A quick caveat: The following does not necessarily represent my opinion. It is an attempt at an objective reconsideration of Michael Jordan’s status as the Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.) per my previous post.
1. In his original statement regarding LeBron Jordan as the game’s best player, Scottie Pippen conceded that Michael Jordan was the league’s greatest scorer. Indeed, with a career average of 30.12, he has the highest career scoring average in NBA history. However, does this alone make him the greatest scorer in NBA history?
One could easily make an argument that title belongs to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who (a) has the most points of any player in NBA history (38,387 total points), (b) is, by most accounts, the most efficient scorer in NBA history (.559 career shooting percentage), and (c) was the master of the sky hook, one of the most indefensible shots of all-time. Moreover, he did all of this while also being one of the best rebounders in NBA history (career average of 11.2 per game).
In fairness to Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar was a 7’2″ center who spent much of his career being one of the tallest men in the league and had Magic Johnson dishing him the ball. Nonetheless, he was virtually unstoppable and, unlike centers such as Shaquille O’Neal, actually shot the ball and did not rely on dunks. As Lenny Wilkins and others attest here, he was able to hit the sky hook from anywhere.
Frequent Bleacher Report blogger Omar Johnson makes a solid case for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the G.O.A.T. here. However, to stay focused on scoring for just a moment, consider this: At age 38, having played nearly every game each season (save for 1974-75 and 1977-78, where he played just over 60), Abdul-Jabbar still averaged 23.4 points per game. Jordan, at age 38 after four years of rest, averaged 22.9 points in an injury riddled season as shooting guard for the Washington Wizards. Would an active Jordan still drop nearly 30 a game had he not retired again after his second championship three-peat? Perhaps. However, there’s something to be said about Abdul-Jabbar’s endurance and consistency.
2. Jordan’s post-Bulls legacy mars what could have been a fantastic finish to his career. Certainly, Jordan is not the only athlete who stayed around too long. However, unlike Abdul-Jabbar or others such as “Dr. J.” Julius Erving, Jordan spent the last two years of his career in a manner he would love us all to forget. As Michael Lee notes here, “But Jordan’s third and final installment [as an NBA player], with the Wizards, remains a blip on his otherwise illustrious career, partly because his game bore little resemblance to that legendary figure and mostly because of an acrimonious split from the organization.”
As a Wizard, Jordan failed to lead the team to a winning record in what were his final two seasons as the team finished 37-45 both seasons. Mind you, this is on a Wizards team that Jordan himself is partly responsible for creating as then-team president. Moreover, while most folks remember Jordan’s “final shot” as the championship winning shot over Byron Russell in the 1998 series against the Utah Jazz, his actual final moments as an NBA player are far less glorious. Indeed, his final shot was essentially a pity free throw shot in a 20 point blowout loss to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Do two years of below average (by Jordan standards, of course) performances totally ruin Jordan’s legacy? Hardly. However, consider this: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spent his final seasons competing in the NBA Finals. Was he a shell of his former self? Certainly. Was he also a contributing member of a championship caliber team who also happened to be 41 years old during his final season and who had played in more games than Jordan had? Certainly.
3. Even if we concede that Jordan was indeed the NBA’s greatest scorer, can we say with absolute certainty that he was its best overall player? I need not make an argument for Jordan, who along with being one of the greatest scorers of all time also is arguably among the best defensive players of all-time, as well. Indeed, Jordan was an incredibly versatile player.
However, was he the most versatile? There are several players who, at least statistically, were more versatile than Jordan. Any discussion of versatility in the NBA has to begin with the great Oscar Robertson, the only player to average a double-double for an entire season. In 1961, Robertson averaged 12.5 rebounds per game and 11.4 assists per game while also managing to score 30.8 points per game (defensive statistics were not kept until 1973). Lest one think that this was an anomaly, Robertson came close to repeating these statistics for three years afterwards (and was still a force even after he stopped rebounding at the same rate beginning in the 1965 season).
Of course, one can make an argument that Robertson’s statistics would be nearly impossible in today’s NBA, particularly given increased athleticism, slower pace, and tougher defensive schemes. So let us consider two of Jordan’s contemporaries: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Like Jordan, Bird and Johnson were incredibly versatile players. While Jordan’s career scoring average (30.1) is 6 points higher than Bird’s (24.3) and nearly 11 points higher than Johnson’s (19.5), both Bird and Johnson averaged more assists (Bird 6.3, Johnson 11.2) and more rebounds (Bird 10.0, Johnson 7.2) than Jordan (5.3 assists, 6.2 rebounds). To Jordan’s credit, he was a ball hawk who averaged 2.3 steals for his career–though Johnson and Bird were certainly no slouches, averaging 1.9 and 1.7 steals for their careers, respectively. Thus, all things considered, one could certainly argue that Johnson and Bird were just as versatile as Jordan, and one could argue even more so that Bird was more versatile. A comparison of Jordan and Bird’s best statistical years adds some validity to this argument:
Jordan (1988-1989) 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 2.9 spg, 0.8 bpg
Bird (1984-1985) 28.7 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.6 spg., 1.2 bpg
To boot, that same year, Bird also .427 from the three point line and nearly 90 percent (.882) from the free throw line (Jordan .276 and .850, respectively, in his best statistical year). Indeed, Bird nearly shot 90 percent at the free throw line for his career (.886) and shot above 90 percent three out of the four final seasons of his career.
4. Of course, in fairness to Jordan, Bird and Johnson were on much better teams. So the question becomes, who has done more with less than Jordan has? Here is where an argument can be made for LeBron James.
Before Jordan arrived in Chicago in 1984, the Chicago Bulls had gone 29-53 the previous season despite having solid NBA veterans like Reggie Theus and Orlando Woolridge, controversial hotshot rookie Quintin Dailey, and journeymen Dave Corzine, David Greenwood and Steve Johnson. Jordan’s arrival translated in 11 additional wins with essentially the same team (minus Theus, who was traded to the Kansas City Kings).
Before James entered the league in 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers had gone 17-65 with an arguably less cohesive team. The team was lead–for lack of a better word–by fifth year player Ricky Davis, who was finally coming into his own after stints in Charlotte and Miami, and Zydrunas Ilgauskus, the Cavaliers mainstay who finally was able to put his long-term foot injury behind him to have a productive season. The team also featured rookies Carlos Boozer and Dejuan Wagner and not much else. James’ arrival translated in 18 additional wins.
Furthermore, Jordan–with an ever-improving Bulls team and Phil Jackson as coach–would not make it to the NBA Finals until the 1990-1991 season, some six years after entering the league. While an impressive feat, James–without the aid of any players of the caliber of Scottie Pippen–made it to the NBA Finals in the 2006-2007 season, with only four seasons under his belt. Granted, the Cavaliers would not win and James has yet to win a title. However, in four years, he was greatly responsible for turning around one of the worst teams in NBA history.
None can argue that Jordan’s legacy has been surpassed by James’. That said, one must remember that James is only 26 years old, has made it to the NBA Finals twice (Jordan would not make it until he was 28), and–though he currently lacks Jordan’s offensive repertoire–is an equally potent scorer (and, despite appearances, is actually more of a consistent three-point shooter than Jordan was at age 26) who dishes (7.0 assists per game) and rebounds (7.1 rebounds per game) better than Jordan and steals nearly as well (1.7 career average thus far).
(Photo taken from NBA.com.)