NBA: Was Jordan "The Greatest" Because Injuries/Tragedy Removed His Foils?

I was watching the Len Bias 30 for 30 special the other day, and I was struck by how many people of that day thought that Bias was the natural competitor to Michael Jordan.  It made me think about a thread I saw on a message board one time, where someone brought up Bias' death and Ralph Sampson's injuries as a reason why Jordan was considered by so many to be the greatest.  When you add Magic, Bird, and even Sam Bowie into the equation...perhaps there is some merit to the argument that Jordan wasn't necessarily the greatest, he just lacked his natural competitors.  Let's take a closer look.

1) Sampson was the #1 overall pick in 1983, and he was considered a sure-thing.  A slim 7-4 big man with the skill set of a perimeter player, in some ways Sampson was a precursor to the Kevin Garnetts and Dirk Nowitzkis of this generation.  Sampson entered the league as a monster, winning rookie of the year and averaging 21 points with 11 boards over his first three years.  He teamed with Akeem Olajuwon to lead the Rockets past Magic's Lakers and took Bird's best Celtics team to six games in the Finals in only his third season (1986).  After that season, injuries derailed Sampson's career and he never again started more than 44 games in any season.

2) Bowie was the #2 overall pick in 1984, after Olajuwon and before Jordan.  These days he's a punch line, but people forget that he actually played solid double-double basketball when he was healthy...the problem is that he was never healthy.  But Bowie was drafted to a Portland team that also featured Clyde Drexler, a Jordan-light that led the Blazers to two NBA finals appearances in 1990 and 1992 even without Bowie.  Would a franchise center have been enough for Drexler to get his team over the top?

3) Bias was the #2 overall pick in 1986, and in watching that documentary I realized just what an athletic freak he was.  He was an absolutely ripped small forward that could jump through the roof, like a mix between Dominique Wilkins and LeBron James.  Bias was drafted by a Celtics team that some consider the greatest team in NBA history that featured a prime-but-aging nucleus of Larry Bird, Kevin Mchale and Robert Parish.  If Bias had lived to reach anywhere near his potential in a championship environment, he very easily could have been fighting with Jordan in the Eastern Conference Finals all the way until MJ's second retirement.

4) Magic and Bird both saw their careers cut short due to injury or illness.  You hardly ever think about it, but Magic especially is only three years older than Jordan.  To put that in perspective, Bird was also three years older than Magic.  Magic and Bird defined each other, while Jordan was able to win five titles and three MVPs after Magic's sudden retirement.

As far as I can remember, there has never been another time period when the two greatest players of the previous generation (one of which was of similar age to Jordan), and three ultra-blue chip contemporaries all had their careers end early.  As an analogy, it'd be like Shaq, Chris Webber, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant all having retired in 1999.  Wouldn't Tim Duncan have like 8 rings and 5 MVPs if that happened?  Or if Bird, Dr. J, Moses Malone and Isiah Thomas missed the 80s...wouldn't Magic Johnson have swept just about every title and MVP for a decade?

At the end of the day  "what if" doesn't do anything to change what actually happened, and what actually happened was that Jordan dominated the late 80s and 90s on a level never seen before.  His place in history is secure.  But as I think about all of the great players that we missed seeing him play against during his 6-peat, I can't help but feel like we were all gypped out of something special.


By: Mark Stopa
On: 11/8/2009 5:22:00 AM
I think Jordan had natural competitors, he and his teams were just better. Barkley, Malone/Stockton, Payton/Kemp, Drexler - those were some all-time players on really good teams - just not good enough to beat Jordan's Bulls.
By: Donald Trump
On: 11/8/2009 5:55:00 AM
Mark is right. Jordan played against as many greats as anyone. Well what if there was another great center in the NBA at that time? What if there was another great forward? Who cares? It really is a ridiculous thought. And to end with "I can't help but feel like we were all gypped out of something special." Well, my friend,it appears that you were not watching MJ when he was dominating. If you were, you would have appreciated it for being "something special."
By: The Professor
On: 11/8/2009 6:28:00 AM
Oh, I was watching. But I think you're missing my point. Of course there will be "great players", even by default. Somebody has to be the best player on the other teams. But you can't tell me that from 1991 - 94, the NBA just replaced someone as good as Magic. You can't tell me that Olajuwon ever got to play with another teammate as good as Sampson, maybe ever (and if so, not until he was well past his prime). And if you don't think it'd have been special to see Jordan face the very best, repeatedly, instead of substitute teachers...then, well, I don't know what to tell you.

