O’Neall at center, Jordan at shooting guard, or Lebron James at small forward or point guard. This is why double and triple teams exist after all, one person is usally not enough to stop the elite players.
The question is though, did Jordan come up against the type of athletes that had rare physical gifts and exceptional skill more or less than anyone else?
Another argument against Jordan also has to do with the competition he faced. This argument revolves around the teams he faced and when he experienced his success. It revolves around expansion of the league and the careers of other greats being on the wane. There is more validity in this argument than the previous one but again it is undone by a simple flaw in logic, using a team argument to judge an individual’s ability or worth.
Let’s begin at Jordan’s first sojourn into the playoffs which was in his second season, 1985/86. The Bulls finished with a 30-52 record for the season but still squeaked into the playoffs a game ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers as the 8th seed (the worst record in the West was also 30-52 held by the Golden State Warriors). Jordan was injured in his third match of that season in October and wouldn’t return until March, a month before the playoffs.
It was early in the season but the Bulls had won their first three games of the season with Jordan. When he first returned he was on limited minutes initially playing less than 20 a game. The Bulls went 1-5 when he played under 20 minutes and 5-4 when he began playing more extended minutes. However, when the playoffs rolled around he was just one month into his return.
Finishing 8th in the Conference they drew the Boston Celtics as the first seed. The 1985/86 Celtics had five future Hall of Famers (Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton), and another two All-Stars in Danny Ainge and Scott Wedman. The 1985/86 Bulls side had future Hall of Famers Jordan and George Gervin as well as a rookie Charles Oakley. In the playoffs Gervin – in his final season before retiring – played a total of eleven minutes in the series.
The Celtics had a 67-15 record that year, the best in the league by five wins. They swept the 8th seed Bulls with a winning margin of 13.6 points including a 4 point double overtime win. They would only lose three more games in the remaining three series; one to Atlanta, swept Milwaukee, and two to Houston on their way to winning the NBA Championship.
In the series against the Celtics, Jordan averaged 43.7ppg, 6.3rpg, 5.6apg, 2.3spg, and 1.3bpg while shooting 50.5% from the field and 84.6% from the line. Incidentally, he took one three pointer and made it. Did Larry Bird beat Michael Jordan? No, but the Boston Celtics did beat the Chicago Bulls as well as every other team that year.
The following year would pit the Bulls as the 8th seed against the 1st seed Boston Celtics again. The Bulls and Celtics were largely unchanged from the year before but the Bulls had improved by ten wins while the Celtics had dropped by eight wins. Chicago was a young team with Dave Corzine who was an 8 year veteran, the longest serving NBA player in the Bulls lineup until they traded for Ben Poquette in February who was a 9 year vet.
It was another convincing sweep again for the Celtics and although the winning margin had dropped to eight points it would force the Bulls and Jordan to go back to the drawing board. In the series, Jordan averaged 35.7 points at 42% from the field and 89.7% from the line on top of 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2.3 blocks. It wasn’t a great series for Jordan shooting wise but as it was the year before, to say it was simply Larry Bird versus Jordan would be oversimplifying it at best.
That would be the last time Jordan’s Bulls would face Larry Bird’s Celtics in the playoffs. However, they went from losing every game in the regular and post season to the Celtics to splitting the regular series 3-3 the following year. It was now time for a new roadblock to the Bulls and it came in the form of the Detroit Bad Boys, a team that had pushed the Celtics the previous year to seven games.
Detroit did what the Bulls would eventually do, assemble a lineup of players that complemented each other and the style that Chuck Daley wanted to implement in order to reach the top of the game. To get a shot at Detroit, the Bulls had to go through a young Cavaliers side that had 3 current and future All-Stars in Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and Larry Nance who they got in a trade with Phoenix which included giving up a rookie Kevin Johnson. They also had players such as Dell Curry, Ron Harper, Hot Rod Williams and Craig Ehlo to make up a very solid lineup that had six players averaging in double figures during the regular season plus Mike Sanders in the playoffs.
