Backpicks GOAT: #1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Key stats and trends

  • Greatest offensive post player pre-3-point line; rarified efficiency at high volume
  • Stellar but flawed defender, anchoring excellent defenses in Milwaukee
  • Unparalleled longevity, particularly for his era

Scouting Report

When people discuss dominant offensive bigs of the early years, they often speak of Wilt. But Kareem’s game was on another level. He towered over opponents, pushing 7-foot 2-inches without shoes, yet was nimble and dexterous. And he possessed the impregnable Sky Hook.

Much like Wilt, he swung the ball out high with an untouchable reach, primed to hit open teammates. But unlike Chamberlain, he blended his passing into his scoring, able to manipulate defenders into picking a poison. This is subtle, but notice No. 10 for Golden State (Charles Johnson) clap his hands in disgust after realizing he’s been baited, allowing Kareem to release the hook:

His height and kung fu agility made the hook a basketball cheat code. It was accurate and had range — I’d estimate out to 16 feet — and a defender’s only hope was to sit on his left hip and prevent a clear launch. But from Day One, Jabbar attacked these overplays with counters back to the right. Below, he feels the venerable Willis Reed cheating, so he drop-steps the other way for the easy score. Function over form:

He lacked Sportscaster athleticism, but fell back on his height, periscoping over 7-footers to spot valuable passes:1

Kareem was active without the ball, readily flashing to either side of the lane to vacuum in entries. This made him more difficult to defend than Wilt’s stationary approach, as Milwaukee would work the ball from side to side in coordination with Kareem’s position, setting up plays like this, where Oscar’s entry from the top surprises the post defender. From there, it was all footwork and length:

Young Kareem was always aggressive like this, and as a result, an enormity of possessions ran through him — his motion and Milwaukee’s spacing made it harder to deny him touches. (The Bucks spacing was ahead of what most ’60s stars experienced, but it ebbed and flowed in the ’70s, and was still subpar compared to today.) He was a solid passer too, possessing above-average court awareness and a feel for hitting cutters. He created a decent amount of offense for his teammates — especially the shooters — and occasionally found interior hookups as well:

As his career wore on, he grew more comfortable anchoring the offense from the mid-post and his distribution improved. He hit cutters and backdoors regularly; here’s a picture-perfect shovel pass from ’79, a connection he made regularly during his prime:

He was an excellent outlet passer too, eagerly looking to convert rebounds into fast breaks. In the first clip, he steals the board with his length before firing one downcourt. In the second, he shows off awareness and his quarterbacking skills:

He wasn’t a great half-court passer though. His delivery was choppy from time to time; here, he floats one that was intercepted when a ball fake might have served him better:

His back-to-the-basket set ups could create blindspots too. Below, he misses a layup pass while sizing up his shot (his goggles might have hindered his vision as well). In the second clip, it takes him a beat to find a nice dime:

By the peak of his powers (around 1977), Kareem added strength to his frame, allowing him to bang, spin and wheel around the paint more effectively. He polished a left-handed version of the Sky Hook and an off-hand finger roll, giving him a complete toolbox of high-efficiency post moves:2

Bruising, physical defenders like Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond bothered Jabbar in his early years, slowing him down in his Milwaukee postseasons. But after a physical maturation, he ravaged teams in the playoffs, regularly upping his scoring on pristine efficiency during his best Laker years. Notice how he drives his defender backwards on this post up, something missing from his early days:

He was also a high-end shot-blocker from the beginning. Teammate and former Wilt backcourt man Guy Rodgers compared Kareem’s rim protection to Bill Russell’s in his rookie year:

“On defense you play differently with him in there. He’s no Russell yet, but Russell was the greatest defensive player who ever lived…[Boston guard] K.C. Jones…had the Great Eraser behind him and he could take risks he wouldn’t take normally. That’s what we have in [Abdul-Jabbar]. We take chances because we know [he] is there.”

