HoopsHype looks at the numbers and accolades of various players to determine their case to be considered the GOAT – or Greatest of All Time.
Throughout the course of NBA history, a handful of players have submitted their cases – strong ones, at that – to be considered the league’s GOAT, the greatest of all time. Like Muhammad Ali in boxing or Lionel Messi in soccer, these NBA players not only produced unfathomable statistics, countless impressive victories and highlight reels that could go on for hours, they legitimately changed the history of the sport and became international cultural icons in the process. They were game-changers of the highest order.
HoopsHype is starting a series where we examine various historically elite player’s cases to be considered the NBA’s GOAT. Today, we begin with Michael Jordan. Let’s jump right in.
Michael Jordan changed how people view the game…
As many will remember, Jordan was taken third overall in the 1984 draft by the Chicago Bulls. That was despite him being the reigning Player of the Year in the NCAA, winning a national title at North Carolina as a freshman and averaging nearly 20 points and over five rebounds over his final two years in college.
The reason for that?
The NBA was still heavily a big man dominant league, one in which the thought process was that only power forwards and centers (usually the latter) had the ceiling to be the best players in the sport.
Needless to say, Jordan would go on to change that mindset.
He was undefeated in the Finals, with a record six Finals MVPs…
Jordan may not have the record for most championships won, but he does own the distinction of being the player with the most Finals MVP trophies in NBA history, with an astonishing six.
That’s twice as many as the four players who have the second-most Finals MVPs on their mantles, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and LeBron James, who each have three.
His Airness more than earned those six awards, too, as Jordan, in 35 career Finals games, averaged 33.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals, shooting 48.1 percent from the floor and 80.6 percent from the foul stripe while leading the Bulls to a 24-11 record in those outings.
He dominated on both ends of the floor, not just offense…
Jordan was seen as a relentless defender throughout his prime, one who could lock up foes on-one-on on the perimeter, as well as play passing lanes and rack up steals at elite levels. He would even serve as a rim protector at times when opponents thought they’d have an easy look at the rim.
For his contributions on that end of the floor, Jordan won one Defensive Player of the Year award in his career (1987-88), an extremely difficult honor to achieve for non-bigs, even to this day.
Additionally, Jordan has the third-most steals in league history (2,514) – and the only two players ahead of him, John Stockton and Jason Kidd, each played over 300 more games in their careers than he did – and has the fourth-highest nightly steals average (2.3). Jordan also owned the record for the most blocks by a guard in NBA history, until Dwyane Wade finally broke it in the 2018-19 season.
What’s more, Jordan was the first player in league history to achieve 1st Team All-Defense honors nine times in their career, a feat no one has been able to top, although Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Gary Payton have all tied him with nine apiece.
(In fairness, the award didn’t come into existence until 1968-69, so it’s interesting to consider how many All-Defensive 1st Teams Bill Russell would have amassed. There’s a good chance he would have reached double digits. As is, he has one 1st Team All-Defense to his name.)
He brought millions of fans into the sport…
Jordan became a global icon during his peak in the NBA, one who was renowned around the world for his exploits, and one who helped the NBA reach new, previously unreached levels of popularity.
For proof of Jordan’s outreach, we need look no further than average ratings per regular-season games on broadcast networks. During Jordan’s final three seasons of his prime, the NBA averaged a record-high 5.0 average rating (1995-96), a 4.7 (1996-97) and a 4.8 (1997-98). After 1998-99, the NBA never reached an average rating of even a 4.0 again.
Just for comparison’s sake, the average rating in 2018-19 was 2.2, less than half of the averages during Jordan’s final Bulls years.
And that’s without even discussing Jordan’s popularity overseas when he became the most popular sports figure for a long stretch of time.
He had the highest peak of any basketball player ever…
Few players can come close to matching Jordan’s overall excellence, but none can match the prolonged peak he had in the NBA.
Jordan led the league in scoring seven seasons in a row, ranging from 1986-87 until his final season before his first retirement in 1992-93, averaging 33.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.0 blocks on 51.8/31.1/84.6 shooting splits over that stretch. According to Box Plus/Minus, three of the top five individual seasons in league history belong to Jordan – and they all came during that seven-year run.
Couple that with all the awards Jordan earned during that stretch – three championships, three Finals MVPs, three regular-season MVPs, one Defensive Player of the Year, seven All-Star appearances and seven 1st Team All-NBA distinctions!
He’s alone in one certain historical accomplishment…
Speaking of awards, Jordan is the only player ever to win Rookie of the Year, MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in their career.
He has the most combined regular-season and Finals MVPs…
Jordan may not be the player with the most regular-season MVP awards, as that honor belongs to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won six to Jordan’s five, which is tied for the second-most along with Bill Russell. However, when combining Finals MVPs and regular-season MVPs, Jordan finishes at No. 1 with 11.
And there’s a good argument Jordan should have won more but was punished by voter fatigue who got tired of voting for the Bulls legend as MVP every single year.
Among the seasons Jordan had a strong case for MVP but didn’t win it were 1988-89 when it went to Magic Johnson, despite Jordan outpacing him in just about every raw and advanced metric, and 1996-97, when he led the league in scoring and headlined one of the best Bulls teams ever.
He boasted the best scoring average ever…
Partially because he retired twice before retiring for good after two seasons with the Washington Wizards (yes, that did happen no matter how badly we want to forget it), Jordan ranks merely fifth in points scored for his career with 32,292.
However, Jordan still ranks No. 1 overall in career scoring average at 30.12 points per game, an absolutely ridiculous feat in its own right. The only player who came close to matching Jordan in that stat is Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 30.06 points per game for his career.
After those two comes Elgin Baylor, who is a full 2.7 points behind the first- and second-place finishers in the statistic, followed by the rest of the field trailing behind by an even wider margin.
He faced tougher much more physical defenses in his peak…
Perhaps the most ridiculous part of Jordan’s previously discussed seven-year peak is the fact that it came at a time where defenses were allowed to be extremely physical, edging the line of flat-out dirty. Players attacking the paint were often met with hip checks, elbows or straight-up tackles, and hand-checking was legal on the perimeter, making it even tough for ball-handlers to get good looks at the basket.
Was it the cleanest, most sportsman-like type of defense?
No, but it was very effective, particularly for teams of that era like the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks, who used that defensive intensity/chippiness to win a whole lot of games.
And yet, Jordan was able to find massive amounts of success in that era anyway. That’s not to say modern NBA superstars wouldn’t be able to succeed in that era, too, but it’s noteworthy Jordan proved he could dominate against even against some of the most physical defenses the league has ever seen.
He won without loads of elite teammates…
Throughout Jordan’s career, only one of his Bulls teammates received All-NBA honors, and that was Scottie Pippen.
Jordan did have other talented teammates on those Chicago teams besides Pippen, of course, including guys like Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Horace Grant, but the fact that Pippen was the only one who could be considered a legitimate star alongside Jordan is noteworthy.
It’s a far cry from the current NBA, where super teams featuring All-Star duos and even trios being formed just about every offseason has become the norm.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.