Now that the NBA is 75 years old and has gone through several different eras and styles of play, it makes sense to go back and evaluate the league’s greatest players and attempt to rank them.
To acknowledge the difficulty of comparing players across eras and who played under a variety of circumstances, we’ve decided to stack the players into tiers. The goal in the end is that we can agree on the difference between the players in one tier and the players in the next tier, but that within each tier there will be some valid arguments regarding ranking the players in that tier and comparing them against each other.
For this exercise, we will be excluding players who are still active. It’s difficult enough to rank the players who have retired without making constant adjustments to players who are still playing or trying to project where young players who seem destined for greatness belong at the current time.
Today we will identify players in Level 1, which truly represents the best of the best. After much consideration, it has been determined that there is only one player in that tier, a player who even amongst all of the great players ever to play has distinguished himself. To recognize his accomplishments, his stature, the completeness of his game, his dominance both individually and in leading his team to victory, and his everlasting impact on the sport required elevating his status a level beyond the others. That player is Michael Jordan.
In a 32-month span from October 1996 through June 1998, over 3 regular seasons and 3 playoff runs, Michael Jordan:
– Won 3 NBA Championships
– Won 3 NBA Finals MVP
– Won 2 Regular Season MVPs (finished 2nd to Karl Malone in the other year)
– Named 1st-team All-NBA 3 times
– Named 1st-team All-Defense 3 times
– Led the league in points per game 3 times
– Never missed a single game (246 regular season games, 58 playoff games)
– Won 83% of regular season games (203-43) and 78% of playoff games (45-13)
– Never lost more than 2 games in a row
– Scored in double figures in every game
– Scored at least 20 points in 87% of regular season games and 98% of playoff games
And yet this was not Michael Jordan’s prime.
Between 1981-1987, Jordan:
– Averaged 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists per game as a high school senior
– Led his HS team to the #1 ranking in the state of North Carolina, winning 19 of 23 games with the 4 losses by a combined 13 points
– Scored 30 points in the McDonald’s All-American game, a record which stood for 18 years
– Started as a freshman at the University of North Carolina and was named ACC Freshman of the Year
– Made a game-winning jump shot with 15 seconds left in the 1982 NCAA Championship game
– Led the USA team to an unbeaten record and a gold medal at the 1983 Pan Am Games
– Won Naismith and Wooden awards for College Player of the Year in 1984, winning 28 of 31 games with the 3 losses by a combined 7 points
– Led the USA team to an unbeaten record and a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics
– Was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 1985 after averaging 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 steals per game on a 51.8% effective field goal percentage
– Set an NBA playoff single game scoring record of 63 points, which still stands, against the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics
– Became the only player in NBA history other than Wilt Chamberlain to score over 3000 points in a single season, averaging 37.1 points per game in 1986-87 to lead the league
– Became the first player ever to record at least 200 steals and 100 blocked shots in a single season
– Won the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest
– Was named 1st-team all-NBA and was selected as a starter for 3 All-Star games
And yet this, despite dominating high school, college, international, and NBA play, also was not Michael Jordan’s prime.
Michael Jordan’s 6-year prime spanning the 1987-88 season and the 1992-93 season is Hall-of-Fame worthy all on its own:
– 3 NBA Championships
– 3 Finals MVPs
– 3 MVPs, finishing either 2nd or 3rd in the other 3 years
– 1988 All-Star Game MVP
– 1988 Defensive Player of the Year
– 1988 Slam Dunk champion
– 6 times 1st-team all-NBA
– 6 times selected as an All-Star starter
– 6 times 1st-team all-defense
– 6 times led the league in points per game
– 3 times led the league in steals per game
– 6 times led the league in Value Over Replacement Player
– 6 times led the league in Player Efficiency Rating
– 6 times led the league in Win Shares and Offensive Win Shares
– 6 times led the league in Box Plus/Minus and Offensive Box Plus/Minus
– 2 times led the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus
– 2 times led the league in minutes per game
– Played in 485 out of 492 possible regular season games and all 101 playoff games
– Averaged 32.5 points per game in the regular season and 34.6 points per game in the playoffs
– Hit the 1st ever win-or-go-home shot, in Round 1 of the 1989 playoffs against Cleveland
– Won 17 out of 20 playoff series, with all 3 losses to the two-time NBA champion Detroit Pistons
– Led the USA team to an unbeaten record and a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics.
Jordan dominated opposing shooting guards for his entire career. If we consider what are probably the best 25 shooting guards during Jordan’s Bulls career, we can see that MJ dominated every matchup. The only one to average more points than MJ was Allen Iverson and the only one whose team won more games than MJ’s was Kobe Bryant; however, matchups against both of those players include Jordan’s last two seasons with the Washington Wizards when he was 38-39 years old coming off a 3-year hiatus. Jordan dominated all-league defenders such as Sidney Moncrief, Alvin Robertson, and Joe Dumars, averaging over 30 points per game against each of them. He dominated scorers such as Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, and Jerry Stackhouse, holding them to under 20 points per game.
Jordan also dominated the players that he was directly matched up with. If we consider what are probably the 24 most accomplished shooting guards whose primes intersected with Jordan’s career, the gap between MJ and his ‘peers’ is quite clear. Jordan outscored all of them except for Allen Iverson (and most of them by double figures) and led his team to more victories against their teams except for Kobe Bryant. And in considering the matchups against next-gen stars Iverson and Bryant, consider that Jordan’s two-year with the Wizards in his late 30s after a 3-year hiatus are included. Jordan repeatedly torched stalwart defenders such as Joe Dumars, Sidney Moncrief, and Alvin Robertson, while shutting down offensive juggernauts such as Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, and Jerry Stackhouse.
