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Why Michael Jordan Was The Best

Sports may be shut down, but Michael Jordan is as relevant as he’s been in a long time. In addition to being omnipresent in the old YouTube clips we’ve all been watching, MJ will also take center stage in a 10-part ESPN documentary, “The Last Dance,” which premieres Sunday.1 The film covers the 1997-98 season, Jordan’s final year in Chicago, as well as Jordan’s cultural significance and that of the Bulls’ dynasty as a whole.

The documentary should serve as a refresher for those of us old enough to have watched Jordan at the time and an introductory course for those who never had the privilege. Of course, there’s also been a lot of mythology built up around MJ over the past three decades, and “The Last Dance” is sure to add to it — even as the movie’s director, Jason Hehir, says he took steps to humanize Jordan. Under the weight of all that lore, it can be difficult to cut through to what made Jordan truly great, independent of the image-making.

Was Jordan actually the greatest ever? It’s something of a loaded question, the kind of which has launched a million RealGM forum debates. But MJ has the stats on his side: He remains the NBA’s all-time career leader in Win Shares per 48 minutes and Player Efficiency Rating, both of which can be computed going back to 1951-52. He owns the greatest single-game performance ever2 according to Basketball-Reference.com’s Game Scores. And when we crunched the historical numbers for our RAPTOR player ratings (which go back to 1976-77), we found that Jordan is also the modern leader in RAPTOR plus/minus,3 in addition to having the best mix of career and peak value.

Jordan is RAPTOR’s GOAT 🏀🐐

Best RAPTOR plus/minus ratings for NBA players with at least 15,000 minutes played since 1976-77, including regular season and playoffs

RAPTOR Plus/Minus Wins Above Replacement
Player Seasons Off. Def. Tot. Reg. Playoff TOT.
M. Jordan 1985-03 +6.4 +2.2 +8.6 232.7 47.7 280.4
C. Paul 2006-20 +6.9 +1.6 +8.6 203.8 23.4 227.3
J. Stockton 1985-03 +6.5 +1.7 +8.2 268.1 34.5 302.6
M. Johnson 1980-96 +6.9 +0.8 +7.6 173.3 43.2 216.5
L. James 2004-20 +6.4 +1.1 +7.5 248.2 60.2 308.4
S. Curry 2010-20 +7.0 +0.5 +7.5 126.1 25.0 151.1
K. Leonard 2012-20 +4.1 +3.1 +7.2 80.9 20.9 101.9
D. Robinson 1990-03 +1.9 +5.2 +7.2 174.7 19.6 194.3
J. Harden 2010-20 +6.6 +0.1 +6.7 137.2 20.8 158.0
L. Bird 1980-92 +4.4 +2.0 +6.4 159.9 32.2 192.1
M. Ginobili 2003-18 +4.1 +2.0 +6.1 122.5 29.3 151.9
C. Barkley 1985-00 +5.1 +1.0 +6.1 175.3 23.8 199.1
C. Drexler 1984-98 +4.3 +1.4 +5.7 161.3 25.5 186.8
Dr. Green 2013-20 +1.0 +4.6 +5.6 63.5 26.6 90.1
T. Duncan 1998-16 +1.5 +3.7 +5.2 188.8 41.2 230.0
A. Davis 2013-20 +1.7 +3.4 +5.1 72.0 2.0 74.0
P. George 2011-20 +2.6 +2.5 +5.1 84.3 14.9 99.2
S. Pippen 1988-04 +2.7 +2.3 +5.0 158.1 37.0 195.1
K. Garnett 1996-16 +1.7 +3.2 +4.9 196.7 20.2 216.9
J. Butler 2012-20 +3.2 +1.7 +4.9 72.3 9.1 81.5
K. Durant 2008-19 +4.8 +0.0 +4.8 118.8 25.7 144.5
J. Kidd 1995-13 +2.9 +1.9 +4.8 191.0 26.5 217.5
H. Olajuwon 1985-02 +0.2 +4.6 +4.8 163.7 27.1 190.8
J. Erving 1977-87 +2.8 +1.8 +4.6 107.7 19.8 127.5
K. Bryant 1997-16 +4.5 -0.1 +4.4 174.0 36.0 210.0

Source: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

Sometimes when you analyze historical legends with modern metrics, the results can leave you disappointed. It’s impossible to know what, say, Pete Maravich would have done in today’s NBA, but his advanced stats are surprisingly mediocre when you look back on them. Yet Jordan’s numbers have held up to challenges from LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and numerous others in the generations that followed in his footsteps. His reputation as the GOAT was not merely a media creation or the product of ring-counting — it has withstood the tests of both time and science.

