Michael Jordan seems to continually get better as the years pass since his retirement. People who grew up during his prime constantly argue online as though he went 82-0 each season, sweeping his way to every title, through sheer willpower. This is especially apparent as LeBron James eclipses most of his numbers and people are desperate to say that he’s not that good.
In fact, he was an all-time great player whose career benefited from some all-time incredible luck. Let’s break down all the things that helped maximize his career:
- Cocaine killed Len Bias, eliminating the Celtics’ best opportunity to continue to remain relevant for years once Larry Bird’s back started to go (another break for Jordan, who never beat the Celtics, despite Jordan fans’ attempts to bring up the names of Bird and Magic and Kareem, as though Jordan won titles when those guys were at their peak). It also crippled the Houston Rockets, who were primed as one of the best young teams in the league, making the Finals in 1986 before losing a quarter of their team in a cocaine scandal.
- The previous generation of stars had their primes cut short as Jordan hit his prime: Bird had a bad back and was done with the sport in 1992. Magic had HIV and disappeared after 1991. Isiah Thomas injured his ankle a bunch and retired at 32 after rupturing his Achilles. Kareem played until he was 41, but his career ended in 1989 – the Bulls’ Finals win over the Lakers in 1991 wasn’t really over the dominant Lakers team of the ’80s. So a lot of the guys he gets credit for having played against, he either didn’t beat, or beat after they were weakened. LeBron, meanwhile, was facing never-injured guys like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett when he got into the league, and those guys were in the second half of their primes as LeBron was entering his.
- Geopolitical issues helped. Imagine the ’92 Trail Blazers with an in-his-prime Arvydas Sabonis instead of Kevin Duckworth. Instead, Sabonis was stuck behind the Iron Curtain and didn’t get to come to the NBA until 1996, when he was much older and, according to the doctor who examined him at that point, he could “qualify for a handicapped parking spot, based on the X-ray alone.” And in that state, the guy still averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds in fewer than 24 minutes per game. Drazen Petrovic could have been a star in the East as well, but his career started late due to issues in Yugoslavia and then he died in a car crash after four seasons in the NBA.
- Jordan never had anyone to chase him down. Unlike LeBron, who has had superstars in Steph Curry and Kevin Durant pushing him as they enter their primes while he ages, Jordan never had a generation to challenge him in any way. Starting in 1987 (it generally takes about three years to get to a guy’s prime), here’s the entire list of guys that were drafted before the end of Jordan’s first run and finished their careers with more than 100 win shares.
1987 David Robinson 1987 Reggie Miller 1987 Scottie Pippen 1987 Horace Grant 1990 Gary Payton 1991 Dikembe Mutombo 1992 Shaquille O’Neal
Of the seven best players to enter the league during Jordan’s prime, TWO of them were drafted by his own team. It’s difficult to compare with LeBron, as the guys who entered the league three years after him have yet to finish their careers (and some, like Anthony Davis, who already has 62.5 career win shares in six seasons, are just entering their primes), but Kevin Durant and James Harden are both already over 100 career win shares, and Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry are knocking on the door, both in the 90s. All of those guys have teamed up against LeBron, and they’re all poised to ensure there’s no opportunity for a late-prime series of titles like Jordan’s ’96-’98 run.
- Expansion watered down the league’s talent. In addition to the lack of talented incoming players, the league expanded from 23 to 30 teams during Jordan’s career. In a league where you could lock up, say, Scottie Pippen for 10 years at a ludicrously low rate, it was relatively easy for the Bulls to stay on top, having three of the league’s top 10 players in Win Shares from 1990-91 to 1998.
- He timed his exits perfectly. First of all, everyone seems to act like he didn’t play in 1995, when the Magic eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs before being swept by the Rockets in the Finals. Secondly, when he left in 1998, the league had a lockout (in part because of things like Jordan’s crazy-high salary; he was paid more in 1997-98 than 19 of the league’s 29 teams). So when the league resumed play, everyone sucked so much more than anyone was used to, only making Jordan look better.
- This is unrelated to his NBA career, but does relate to his legend: Let’s all remember that while the Dream Team was easily the best team in the world in 1992, their greatness wasn’t the only thing making their run so dominant. In 1991, Yugoslavia AND the USSR split up. After the United States, those two nations had been the best two in the world by far. Yugoslavia split into Croatia, the 1992 silver medalists, and Serbia, which was banned from the Olympics (they did, however, win Eurobasket when they resumed international play, meaning they may have been the best of the four split teams). The USSR’s best teams split into Lithuania, which won bronze, and Russia, which earned fourth-place honors. So, at that time, the world’s second- and third-best teams were split in half, creating the world’s second, third, fourth, and fifth best teams. Maybe someone would’ve kept it within 20 without the politics.
I’m not saying Jordan sucks; I’m simply saying he had an extraordinary amount of luck that benefited his legend greatly. Stop deifying the dude. He also didn’t have to deal with 24/7 sports coverage; according to The Jordan Rules, he considered quitting in 1991 before he won the title because he felt like there was too much damn media. How do you think he’d have handled the Twitter era?
Let’s also think about those teams that we give Jordan so much credit for beating: Ewing’s Knicks were a one-man team. The second-best player on the team was John friggin’ Starks. Going by SRS (Simple Rating System), which combines record with margin of victory to create a number for power rankings, the 2012-13 Knicks were better than any Knicks team Jordan ever played.
The Pacers, another oft-cited great team, peaked post-Jordan; while Jordan and the Bulls did defeat their best incarnation in 1998, most of their best years happened between 1999 and 2004. The ’12-’14 Pacers were equal to or better than any of the other Pacers teams in the Jordan era, and everyone’s out here saying LeBron didn’t accomplish anything by beating those guys. The ’07-’09 Celtics were better than any incarnation Jordan’s Bulls ever faced. The ‘06-’08 Pistons were better than any Pistons team Jordan beat.
All in all, Jordan stans are combining a lot of non-related information into their narrative that Jordan was the be-all, end-all, and it’s simply not true.
One thing that both sides can agree on, however, is that anyone who thinks Kobe’s name belongs in the same sentence as these two can be laughed at derisively.