He liked to camp out in front of the hoop to eradicate threats. Even when his reaction time lagged, his telephone pole height made up for it:

This little one-legged leap was effective, but it could land him out of position ocassionaly. Even when squared up, his rim defense wasn’t impenetrable. Sometimes, the timing was just off:

He was capable of quick reactions though, thwarting layups at the rim with his skyscraper reach:

He disrupted shots like some of the all-time paint protectors, and is one of 23 players ever to post a 4 percent block rate and 2 percent steal rate in a season (1978). He was slender enough to be pushed off balance at times, yet was so long that he could recover and disrupt attempts.

Unlike Olajuwon and Garnett, Kareem wasn’t hyper mobile, especially after a few years in the league. He was also saddled with some poor habits. Per his reputation, he wouldn’t always hustle back defensively, and on a few occasions in my film study his man beat him down the floor. Sometimes he would dangle in the backcourt while his mark released for a score at the rim:

And sometimes, his awareness or positioning was slightly off, which can make the difference between a very good defender and a great one:

As he aged, his defensive exertion vacillated, and he went through stretches on film where he was more upright and his recoveries were lethargic:

These periods of lethargy increased over the years, but they were interrupted by stretches of heightened engagement, with Jabbar crouched in his stance, toggling from one threat to the next. When his motor was revving, he would slide and react like the best interior defenders in history:

While issues with awareness, effort and mobility limited him compared to the all-time greats, his length was an enormous equalizer. In the same way giants like Mark Eaton and Manute Bol influenced penetrators, Kareem’s wide block radius swatted or redirected countless shots, even as his agility faded:

In the ’80s, his quickness gradually waned. This loss of coverage is reflected in Jabbar’s rebounding percentages: For most of the ’70s, his defensive rebounding rates were over 26 percent (in the top 10 percent historically among forwards and centers). However, in 1980, the number dropped to 22 percent. Some of that was caused by the addition of better rebounding teammates, but it’s also consistent with his drop in defensive mobility on tape. He would dip from 22 percent in ’81 to 19 percent in ’82 and then down to 17 percent — below-average for big men — for the heart of the ’80s. Yet even in the mid-’80s, Kareem’s length — with only marginal movement — made him a decent protector behind the Lakers trapping D:

From 1983-86, his four-year block percentage fell in the 88th percentile among all players historically. His defense shriveled by ’87, but he could still score during those post-prime years. Kareem’s ageless hook guided him to a mind-boggling 38-year old season in 1986: He averaged 24.6 points per 75 on +6.2 percent relative efficiency (rTS) with 3 creations per 100, a stat line nearly identical to his own 1978 season, Tim Duncan’s MVP seasons (’02 and ’03) and Hakeem Olajuwon’s 1993 season. Jabbar held on offensively in ’87 before finally slipping in 1988.

Impact Evaluations

Kareem’s arrival in Milwaukee correlated with a seismic shift in the Bucks. He proved to be scalable — playing on historically dominant teams — and a floor-raiser, keeping nearly all of his full-strength squads at 50-wins or better, even with questionable rosters around him. He anchored good defenses and great offenses with an historically strong box score profile. And regressing his game-level data reveals superstar impact.3

The ’69 expansion Bucks played at a 23-win pace when healthy (-6.4 SRS) in the first half of the season, and then a 31-win pace (-2.3) for the second half after a midseason trade. In 1970, they added Jabbar and (the historically underrated) Bobby Dandridge to complete the greatest rookie class in NBA history.4 The Bucks were aided by picture perfect health — their top eight players missed a combined 16 games — and as a result, the ’70 team catapulted to a 53-win pace (4.3 SRS) in Kareem’s rookie year.

In 1971, the Bucks added Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest offensive players in league history. They picked up the sharp-shooting Lucius Allen (the only rotational player with health problems that year), veteran Bob Boozer and saw Dandridge mature into an All-Star level talent. Milwaukee dominated a league watered down by expansion, and at full-strength, played at an amazing 70-win pace (11.9 SRS) and cruised to the title.

