I was 14 years old when Michael Jordan made his famous “last shot” against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 the 1998 NBA Finals. That shot helped the Chicago Bulls secure their 6th NBA Championship, and Michael retired (for the 2nd time) in the offseason thereafter. I was a senior in high school when Michael made a brief two year comeback with the Washington Wizards. By the time he retired for good, Michael Jordan was considered by many as the greatest basketball player of all time. He finished his career with the highest career NBA scoring average (30.1 PPG) and the most Finals MVP, finishing with six.
Today, Lebron James is the king of the court. Many people believe that he is or has a chance to be the greatest basketball player ever, even better than MJ, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and some of the other NBA legends. I work with kids today who weren’t alive to see Michael Jordan play basketball, but who are very familiar with Lebron James. It shouldn’t come as a shock that many kids today know the name Michael Jordan (in part because of his still-popular shoes), but don’t know what made him great as a basketball player. For that reason I thought I would take some time to talk about some of the things that made Michael Jordan so great.
Similar to Lebron James, Michael in his prime was considered the best athlete in the NBA. He was a player who was extremely quick and extremely explosive. His height and weight were similar to Kobe Bryant’s (6’6” and around 200 pounds), and it was reported that Michael had a 40+ vertical and ran a sub 4.4 40 yard dash time. His basketball trainer, Tim Grover, helped him reach is potential physically. Also notable were his large, strong hands. Michael was able to palm and hold the ball while in motion, which aided him in finishing at the rim and making effective one-handed shot and pass fakes.
Michael Jordan credits Dean Smith as one of his biggest basketball influences. Dean Smith was Michael’s legendary college coach at North Carolina, and it’s been said that he was the only man who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points per game. Whereas a lot of today’s stars enter the league with a year or less spent playing college basketball, Michael spent 3 years at North Carolina playing and learning the game under Dean Smith. Although he was a 1st Team All-American as a sophomore, Michael stayed another year in school, racking up the college player of the year award before entering the league ready to star. Jordan averaged 28 points per game as a rookie in the NBA, something that has not been done since. He had a solid foundation of basketball IQ that allowed him to be an NBA All Star all the way until he was 40 years old.
Complete Game Production over Flash
Michael was a very efficient offensive basketball player, and that was in large part because he was largely a no-nonsense offensive player in his prime. The fancy ball handling moves that many guards today love to utilize were not in Michael’s arsenal. He was a great north-south player that didn’t waste time playing with his defender. When facing the basket from the wing he utilized a hesitation dribble or crossover to get to a pull-up jumpshot or athletic finish at the rim. In the post, he utilized a fadeaway jumpshot to elevate over defenders or a pump fake to get defenders in the air or off balance. By almost all accounts of players who played against him Michael had no “holes” in his game. He could drive right as well as drive left. He could shoot the pull-up jumper going either direction and could shoot the turnaround fadeaway in the post turning over either shoulder. There was not any one thing he was uncomfortable doing on the offensive end, which made him a very dangerous offensive player. The highlights you see of Michael Jordan finishing at the rim are entertaining and sometimes awe-inspiring, but Michael’s game was always built on sound offensive principles.
Competitive at Both Ends of the Floor
Michael is considered one of the best perimeter defenders in NBA history. He was a feared defensive player along with being a feared scoring threat. It is very uncommon for a player to be “elite” on both ends. How good was Michael on the defensive end? Well, Michael Jordan was the first player to ever record 100 blocks and 200 steals in a single season, and he did it twice. Let’s put that in perspective. The best perimeter defender in today’s game many say is Lebron James, and he has never recorded 200 steals OR 100 blocks in a single season, let alone doing them both together. Michael recorded 200 steals in six seasons, leading the league in that category three times, and recorded 100 blocks twice. In 1988, Michael Jordan became just one of 5 guards to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. He also led the NBA in scoring (35.0 PPG) and steals (3.2 SPG) that season. Talk about doing it at both ends.
There have been many great players in NBA history, but only a handful operated at an All Star level from day one until they hung their shoes up. As mentioned previously, Michael Jordan was named an All Star as a 21 year old rookie. That was in 1985. Michael retired for good in 2003 at the age of 40, and was also an All Star in his final season. He was chosen as an All Star every year of his career he was eligible. Michael led the league in scoring a record 10 times, and is only one of two players (along with Wilt Chamberlain) to lead the league in scoring 7 consecutive seasons. There was never a season where he averaged less than 20 points per game. On the other end, Michael shares the record with four other players for most selections to the All Defensive First Team with nine. He was consistently active and effective on both ends of the floor throughout his career. Some players operate at an elite level for 5 years, or maybe 10, but Michael Jordan was an All Star level player in three different decades. That’s pretty special.
There is more to the greatness of Michael Jordan… like his finishing ability, his late game heroics, and his legendary trash-talking, but I won’t bore you with more words. When you get a chance pull up some old Chicago Bulls games and see for yourself. Mr. Jordan might inspire you to chase greatness like he did a generation of young players before you.