Michael Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time. But, how would MJ perform in today’s NBA? It’s a different game these days, would he still be as dominant as he was in the 1990’s?
For the vast majority of basketball fans over the age of 30, these questions are laughable. We grew up watching Jordan, and we knew we were witnessing a once in a lifetime player.
Thanks to the recent release of The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary about Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls, ‘90’s nostalgia is sweeping the basketball world.
And like the rekindling of an old flame, the “Michael Jordan greatest of all time debate” is once again the topic of many a conversation among hoops fans. I mean, there are no sports at the moment. What else are we gonna talk about?
But, is Jordan really the greatest of all time?
Gen X-ers wholeheartedly accept Jordan as the undisputed king of basketball. Yet, the youth of today are reluctant to place that crown upon Jordan’s head.
And you can’t blame them. They grew up watching players like Lebron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden rule the NBA. They grew up with a different brand of basketball and never had the opportunity to watch Michael Jordan play. They have no context.
Sure, there are countless Jordan highlight clips on YouTube and throughout social media. But to get a true sense of how great Michael Jordan was, you had to see it for yourself.
There’s no greater context than actually living through it.
As these youngsters skeptically view grainy footage of Jordan from the 80’s and 90’s, they often question the level of the competition he faced.
Was Jordan really that good? Or were 80’s/90’s players just that bad?
Obviously, it was a different league back then. Modern advancements in nutrition and strength training have made a huge impact on all sports, not just hoops. Maybe it’s the 4k resolution, but today’s players just seem bigger, faster, and stronger.
If Jordan was taken out of the 90’s and inserted into the NBA of 2020, would he still be as formidable? How would he fare against the stronger, faster players of the modern era?
It makes for a compelling debate.
However, us ‘90’s kids are firmly entrenched in our stance. Jordan is the greatest of all time. You saw how he handled the Monstars. If MJ was inserted into today’s league, the outcome would be no different.
Michael Jordan would dominate today’s NBA.
But, don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at the numbers.
Numbers don’t lie
As we dive into the analytics, let’s establish a couple of things:
1. Michael Jordan is the greatest scorer in the history of the game.
Jordan has the highest points per game average in NBA history at 30.1 points per game (ppg). Jordan also has the highest playoff scoring average of all time at 33 ppg. No other player in the history of the game has averaged over 30 ppg in the playoffs.
MJ won a remarkable 10 NBA scoring titles, meaning he scored the most points in a season 10 times. The most ever. Wilt Chamberlain ranks second with 7. Besides Wilt, no other player has even half as many NBA scoring titles as Jordan.
Not to mention Jordan did all of this in an era where less points were available, which makes brings up my next point…
2. It’s much easier to score in today’s NBA.
I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage “defense wins championships”. Well, offense sells tickets. Offense puts butts in seats.
The modern NBA knows this, so the rules have been skewed for more offense. Points are just easier to come by in today’s league.
During Jordan’s last season with the Bulls in 1998, NBA teams averaged about 95 points per game. These days, teams are averaging nearly 112 points per game, with today’s teams taking nearly 10 more shots per game compared to teams in 1998.
Jordan averaged over 30 ppg five times during the 1990’s. Only one other player during that entire decade averaged over 30 points for a season, and that was Karl Malone in 1990. In just the last six years, five different players have averaged over 30 ppg in the NBA.
It’s a completely different game today.
So, the obvious question: Why is scoring higher today compared to the NBA of the 90’s?
I’m glad you asked……
In Jordan’s era, players were allowed to hand-check. The defensive player could place his hands on the offensive player while the offensive player possessed the basketball. Defensive players could even put their hands on the hips of an offensive player, essentially steering him.
This made creating space and playmaking difficult. Anyone who has played competitive basketball knows how tough it is to drive to the basket when the defender’s hands are literally on your midsection.
In addition, there was no defensive 3-second rule in Jordan’s era. Big men could basically stay in the paint for as long as they wanted without penalty. When Jordan drove the lane, he had imposing shot-blockers like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, or Dikembe Mutombo waiting for him at the basket.
