Over the course of his incredible career, Michael Jordan faced off against some of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen. From the “Showtime” Lakers to the Stockton/Malone Jazz, Jordan built his legacy on the strength of his competition – competition he defeated more often than not. The 1990s in particular were filled with Hall-of-Famers and All-Stars whose incredible seasons were cut short by losses to Jordan in the playoffs.

MJ isn’t just a legend just because he won – he’s a legend because he won against all-time greats. Even fellow members of the Dream Team weren’t safe from his dominance. Ranking those greats and determining the most impressive victories of Jordan’s career isn’t easy, but there are a few players in particular who rise to the top. The following is a list of the best players Jordan defeated in the playoffs.

For ordering purposes, we’ll consider each player in the context of the season or seasons when Jordan beat them, factoring in stats and accolades for those particular years. We’ll also tally their total records against Jordan in the postseason. And of course, some consideration will be given to the players’ careers in totality and the significance of their losses. After all, every one of these stars is in the Hall of Fame.

 

10. Reggie Miller

Years Defeated: 1998

Notable Accolades: 5x All-Star, 3x All-NBA

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 3-4 (0-1 Series)

The 1998 Eastern Conference Finals series is seen by many as the greatest threat Jordan ever faced in the postseason during his six championship seasons. And by the numbers, it was. The only other time in those six playoffs that Chicago was brought to a game seven was by the Patrick Ewing Knicks in 1992. That Game 7, however, ended in a blowout for the Bulls.

In 1998, Reggie Miller and the Pacers looked as capable as anyone to swipe the title from Jordan. Miller’s scoring potential had diminished somewhat from the peak of his career, but he was still an All-Star and a fantastic player. He led the Pacers very nearly to victory, but it just wasn’t enough to stop Jordan, who averaged 31.7 PPG and 1.7 SPG for the series.

 

9. Shaquille O’Neal

Years Defeated: 1996

Notable Accolades: 15x All-Star, 14x All-NBA, 3x All-Defense, 2x Scoring Leader, 4x Champion, 1x MVP

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 4-6 (1-1 Series)

Led by the duo of Shaq and Penny Hardaway, the Orlando Magic managed to defeat Chicago in the 1995 playoffs after Jordan’s late-season return from retirement. Shaq led the league in scoring that year, and he brought Orlando all the way to the NBA Finals, only to lose to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. The next season, the Magic geared up for another Finals run. But they wouldn’t get past Jordan so easily again.

In fact, they didn’t get past him at all. Shaq put up 27.0 PPG and 10.8 RPG in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Jordan, but it wasn’t enough. The Bulls bested Orlando in a clean 4-0 sweep, and the Magic would never again make it out of the East under Shaq and Penny’s young dynamism.

It’s true that Shaq wasn’t yet at his peak when he lost to Jordan, but his dominance even at such a young age and the fact that he’d beaten Jordan in the playoffs the year before (the first time since 1990) certainly make it a win worth noting.

 

8. Gary Payton

Years Defeated: 1996

Notable Accolades: 9x All-Star, 9x All-NBA, 9x All-Defense, 1x Steals Leader, 1x Champion, 1x Defensive Player of the Year

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 2-4 (0-1 Series)

Gary Payton had one of the best seasons of his Hall-of-Fame career in 1995-96, leading the league in steals and scoring a spot on the All-NBA Second Team on his way to being named Defensive Player of the Year. While Jordan came back strong through the East in his first full season back in the saddle, Payton, Shawn Kemp, and the rest of the Seattle Supersonics weren’t about to roll over for the Bulls.

After going down 3-0 in the Finals against Jordan, the Sonics rallied in Game 4 for an impressive 21-point victory, which saw Payton and Kemp both record double-doubles and combine for 46 points. Seattle repeated their feat in Game 5, but their window of hope closed in Game 6 as Chicago won the first championship of their second three-peat streak.

Payton would eventually claim a ring of his own as part of the 2006 Miami Heat championship team, but he would be well past his prime, averaging only 5.8 PPG in that postseason run. Still, he was a champion, which is more than many who fell to Jordan can say.

