Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan wouldn’t fly so high in today’s NBA

  • Allen Iverson
  • Bill Russell
  • Chicago Bulls
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Michael Jordan
  • NBA
  • Shaquille O'Neal
  • The Last Dance
  • Wilt Chamberlain
By Nick Holz May 17, 2020 0 Comment
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Sorry David Falk, no way Jordan averages 60 in today’s NBA

Apologies to Michael Jordan’s agent and Shaquille O’Neal as well. There is just no way even the great Michael Jeffrey Jordan would average 45 points per game in today’s NBA. Defensive rule changes, and the abundance of wing talent in today’s game would make the modern NBA immeasurably more difficult for Michael to dominate. Everybody talks about “The Jordan Rules”, but few touch on those that benefited his tale of greatness.

One of the greatest takeaways from “The Last Dance” is just how incredible an athlete Michael Jordan truly was. He simply moved at a different speed than his peers. The way he glided over, through, and around defenders is a joy to watch. As archival footage from the ’80s and 90s serves to re-iterate, “His Airness” was truly one of a kind. However, the level of athlete in today’s Association is considerably higher than in Jordan’s times.

Moreover, far more impactful than the hand-checking rule pundits refer to, the original illegal defense rule opened up the lane for players of Jordan’s ilk. Teams were forced to play straight man to man, or declare their intentions early, opening huge gaps of space for Jordan to attack. The ease with which MJ waltzes past his competition isn’t purely based on his athletic gifts and basketball talent.

NBA’s illegal defense rule was actually Michael’s Secret Stuff!

Prior to 2000-01 the NBA’s illegal defense rules were no different than in your local league. Everyone had to play straight up, man on man. Zone defense, or anything that regarded one, was completely and utterly illegal. Players had to guard either their man, or the ball, but nothing in between. When on defense, players could never be more than an arms length away from their opponent. Defenders could double team, but it had to be abundantly clear you were there to help a teammate. Isolation basketball reigned supreme. And Michael Jordan, the ultimate iso weapon, was unstoppable.

League rules allowing Michael Jordan to attack defenders left hopelessly on an island only furthered his legacy. Since it was illegal for teams to double away from the ball, any double team had to be aggressively straight forward.

Check out how much space Michael Jordan has to work with against poor John Starks. No wonder he was able to score at will, there isn’t another defender within 15 feet. For reference, here’s a similar play from over a decade later, with Kobe Bryant playing in the same Phil Jackson-led triangle offense.

Kobe Bryant-iso

Notice how Paul Pierce, (34) is able to completely disregard his man, and multiple Celtics defenders are in position to help. The change in tactics is staggering. For further spacial context have a look at the plays below.

Illegal Defense

Check out the immense amount of space in the above clip from the ’90s. Due to an atrocious rule, defenders were forced to clear out and guard their man. Even if he had next-to-no shooting ability. Again, some written words in a rule book made Michael Jordan a substantially more efficient player than he would be in today’s game.

No illegal defense

Ask Lebron if he’d rather get hand-checked, or face two extra defenders on the way to the basket.

The Modern NBA Has Evolved

As viewers saw in “The Last Dance”, in 1984, the NBA still believed that only 7-footers could carry an NBA team. The second wave of dominant centers inspired by the play of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit the league at around the same time as Michael Jordan. Teams were designed to stop the likes of an aging Kareem, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone and Patrick Ewing. There were few dominant defensive wing players in Jordan’s path.

Twelve years on, the famous class of 1996 took the NBA by storm. Stars like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Steve Nash were all inspired by the play of number 23. The entire league’s thought process had been altered by the success of the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty. Every team was looking for the next Jordan or Scottie Pippen. Their impact greatly increased the competitiveness and level of play on the wing. Everybody wanted to be “Like Mike”.

Elite athletes at every position would limit Michael’s powers

Thus, players like Kobe had to face a murderers row of high level athletes at the position during their prime years. Elite players littered the league’s wings in the early 2000s. Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Joe Johnson are but a few. To combat these dominant forces, nearly every team employed a defensive stopper. Players such as Ron Artest, Shane Battier, Andre Iguodala, and Shawn Marion flourished as versatile wing security. Points gods like the aforementioned Nash, Jason Kidd and Chris Paul attacked defenses on the fly, and changed the game. All played in a far more guard-centric era, surrounded by defensive specialists. This is to say, the 21st century NBA has been an immeasurably more perimeter based game, leading to the wide-open style of play we see today.

Jordan was guarded by the likes of Jeff Hornacek, Joe Dumars, Steve Smith, John Starks, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Miller, and Clyde Drexler, as well as aging legends Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson. Few true defensive weapons matched up against Jordan Mano-a-Mano. Who guarded Jordan in the 80s? Nobody knows, nobody cares. The level of defensive efficiency mattered little. Bulls center Bill Cartwright could simply stand behind the three point line and force his man to follow. The 1980s and ’90s were a very weak era of perimeter play when compared to the next two decades.

The Last Dance will conclude, but the debate rages on

For all his otherworldly talent, there is no question MJ benefited by having the two greatest on-ball defenders in the league on his squad. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman are two of the top defensive players in NBA history, and Jordan rarely faced defenders of their level of skill and athleticism. He spent much of his career going head to head against lesser athletes, and demolished his competition. None of that is his fault, as Jordan could only destroy those who were put in front of him. However, he prospered like no other player in NBA history by coming into the league at just the right time.

As you watch the final two episodes of “The Last Dance” on Sunday night, remember “His Airness” wouldn’t have been that guy in today’s NBA. It’s doubtful Michael Jordan’s star would shine as bright in 2020.

Embed from Getty Images


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