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.


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