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.
|RAPTOR Plus/Minus||Wins Above Replacement|
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:
|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|
|Thabo Sefolosha||2007-20||CHI, OKC, ATL, UTA, HOU||19,062||2.2|
|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|
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.