My point isn't that Jordan was less. Jordan did his part. His competitors didn't do theirs, which meant that we rarely (if ever) got to see the best go up against the best. Everyone always says that Jordan lacked the "Bird to his Magic" or the "Russell to his Wilt", well, maybe he would have had them if not for all of the stuff that goes wrong.

One great player can be great. But one great player player an that is special.
By: Chris Liss
On: 11/8/2009 7:22:00 AM
I really don't get this "cult of Jordan" where if anyone argues he was possibly not the greatest player of all time, people rush to his defense and dismiss the person bringing it up. He was a great player, but I don't even think it's debatable that the guys he was going up against - Ewing with the Knicks, Mark Price/Larry Nance/Brad Daugherty with the Cavs, Barkley/Majerle/Kevin Johnson with the Suns, Drexler/Porter Blazers, the aging Dumars/Isiah Pistons, the aging Magic Lakers, Payton/Kemp Sonics, Stockton/Malone Jazz were all that good. The Jazz made just two finals in the entire Stockton Malone reign. That's the same amount as Ewing/Starks made in the East. Same with Kemp/Payton. Don't even jest that those guys were on the LeBron/Kobe level. Or Duncan/Garnett. Or even D. Wade, I'd argue. Moreover, the Bulls won 55 games and probably would have at least made the finals over the Knicks were it not for a phantom foul call on Hubert Davis after he released the shot, giving him three free throw. The Phil-Jackson coached Toni Kukoc, Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen Bulls were still very good. Whatever you think of Jordan, there's is a Larry Holmes issue with him as Dre' points out. Not Holmes' fault he beat an over-the-hill Ali and no one else showed up until Tyson. But it does call into question just how great he really was despite all the title defenses.
By: elsicilian
On: 11/8/2009 8:16:00 AM
I would argue that NBA rules during the 90s (which encouraged/rewarded extremely physical man-to-man defense) and the Pistons championship template (which above all else emphasized beat-up, shut down team defense) created conditions in which it was very difficult for dazzling perimeter play to really flourish. The fact that Jordan was able to thrive in such an environment and transcend his peers should only add to his esteem, not somehow make you yearn for the erstwhile brilliance of Sam Bowie and Ralph Sampson (two talented but plodding post-players who - if their careers had not been derailed by injuries - would more likely be remembered alongside the Derek Colemans and Chuck Persons of the world than the Patrick Ewings and Hakeem Olajuwons, much less Jordan/Bird/Magic!).

The "cult of Jordan" is pretty easy to understand if you watched basketball in the 1990's. He killed everyone, all the time, without fail, over and over and over again. and again. Maybe it would have been a more compelling narrative if he'd had a better foil or more adversity to overcome, but at least twenty of the NBA's "50 Greatest Players" careers overlapped Jordan's (as well as younger stars' like Kobe, KG, Duncan, etc.), so suggesting that he played in some sort of talent-vacuum is simply disingenuous.

I am somewhat suspicious of any argument that posits Jordan was NOT the greatest of all time, simply because of the overwhelming preponderance of evidence to the contrary. If you are going to make such an uphill argument, you are going to have to come up with something more convincing than the tragically unfulfilled promise of Sam Bowie et. al. (although I am sure Stu Inman and his family appreciate the effort).
By: ron burgandy
On: 11/8/2009 8:35:00 AM
This is probably the worst article I have read on this site and I'm quite disappointed in the effort, so much so that I am now questioning the sanity of the writers on here. elsicilian said a lot of what I was thinking, but I have a few things to add. To make the claim that Jordan wasn't the greatest ever is one thing if you are comparing him to Bird/Magic/Russell/West, etc...but to say that Sam Bowie or Ralph Sampson would have challenged him is foolish at best and slanderous at worst. Jordan would have destroyed these guys just like he destroyed everyone else, including MAGIC in the finals, Stockton/Malone twice in the finals, Drexler in the finals, Gary Payton in the finals, Charles Barkley in the finals. By this count every time Jordan played in the finals he faced another top 50 all-time opponent and sometimes more than 1. Hakeem Olajuwon couldn't win a title when Jordan was playing but dominated the league when Jordan retired for two years. If Jordan hadn't taken two years off he would have 8 rings...what about that? Where is that in your hypothetical world? I have much more to write but its not worth my time, this is a total joke.
By: Chris Liss
On: 11/8/2009 8:55:00 AM
So you believe that Jordan's foils were equal to LeBron/Kobe/Duncan/Garnett? Do you believe that the Jazz/Sonics/Suns/Pistons (in the 90s) are in the same class as the current Celtics, Lakers or Spurs? And this is exactly what I'm taking about - it's a "total joke", "the worst article I have read" that anyone takes on the holy one. It's like a religious cult.
By: elsicilian
On: 11/8/2009 9:26:00 AM
Jordan's greatness is pretty firmly established by his 6 NBA championships, 6 NBA Finals MVPs, 5 league MVPs, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, 2 Olympic gold medals, 1 NCAA championship, and countless individual NBA statistical records, not to mention his thorough and absolute domination of of the league during the entire 1990s. My point is simply that, if you are going to argue he's NOT the greatest of all time, you need to overcome that preponderance of irrefutable evidence. I'd be amenable to a debate that begins with "Russell/Chamberlain/Bird/Magic ..." but not one that begins with "Sampson/Bowie/Bias ..."

