Fadeaway World

Michael Jordan is the most prolific scorer of the modern NBA era. He won 10 scoring titles in his 12 full seasons with the Bulls, averaging a staggering 31.5 points on 50.5% shooting during his time in Chicago, according to basketball-reference.

What’s even more impressive about this statistical feat — besides that it led to six championships and five MVPs — is that he did so without playing with another elite offensive player. He was always the priority focus of opposing defenses yet he was still able to score at will.

Although most teams back in the 1990s didn’t have the depth of talent of today’s rosters, mostly because of fewer international players present in the league and basketball’s talent pool being diluted due to expansion, it’s surprising that Jordan never had the luxury of playing with another upper-tier offensive player. With another scorer for defenses to worry about, one can only imagine the damage Jordan would do with less defensive attention paid to him.

Scottie Pippen was one of the greatest defenders in NBA history, as well as a sound slasher and proficient passer, but he wasn’t the type of player who could dominate a game by scoring. His highest scoring average alongside Jordan was 21 points per game, and he wasn’t able to space the floor for Jordan since Pippen possessed a stiff and inconsistent jumper. He also never scored more than 32 points in a playoff game as a member of the Bulls, which forced Jordan to often carry the team’s offense during the most critical points of the season.

One could argue that Toni Kukoc’s presence during Chicago’s second three-peat lightened Jordan’s offensive burden, but Kukoc was an even more inconsistent offensive playoff performer than Pippen. Kukoc’s shooting was putrid during the 1996 and 1997 playoffs, shooting under 40% from the field in both years, with his 1998 playoffs being the peak of his time playing with Jordan.

Everyone knows Dennis Rodman offered little on offense in terms of scoring and playmaking, but even Jordan’s original formidable forward, Horace Grant, was a low-volume scorer. Grant peaked in 1991-1992 with 14.2 points per game on an efficient 57.8% shooting, often showcasing solid post-moves and a mid-range jumper, yet he was never a reliable offensive option for the Bulls. If anything, Jordan could have used another perimeter-scoring threat to spread the floor. Instead, Grant usually stood in the dunker’s spot during Jordan’s drives, sometimes resulting in an easy layup/dunk once Jordan dumped the ball to Grant while mid-shot, and other times simply making it much more difficult for Jordan to finish amongst the trees.

B.J. Armstrong was one of the premier 3-point shooters by the end of Chicago’s first three-peat, yet he was never much of a creator offensively and often relied on Jordan and Pippen to create open looks for him. Steve Kerr and John Paxson were also of similar builds, which made the Bulls well-rounded but also vulnerable when Jordan inevitably had off shooting nights.

An often forgotten aspect of old-school basketball was that illegal defense rules made it a much different proposition for defenses to contain star players. In today’s game, you can see how all five defenders shade toward players like LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the like, making it much harder for them to go 1-on-1 without encountering numerous defenders.

Back in Jordan’s heyday, however, zone defense or anything that resembled it was outlawed. A player had to stay within 3 feet of their man, and while they could double-team the ball-handler, they had to commit hard or the whistle would be blown. That’s why iso-ball dominated more and more as the 1990s went on, making the game extremely slow and eventually leading the league to eliminate the rule starting in the 2001-2002 season.

So while the rules favored Jordan’s play-style, it’s noteworthy to mention that he did so without another potential threat on the floor. When you look back at the clips of Jordan’s high-flying antics and mid-range shooting prowess, think about how defenses knew what he was going to do, how he was going to do it and that he was the only real offensive threat they had to worry about, and it still didn’t matter. He was just that good.

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