Backpicks GOAT: #2 Michael Jordan

Key Stats and Trends

  • Unmatched combination of scoring volume, efficiency and low turnovers
  • Struggled with shot selection in ’80s before leading offensive dynasty during the ’90s
  • Good defender, but style was high-risk, high-reward

Scouting Report

At his apex, Michael Jordan was the most complete scoring weapon in NBA history. He could score in the post, off the ball, in pick-and-roll and in isolation with a gaggle of efficient moves. Possessed with extraordinary quickness and gravity-defying leaping, Jordan’s éclat was rooted in fundamentals: up-fakes, jab steps and traditional footwork that he used to create unencumbered looks or open driving angles. But he wasn’t always a complete player — his efficacy evolved from his rookie year in 1985 to his peak seasons between 1989 and 1991.

Early on, Jordan flashed one of the best first-steps in NBA history, mixing ball fakes with the classic triple-threat attack to rock defenders onto their heels. Below, he practically teleports around back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Sidney Moncrief and nine-time all-league defender Dennis Johnson:

Jordan found his trademark fadeaway by the late ’80s, but he sported a smooth midrange shot right out of the gate (and hit 85 percent of his free throws as a rookie). His unrivaled elevation and Kryptonian hang time made these attempts difficult to disrupt:

Jordan’s midrange accuracy was elite during his prime, and he mixed these jumpers with rocket-boosted acrobatics around the rim:1

He attacked open space like a Hall of Fame running back, knifing through gaps or gliding past helpless defenders:

Under coach Doug Collins, a sizable portion of his game was actually off-ball, and his time of possession was low relative to his plump scoring rate. Chicago would set staggered screens for Michael to flare out to the baseline or curl up to the elbow, where he could catch and shoot or attack the rim if given space. His moves were decisive, giving the defense little time to react:

But when he entered the league, Jordan’s shot selection redefined “shoot-first.” No player in history likely took so many double, triple and even quadruple-teamed shots:

His tendency to pass up open teammates prompted me to track just how frequently he missed opportunities to create for them.2 From 1985-88, he created shots for teammates only slightly more than he passed them over (6 plays per 100, in line with his traditional box creation estimate).3 His wild forays into multiple defenders yielded a woeful efficiency of 0.59 points per attempt on such plays. Ironically, some of the most efficient offense is generated by simply passing to open players, and he missed layup opportunities as well as spot-up shooters with regularity:

By 1989, he started to clean this up, but never reached an equilibrium. When Phil Jackson arrived in 1990 and installed the triangle, Jordan’s habit of shooting into heavy coverage dissipated. (He settled at around 2 missed creations per 100 for the rest of his career, comparable to career rates from LeBron.)

But suboptimal court vision isn’t easily correctable and myopia sometimes limited the value of his passes. Not all creation is equal either, and Jordan was inconsistent in finding the high-value spots on the court. He could stubbornly lock into a scoring mode, relentlessly probing for his own shot in lieu of high-percentage passes right under the hoop, ignoring uber-finisher Scottie Pippen on the baseline in the next clip:

Jordan was always capable of throwing highlight-reel completions, and after a few years he matured into an above-average passer who could hit high-percentage targets:

In the next clip, he demonstrates his excellent rebounding — he used his quickness and leaping to hunt for the ball, making him one of the best rebounding guards ever — then drops a high-level open-court dime:

During the Jackson years, his passing capability didn’t change much, per se. His decision-making simply improved. Jordan replaced difficult, low efficiency shots with setups for open teammates, bumping his own efficiency and creation rates in the process.4 As he upgraded his floor game, MJ morphed into an elite creator, posting rates in the 94th to 98th historical percentile between 1989 and 1997.

On defense, he entered the league as an unpolished risk-taker. His footwork wasn’t sharp and he constantly gambled for steals, like this:

He loved to snipe the post, sneaking away from his man for a steal, then leaking out in transition. Only, he whiffed a lot:

His rotations to the rim were soft, often avoiding contact and rarely dissuading the shot. His on-ball defense wasn’t anything to write home about in those first few years either:

But then, in the summer of 1987, he sprinkled fairy dust on himself and magically learned to defend. While his man D improved a bit in his third year, it leapt forward in his fourth (1988). He curtailed his habit of leaking out for steals — probably a factor in his defensive rebounding spike that year — and many of his silly gambles were replaced with highly-attentive rotations, laser-focused steal attempts and even some rim protection:

His reactions were sharper, his reads smarter and his motor revved up higher than any other season, save for 1989. He also improved his footwork on the ball, where he would often lockdown opposing point guards. In the following play, notice how he uses his size and textbook positioning to slow down Isiah’s drive into the lane. In the second clip, he clinically hedges around a screen before his trademark swipe leads to a turnover:

But his style was still high-risk, high-reward, and his defensive error rates were on the high side, landing in the 17th percentile for the heart of his career. His highlights are impressive, but he bled value at times.