 

7. Isiah Thomas

(via CBS Sports)

Years Defeated: 1991

Notable Accolades: 12x All-Star, 5x All-NBA, 2x Champion

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 12-10 (3-1 Series)

Yes – Isiah Thomas was past his prime by the time Jordan finally beat him in the playoffs. His numbers had dropped, and he didn’t make All-NBA in 1991. And yes, Thomas still holds a winning postseason tally against Jordan through their careers. Does that change the impact of Jordan’s eventual victory? No. Especially not when you take into account how huge of a barricade the Pistons were through Jordan’s early career.

Just the year before, Thomas beat Jordan on the way to his second-straight championship and only Finals MVP. Lot’s has been said and written about the lengths and changes Jordan and the Bulls undertook to defeat their Detroit demons, so we won’t go into all that here. Suffice it to say that beating the Pistons after repeated disappointments was one of the defining moments in Jordan’s career and the Bulls’ ‘90s dynasty.

And they didn’t just win – they dominated. Chicago swept Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals 4-0. Jordan himself averaged 29.8 PPG for the series, clinching the victory in a Game 4 stomp of 115-94.

 

6. John Stockton

Years Defeated: 1997, 1998

Notable Accolades: 10x All-Star, 11x All-NBA, 5x All-Defense, 9x Assists Leader, 2x Steals Leader

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 4-8 (0-2 Series)

The 1996-97 Utah Jazz were one of the best teams of the stacked 1990s. The recorded 64 wins that season – second only to Chicago’s 69 –and won all but three of their 41 home games. Karl Malone was named MVP, and John Stockton was still one of the NBA’s leading guards. It looked like Utah’s year.

While Stockton’s numbers weren’t quite as outstandingly high as some earlier years, he was still a fantastic player on both ends in ’97, making the All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive Second Team while averaging a double-double in points and assists. Then, in the Western Conference Finals, Stockton played exceptionally against the Houston Rockets and clinched the series with a dagger three at the buzzer. The Jazz were in the Finals.

Unfortunately for them, it was as far as they would go. Utah lost a few incredibly tight bouts in Games 1, 5, and 6 to go down 4-2. Then the next year, the Jazz ran it all the way back with largely the same squad, and met the exact same fate. In fairness, Stockton’s performance dropped significantly in the 1997-98 season. He played well in the Finals both times, but it wasn’t enough to bring a trophy home to Utah.

 

5. Clyde Drexler

Years Defeated: 1992

Notable Accolades: 10x All-Star, 5x All-NBA, 2x All-Defense, 1x Champion

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 2-4 (0-1 Series)

More than any other player of his era, Michael Jordan constantly drew comparisons to the Portland Trail Blazers’ (and later Houston Rockets’) Clyde Drexler. Throughout their careers, the two were neck-and-neck in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Jordan outscored Drexler through his career though, by almost 10 points.

Regardless of differences in scoring, Drexler was a phenomenal player. He made the playoffs all 15 of his years in the league, and in 1992, he faced Jordan in the Finals. It was the first and only season Drexler made First Team All-NBA, averaging 26.3 PPG and great numbers across the board. But those numbers weren’t good enough to stop Jordan from claiming his second ring.

Drexler’s numbers in points and assists dipped a bit in the series from his regular-season tallies. Jordan, on the other hand, only got better, averaging 35.8 PPG in the Finals. The two teams traded victories through the first five games, but a close defeat in Game 6 sent Portland home empty-handed.

 

4. Patrick Ewing

Years Defeated: 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996,

Notable Accolades: 11x All-Star, 7x All-NBA, 3x All-Defense

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 8-19 (0-5 series)

There is perhaps no NBA player whose career suffered more from the presence of Michael Jordan than Patrick Ewing. He’s even said as much himself. Ewing’s Hall-of-Fame tenure with the New York Knicks was one of the franchise’s brightest periods, but it never ended in a championship. More than anything else, that fact can be attributed to Michael Jordan, who presented a constant roadblock to Ewing in the Eastern Conference.