In today’s NBA, big men can’t camp out in the paint and they are forced to play less physical. They have to be constantly moving or even absent from the painted area near the hoop.
The big, imposing rim protectors that defined the 90’s have basically gone extinct. These days, once the offensive player gets by the primary defender, they often find a wide open lane to the hoop, something rarely seen when MJ played.
Another thing to note is that offensive players of the modern era are allowed to do things that were blatant violations when Jordan played.
For example, James Harden’s double-step back move would be a traveling violation in Jordan’s era, and rightfully so. But today, the NBA considers this a legal move, justified by a “gather step”. The gather step is the same justification used when Lebron James takes 4 steps on his way to the rim, looking like a Heisman trophy as he cradles the ball. In no other era would these be considered legal moves.
It’s worth mentioning that Jordan came into the league at a time when high scores were the norm. He was drafted in 1984, and during that decade the game was all about tempo. ’80’s NBA was a run-and-run, fast-break style of basketball.
Young MJ benefited from the offense-minded league of the 80’s, much like he would in today’s game. Jordan’s highest scoring season was his third season in the league in 1986-87. That season, he led the league in scoring at over 37 ppg, and the league scoring average per team was 110 ppg.
A decade later, Jordan was once again leading the NBA in scoring, but at 29.6 ppg while the league scoring average per team had fallen to 97 ppg.
During Jordan’s career, the league went from a tempo-driven, fast-break style of play, to a half-court, defensive-minded game.
He dominated both.
Still not convinced?
There have been countless interviews with former NBA players who played with or against Jordan in his prime. And they all agree that MJ would own today’s NBA.
They say this not because they’re biased, but because they know basketball and they witnessed first-hand the brilliance of Jordan’s game.
His moves were smooth and methodical. His handle was tight, while his footwork was fundamental and pristine. He had one of the highest vertical leaps ever recorded in the NBA. Even if he was soundly defended, he could simply elevate over his defender and get a clean look at the basket.
Early in his career, he would often elevate, hang in the air, and shoot the ball on his descent. It was an unorthodox way of shooting, and unheard of at the time, but he did it consistently and effectively.
As Jordan matured, so did his game, and he added the classic fade-away to his bag. A beautiful back-to-the-basket move where he shot the ball as he was falling away from the hoop. It was extremely efficient and near impossible to block.
Defenders couldn’t play him tight because he was too quick, and they couldn’t play too far off of him because he was lethal from the perimeter. They couldn’t foul him and put him on the line because he had a free-throw percentage of nearly 84 percent. He was impossible to stop.
Despite all of this, what really put him on another level was his mindset. Jordan was a fierce competitor and imposed his will on opponents. Every player in the league knew not to trash talk him or make him mad because it motivated him and somehow made him even better.
Michael Jordan would have a huge advantage of today’s open version of basketball. His offensive game was flawless and he was the most clutch player the game has ever seen.
The undisputed GOAT
Not only would Michael Jordan thrive in the NBA of 2020, he would destroy it.
Today’s players take games off for “load management” and complain about playing on back-to-back nights. Do you think Michael Jordan would have taken games off to rest?
Not a chance.
In the ’98 season, Jordan played nearly every single minute of every single game. As a 35-year-old. Jordan would feast on the Charmin-soft mentality of today’s players.
Michael Jordan dominated two decades and two contrasting styles, and even took two years off in the middle of his prime to play baseball.
If he could dominate throughout one of the toughest eras in NBA history, just imagine what he would do in one of the softest eras in NBA history, i.e. 2020.
Michael Jordan was a different breed. I think it’s safe to say that prime MJ would easily average over 40 points per game today.
6-time NBA Champion.
6 Finals MVPs.
5 League MVPs.
10-time Scoring Champion
9-time NBA First Team All-Defense.
2-time Olympic Gold Medalist.