Michael Jordan entered the league by storm and quickly captured the hearts of basketball fans. While many consider Jordan as the greatest of all-time (or the G.O.A.T in today’s basketball lingo), he wasn’t always the definitive choice.
Early in his career, Jordan was already the greatest individual talent we had ever seen since Wilt Chamberlain, but he wasn’t a champion. He was winning games for the Chicago Bulls even though he was not in the same category as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The Finals was an annual ritual for these guys and Jordan was not to be invited…yet.
After winning six titles in the 90s and retiring for the second time before the decade was over, Air Jordan was the consensus choice as the best player in league history.
But what exactly made him arguably the NBA’s premier player?
Michael Jordan Was Unstoppable In His Early Years
Jordan was an amazing one-on-one talent and perhaps the league’s most unstoppable force especially in his third season when he put up an insane 37.1 points per game average. Despite that, he failed to bag the 1986-87 MVP award (which went to Magic Johnson) because of a lack of team success.
Though he was the Bulls’ primary scorer given how weak the team’s roster was during the early part of his career, Jordan and his coaches at the time had very little choice but to unleash him upon an unsuspecting league.
He was considered a ball hog at the time because he was Chicago’s first, second and third scoring option. Since the only reliable scorers around him were John Paxson and Charles Oakley, it’s no wonder that Jordan took nearly every available shot possible.
Any great player would do that, too, if they only saw Gene Banks, Dave Corzine and Earl Cureton most of the time on the floor with him. Jordan’s 38.3 percent usage rate was simply the product of the talent around him. But as the players around him got better, he willingly gave up the ball.
University of North Carolina head coach Dean Smith, Jordan’s college coach, made sure that his players played the right way by sharing the ball to benefit the team. Jordan finally had the opportunity to showcase a more complete game with the arrival of Scottie Pippen in the 1987 NBA Draft.
By the end of the season, Jordan scored a career-high 3,041 points becoming only the second player in league history to score 3,000 or more points in a season, joining Chamberlain as the only players reach the mark.
Individual And Team Success
Jordan’s numbers in the 1987-88 season were quite similar to the previous one, but the jump in the Bulls’ win column made his contributions to the team more visible to the voters.
With head coach Doug Collins coming up with a new way to utilize his star player’s immense talents, Jordan led the league in scoring once again with 35.0 points a night, but his all-around game also garnered attention.
He averaged 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists, a career-high 1.6 blocks and a league-leading 3.2 steals per game. Michael Jordan won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, and he was one of four players who ever won MVP and DPOY awards in their career.
This was his second season with at least 200 total steals and 100 total blocks. No one had accomplished that feat before, let alone two times in their career.
It wasn’t until Hakeem Olajuwon recorded more than 200 steals and more than 200 blocks in 1988-89 that the record was broken, but he never accomplished the feat more than once.
With the Bulls reaching the 50-win mark (50-32), Jordan was finally crowned the league’s MVP, the first of many to come.
The following year, Collins made the decision late in the season to make Jordan his point guard. The rationale was that Jordan could see the floor better as a point guard while making his teammates better. They now had more scoring options with Pippen’s emergence and Horace Grant becoming a reliable third scorer.
From March 25 to April 14, 1989, an 11-game stretch for the Bulls, Jordan averaged a triple-double with 33.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. He had seven straight triple-doubles, fell three rebounds short of another one, then reeled off three straight once again.
That’s 10 triple-doubles in 11 games, a run that included seven 30-points-or-more triple-doubles (two games with 40 or more points). He finished the season with 15 in total and it’s a tragedy that he didn’t run away with the 1988-89 MVP award despite virtually averaging a triple-double with 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists.
He also added 2.9 steals per game, too, in a showcase of otherworldly versatility that should have netted him the Maurice Podoloff Trophy for the second season in a row.