The defense was excellent that year, but it was the offense that stole the show. They set the record for relative offensive rating (rORtg) at +6.7 points better than league-average efficiency, a mark that would stand until the early 1980s. No other team before the 3-point line was even 6 points ahead of the league, and the Bucks team true shooting was 4.9 percent ahead of the league (rTS), an outlier from the non-3-point era:

Kareem deserves high-praise as the co-pilot of such offenses. Oscar’s presence and Dandridge’s improvement undoubtedly helped him find easier looks, but Jabbar’s swift decisions and balanced floor game made symbiosis possible. Using estimates of creation and based on samples of film, it’s likely that Kareem was creating about 3 or 4 shots per 100 for teammates at the time (and was probably between 5 and 6 at his peak a few years later). These are good rates for a post player, even today.

His scoring was even better. If Jerry West was the gold standard in the ’60s, Kareem went platinum in the ’70s. No one until the middle of the Reagan administration scored at comparable rates with better accuracy than Jabbar, who topped 25 points per 75 at a Curry-like efficiency of +10 percent in 1971 and 1972.5 He was even better during the postseason after his physical maturation in LA, distancing himself from the other great big men in history:

In 1972, the Bucks repeated their league-wide dominance when healthy, but Oscar missed 18 games. Without him, they played at a staggering 62-win pace (7.8 SRS), a testament to Jabbar and company’s dominance over a depleted league. At full-strength, Milwaukee played at a 70-win clip (again) with an even better point differential (12.4 SRS) than in ’71. They collided with power Los Angeles — a 69-win team themselves — dropping the Western Conference Finals in six games in a battle of titans.6

By 1973, the expansion freight train slowed and the league caught up to Milwaukee.7 Despite returning its top six players, the Bucks regressed to earthly point differentials, playing like a 60-win team (7.1 SRS) at full-strength. (Oscar missed time along with Dandridge and Perry.) While injuries and Robertson’s aging were certainly factors in Milwaukee’s backslide, some of this was likely the league improving as new talent arrived without further expansion. In ’74, they galloped to a 63-win pace when healthy (8.1 SRS) with the same rotation. Oscar continued to fall off, but this was offset by excellent roster continuity and further growth from Kareem and company.

In 1975, Oscar contentiously retired and Jabbar broke his hand punching a basket stanchion to start the year. Dandridge regressed and the Bucks played at a 49-win pace (2.6 SRS) when healthy. They also lost Curtis Perry to the expansion draft and traded Lucius Allen for Jim Price, who would only play 41 games. Here’s how the Bucks fared without Kareem that year based on shooting data:

As a scorer who drew constant defensive attention, the offensive drop-off (of approximately 7 efficiency points) without Jabbar is understandable. Consistent with the pattern we’ve seen throughout this series, Dandridge barely fell off without Kareem because he could create his own offense. But a finisher like Jon McGlocklin — a deadly outside shooter at the time — was reliant on an offensive vortex like Jabbar to draw his man away and create easy looks. In those games without Kareem, Milwaukee stumbled along at a 28-win pace (-4.5 SRS).

He left a solid footprint on defense too, which jibes with the box score and his positive tendencies on tape. In addition to the 6 point drop in opponent shooting efficiency from his missed games in ’75, his man defense was a plus as well. Below, I’ve plotted the available data against offensively inclined All-Star centers from 1973 to 1977, comparing their scoring against Kareem versus the rest of the league:8

Collectively, those offensive All-Stars lost 3 percentage points off their efficiency with nearly identical scoring rates when facing Jabbar, similar to Shaquille O’Neal and slightly behind Dikembe Mutombo. It’s not the universal lockdown we saw from Russell — likely a result of the inconsistencies from the scouting report — but it’s an indicator that Kareem made scoring a smidge dicier for top-shelf bigs. His team’s overall defensive ratings during this period also support the notion that he was a viable defensive anchor (the Bucks were 4 points stingier than the league from 1971-74). And, despite a lack of big men on the Lakers during the ’70s, Kareem’s defenses in LA still hovered around average. He wasn’t the Second Coming of Russell, but he moved the needle on that end.9