They were a very young side though with Daugherty, Williams, Harper, Curry, and Price only in their second seasons in the league. Chicago were hardly a veteran team themselves with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen as rookies, Charles Oakley in his third year while Jordan was 4-year player. During the regular season Pippen didn’t start a single game and Grant didn’t start a game in the playoffs, after only starting six games in the regular season. Both their minutes did increase to the high 20s though in the playoffs.
The Bulls would triumph in five over the Cavs with that iconic MJ shot over Ehlo sealing their first playoff series win in the Jordan era. The Detroit Pistons would beat the Washington Bullets in five also to set up an Eastern Conference semi-final showdown.
Chicago had improved by 10 games for the second straight season to record 50 wins and get the third seed but Detroit finished 4 games better off and won their regular season series 4-2 (including 2 overtime wins). Chicago shocked the Pistons by getting a win on the road to tie it at 1-1 heading back to Chicago. From there, it was all the Pistons winning the next three in Chicago and back in Detroit by an average margin of sixteen.
The Pistons would go on to knock out last season’s runners up, Boston, in six games before going down to reigning champions and the team with the best record, Los Angeles Lakers, in a close seven games.
In the series against Detroit, shooting guard Michael Jordan led both sides in points, tied for 1st in steals, tied for 2nd in assists, and was 3rd in rebounding. Much like Lebron in Cleveland or Kobe in LA, there’s only so much an individual can do in a team sport like basketball. If they don’t have the team around them, even a superstar is more than likely going to lose to a better team in a playoff series.
Discounting the last three seasons of Kobe’s career due to injury, he was swept 4 times, missed the playoffs altogether in 2004/05, went out in the first round on numerous occasions. He did win 5 chips though when he had a talented squad around him.
Lebron failed to make the playoffs twice, got swept once and moved to Miami to make a super team in order to beat an aging Celtics (Allen 35, Pierce 33, Garnett 34, and Shaq 38). His Miami side also lost to an aging San Antonio Spurs (Duncan 37, Parker 31, and Ginobili 36) 4-1. If people are going to talk about Jordan only being able to beat an old Detroit and Lakers, they shouldn’t ignore the aging process in other areas.. The Spurs have not returned to the Finals since their win which prompted Lebron to return to Cleveland and put together a new super team of younger talent.
In 1988/89, the Pistons started the season with 4 future Hall of Famers before trading Dantley (32) to Dallas for then-current All-Star Mark Aguirre (29) in February. Aguirre sacrificed minutes and a leading role to join a team on the up and it was this unselfishness that was a trademark of the championship winning Pistons along with their physical play.
Detroit finished the season as the top seed in the East and with the best record in the NBA (63-19). The Bulls, still with Jordan as the only All-Star, finished with a 47-35 record and the 6th seed. Chicago once again had to face Cleveland (57-25, 3rd seed) in the first round and once again would knock them out in 5. They would then face the second seed New York Knicks in the semis only to dispatch them 4-2 to set up a meeting with the Pistons.
This Piston team had swept Boston, Milwaukee and they would go on to sweep the Lakers in the Finals. Against the Bulls they would drop their only two games of the playoffs with the difference between the two teams in 6 games being a plus 4.2 points per game for the Pistons. The Bulls took a 2-1 lead in the series but dropped the next three which included a Game 6 that saw Pippen knocked unconcious in the first minute and unable to continue.
Jordan and his Bulls pushed the champions like no other side did that season and once again despite heavy individual pressure by a physical team in an era that you could get away with it, Jordan still shone with averages of 29.7ppg, 5.5rpg, 6.5apg and 2spg. He was the top scorer and 2nd in both assists and steals for both teams in the series.
The 1989/90 season saw Phil Jackson take over from Doug Collins as head coach which was the only major move in the off-season. The Bulls improved to a 55-27 record just behind Detroit’s 59-23 to have the second best record in the East and the third seed in the playoffs.
Scottie Pippen in his third season was now at an All-Star level and he won his first selection to the 1990 All-Star game, as did Detroit’s Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman. Detroit took the regular season series 4-1 to show they still had more pieces to their puzzle than the Bulls.