Arguments against Jordan's greatness (like holocaust denials, flat earth claims, or creationist myths) often seem to employ tortured logic and specious claims to advance an agenda, while somehow refuting what's right in front of everyone's collective face. Similarly, complaints that Jordan didn't have great rivals (I've heard them before) always sound like the bitter yearnings of Magic/Bird fans, disappointed that Jordan doesn't fit naturally into the narrative template established by those two NBA legends.

Just like the NBA was unsuccessful in finding "the Next Jordan," these narrative templates seldom apply to subsequent generations. In fact, attempting to shoehorn Jordan into the Magic/Bird model is an exercise in futility, and represents nothing more than a simple reflexive unwillingness to accept/appreciate Jordan's greatness on its own terms.
By: Chris Liss
On: 11/8/2009 9:32:00 AM
No one's doubting his greatness, simply raising a valid point that it was achieved in the absence of other all-time (top-10) greats. Again, to put questioning Jordan on the level of holocaust denial or flat-earthers just makes my point.
By: elsicilian
On: 11/8/2009 9:46:00 AM
Actually, the flat-earth/holocaust/creationist parallel was hyperbole, meant to illustrate how Mr. Liss' "religious cult" comparison cuts both ways. If THAT makes your point, then your argument is on pretty shaky ground.

But to your greater argument, if "raising a valid point that it was achieved in the absence of other all-time (top-10) greats" is not an attempt to detract from Jordan's greatness, then what exactly is it? All I am saying is that there are two basic arguments against Jordan being the greatest player of all time: The first ("Jordan was great, but Wilt/Russell/Bird/Magic was greater ...") is kind of fun and interesting; the second ("Jordan really wasn't so great after all ...") is just preposterous.
By: Chris Liss
On: 11/8/2009 9:50:00 AM
I disagree that it's preposterous to wonder whether Jordan would have won all those titles and MVPs had LeBron, Kobe, Duncan, Garnett met him in their primes.
By: elsicilian
On: 11/8/2009 10:04:00 AM
I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree; I can imagine an infinite number hypothetical circumstances under which Jordan would not have been the NBA great he eventually became (born with a club foot, decided to play baseball earlier in life, grew up to be 5'6 like his brother Larry, etc.), but none of them really factor into any serious discussion of his actual legacy.

On: 11/8/2009 10:38:00 AM
Good ol Sam Bowie. I have played many a night of poker with him. He is a pay off wizard. You can find him betting on the horses these days at a place called Red Mile. While he is lacking on the poker felt he makes up for it betting at the tracks.

By: The Professor
On: 11/8/2009 11:27:00 AM
Way to set up and beat the crap out of a straw man! I notice that the vast majority of those ridiculing the idea are banging away at Bowie and Sampson, the 2 secondary players that I mentioned. I never said Sampson or Bowie would be better than Jordan, my point was that Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler with additional franchise-level big men as teammates might have won some of those titles that Jordan took against lesser opponents.

Meanwhile, players like Magic or Bias who actually were/may have been on Jordan's level weren't around at all during 5 of Jordan's rings. I mean, you don't find that at all relevant? Really?
By: elsicilian
On: 11/8/2009 10:27:00 PM
Okay then, let's ignore Bowie and Sampson and focus on the primary players in your argument:

- Larry Bird played 12 full seasons in the NBA (13 if you count the 88-89 season, in which he played only a handful of games; we won't).

- Magic Johnson played 13 full seasons in the NBA (14 if you count the thirty-some games he played in his comeback year of 95-96; again we won't)

- Michael Jordan played 11 full seasons in the NBA (14 if you count his injury-plagued sophomore campaign and the two years he spent suiting up with the Wizards; obviously we won't)

Your suggestion that the truncated careers of Magic and Bird somehow artificially enhanced Jordan's greatness conveniently ignores the fact that Jordan's own career was similarly abbreviated (if not moreso). How many more titles would he have won if he had *not* disappeared for two years in the prime of his career to play baseball? Or if Jerry Krause had *not* prematurely blown up the Bulls in his zeal to commence the Tim Floyd era, and prove once and for all that "organizations win championships?"