Voters were likely too in love with Johnson leading a stacked Lakers team to another Western Conference crown that they forgot that the 6-foot-9 point guard had better teammates than Jordan did.
But the Bulls legend carried his team on his back while leading the league in scoring again and making All-Defensive First Team for the second year in a row. Though the Bulls won three games less than the year before, Jordan had transformed into the league’s most complete player.
The next season, Jordan was once again robbed of the award as Johnson added a third MVP to his name despite the Bulls winning 55 games and His Airness having another brilliant season with 33.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and leading the league in steals with 2.8 an outing.
What the pre-championship years tell us is this–Jordan was already a better player than his peers, particularly Johnson and Bird as well as Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. The only thing lacking from his hardware was a championship ring before he was recognized as the game’s best.
Imagine replacing Johnson with Jordan on the late 80s Lakers squad and giving Johnson Jordan’s spot on the Bulls. It’s doubtful that the defensively-challenged Laker great would be able to carry Chicago to a better record.
As for Jordans’s usage rate, he never again reached more than 35 percent until he went to the Washington Wizards during the latter part of his career.
— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) April 27, 2020
Consider his accomplishments before the title years:
Rookie of the Year Award (1984-85)
MVP Award (1987-88)
Defensive Player of the Year Award (1987-88)
6 All-Star Game selections
4x All-NBA First Team
1x All-NBA Second Team
3x All-Defensive First Team
4x scoring titles
2x steals titles
That’s a portfolio that any player would be proud of for a 10-year career and yet Jordan’s career was just beginning.
The Championship Seasons
Jordan was already playing team basketball, but it wasn’t until Phil Jackson became head coach of the Bulls in 1989 when he fully embraced it.
Despite being a supreme scorer, in order to win, the 6-foot-6 guard had to embrace the new system that Jackson set in place for the Bulls to become competitive—the Triangle Offense.
The scoring title still belonged to Jordan during the next few years, but he proved to everyone that he could do so while also leading his team to the title. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the only other player to win the scoring title and a championship in the same season, but Jordan did it multiple times in his career.
Pippen became a perennial All-Star since 1990 (only missing the cut twice in 1990 and 1998), giving Jordan a sidekick that could keep up with him both offensively and defensively.
Even while the Bulls continued to rely on Jordan less, the game’s most captivating player never let up in leading the league in scoring six more times from 1991 to 1993, and again when he returned from playing baseball from 1996 to 1998.
During this six-year period, Jordan was not only the league’s scoring champion, but he was also leading the Bulls to a championship every time he played a full season. Even as an underdog in two of the Finals series, the Bulls overcame the odds because of Jordan’s indomitable will.
Only twice were the Bulls pushed to a Game 7 with Jordan on the roster, and they never lost more than two games in a row during this time frame. Even when Pippen missed 35 games in the 1997-98 season, Jordan’s competitiveness would not allow his team to go on a three-game losing streak.
Prior to the Warriors’ dominance of the league from 2014-15 to 2016-17 (a league-record 207-39 win-loss record for three consecutive years), it was the 1995-96 to 1997-98 Bulls who had the best three-year record in league annals (203-43).
But when looking at the fact that the Warriors didn’t win the title all three years that they were the top team in the league, it goes to show that the Bulls’ accomplishment is superior to the Warriors’.
Jordan just would not let the Bulls lose their focus.
In terms of game-winning buzzer-beaters, Jordan is the king of the hill.
The Ringer’s Mike Lynch put together a summary of game-winners in NBA history and he discovered that Jordan has nine career buzzer-beaters to his credit.
“[Jordan’s] shots were all jumpers, ranging from 14 feet (1995 in Atlanta) to 26 feet (1992 vs. Detroit),” Lynch wrote. “Six were in the regular season (trailing only Kobe and Johnson), and three were in the playoffs (trailing only LeBron). Two of those three even ended the series. Seven were unassisted, which is tied for the most with Johnson. Jordan also averaged 34.4 points per game in the nine games he won at the horn, which is the highest average among the 11 players with five-plus buzzer-beaters (beating LeBron by a fraction).”