In the playoffs the Pistons swept Reggie Miller’s Pacers and dropped one game to Patrick Ewing’s Knicks. The Bulls dropped a game to the Bucks and a game to Charles Barkley’s 76ers to set up an Eastern Conference showdown with the Bad Boys. It would be the same result as the previous years although the series did go to seven. The Bulls were without John Paxson who had started every game previously that season before an ankle injury ruled him out, as well as Scottie Pippen being struck down by a migraine that had him seeing double just before the game.
Game 7 was one of those days for the Bulls with both Grant and a suffering Pippen both off their games, offensively. Both averaged over 50% from the field but in this game Grant shot 3-17 and Pippen was 1-10, to make matters worse Craig Hodges – one of basketball’s top all-time 3-point shooters – went 2-12 from deep after a season that he was 48% from three territory.
Detroit’s All-star team with the Hall of Fame coach and deep bench proved too strong for everyone in the playoffs including in the Finals, beating Portland 4-1. Chicago though took three games of them which was one more than the rest of the teams Detroit had faced.
“Look at the Bulls, Pippen gets two and Grant doesn’t shoot welll and Michael has to carry the load,” John Salley told the press after Game 7.
“Michael is a great player, but he can’t do it all.”
This is true not just of Michael Jordan but every player in the GOAT conversation. No player has won a Championship let alone six without a little help from their teammates. Jordan was the only All-Star in his team when he was facing a Hall of Fame and All-Star stacked Celtics. When he was facing the Pistons he was also outnumbered by All-Stars and Hall of Famers with his young side. The year he got All-Star level help from Pippen, they took the defending champions to seven games, the following year they swept the same team.
When you look at the five playoff losses of the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls, three of them were to the eventual champions of that year and every year they faced a team with at least four current, future or former All-stars and at least three future Hall of Famers. The first time Jordan had a player playing at an All-Star level was Scottie Pippen in 1989/90 and they took the Champions to seven games when the other three teams Detroit faced could only get two wins combined.
Every full season Jordan played from 1990/91 to 1997/98, he never lost another playoff series, amassing 6 rings and six NBA Finals MVPs while never playing in a Game 7. Excluding 1994/95 – when he came back near the end of the season after playing baseball – Jordan and his championship winning Bulls side played 608 regular season and playoff games for a 78.6% win record (478W, 130L). His side were 24-11 (68.6%) in the 6 Finals they played in, 90-26 (77.6%) in the playoffs, and 388-104 (78.9%) in the regular season.
How competitive were the opposition in both the East and West during the Bulls run? Did Jordan and Chicago face more or less resistance than those in other eras? This is almost impossible for me to qualify with any certainty because the absence of firsthand experience, footage, and statistics from the 50s/60s/70s that could allow a claim with any confidence.
Chicago had one All-star this season although they had five players who had or would play in the All-star game in their careers (Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, BJ Armstrong, and Bill Cartwright). Let’s run through the teams that the Bulls beat on this maiden championship run.
In the first round, they faced the New York Knicks (39-43). The Knicks were led at the time by Patrick Ewing who was their sole representative in that season’s All-Star game. They did have six players who had or would go on to play in the All-Star game in their careers (Ewing, Kiki Vandeweghe, Maurice Cheeks, Charles Oakley, John Starks, and Mark Jackson). The Bulls swept them in a best-of-five series.
Philadelphia 76ers were waiting in the next round. The 76ers had finished the season with a 44-38 record. Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins were 1991 All-stars and they had a total of four players who played in All-star games (Barkley, Hawkins, Rickey Green and Jayson Williams). The Bulls won the series 4-1.
In the Eastern Conference the faced the Bad Boys of Detroit, who had 50-32 record that year after Isiah Thomas had missed a lot of games through injury. The Pistons had two Allstars in Thomas (missed the game due to injury) and Joe Dumars and five career All-stars in total (Mark Aguirre, Thomas, Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, and Dennis Rodman). The Bulls swept them 4-0.
Showtime Lakers awaited in the Finals. The Lakers had a 58-24 record and boasted two current All-Stars in James Worthy and Magic Johnson for a total of four all-stars (Worthy, Johnson, Vlade Divac, and A.C. Green). Chicago dropped the first game and then went on to win four straight for a 4-1 series triumph.