You can't have it both ways ... if you are going to retroactively grant Sampson/Bowie/Bias health, success and prosperity, and hypothetically cure Magic's AIDS and heal Larry's back, it's probably only fair to extend the same restorative courtesy to Jordan, but clearly your argument neglects to do so.

The truth is, picking and choosing the circumstances/constraints of your imagined alternate reality can produce any sort of hypothetical outcome that you desire. Unfortunately, while the results of such an exercise inevitably say a lot about the a priori agenda of the author, they don't have much bearing on reality, and they certainly don't constitute a sound argument regarding Jordan's actual legacy.

That being said, I'm not really interested in beating this dead horse any longer, but I've certainly enjoyed the debate. Keep the good articles coming, and I will definitely keep reading!
By: saga76
On: 11/8/2009 10:30:00 PM
Suggesting that if Olajuwon and Drexler had better teammates they would have beaten Jordan is as pointless as saying, I have more all-stars on my team so I am going to win every time. Sure Jordan MIGHT not have won so many then...but you could be making the same argument for him now, saying that if he had more help he would have won every title.

This isn't going anywhere.
By: Chris Liss
On: 11/9/2009 12:24:00 AM
elsicilian - so you think Phil Jackson can be judged on the same level as say Rick Adelman? Whatever players they happened to have are just the way it was, and any hypothetical that imagines Adelman with Jackson's players is as absurd as imagining Jackson with even better players? Because that sounds like your argument - that any suggestion that Jordan had it easier than say Kobe due to the competition in his era, is absurd because Kobe just as well had even more competition or never been paired with Shaq or Gasol and never won a title. Yes, we could imagine that, too. But we can also say that Jackson had better than average players. Just as we can say Jordan has less than average competition. Just as we can say Todd Helton's spent his career in an above average hitter's park. Could his park be even better than it was? Sure. But park effects are something we can consider, and we can also consider the competition that Jordan faced. No one's saying Jordan isn't a great player, perhaps the greatest. But I think it's a question that merits asking, taboo as it obviously is to so many.
By: The Professor
On: 11/9/2009 4:52:00 AM
I think it's interesting that I posed a hypothetical question with a reasonable premise, and that in the responses I have been accused of everything from not having watched basketball to having an "agenda" against Jordan (really?) to having written the worst article ever to believing that the Earth is flat. Wow.

Elsicilian, your argument in this last post actually hits exactly my point. Are the Rockets' back-to-back titles in the mid-90s as impressive as they should be (after all, not many teams go back-to-back)? No, they aren't, because everyone knows that Jordan wasn't there. It weakens their mojo, historically. Likewise, between the Bulls being blown up and the lockout there are still people that want to put an asterisk by the Spurs' title in '99. And my point is, THIS SAME PHENOMENON makes it interesting to me to wonder how history might be different if two of the greatest players ever and THREE top-2 picks of his peers might not have all had their careers end prematurely.

Nothing would have prevented Jordan from being thought of as one of the best ever. But I surely would have loved seeing him play against the best possible competition. And I think it's at least interesting to think about.
By: elsicilian
On: 11/9/2009 9:02:00 AM
Relax, Professor ... as I mentioned earlier, I think you are a good writer and I always enjoy reading your work (and Chris Liss' as well). I am not accusing you of anything untoward, nor am I maligning your intelligence or sanity. Rather, I am suggesting that your "reasonable premise" (the assertion that Jordan played against inferior competition) is actually quite flawed.

As I pointed out in my previous post, Magic/Bird could have possibly extended their playing careers a few years under different circumstances, but the actual duration of each man's career was no shorter than Jordan's. Furthermore, Jordan's Bulls definitively beat Magic's Lakers in 1991 (a team that also included Worthy, A.C. Green, Byron Scott, Mychal Thompson et. al.), after sweeping Isaiah's Pistons, who (with their destruction of Bird's Celtics and back-to-back titles) had hithertofore been considered the unquestioned cream of the league. So this wasn't some sort of embarrassing-all-around, Larry Holmes type of title succession ... the Bulls began their championship run by unambiguously obliterating what had been the dominant teams of that era, featuring two of the three unquestioned superstars of the era (Magic and Isaiah).

Subsequent titles were amassed against a virtual who's who of 1990's NBA superstars (Drexler, Barkley, Payton, Kemp, Malone, Stockton as well as Ewing, Mourning, Reggie Miller, Hardaway, et. al.), each of whose legacy is complicated by Jordan's brilliance, as his thorough domination sometimes does seem to make their stars shine a little less bright. But that's the quintessential chicken/egg conundrum: is Jordan diminished because of them, or are they diminished because of Jordan? Your argument presupposes the former, yet the question is fundamentally unanswerable.