Ewing came close to beating in 1992, taking Chicago a full seven games, but ultimately fell. The next year, he and the team were arguably even stronger, but they fell in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. That 1993 matchup came after a strong 60-win season from New York – the best the Knicks would have with Ewing on the roster, and the last time the franchise broke 60 wins. Still, it wasn’t enough. The stars would face off once more in ‘96, with Jordan winning once again.

In a whopping 27 bouts against Jordan in the postseason, Patrick Ewing only won eight times. His series record against the Bulls stands at 0-5.

 

3. Charles Barkley

(via The Source Magazine)

Years Defeated: 1990, 1991, 1993

Notable Accolades: 11x All-Star, 11x All-NBA, 1x Rebounds Leader, 1x MVP

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 4-12 (0-3 series)

In four of the six seasons that ended in a Chicago championship, Michael Jordan won the league MVP. In 1993 though, that wasn’t the case. Instead, Charles Barkley took the honor in his first season with the Phoenix Suns, averaging a double-double in points and rebounds with a career-high 5.1 assists per game.

The two players’ inevitable Finals showdown wasn’t the first time they faced each other in the postseason. While playing for the 76ers, Barkley played against Chicago in 1990 and 1991. The Bulls won 4-1 both times. Barkley played well in those series, and he played great in 1993, averaging 27.3 PPG and 13.0 RPG. That last series, Barkley’s Suns bounced back from a 0-2 deficit and eventually brought the series to a Game 6, which the Bulls won in stunning fashion thanks to John Paxson’s game-winning three.

Throughout the whole ’93 series, Jordan was sensational. He averaged a staggering 41.0 PPG across all six games with a true shooting percentage of 55.8%. With the ’93 win, Jordan completed his first three-peat and entered retirement for the first time. Did Barkley winning the MVP have something to do with MJ’s heightened drive? Almost certainly. It was the last time they would meet in the postseason, with Barkley having lost all three of their series against one another.

 

2. Karl Malone

Years Defeated: 1997, 1998

Notable Accolades: 14x All-Star, 14x All-NBA, 4x All-Defense, 2x MVP

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 4-8 (0-2 Series)

The other time Jordan won the championship but lost the MVP vote, he lost it to Karl Malone. Since the those Finals Jazz Teams have been discussed in detail above, we’ll focus on Malone’s own personal accomplishments for those two seasons, which are very impressive in their own right – All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team, MVP, and 0.1 RPG short of a double-double in 1996-97, and a true double-double in 1997-98 with 27.0 PPG.

Malone struggled though against Jordan and the Bulls. He was held to 23.8 PPG on average and shot just 60.3% from the free-throw line in their first postseason confrontation. That diminished scoring was a major hit against the Jazz, especially in a few incredibly close games. Malone fell with the rest of Utah 4-2, and though he was spectacular the next year as well, he would fall with the Jazz squad once again.

 

1. Magic Johnson

Years Defeated: 1991

Notable Accolades: 12x All-Star, 10x All-NBA, 4x Assists Leader, 2x Steals Leader, 5x Champion, 3x MVP

Playoffs Record Against Jordan: 1-4 (0-1 Series)

Magic Johnson was not the MVP the year Michael Jordan beat him. He was not the assist leader, or the reigning champion. In fact, his last championship was already behind him. But he tops this list for a few key reasons.

First, Magic Johnson was still exceptional in 1989-90. He was named All-NBA First Team and averaged a double-double, and he was coming off an MVP-winning season the year before. The Lakers were still definitively the best team in the West, and he was still the best player on the Lakers.

Second, Magic Johnson was the best player Michael Jordan ever beat in the playoffs, looked at in totality. His career surpasses those of any other player on this list, and while that only carries so much weight in this particular ranking, it still carries weight. The x-factor of a player like Magic, even in one of his less-exceptional seasons, is unquantifiable but real, and it makes that kind of player all that harder to beat.

And lastly, this was Jordan’s first championship. He wasn’t yet the dominant legend the world would come to know – he was a fantastic player who hadn’t proven yet that he was the greatest. But in 1991, he finally did. Beating LA was a feat, both because it was Jordan’s biggest hurdle, and because he did it in just five games. The competition he faced throughout his career was always stiff, but Magic Johnson was the greatest player Michael Jordan ever defeated in the playoffs.

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