For instance, in the 1991 Finals, Jordan slowed the Magic Johnson train by picking him up in the backcourt, preventing him from building a head of steam. In the low-post, Chicago constantly doubled Magic, and although Jordan did a solid job bodying him up at times, he also struck out on a number of steal attempts:

His transition awareness could be a problem, misjudging threats in front of and behind him:

Like nearly every guard, he was too small to check bigs, limiting some of his impact when compared to more versatile defenders like Pippen or LeBron.5 He was never a vertical paint defender, instead swiping for steals with his ginormous mitts while his teammates challenged shots up high. Yet his cobra-like strikes obliterated plays when they worked:

His sneak-attacks generated six of the top-200 steal percentages ever recorded, but his gambling style exposed the Bulls at times. He’s so jazzed to intercept this outlet that he bites at the mere sight of a pass:

At other times, his bets led to huge payoffs — his ambush blocks could blow up possessions, and he often played the pass in odd-man fast breaks, baiting challengers like a basketball Jedi. This isn’t the layup you’re looking for:

In 1990, his motor slowed from the fever pitch he had played at for two years, and his defensive involvement tapered down a bit. He idled more, resting his engines to conserve fuel. Although, on possessions where he went full throttle, he made ball-denial an art, navigating screens (a strength of his) and shutting off passing lanes:

During the second three-peat, he swapped athleticism for guile, relying on added strength to grind through picks or to stake valuable position. Here, he completely kills Orlando’s idea of a cross-screen into a post-up, flaming out the entire possession:

He liked to linger in the lane and help against penetration, but improved awareness made this tactic more efficient — notice how he immediately locates the ball as he passes through the paint, de-prioritizing his own cover (Chris Mullin) to shut off a dribbling threat:

It was another risky tactic that could be exposed with better passing, but was a clear net positive from the film I tracked. His offensive reads evolved as well in those final Chicago years, leading to more plays like this:

He attacked the basket a bit less and mastered the use of little backwards hops to create separation in the midrange, freeing up his patented fadeaway:

In those second three-peat seasons, these subtle angles and increased physicality kept his free throw rate afloat. He was smarter on both sides of the ball, offsetting a loss of athleticism with a more polished midrange game. His defense remained strong, better in many ways than some of his earlier championship seasons, and his scoring gently dropped from otherworldly to elite. At the age of 35, Jordan retired for good in 1998.

Impact Evaluation

Jordan played on the cusp of the Databall era, teasing us with snippets of information in order to decode his value. He made a splash as a rookie, but his value during the ’80s was curbed by his shoot-first approach, and until Phil Jackson arrived and supporting stars developed, Jordan’s teams peaked around 50 wins. His best value-signals and box metrics are both at the top of the heap, although neither paint him as an untouchable force.

Before Michael, the 1984 Bulls were a 27-win team (-4.7 SRS) with an average defense and a futile offense that finished 5 points worse than the league (rORtg). Jordan immediately provided the scoring punch that they needed and Chicago improved to just above average on offense in his rookie year, with an overall improvement of nearly 4 points per game. In his second season, he missed a significant chunk of time after breaking his foot, then logged fewer than 20 minutes in each of his first six games back. Excluding those sub-20 minute games, the Bulls played 15 contests with Jordan at a 40-win pace (-0.3 SRS) that year.

As Michael progressed, Chicago upgraded its roster, adding Charles Oakley in 1986 (a defensive-minded rebounder) and John Paxson (a shooter) in ’87 before bringing in new coach Doug Collins that year. Collins preferred defensive lineups, and Chicago improved 5.9 points in relative defensive efficiency (rDRtg) in ’87 with bigger bodies playing more minutes.6 This, together with Jordan’s own growth, nudged the Bulls to a 45-win pace. In ’88, they added rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, Jordan transformed defensively and Chicago played at a 52-win clip (3.8 SRS). The Bulls finished with the third-best defense in the league, but again, the offense remained pedestrian, finishing about a point better than league average. Given the lack of offensive talent on those teams, these results are inline with some of the better carry-jobs in league history.