Not much had changed personnel-wise for the Bulls. Pippen made the All-star team to join Jordan and their record improved to 67-15.
First round they faced the new franchise, Miami Heat who had a young and exciting squad but no current All-stars. They did have Glen Rice and Steve Smith who would go on to earn All-star honors in their careers. Predictably the juggernaut of Chicago steamrolled the new kids on the block 3 nil.
It was the Knicks in the second round. They had improved their record by 12 games for 51-31. No surprises with the improvement as they now boasted seven future or past All-stars (Ewing, Oakley, Starks, Jackson, Kiki, Anthony Mason, Xavier McDaniel) although Ewing was still the only current one. James Donaldson would be named as a replacement player for an All-star game but he didn’t take part. This was a tougher challenge for the Bulls but they prevailed in a thriller, 4-3.
Cleveland Cavaliers faced Chicago in the Eastern Conference. They were stacked with talented players like the sharp-shooting Steve Kerr, All-Defense Bob Phills, John Battle, and Hot Rod Williams. However only Mark Price and Brad Daugherty were current All-stars with Larry Nance and Terrell Brandon also experiencing All-star games. They had a record of 57-25 but were no match for the Bulls going down in six, 4-2.
Clyde the Glide Drexler was the leader of the Portland Trailblazers and a direct challenger of Jordan’s position as the best shooting guard and best player in the league. The comparisons didn’t last longer than the first half of the first game. The Blazers had a record of 57-25, the best in the West. Drexler was the only current All-star and runner-up to Jordan in the MVP voting. Drexler had four teammates who would or had played in All-star games in Terry Porter, Cliff Robinson, Danny Ainge and Kevin Duckworth. Chicago beat them in six, 4-2.
Going for their three-peat, the Bulls once more didn’t change their squad dramatically. The five All-stars were still together. Their record did drop by ten games to 57-25.
They faced the 43-39 Atlanta Hawks in the first round with their current All-star in Dominique Wilkins. Mookie Blaylock and Kevin Willis were the other All-stars in the Hawks side. Chicago swept Atlanta 3-0.
Cleveland Cavaliers were a familiar opponent by now. The Cavs had a record of 54-28 and boasted three current All-stars in Daugherty, Price and Nance. Terrel Brandon would become and All-star later on. Chicago also got thre broom out for them, 4-0.
New York another opponent probably sick of the sight of the team from Chicago met them in the Eastern Conference. Following up from their 12 game improvement last season they improved by a further nine wins this season, 60-22. Ewing was still the only current All-star but Oakley, Starks, Rolando Blackman, Mason and Doc Rivers made up the All-star talent available to legendary coach, Pat Riley. Despite taking out the first two games, the Bulls would still take the series 4-2.
Chicago’s toughest opponent to date awaited in the 1993 Finals, Phoenix Suns. The Suns were led by Charles Barkley who had been an unstoppable individual force in Philadelphia but had now been crewed up in Phoenix. His Suns had the best record in the NBA (62-20), two current All-stars (Barkley and Dan Majerle), five career All-stars (Barkley, Majerle, Kevin Johnson, Danny Ainge, and Tom Chambers), All-Rookie team member in Richard Dumas (15.8ppg), and Barkley beat out Jordan and Olajuwon for the MVP. The Bulls would be victorious 4-2 with Jordan putting on one of the greatest performances in a Finals series averaging 41ppg, 8.5rpg, and 6.3apg while shooting 50% from the field and 40% from three.
This was Jordan’s first full season back after having a shot at professional baseball. He played 27 games the season before (17 regular season, 10 playoff games) but wasn’t the same killer we had become accustomed too. This season would be the true test though and the Bulls had made some important changes, most notably bringing in Dennis Rodman. The Bulls had less All-stars than in previous campaigns but they now had three Hall of Famers starting. MJ and Pippen were current All-stars and the new look Bulls ended up with an impressive 72-10 regular season record.
In the first round they would play the Miami Heat (42-40). Alonzo Mourning was the only current All-star but they had All-stars in Tim Hardaway and Chris Gatling. Chicago swept them 3-0.