Why was Jordan so great, though? How did a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from North Carolina, who wasn’t picked first OR second in his draft class, come to dominate a league whose best players had disproportionately been big men over the three decades before he arrived?

For one thing, Jordan mixed scoring volume and shooting efficiency better than just about any player in history. Over his career, he averaged 30.2 pace-adjusted4 points per 36 minutes, easily the most of any qualified player since 1977. But he also had a career true shooting percentage of 56.9 percent, much higher than the league average of 53.5 percent over the years of his career. As a result, Jordan is an outlier on the furthest boundary of the usage-vs.-efficiency curve for all-time players:

Jordan’s placement is even more impressive when you consider that he didn’t make much use of the 3-point shot. MJ was a serviceable deep shooter for his day, particularly for the three seasons when the NBA shortened the 3-point line during the 1990s, but he was no Steph Curry or James Harden. Only 7.2 percent of Jordan’s career field-goal attempts were threes, meaning he was doing the vast majority of his work inside the arc — whether slicing to the basket as a younger player or, later in his career, taking a ton of midrange jumpers and fadeaways from the post.

Despite the difficulty — and inherent inefficiency — of Jordan’s shot selection, he still managed to make an impressive 51 percent of his career 2-point attempts, notably higher than such similarly midrange-focused players as Bryant (48 percent), Carmelo Anthony (47 percent), Russell Westbrook (47 percent) and even Dirk Nowitzki (50 percent). And he still managed to get to the line roughly once out of every three shots he took from the field, making 84 percent of his free throws. The midrange and post games have fallen out of favor in the modern NBA because they are not as efficient as a drive-and-kick, three-crazed offense, yet Jordan leaned heavily on those now-shunned tactics to build his résumé as the greatest player ever.

Jordan’s most underrated offensive strength of all might have been his ability to generate high-quality shots (for himself and others) without turning the ball over. Only two qualified players in NBA history had a career usage rate of at least 30 percent with a turnover percentage under 10 percent — Jordan and Dominique Wilkins (rivals in a couple of iconic 1980s dunk contests). And with apologies to the Human Highlight Film, Jordan was asked to do a lot more on offense for the Bulls than Wilkins was for the Hawks. MJ assisted on nearly 25 percent of teammate baskets when he was on the court, on top of his scoring responsibilities. That made Jordan one of the better playmakers in the NBA, even as he simultaneously led the league in scoring 10 times during the 11 seasons he played between 1986-87 and 1997-98.

All of this helps explain why Jordan’s Bulls finished in the top five in offensive efficiency every season from 1989-90 to 1996-97, except for the two Jordan spent playing baseball.5 When your best player is taking on a historic share of team possessions while also averaging nearly 1.2 points on each of those possessions, you’re going to have a historically great offense. And indeed, Chicago had three seasons — 1992, 1996 and 1997 — where its offense cleared the league average by 7 points per 100 possessions. Jordan was the engine that powered the offensive success of the Bulls’ dynasty.