By ’75, Kareem was said to be brooding, no longer wanting to play in Milwaukee for off-court reasons. (He was deeply effected at that point by the 1973 Hanafi Muslim massacre.) So, before the ’76 season, he was traded to the Lakers for a king’s ransom: the second and eighth pick in the draft, center Elmore Smith and a rookie off the bench (Brian Winters). This left the Laker roster bare, and LA was forced to give front-court minutes to future flameouts Don Ford and Cornell Warner. As a result, the Lakers were merely a .500 team when healthy that year.

After missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, Kareem returned in ’77 in the most notable floor-raising effort of his career. With his offensive repertoire at its apex, the Lakers played at a 55-win pace at full-strength (4.9 SRS). While the team is historically panned for its lack of ball-handling and guard play, LA did finish second in the league in turnover rate, largely because the backcourt wasn’t asked to do much heavy lifting. The overall roster construction was better around Jabbar, complementing him with a number of shooters (Lucius Allen, Cazzie Russell) to play more of an inside-out game.

At the beginning of the ’78 season, Kareem cold-cocked Bucks center Kent Benson and missed substantial time with another broken hand. However, it’s hard to infer much from the injury since LA fired off two trades around that period.10 With Jabbar — and ignoring all the other lineup activity — the Lakers played like a 53-win team (4.1 SRS) in ’78. With a similar roster in ’79 (minus Charlie Scott), LA ticked along at a 50-win clip when healthy (3.1 SRS). Below, I’ve plotted the ’78 team’s performance in 21 games without Kareem, in which the Lakers played at a 36-win pace (-1.7 SRS) after a major offensive drop-off:11

As Kareem’s prime was nearing its end, LA drafted Magic Johnson and brought in first-year forward Michael Cooper along with veterans Jim Chones and Spencer Haywood. Upgrading these secondary pieces resulted in a 58-win pace at full-strength and a championship. In ’81, with Haywood gone but the young players a year older, the Lakers played like a 52-win team (4.7 SRS) when healthy, and in 45 games without Magic clocked along at a 47-win clip (2.1 SRS) behind Jabbar. In ’82, with his prime ending, the full-strength Lakers marched to a 59-win pace (6.4 SRS) en route to another title. (They would replicate the same pace the following year.)

At his peak, Jabbar’s floor-raising efforts were phenomenal, only dipping below a 49-win pace once (in a barren situation in ’76) and repeatedly carrying squads across the 50-win plateau in the ’70s. Yet his integration on high-end offenses was seamless, both in Milwaukee at the beginning of the decade, and then again in LA 10 years later, where he was a specialized half-court anchor for the Lakers dynasty. Incredibly, Kareem was able to maintain comparable scoring rates during Showtime, with an rTS between +6 and +8 percent. In 1986, he finished in the top-five of the MVP voting for the 15th time.

Yes, others were better at their best, but Jabbar passes them with the most impressive longevity in NBA history, finishing with the most All-Star years (17) and MVP-level seasons (10) in this series. Put another way, his Lakers career alone was longer than Magic Johnson’s entire career (and nearly as valuable), and he played six all-world years before that in Milwaukee. His drop in mobility (per the scouting report) reduced him to a marginal defender during many of those later seasons, but size kept him relevant, and I credit him with seven strong All-Star campaigns in the ’80s alone and three MVP-level years at the beginning of that decade.

At his best, he was an elite offensive anchor and a strong defender with a number of monstrous value-signals, enough for me to give him a top-eight peak of all time. My valuations even feel conservative because of how tricky it is to weigh his dominance in the early ’70s; he smoked the competition, but it was the strangest period in league history, with teams stretched thin by expansion. His lead over the field is large enough that I’d have to downgrade his prime seasons by nearly 10 percent just to pull him off the top line. So, the most reasonable conclusion is that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar authored the best career in NBA history.

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.