His Airness has approximately 28 game-winning shots which include the aforementioned buzzer-beaters.
Simply put, with the game on the line, there’s no one better than Jordan.
How Jordan Trusted His Teammates During The Bulls’ Title Run
Contrary to what many see as selfishness, Jordan’s penchant for hogging the ball was merely a product of circumstance. As previously mentioned, the better the talent around him, the more he trusted his teammates and the more he willingly gave up the ball.
Unlike most scorers, Jordan would regularly give up the ball when he found an open teammate. This is true even in late-game situations with the outcome on the line.
Here are a few examples:
Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals saw Jordan trying too hard to score against the Lakers in the fourth quarter. When prompted by Phil Jackson to find Paxson, who was open on several occasions, Jordan knew what he had to do to win the ballgame.
In the ensuing possessions, No. 23 found his backcourt partner wide open over and over, and he delivered the ball to Paxson, sealing the win with one jumper after another.
In Game 6 of the 1993 Finals with the Bulls trailing the Phoenix Suns with 14.1 seconds to play, Jordan brought the ball upcourt but dished the ball to Pippen near midcourt. That led to Pippen giving the ball up to Horace Grant near the basket until it was finally delivered to Paxson again for the game-deciding three-pointer.
Fast forward to 1997 in Game 6 of the Finals. With the Bulls tied with the Utah Jazz 86-all and 28.0 seconds remaining in the game, Jordan told guard Steve Kerr to be ready if John Stockton came over to double team him.
Jordan had the ball in his hands when Stockton helped Bryon Russell on defense. That left Kerr open for a pass from Jordan and the Golden State Warriors’ future head coach nailed the jumper from the top of the key.
These are just a few, but very vivid examples of Jordan routinely giving the ball up to a teammate, knowing that he could trust his teammates to deliver in the clutch just like he does.
Looking at his assists numbers, the 10-time scoring leader only averaged less than three dimes once (2.9 during in 25.1 minutes per game), and nine times averaged more than five assists per contest. Most shooting guards would be fortunate to average more than 3.5 assists a game.
Michael Jordan’s Usage Rate
Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck recently tweeted that “Jordan only exceeded 35% USG twice: in 1986-87 with Bulls and 2001-02 with Wizards.”
— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) April 27, 2020
Generally, a high usage rate lowers one’s efficiency but the true stars of the game can handle the load better than others.
Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal defines usage rate more simply as “what percentage of team plays a player was involved in while he was on the floor, provided that the play ends in one of the three true results: field-goal attempt, free-throw attempt or turnover.”
Jordan’s high usage rate in the two seasons where he put up more than 35 percent USG meant he was required to do more for the team to succeed.
Michael Jordan By The Numbers
The records below are just a few of Jordan’s numerous accomplishments over the course of his career:
He is the only player to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award (1987-88) while averaging over 30 points per game (35.0).
His career scoring average of 30.1 points per game is the highest in NBA history.
The 10 scoring titles is an NBA record and he tied Chamberlain with seven consecutive scoring titles from 1986-87 to 1992-93.
He is a nine-time All-Defensive First Team member, tied with Gary Payton, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant for most First Team selections.
Jordan holds the postseason record of 63 points against the Boston Celtics on May 20, 1986 during the first round of the playoffs.
He scored an average of 33.4 points per game in 179 career playoff games, an NBA record that stands to this day.
He owns an NBA-record six Finals MVPs.
He is the only player in NBA history to score 40 or more points at 40 years old or older.
The fact that Jordan delivered one championship after another for the Bulls while retaining his status as the league’s top alpha dog for multiple seasons makes him the easy choice as the greatest of all time.
When putting together a summary of all his accomplishments on an individual and team basis, no other player comes close to Jordan’s dominance of the league over a long period of time.