By every *objective* measure (individual statistics, hall-of-fame credentials, respect of peers, and virtually anything other than direct comparison to Jordan and/or the jewelry he selfishly hoarded), his best contemporaries are bona-fide all-time NBA superstars. Assuming otherwise is not only a questionable premise for an argument, it's actually pretty disrespectful of their talent and accomplishments. I'm not personally offended, but I don't imagine John Stockton or his family would think much of your argument, however they might feel about Jordan personally.

Retroactively imagining productivity for Sampson, a career for Bowie, and *life* for Len Bias in an attempt to find SOMEBODY to just once beat Michael Jordan's Bulls is a pretty significant deviation from reality. As I have emphasized all along, these certainly are fun ideas to debate among ourselves (I'm enjoying this one tremendously), but at the end of the day, we shouldn't pretend they have anything to do with Jordan's actual legacy.

To Mr. Liss' last point, I would simply say this: if you must judge, judge people on their actual accomplishments. If you want to argue against Jordan's actual greatness, be my guest. Just don't expect rational folks to naturally accept some version of a fictional alternate reality (cherrypicked and tailored to support the premise, of course) as legitimate evidence in a sound argument.

The End

By: smckeown
On: 11/9/2009 10:49:00 AM
Jordan was half the player Kelly Tripucka was.
By: zoso1699
On: 11/9/2009 11:29:00 AM
Great article and comments. Fiery. Intelligent. There's really not much to talk about regarding Jordan's greatness so having a conversation that's a "what if" scenario maybe the only thing left.

Anyway, off topic, I think Jordan's teams, matched up with any team from any era, would have won because they don't have an equal regarding team defense. They didn't rely on brute force but technical excellence and intelligent strategy, spearheaded by Jordan, Pippen and Rodman/HGrant along with Cartwright's elbows. If in doubt, watch the demolition game of the Utah Jazz 96-54 during the 1998 Finals.
By: The Professor
On: 11/9/2009 12:02:00 PM
Elsicilian, I actually really appreciate any/all responses I get so there's definitely nothing but positive feelings at this end. On topic yes, the Bulls did beat the Lakers in 1991. But I still feel robbed that they only met on that stage once, and it's not like one win guaranteed future results. The Lakers had swapped Finals wins and losses with 3 different franchises in the Magic era, so the Bulls winning the first one should have just been an appetizer and was in no way conclusive. And I don't care how many years Magic actually played, the point is that in 1991 in the prime of his career (he had finished 1st, 1st, and 2nd in the previous 3 MVP votes) he suddenly had to leave the league. That absolutely creates a talent vacuum at the top. Yeah, after that the Western conference kept sending representatives to the Finals, but the point is that they weren't necessarily sending their best anymore. That's what I think we missed out on.

And again, in some ways you kind of make my point with your list of the 1990s NBA superstars that Jordan faced in the playoffs. Yes, they were the best of their era, but even objectively they don't stand up to the very best of any other decade in recent memory and that isn't all due to Jordan. The very best players and teams generally tend to actually spend some time at the top. If you wanted an MVP or a title in the 80s you were going through either Bird or Magic, with an occasional Philly or Detroit mixed in. If you wanted an MVP or a title in the 2000s you were going through Shaq, Duncan, Kobe, or KG. In the 90s? None of those guys you name except for Malone at the end of the decade even sniffed the MVP more than once (if ever at all), and none of the teams that those Bulls faced except the Jazz even sniffed the Finals more than once. You're giving Jordan too much credit for keeping them from ultra elite status, as in reality most of his opponents would have been 1-hit wonders even without Jordan around. That's no disrespect to those guys, as they were all great players, but they just aren't the best of the best even without MJ and their teams weren't dynasty-caliber even without the Bulls.

As far as "deviation from reality", isn't that the whole point of a hypothetical? To say "this didn't happen...but what if it did?" It's not like I suggested making up players. Sampson really was a #1 overall pick, rookie of the year the year before Jordan, and matched with another #1 overall pick to make the Finals only 2 years into their shared career. Is it unreasonable to wonder if they might have been that second "super" team to face Jordan's Bulls through the years had they stayed healthy? Especially considering that Olajuwon did win the 2 titles during Jordan's retirement, even without Sampson.

Likewise, Len Bias really was considered a transcendant talent, Bird/Mchale really did have their careers shortened by injury in part because they had to play too many minutes through too many injuries starting in 1987. Is it unreasonable to wonder if that core, plus the thus far unmentioned Reggie Lewis (drafted in 1987) might have been a third "super" team in the 90s to join the Bulls and Rockets?