But that’s only half of what made Jordan so great. He was also an elite perimeter defender — with a RAPTOR plus/minus of +2.2, which ranks fourth among players that Basketball-Reference lists as guards or “guard-forwards” since 1976-77:

RAPTOR’s greatest perimeter defenders

Best RAPTOR defensive plus/minus ratings for NBA guards* with at least 15,000 minutes played since 1976-77, including regular season and playoffs

Player Seasons Team(s) Minutes Def. RAPTOR
Tony Allen 2005-18 BOS, MEM, NOP 18,055 +2.8
Danny Green 2010-20 CLE, SAS, TOR, LAL 17,298 2.3
Alvin Robertson 1985-96 SAS, MIL, DET, TOR 24,669 2.3
Michael Jordan 1985-03 CHI, WAS 41,011 2.2
Nate McMillan 1987-98 SEA 20,462 2.2
Thabo Sefolosha 2007-20 CHI, OKC, ATL, UTA, HOU 19,062 2.2
Manu Ginobili 2003-18 SAS 26,859 2.0
Micheal Ray Richardson 1979-86 NYK, NJN, GSW 18,589 2.0
Jason Kidd 1995-13 DAL, PHO, NJN, NYK 50,111 1.9
Fat Lever 1983-94 POR, DEN, DAL 23,814 1.8

*Includes players listed as “guard/forward” at Basketball-Reference.com.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

Jordan was also named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team nine times, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. With MJ joining forces with fellow shutdown defenders Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper during the second Bulls three-peat, Chicago led the NBA in defensive efficiency in 1996 and finished no worse than fourth in ’97 or ’98, making that incarnation of the Bulls an even more complete team than the version that went back-to-back-to-back in 1991, ’92 and ’93.6

Jordan ranks 18th on the all-time leaderboard for steal percentage, a testament to the quickness of his famously huge hands (which probably played a key role in his low turnover percentage as well). But Jordan also had genius-level defensive instincts. Take, for example, the sequence that set up his iconic final shot as a Bull against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. Everyone remembers the drive, pull-up and arguable push-off as Jordan freed himself from Bryon Russell and drained the championship clinching jumper. But the reason he even had the chance was the previous play, in which he snuck behind Karl Malone and stripped the ball for a steal. It was a textbook example of how Jordan used mental lapses by other players — even Hall of Famers! — to his advantage.

The amazing thing is that Jordan wasn’t supposed to excel in the areas that ended up being cornerstones of his legend. “The weakest part of Michael’s game on the offensive end was his shooting,” Phil Jackson says in the spellbinding documentary “Michael Jordan to the Max.” “So he obviously mastered something that everybody said he couldn’t do when he came out of college. And he did it by shooting … and shooting … and shooting … and shooting. Consistently.

“The other thing that people told him was that he wasn’t really a good defensive player,” Jackson said. “And he found a way not only to become a great defensive player, but the best defensive player in the NBA. This guy said, ‘Those are my weaknesses. I’m gonna figure out how to make those my strengths.’ And he did it.”

When critics argue against Jordan as the best player ever, they often point out that the Bulls dominated a diluted era during which the NBA added six teams in a seven-year span from 1988 to 1995. Or that Jordan had a strong supporting cast with multiple Hall of Famers (including Jackson as coach) and hyper-efficient role players (Steve Kerr, Horace Grant, etc.). Or even that defenses were simpler then. But Jordan also excelled as a guard in an era when hand-checking them was legal, when teams like the Bad Boy Pistons could draw up physical defenses specifically designed to pummel the opponent’s star.

So the arguments can go in both directions. But the numbers tell us that Jordan was uniquely great, both in terms of what he did and how he did it. In some ways, as an efficient guard with unstoppable post-up skills, MJ served as a bridge between the NBA’s bygone age of dominant big men and today’s era of high-usage perimeter creators. And certainly he deeply influenced every player who came after him. Now, through “The Last Dance,” we’ll get to see Jordan from a different angle, and perhaps gain a new appreciation of his greatness even still.

Footnotes

  1. Full disclosure: FiveThirtyEight and ESPN are both owned by The Walt Disney Company.

  2. This 69-point, 18-rebound effort against the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1990.

  3. This wasn’t quite true back in October, but Chris Paul played below his career average this season, dropping his lifetime rating slightly below Jordan’s.

  4. Scaled to a tempo of 100 possessions per game.

  5. Jordan came back late in the 1995 season, too late to boost Chicago’s offensive ranking any higher than 10th — and he played below his usual level of efficiency anyway. He would, of course, bounce back to dominate in 1996.

  6. That team was an offensive powerhouse, finishing no worse than second at that end of the court in any season, but also finishing no better than fourth on defense.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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