At the end of the 1989 season, Jordan was explicitly asked to pass more as the “point guard” and the Bulls offense showed signs of breaking through. Over the final 24 games, he averaged 11 assists per night and Chicago improved its efficiency by about 2 points, posting a +2.9 rORtg. It wasn’t a huge shift, but it was another instance where a team’s most talented scorer helped it more by shooting less.7

Driving the Bulls improvement at the end of ’89 was a major upgrade in turnover percentage. Chicago’s rate dropped from average (14.7 percent) to an elite 12.9 percent (which would have been fourth that year) because Jordan himself was one of the lowest turnover centerpieces ever. Among the Big 4 box dimensions — scoring rate, efficiency relative to league average (rTS), box creation and adjusted turnover percentage — Jordan stands above the pack. He is the only player with three-year averages in all of those categories above the 85th percentile historically. Here’s how he compares to the greatest offensive forces of the 3-point era using their postseason peaks:8

Jordan’s heavy load and ball-security helped Chicago finish in the top-five in turnover percentage in each of its six championship seasons, placing first four times. But without him in ’94 and ’95, the Bulls finished 16th and 15th, respectively. His impact on team giveaways was a byproduct of his high usage and quick, decisive actions discussed in the scouting report.

Then there’s his scoring. Historians have mislabeled Wilt as the game’s most “dominant” scorer, but that epitaph should belong to Jordan. He holds the highest pace-adjusted scoring rate in NBA history and six of the nine highest-scoring rates of all time. He litters the record book with more high-efficiency, high-volume seasons than anyone:

A more selective filter demonstrates Jordan’s singular brilliance: In only 11 NBA seasons has someone scored over 30 per 75 at +6 percent rTS, and Jordan owns four of them (Karl Malone has two, Shaq, LeBron, Curry and Kevin Durant have one each). His scoring game was so resilient that in the postseason he upped his volume and creation with almost no loss in efficiency. This coincided with Chicago’s slight improvement in relative playoff offense during the ’90s, as the Bulls generated a +7.3 postseason rating with Jordan, an eight-season mark bested only by Magic’s Lakers from 1984-91.9

In 1990, Jackson introduced the triangle, an offense with a notorious learning curve. The Bulls arc that year reflected some growing pains; their first-half was comparable to previous seasons, teetering along at a 45-win pace until the All-Star game before a dynasty blossomed. There’s a near perfect trajectory from the All-Star break into the heart of the ’91 season as Chicago ascended from coach to first class. Here’s what its rolling point-differential looked like over the period:

Fittingly, almost all of this change occurred on offense. With Pippen and Grant entering their primes, the Bulls first-half attack that year was a respectable 2.6 points better than league average. But, for the first time in Jordan’s six seasons, it moved into the upper atmosphere after the break. Chicago’s rORtg was +6.3 in the second-half (including postseason), which would place it in the top-35 of all time for a full year, and at the time would have been the seventh-best offense ever. The 1991 Bulls were a similar +6.7 on offense.

In 1992, Chicago peaked at +7.4, the 12th-best offense ever, and one of three attacks in history with a raw efficiency above 115.5 points per 100. After three consecutive top-100 offensive seasons, Jordan took a baseball sabbatical and the Bulls scoring efficiency dropped to 2 points above league average. In 1995, before his return, Chicago chugged along at +1.2 for 63 games (playing at a 52-win pace), reinforcing the team’s competence but also highlighting Jordan’s value — lifting slightly above average offenses by 5 or 6 points is GOAT-worthy. After nearly two seasons off, MJ (posting a cringeworthy -2.6 percent rTS) lifted the ’95 team’s offense to +4.3 in his 27 games (at a 59-win pace). Again, the turnovers declined, down to 12.1 percent from 14.6. Even an oxidized Jordan made an impact.

With the rust off in ’96, MJ led Chicago to two of the 10-best offensive seasons ever, including the fourth-best of all time in 1997.10 They also benefited from the shortening of the 3-point line, as both Jordan and Pippen were better marksmen from the shorter stripe (in place from 1995-97). The height of four of the Bulls six title teams was staggering:

On those first three-peat teams, Jordan could kick to deadly shooters (Paxson, B.J. Armstrong and Craig Hodges) while big men like Will Perdue and Scott Williams scooped up misses on the offensive glass. The second three-peat squads rebooted the concept, with the record-setting Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc canning triples while second-chance factory Dennis Rodman dominated the boards. Unlike most great offenses, Chicago excelled at rebounding, particularly with Rodman, and the floor-balancing of the triangle likely helped matters. Those rosters were built to scale around a volume scorer, taking a little luster off of Jordan’s ceiling-raising.11

The adjusted game-level data we have on Jordan echoes the common sentiment that he’s one of the most valuable players ever; he’s right at the top of these three studies with an average per-game value of +8.2. We only have two years of adjusted plus-minus (APM) at the end of his career and another year of Augmented plus-minus (AuPM), both of which paint Jordan as an elite and consistent player, but not a sui generis force; Jordan’s scaled adjusted plus-minus figures from 1996-98 (about +6.5) all fall in the 98th percentile for seasons on record.