Old foes New York Knicks were their next opponents. Ewing – their only current All-star – led the Knicks to a 47-35 record with help from other All-stars such as Starks, Mason and Oakley. The series wasn’t the battle as previous encounters had been and the Bulls won in five, 4-1.
The Eastern Conference Finals was all about revenge. Orlando had stopped the fairytale return of MJ in six games last playoffs so there was a lot more than a place in the Finals on the line. Like the Bulls, Orlando had two current All-stars in Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway with former Bull, Horace Grant, the third All-star in the side. Orlando had a respectable 60-22 record which was seven games better than 2016/17’s Boston Celtics who were the number one seed in the East. Chicago got the brooms out for Orlando and did so in devastating fashion. Game 1 saw a 38 point demolition and Game 3 was a defensive masterclass restricting Orlando to 67 point, more than 37 points below their season average.
A 64-18 Seattle was the challenge in the Finals. Shawn Kemp and Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton were current All-stars and they had All-star help in Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins. Seattle had swept the defending back-to-back champions, Houston Rockets. However the Bulls took a 3 nil lead before taking the foot off to win in six, 4-2. They closed out the last game by restricting Seattle to 75 points which was almost thirty points below their season average.
Chicago added veteran player Robert Parish who took their All-star tally to 4 with Pippen and Jordan still being the only current All-stars. The Bulls couldn’t match their record-breaking season but they did finish end with an impressive 69-13 regular season tally.
A young Washington team were the first round opponents. Chris Webber was the only current All-star while he had All-star help from former Michigan teammate, Juwan Howard. Point guard, Rod Strickland wasn’t an All-star but deserves an honorable mention. Predictably, the Bulls swept the Bullets, 3-0.
Atlanta Hawks had an impressive 56-26 record for a second round team. Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo and Christian Laettner were current All-Stars along with All-star teammates, Mookie Blaylock (3rd in the DPOTY voting) and Steve Smith. They went down in five against the Bulls, 4-1.
Miami Heat had come of age, having the type of season that would’ve been enough to grab the first seed. Their big man-small man combo of Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning were current All-stars and Jamal Mashburn and Dan Majerle offered some All-star support. Chicago would only drop the one game as they powered into the Finals, 4-1.
MVP Karl Malone with his partner John Stockton – both current All-stars and fellow original Dream Team teammates with Jordan and Pippen – had finally made the Finals. They went through Shaq and Hakeem in the earlier rounds. That season they had a 64-18 record with a very balanced side that only had one other All-star in Jeff Hornacek. Like every previous NBA Finals the Jordan-led Bulls were in, it wouldn’t go to seven but it was the closest Finals the Bulls had ever found themselves in. Three of the four wins by the Bulls were by four or less points but the series did end in six, 4-2. Jordan had used the MVP snub to propel him in this series and finish with a series high 32ppg, 7rpg, and he was second only to John Stockton in assists with 6apg.
The year of his final Championship, Michael Jordan was the sole current All-star (Pippen missed the first half of the season with injury) although he still had Pippen and Rodman as All-star teammates. The Bulls’ All-stars were 34 years old (Jordan), 32 (Pippen), and 36 (Rodman) respectively and keep in mind that critics of Jordan say that the Pistons and Lakers teams were past it when they beat them (Detroit – Thomas 29, Dumars 27, Rodman 29, Laimbeer 33, and Aguirre 31; Lakers – Magic 31, Divac 22, Perkins 29, Scott 29, Worthy 29 and Green 27). Chicago ended the regular season with a 62-20 record.
New Jersey Nets (43-39) were the first round opponents. Jayson Williams was their only current All-star with Chris Gatling and Sam Cassell teammates that played in All-star games in their career. They were balanced side without a major superstar. Kerry Kittles (17.2ppg), Kendall Gill (13.7ppg), Keith van Horn (19.7ppg) were prime examples of their depth and in the series vs the Bulls Sherman Douglas averaged 18.3ppg and 8.3apg. Despite the promise of the Nets side, they were swept by Chicago 3 nil.