Similar story for Magic's Lakers (again, he still had years of prime left) or Drexler's Blazers with another strong big man. We're talking real people, on real teams, that very easily could have existed were it not for tragedy. All of the best players/dynasties usually have foils to measure themselves against. Jordan didn't have that. You believe it was because he was just that much better than everyone else. I just wish we would have been able to see that tested.

And again, let me quote myself from the original article: "At the end of the day 'what if' doesn't do anything to change what actually happened, and what actually happened was that Jordan dominated the late 80s and 90s on a level never seen before. His place in history is secure." This whole thing was a fun what-if exercise, not a testable or provable quest to bring Jordan down. I wouldn’t think I’d need that disclaimer, but apparently I do.
By: elsicilian
On: 11/9/2009 1:24:00 PM
We all know that Jordan deserved the MVP virtually every year he played from 1988 on ... the fact that he only won five of them is a travesty, but the NBA (perhaps wisely) realized that you need to recognize the other great players as well, and occasionally throw them whatever bone can be scrounged from Jordan's table. Using that award as the criterion for excellence during the 1990s is an argument as fraught with circularity as our larger discussion. The fact remains, it is impossible to judge Jordan's contemporaries in his absence, and vice versa.

Regarding the relative strength of teams, four of the Bulls' six NBA finals opponents (in 91,92,97, and 98) had previous or subsequent finals appearances within a one-or-two year window, so your assertion that most of them never "even sniffed the Finals more than once" isn't really accurate at all.

We can say definitively that the Bulls absolutely crushed Isaiah's Piston's and Magic's Lakers (and I don't honestly believe that another year on Magic's and Worthy's odometers would have empowered them to defeat Jordan's Bulls the next year, but that's just my opinion). Similarly, we know the Bulls vanquished every single challenger who crossed their path over the next decade, and that's about it. You are correct that the upper threshold of Jordan's greatness isn't precisely known because it was never fully met or surpassed; however, your presumption that Bias/Sampson/Bowie/whomever would be just enough to exceed Jordan's best effort and put another team over the top, is unfounded. Perhaps those Bulls' ceiling was so high they could have handily beaten *anybody* ... maybe even the Western Division All-Star team in a seven game series? We'll never know, but like you I would have certainly enjoyed watching.

Ironically, I think the best hypothetical opponent might be one you neglected to consider: forget a magically rejuvenated Sam Bowie and imagine the 1992 Trail Blazers anchored by Arvydas Sabonis in his prime ... that's a finals matchup I would have really liked to see!
By: The Professor
On: 11/9/2009 2:21:00 PM
Re: MVP vote. Again, his opponents weren't stopped by just him. For instance, from 2000 - 2005 Shaq, Duncan and KG all finished in the top-5 of the MVP vote at least 4 times and top-3 at least 3 times each. If there were players finishing at the top like that but behind Jordan every year, your argument would have merit. But in '91 Magic finished 2nd to Jordan, then retired the next year. In '92 Drexler got 2nd then never finished better than 10th again. In '93 Barkley won then never came close again. In '96 Robinson got 2nd, but he had peaked during Jordan's baseball years and never got a team strong enough to get to the Finals until Duncan came along anyway. Then finally, in '97 and '98, Malone was the first to have multiple high MVP finishes during the Jordan title years. But my point is, it's not like the guys that Jordan defeated on the way to his rings were knocking out top-3 or even top-5 MVP placements every year but just couldn't beat Jordan, it was that they were just not consistent ultra-elite players during Jordan's championship reign.

Re: the Finals. Here, my point was that he wasn't seeing the same teams during his title reign. In his 6 championship runs, he played 6 different teams in the ECF (Pistons, Cavs, Knicks, Magic, Heat, Pacers) and he played 5 different teams in the Finals (Lakers, Blazers, Suns, Sonics, Jazz twice). So it's not like how Wilt was epic but just couldn't beat Russell, or how Magic and Bird were always there win-or-lose but just couldn't always beat each other . There weren't any super-players our super-teams that the Bulls went through, just a lot of very good ones that were cannon fodder against a truly historic player/team like Jordan and the Bulls.

And I don't know that any of the players/team in my hypothetical would have been enough to get their teams over the hump. That was kind of the point, to raise the topic and really get into it in depth to see what shook out. This has been a great discussion, but outside of Zoso there has still been very little actual in-depth thought analysis of what these type of hypothetical matchups might have looked like. I was looking forward to debating, for example, how an inside-out attack like the Twin Towers may have functioned against the more perimeter-based approach of the Bulls. Or discussing what the Magic-led Lakers would have had to do to change the dynamic of their Bulls match-up if they met again in future years. Would Bias/Bird have developed a Duncan/Robinson kind of dynamic but among small forwards, and if so how might that have played out? Would Bias/Lewis have been able to keep things honest with Jordan/Pippen so that mid-30s Bird and Mchale could have been the difference makers?