Digging deeper, I manually extracted plus-minus numbers from 1991-93 based on video I could find. In a 50-game regular season sample, Jordan’s net on/off was +18.1 per 48 minutes, good enough to yield an Augmented plus-minus of +7.4. These are high-end numbers, but within the bounds of the best results from the Databall era, falling behind Curry (a record AuPM of +9.3), LeBron (+8.9), Kevin Garnett (+7.7) David Robinson (+7.7) and Chris Paul (+7.5). Given that Garnett’s season is the highest actual APM value ever recorded, it’s quite possible Jordan’s peak year could match it based on this sample. Here’s how MJ’s estimate stacks up against all top on/off seasons from this series:

Consistent with his drawbacks on tape, there’s little evidence that Jordan’s defense moved the needle like a titanic big man. His defensive plus-minus values from ’97 and ’98 were both strong for a wing — around 35th among scaled four-year peaks, next to Bruce Bowen — but given his post-retirement defensive prowess, I consider it unlikely that his earlier years were much more impactful. Still, a decent defensive footprint combined with one of history’s most impressive offensive portfolios gives him a persuasive argument for the highest peak in NBA history.

Redundancy with ball-dominant players is always a concern, however this is somewhat mitigated with Michael because he’s a hybrid on/off ball player. His jumper made him an off-ball threat, but so did his penetration, allowing him to catch and finish with a dribble or two if left unattended. I do wonder how much Phil Jackson influenced Jordan’s decision-making shift; the spacing and movement of the triangle reigned in MJ’s shoot-first tendencies, so I have minor reservations about his plug-and-play impact on other quality offenses.

More importantly, Jordan lacked longevity, missing a year in ’94 and logging partial seasons in ’86 and ’95, both of which cost him valuable GOAT mileage. By my valuations, he composed 10 MVP-level seasons, compared to 12 for Kareem and Russell. If MJ’s injured seasons followed his valuations curve, he would have a strong argument for No. 1, and if his hypothetical 1994 season followed the curve, he would likely be No. 1 on this list. While I can see giving him slightly more credit, he could only finish first with his current longevity if I viewed his peak as an outlier among outliers, and neither box metrics nor non-box data support that idea. If anything, they suggest Jordan’s GOAT peak status isn’t unassailable, which means there’s also an argument for him dropping back a slot. Therefore, he’s my highest peak player, but falls short in career value to Abdul-Jabbar, landing at No. 2.

  1. I charted about 100 shots outside 15 feet from 1987-91, and he was nearly identical to his his two-year average from 1997 and 1998, which fell in the 95th percentile league-wide among players with at least 3 such attempts per game.
  2. As you can see, the spacing back then was night and day compared to today’s 3-point-centric game, so his “open” teammates weren’t always waiting for layups or juicy triples.
  3. I sampled about 400 possessions during that period.
  4. In over 1,100 offensive possessions tracked, MJ hit over 2 “good” passes per 100 with a passing profile slightly behind Dwyane Wade’s and Kobe Bryant’s.
  5. Underrated Chicago synergy that pops on film: Jordan and Pippen could switch at will, so the Bulls were never exposed in cross-matches or in transition.
  6. In Collins’s three other coaching stops — Detroit, Washington and Philadelphia — his teams improved by an average of 5 points per 100 in rDRtg in his first year.
  7. The first two chapters of Thinking Basketball examine this concept in detail.
  8. Like every scaled Big 4 in this series, each axis is normalized against players with at least 1500 minutes played since 1978.
  9. Shaq’s Orlando-LA years, LeBron’s Cavs-Heat seasons and Nash’s teams from the 2000s also topped Jordan’s Bulls in eight-year playoff offense.
  10. Although the ’96 and ’97 Bulls were historically good, they played in a period that was slightly diluted by expansion, so I do mentally curve their numbers down a touch.
  11. Even when the Bulls took off in 1990, their offensive rebounding improved by 2 percentage points in the second half of the season. Without MJ in 1995, they were in the top-five again, at +2 percent, before dipping down to +0.3 percent in 27 games with Jordan. For three seasons, they were an astonishing +6.9 percent with Rodman, up from +1.7 percent in 45 games without him.

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