In the second round Chicago faced the 51-31 Charlotte Hornets. They had one current All-star in Glen Rice and three other All-stars in Anthony Mason, Vlade Divac and B.J. Armstrong. They did manage to take a game off the Bulls in a low-scoring 78-76 affair, to go down 4-1.
The Eastern Conference Finals pit Reggie Miller’s Pacers against MJ’s Bulls. It was the battle of two very different shooting guards. Miller and Rik Smits were current All-stars but they also had Dale Davis, Mark Jackson, Antonio Davis and Chris Mullin as teammates with All-star experience as well as Jalen Rose. The Pacers had finished the season with a 58-24 record and had just convincingly dispatched the Knicks 4-1 in the previous round. The Bulls would take a 2 nil lead before the Pacers would bring it back to 2-2. The sides then thraded wins until the Bulls finished the series 4-3. The whole Indiana team had 4 offensive rebounds for the game while Jordan had 5 and Pippen 6 and it was this determination that got the Bulls across the line in one of their toughest challenges in the playoffs.
It was Utah in the Finals for the second straight year. They had an identical 62-20 record to the Bulls but had clinched home court advantage. Stockton had missed the first 19 games of the season and then was rested through the season averaging only 29 minutes per game which contributed to Malone being the only current All-star. The two Jazz legends once again were supported by Hornacek as an All-star caliber player. The Jazz won the first game and then the Bulls won the next three including restricting the Jazz to 54 points in their 42 point Game 3 victory. The Bulls would win in six wrapping it up on the Jazz home court on one the most iconic sequences of play in NBA Finals history as Jordan stripped Malone and then took it up the court, lost his defender and sank the shot.
Natural Born Killers
Shaped not shipped
“Jordan needed help” is another argument against Jordan that is often thrown up. This is one that is hard to argue with because it’s true. In fact it is true for every championship winning side in the history of the NBA. No player has ever won the title alone. The consensus for many who try and discredit MJ is that he couldn’t do it without Pippen. Pippen and Jordan did form one the best duos in NBA history with both great two-way players that could defend, pass, rebound and get buckets although Jordan was a different level when it came to scoring.
The thing that gets lost in the Jordan story is the first three titles. This was a side that was grown organically with four of the key players being brought in as rookies. None of them were higher than third pick (Jordan) although in hindsight Jordan should’ve been number one but the league was a big man’s league then. Pippen was drafted by Seattle at five and then traded to Chicago for Olden Polynice, a 1988 2nd round pick and a 1989 first round pick that yielded B.J. Armstrong with the 18th pick. The Bulls also drafted Horace Grant with their own pick at ten.
By the time Pippen, Grant and then the following year Armstrong had arrived, Jordan had established himself as a top 3 player but he didn’t have the help needed to challenge the best squads. It took a couple of seasons for Pippen and Grant to reach their potential and Armstrong was proving a solid back up to John Paxson.
Often people accuse Jordan of not making his teammates better but there is no doubt that the daily grind in practice with Jordan helped sharpen these youngsters into top level players, and in the case of Pippen, an All-time Top 50 player. The Bulls were not a put together as a Super Team but they became a super team.
When the Bulls won their first championship, the salary cap of the league was 11.9 million and the Bulls had the 23rd highest payroll in the 27 team league, at 10 million. The top four teams were all Eastern Conference sides (Cleveland, New York Knicks, Detroit and the 76ers). Jordan was the equal 8th highest individual earner with Robert Parish, pulling in 2.5 million. Ewing was the highest in the league while the Cavs had both Hot Rod Williams and Danny Ferry above Jordan.
The following year Pippen got a massive pay rise from 715,000 to 2.8 million. The Bulls jumped up to the third highest payroll on the back of this and other increases to existing player salaries. Eastern Conference rivals Boston and Cleveland were above Chicago in the 12.5 million cap league. Jordan had become the fifth highest earner on 3.3 million while the Celtics had Bird, McHale and Reggie Lewis in the top five.
The final season for this incarnation of the Bulls saw the Bulls slip to fourth under the now 14 million dollar cap, below Boston, Cleveland and the Lakers. Jordan was on 4 million a season which made him second in the NBA behind only David Robinson.