This conversation has ended up being all about Jordan. When in reality, this was a Jordan article where to me a lot of the interesting potential for debate was about the other players.

By the way, good call on Sabonis. If that's your cup of tea, I'd love to hear how you think that might have played out as well.
By: elsicilian
On: 11/9/2009 5:07:00 PM
Apologies for derailing your argument; though in fairness, the sentence most resembling a thesis in your article reads, "perhaps there is some merit to the argument that Jordan wasn't necessarily the greatest, he just lacked his natural competitors. Let's take a closer look." If you wanted to avoid a referendum on Jordan's legacy, that statement probably could have been phrased somewhat differently.

I understand your point about MVP candidates during the 1990s, though I don't think your conclusion is necessarily supported by the evidence. In fact, one could argue that the great diversity in MVP voting is as representative of a *wealth* of MVP-calibre players as a dearth. Once again, we're caught in an inescapably circular argument, and the conclusion toward which one is more naturally predisposed pretty much determines the course of his reasoning.

Actually, I don't disagree that Jordan's NBA finals were by and large anti-climactic, but let's not forget that the Eastern Conference was *much* stronger than the West throughout the Bulls' championship era. From 1988-1998 the Bulls squared off against the Knicks five times, the Pistons and Cavaliers four times, and the Heat three times. The playoff wars Jordan waged against Isaiah/Dumars/Laimbeer, Ewing/Oakley/Starks, Daughery/Price, and Mourning/Hardaway became annual events, and those players' collective inability to beat him even once diminished their legacy while it elevated his (which is why none of them are considered great). I suppose it would have made for better theater if one of those teams had been in the west (and presumably could have won that conference at least a couple of times), but simple geography conspired against such drama, much to NBC's chagrin.

Personally, I am of the opinion that Jordan's Bulls had a much higher ceiling than most people suspect. The best of them (1996 and 1992, in that order) could have beaten literally anybody (even the '86 Celtics or the '72 Lakers), so they would have manhandled a Sabonis-led Blazers squad. The best series each of them could have had would be against the other. Would '96 Jordan cover '92 Jordan, or would he leave that to Ron Harper? Would Rodman mercilessly torment '92 Pippen, or would he freak out, and accidently clash with '96 Pippen? Of course, that's exactly the sort of metaphysical hypothesizing against which I've been arguing this whole time, so I'm going to go ahead and quit while I'm only a little bit behind.

By: Mark Stopa
On: 11/9/2009 5:58:00 PM
I always hated Jordan. Always. But after his jumper, steal (from Malone), jumper (over Russell) sequence to win that last title, I remember thinking, no matter how much one wanted to deny it, he was the G.O.A.T.

I think the Garnett, Kobe, Duncan, LeBron comparison is weak, Chris. Let's see LeBron win a title before we talk about him in that sense. Are you really trying to say MJ didn't have to deal with teams like LeBron's Cavs? Come on. As for Garnett, how can you say "but MJ didn't have to play Garnett" when he had Barkley and Malone? I'd take Barkley in his prime over Garnett any day. Even Kobe - he won one title in a watered-down year; the rest were with Shaq. Only Duncan is the type of player who you can say "MJ didn't have to deal with" I do agree with Prof. in that sense - if there was no Shaq, Duncan would have 6-8 titles.
By: Chris Liss
On: 11/9/2009 9:20:00 PM
First off, great thread overall, but Stopa - don't be silly. No one said anything about the Cavs team, but LeBron vs. Jordan would have been an incredible matchup in their primes. When I watch LeBron play, I can't imagine anyone matching up with him including Jordan without major problems. And while Barkley might be as good or better than Garnett offensively, the defensive side of that equation is so unbalanced as to be laughable. Garnett is a top-10 all-time defensive player. And Kobe belongs in the conversation as well despite his pairing with Shaq.
By: Mark Stopa
On: 11/10/2009 7:51:00 AM
Garnett wasn't close to the offensive player or leader Barkley was, IMO. If Garnett was so good, why were his teams so crappy so often? While Barkley didn't have the length or shot-blocking of Garnett, he was a fabulous rebounder. The point, though, is this - they are certainly close enough that saying "But MJ didn't have to face Garnett" is a weak argument.
By: zoso1699
On: 11/10/2009 8:55:00 AM
I think we're overlooking several great players during Jordan's playing years. During the mid to late 80's, these players were still performing well: Bird, Magic, D Wilkins, Olajuwon, J Worthy, K Malone, Barkley, Stockton, Ewing, Drexler and McHale. Some of these players are considered the best all time at their position with most playing along the same timeline as Jordan's career: Barkley, Malone, Stockton, Ewing, Drexler, D Robinson and Olajuwon.

