Your Michael Jordan, my Michael Jordan

April 17, 2020

Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. I’m not about to truther that he transformed the NBA, let alone argue that being the best player on six championship teams in eight seasons is less than incredible.

However, on the eve of The Last Dance, an ESPN documentary that has already prompted a bunch of retrospectives on Jordan’s career that mark him as the most important basketball player of all time, and will almost certainly prompt another avalanche of canonizing takes, it’s worth trying to head off at least one myopic line of discussion: Whether Jordan would have dominated today’s game, or, for that matter, if today’s stars would have dominated the NBA of Jordan’s prime.

First, let’s talk about today’s players versus the players of 1998, the year Jordan won his final title, and then we’ll talk a bit about the league, itself. Unless you play with current or recently-retired professionals, your pickup games would be dominated by NBA players magically transported to the present from 1978, let alone 1998. Professional players at the highest level in the world are elite athletes, and many of them are and were ruthless competitors. Let’s not pretend some random guy from 1998 like, say, Tariq Abdul-Wahad wouldn’t wreck you on the court.

That said, the nature of athletic and nutritional advancement is such that the baseline athleticism of NBA players today is almost certainly higher than that of 1998. It’s not something most people would see right away — check out the Suns-Spurs playoff game embedded below for yourself — but I suspect that, as we see in a pronounced way in college basketball, when there’s an overall lower level of athleticism that likely means there’s a wider gap between the most athletic and least athletic. All that’s to say it was a very different group of athletes back then, drawing from a much smaller potential pool, since there were so few international players.

But the biggest difference between what we think of as Jordan’s NBA and today’s league is the rulebook, and a series of rule changes after the 2001 season that changed NBA strategies dramatically.

Look at that Suns-Spurs game, if you haven’t already, for a great example of something teams could do back then that would be insanity today. Right at the start, check the Spurs’ starting lineup. Do you see it?

In a playoff game, the Spurs started three centers. Three! David Robinson, Will Perdue, and Tim Duncan (he wanted to be called a forward, but he was functionally a center) all got the start. And it wasn’t just a gimmick: the Spurs played each big man at least 32 minutes, with Robinson logging 43 in the win. They’d use the same starting lineup the next game in the series, too. In fact, during the regular season, Duncan started all 82 games, Robinson started all 73 that he played, and Perdue started 30 times. Again: it wasn’t a gimmick.

Robinson and Duncan are no-doubt Hall of Famers and Perdue was at the tail end of a respectable career. Both Duncan and Robinson had a bit of touch out to 15 feet, but that lineup would get smoked today because they wouldn’t be able to defend anyone and they wouldn’t be able to score efficiently enough to make it worthwhile.

Why am I confident saying that? There’s a great CelticsHub post that illustrates exactly how the illegal defense rule change after the 2001 season affected what teams could do to defend isolation basketball. Essentially, before the 2001-02 season, NBA teams were required to play a form of man-to-man defense that strongly encouraged stacking one side of the floor with four guys so that a star could go to work against an isolated defender on one full side of the court. If you watch the Suns-Spurs video, you’ll see that, at the start, at least, Duncan was pushing up against the limits of the illegal defense rules by hanging at the free throw line “guarding” Jason Kidd, who had, shall we say, a shaky jumper at that stage of his career. Sometimes, teams still employ that kind of strategy, as when the Warriors had Andrew Bogut "guard" poor-shooting Tony Allen, but as with that example, it usually ends quickly because the opposing team yanks the poor shooter.

These rules were perfect for a player like Jordan, who was already as athletic facing up with the ball as anyone in the NBA by the time he developed a post-up game for another wrinkle isolated defenders had to deal with. Of course he would shoot a whole bunch of shots from the midrange. He was the best in the league at it for a long time, but the key thing to understand about how Jordan dominated the NBA if you’re going to argue he’d do the same thing today is that the rules allow defenses to stop it, whereas in 1998 they didn’t.

If you magically transported LeBron James to 1998, he’d be a superduperstar, too. Same with Stephen Curry. A healthy Kevin Durant would be nigh unstoppable. So would James Harden. And Chris Paul. Imagine any of those guys playing in a league where it’s illegal to shade help defense over to their side of the floor. My God, the offense would be glorious.

And lest you think I’m implicitly taking a crap on Jordan, and thus the cherished experiences of your youth, understand that I believe if he got in Bill and Ted’s phone booth in 1991 and came to today’s NBA, he’d basically be a cross between prime Russell Westbrook and prime Dwyane Wade — guys with that skill set and top-level athleticism still make it work in the modern league.

But moreover, after a season or two of adjustment, Jordan would probably end up playing more as a score-first point guard today. He’d still be a plus defender. He might work more on shooting threes. (His best three seasons from the longer three-point line, he shot 37%, 35%, and 31%.) And he’d almost certainly have way more assists. His ability to get past the first defender would still apply, but instead of scoring because no one was in front of him, Jordan would almost certainly become the kind of player who then found open teammates as help arrived to stop him getting into the lane.

Which is all a long way around of saying that my imagined Jordan gives him a ton of credit, but it’s still just an imagined Jordan. And your imagined Jordan might give him even more credit, but it, too, is still just an imagined Jordan.

But odds are, at least my imaginary basketball player takes into account the rules of the game.

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