Here are the head-to-head stats:
There was no ‘Jordan stopper’.
Jordan imposed his will on and off the court, smashing stereotypes and becoming a global icon.
– They said that a guard couldn’t dominate the NBA. But he did.
– They said that a scoring champion couldn’t lead his team to a championship. But he did, accomplishing both in the same season 6 times and winning 10 scoring titles in total.
– They said that he couldn’t regain his old form or lead his team to more championships after missing almost two whole season after his first retirement, changing his body in his attempt to reach the major leagues as a baseball player, and allowing his team to be eliminated in the playoffs by the young upstart Orlando Magic. But he did.
– They said that no team in the modern NBA, with 29 teams, could win 3 championships in a row. But Michael Jordan’s team did. Twice.
– They said that he couldn’t carry a whole movie or be convincing interacting with animated characters. But his involvement was instrumental in the success of Space Jam, an innovative achievement in animation which became the highest grossing basketball film of all-time.
– They said that an African-American athlete couldn’t reach a wide audience as a marketing spokesman. But Jordan was universally embraced by the public and in addition to being the center of campaigns for major brands such as McDonald’s, Gatorade, Nike, Wheaties, and Coca-Cola, he successfully created his own brand which revolved around his own image.
– They said that an NBA player would never earn enough money to own an NBA team. But Michael Jordan did – he’s now the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets.
Jordan was revered by and feared by his opponents, including some who were the best ever to play in the NBA. Hall-of-Famers such as Reggie Miller and Kevin Garnett have shared anecdotes regarding times when they were brash enough to talk trash to MJ and then by the end of the game found themselves completely eviscerated and humiliated. Veterans would either warn rookies never to talk to Jordan or would goad them into challenging him for their own amusement, knowing how Jordan would respond. Opponents were terrified at the thought of Jordan having the ball on a final possession with a chance to win the game and did whatever they could to avoid that situation, and yet time and time again MJ would get the ball and convert those tough shots. In the 1992 Olympics, opposing teams were so in awe of Jordan that even after suffering blowout losses they would ask Jordan for autographs and memorabilia.
Jordan not only passed the eye test, giving a basketball fan everything they would want in an NBA player (elite skill and athleticism, creativity, competitiveness, poise under pressure, and being part of winning basketball) but he had both the counting stats and the advanced stats to back it up on paper. MJ is the all-time leader in Player Efficiency Rating, Box Plus/Minus, and Win Shares/48 minutes (both in the regular season and the playoffs, and is 2nd in VORP despite playing 294 games fewer than LeBron James.
Amidst all of his accomplishments, here are some fun anecdotes and stats:
– MJ won 10 scoring titles in his last 10 full seasons with the Chicago Bulls
– MJ had only one teammate who made the All-Star team while playing with MJ: Scottie Pippen.
– MJ was named Defensive Player of the Year for 1987-88, and also led the league in scoring that year.
– MJ played point guard for a short stretch in 1989. He recorded 7 straight triple-doubles.
– MJ has the lowest turnover percentage for all players who have averaged at least 4 assists per game.
– MJ has the record for most blocked shots by a guard in a single season (131 in 1987-88).
– MJ is 5th all-time in scoring as of 2022 despite missing out on 4 seasons to retirement, 79% of 2 other seasons due to breaking his foot and playing minor league baseball, and 3 other seasons playing at UNC.
– MJ had 5 seasons where he averaged at least 30 points per game on at least 50% shooting. All other shooting guards in the history of the NBA have combined for 2 such seasons.
– MJ is the only guard in NBA history to average over 35 points per game twice.
– MJ is the only NBA player to average over 20 points per game in games played over the age of 40
– MJ had 14 40+ point games with zero turnovers. No other player had more than 6.
– MJ played in 37 playoff series, winning 30 of them. Only 2 of those 30 went to a game 7. MJ only lost one game 7, in 1990 against the defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons in which his best teammate, Scottie Pippen, was incapacitated by a migraine headache.
– MJ’s salary in 1997-98 was more than the rest of his teammates combined.
– MJ faced 270 opponents in the playoffs and outscored 269 of them. In MJ’s rookie year, Terry Cummings outscored MJ by one point (118-117) in his only playoff matchup against the Bucks.
But of all of the records that MJ holds, his most fascinating and unbreakable one is this one:
– Most times retiring after winning the championship and being named Finals MVP:
In other words, Michael Jordan was bored.
MJ so thoroughly dominated his opposition for so long that he decided it was no longer worth his time to keep doing it. Twice.
Active players are not included in these rankings, and the one player who it is most commonly argued is at Michael Jordan’s level is still active: LeBron James. LeBron has had an amazing career. This year he will become the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, and he will also eventually end up top 5 in assists. He’s won championships with 3 different organizations as the best player for each. He played in 8 straight NBA Finals. He’s won 4 MVPs, been named 1st-team all-defense 6 times, has led the league in both scoring and assists, and has made 18 all-NBA teams. And yet, despite his extensive accomplishments over two decades, LeBron has not definitively passed Jordan on most people’s lists. This begs the question – what can any player ever accomplish that would put him on this level? It’s difficult to imagine that it’s even possible, and that is what merits Jordan occupying the top level on his own. When LeBron eventually retires and the totality of his accomplishments can be measured, he will at least be in the conversation to be placed in this tier but right, in looking at all of the players who have ever played that are no longer active, Michael Jordan stands alone.