During the 90's, Jordan's foes were: Mutombo, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Grant Hill, Mourning, Reggie Miller and Kevin Johnson, along with Olajuwon, K Malone, Barkley, Stockton, Ewing, and D Robinson

Basically, who do we think would win: Jordan's Olympic Dream Team or any of the team's assembled after his retirement for US international play?

I think if you look again at some of these player's careers, you'll some incredible numbers. These aren't outdated stats like baseball from the 1930's or 1950's but about 15 years ago, in which the similarities outweigh the differences.

I think overall, Jordan had very good players and teams to play against during his time, but no one came close to challenge him at his specific position. There were plenty of great forwards, point guards and centers, but no shooting guard. but then again, you need to look at different decades and era's to find anyone for comparison, such as West, Kobe, etc.

Sure KG is great, but it's not a blow off to compare him to Barkley or Malone. They physically would provide major problems for the lighter KG. It'd be interesting to see how well Lebron would do against Scottie Pippen.
By: Charlie Zegers
On: 11/11/2009 6:13:00 AM
I don't think it's fair to compare the Barkley/Ewing/Stockton/Malone era players to today's guys -- the rules have changed too much.

What would Magic Johnson have done if he had played in an era with no hand-checking on the perimeter? What about Jordan? Bird? The game has changed a lot in 20 years.

It's easy to talk about how great a guy like Chris Paul is today -- but in his entire career, he's never had to play games getting mugged by the likes of Derek Harper on every trip down the court.

Of course, you could say the same for Jordan, who never had to face a Bill Russell or a Wilt Chamberlain.

Jordan was the best of his era -- and in my eyes, no one was particularly close. Any discussion beyond that -- comparing "Jordan in his prime" against "Kobe in his prime" or "LeBron in his prime" -- which we probably haven't even seen yet -- is nothing more than sports bar talk. Interesting way to spend an evening, but ultimately nothing more than opinion.

Good conversation-starter, Professor.
By: Andy Behrens
On: 11/13/2009 9:53:00 AM
One small, late addition to a great discussion: When these what-if NBA discussions pop up, we rightly think of Bias, but people forget about Benji Wilson. He was widely considered the top prep player in the class of '85, a Chicago public league legend. Wilson was shot and killed outside his high school (Simeon) on the eve of the first game of his senior season. He was 6-8, typically described as "Magic Johnson with a jump shot" and/or "KG with point guard skills." Today, Wilson would go from HS straight to the league. Back then, he probably would have been the top pick in either the Manning or Ellison draft.
By: Alxzndro
On: 11/18/2009 10:49:00 AM
Wow, elsicilian really blew away Liss and the professor on this debate. You can tell his intellect is far more superior with his facts, rationality, and reality.
1) Again this is "Bar" room material, this is what-a, should-a, could-a stuff. Just like elsicilian said, you can go on and on without ending the debate because of this nonsense of what-ifs. You said what if Olajuwon got his big men, what if Bias played etc. Why don't you add, what if Jordan got a great center?? what if Jordan, got Toni Kucok to play to his potential? what if Jordan didn't retire in his 1st and 2nd three-peats? You're changing all these variables outside of Jordan, but keep Jordan's variables the same. That's not fair. My opinion and I agree with elsicilian, Jordan's ceiling was much higher. His capacity to take it up another higher level made him so great and made others and their feats less diminutive. So really your question, "Was Jordan's Greatness because of injuries and tragedy? It's a horrible question to ask because you don't know if the variables can become true: IF Len Bias could have played to a higher level (there's a history of failed #1's), IF Sampson, Bird, and Magic could have played in a higher level.
2) It's really sad for this article to downplay, dishonor, and disrespect the great players in the late 80's and 90's. Again elsicilian said it best, Jordan's achievements, records, titles, reputation, and fame were so unbelievably at godly levels that it understated everybody else. Everybody remembers a winner, not a loser. But these guys lost to the best of the best. Karl Malone and Barkley were undeniably great players. They were athletic freaks. I have a hard time to discount them against these players today. Then you have Drexler, Stockton, Olajuwon, Ewing, Reggie Miller, Robinson, Kidd, Kevin Johnson, and Gary Payton. Wow, those are some great players. Let's end this, like what Zoso said: Match up Jordan's Dream Team against any other Dream Team. No Match. Case Closed. Jordan's greatness unrivaled and UNQUESTIONED.

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