It must be noted that during their time with Jordan, Armstrong and Grant were never All-stars but they did become All-stars in the 1993-94 season when MJ had retired.
The second three-peat Bulls would in their last two seasons be the highest earners in the league with Jordan the single highest earner in the league. However, in their first championship season together the Bulls had the 15th highest payroll in the league and none of their players were in the top 25 highest individual earners. The cap was 23 million in 1995-96 and the Bulls were spending 23.5 million. The Knicks had the highest salaries followed by the Magic which the Bulls went 8-1 against in that year’s playoffs. The Sonics were sixth highest in the NBA and the Bulls beat them in a convincing 4 games to 2.
On the back of Jordan, the Bulls became a championship team. He was there from the beginning and was the architect for building their dynasty. Yes, the Bulls did well the year he first retired but the following year they were struggling with a record of 23-25 at the All-star break and that’s when the calls for MJ to return got louder. When he eventually returned with seventeen games left in the season, the Bulls were 34-31, they went on to win thirteen of the last seventeen games and clinch the fifth seed in the East.
A Little Help From His Friends
A Change is a Coming
The final argument is that Jordan was helped by the referees who called everything for him and that the league changed rules to help him. Even former players like Isiah Thomas have suggested as much. This is line of argument isn’t supported by the timeline of NBA rule changes.
From Jordan’s first season in 1984-85 to 1992-93 whe he first retired, the NBA made two major rule changes that would have any real impact on Jordan’s game. The first was in the 1990-91 season when penalties for flagrant she were increased to include two free throws and possession. The second was in the 1993 playoffs when a thrown punch would be an automatic ejection and an automatic ban.
While Jordan was retired the NBA made further changes but they weren’t to assist Jordan but more to replicate him. Jordan was a big loss to the league as far as marketing was concerned so there was a need to create similar offensive weapons which they believed people wanted to see. In the 1994-95 season, the three point line was shortened, two flagrant meant an ejection, and hand checking was eliminated. These changes were designed to help the offensive player and lead to Jordanesque scoring efforts. Ironically, Jordan would return near the end of this season.
His final year with the Bulls in 1997-98, the NBA made some more changes which would impact Jordan’s game. They reverted the three point line back to it’s original distance and the “no charge area” was extended. The last change definitely would help offensive players but by this stage Jordan relied more heavily on his shooting game.
Blow the Whistle
As for fouls being called for Jordan, this is more than likely true. The NBA has always been a star league and the star’s often are seen to get the benefit of the doubt. Jordan is number five all-time in free throws made. Karl Malone is number one followed by Moses Malone, Kobe Bryant, and then Oscar Robertson. High volume scorers will go to the line more than most especially ones who drive or score in the post.
Lebron James is currently 13th all-time on free throws made but he and Jordan have gone to the line the same amount of times averaging 8.2 free throw attempts a game. Kobe Bryant went to the line 7.4 times per game and hit 6.1 of them. Jordan hit 6.8 from 8.2 attempts. The difference between the three players who are so often compared is minimal except Kobe and MJ were better from the line than James. When you consider their overall scoring output, free throws contribute to their points almost as much as each other (James 22% of his points average comes from the stripe, Jordan 23% and Bryant 24%).
On the other end, Jordan was called for 2.6 fouls per game, this is slightly more than Kobe at 2.5 with Lebron getting whistled the least with 1.9 fouls. In a time recognized for tougher defense you’d imagine that a protected player would and could get away with a lot more. Jordan’s steals per game is comfortably higher than both Lebron and Kobe which could indicate a more aggressive defensive approach. Perhaps he did get away with a lot more than the average player at the time but Jordan’s stats don’t bear out that he got preferential treatment above and beyond what the best player in the league has always in this modern era of basketball.
That’s a Wrap
Most of the arguments against Jordan could be labeled against many of his rivals for the title of GOAT. The problem is when we discuss our favorites we generally do so with blinkers on. We manipulate the truth, create narratives and let our heart cloud our mind. The GOAT conversation is the domain of the barbershop or even just the bar. It will continue to be fueled by sport chat shows like First Take and Undisputed because it gets views so more ammunition for the discussion is not a bad thing.