(I put this in NBA
and someone said to put it here, I had no idea there were two NBA reddits, that seems cool. Also, please note I am a massive, massive LeBron homer and that this is more of an essay to prove a point than any attempt at a definitive analysis. The point is that there's a pretty good case for MJ being really good at basketball beyond "6-0" and "Yeah, LeBron was good, but MJ would kill your cat" and other weird shit like that.)
Let's do a thought experiment. I wake up in a room with a computer and am told to determine who the best basketball player of all time is. I have a fairly good concept of basketball -- the rules, what makes teams effective, et al -- but I have never seen anyone play basketball and do not know any basketball players by name. All my memories of this nature have been erased. This will, I think, be a significant handicap. The only website I have access to is basketball-reference.com
-- I'm not allowed to cheat by using highlights or shot charts. The Regular Season
Alright, I'm a pretty big baseball fan and stat geek. I might have a shot at this. Alright, the first place I should check is probably the "one-number" stats -- basketball's versions of WAR or VORP. They're never perfect, but it should be a good starting spot. Plus, they're average instead of cumulative, which I tend to prefer -- Jamie Moyer has more career strikeouts than Sandy Koufax, after all. Longevity is super important, to be clear, but starting with cumulative stats is the wrong way to go.
And let's start with the regular season, because one hot playoff run can skew the sample and playoff success, or even appearances, are often due to circumstances beyond one's control -- just look at Mike Trout.
Let's see here: PER:
Okay, #1 in all-time regular season PER is...Michael Jordan
. I'll keep an eye on that name. Win Shares per 48:
Like I said, I slightly prefer average to cumulative, so I'll look at this instead of overall Win Shares next. #1 in that category is...Michael Jordan
. Stat geeks must love this guy. Box Plus-Minus:
Limited, but interesting, let's see if it matches up with what I've seen so far. #1 in that is...Michael Jordan
. I think I have a clubhouse leader here. Value over Replacement Player:
Ah, good old VORP. This is cumulative, but I wanna make sure I check every advanced stat before I'm done. Michael's number 2 here behind LeBron James, whom I saw right in the top 5 in those other categories too. He's probably good. Looks like he played a little more than 200 games than Michael, though, and he's still active. Wow.
Alright, looks from those numbers like MJ is pretty definitely the best regular season player who's ever lived. But I can't just blindly draw conclusions off some algorithms -- time to do my best to try and break down why all these formulas love him so darn much. Scoring:
As I mentioned, I do have a pretty good idea of how basketball works, and scoring is pretty definitely the most important thing a player can do -- a lucky bounce can get you a rebound, and you need your teammate to come through to get an assist, but the team that scores the most wins, and to score you've gotta put the ball in the hoop yourself.
So let's check who the best scorer is, on average...Okay, it's Michael Jordan
. Oh-so-barely beats out this Wilt Chamberlain fella. Maybe not a great idea for him to play those last two seasons after taking 3 years off for whatever reason.
Context is important, though -- after all, you can't compare deadball-era baseball stats to stats from today. So let's see if there were any mitigating factors -- okay, Michael appears to have led the league in scoring in all 10 of the full seasons he played before that 3-year break.
Still, pace is important to consider -- I know enough to know that if you just run down and fire it up as fast as you can, you'll get more points, even though it might not be the best strategy.
So let's compare the league Michael played in compared to the league Wilt played in, as well as their teams, just to eliminate as many variables as we can.
MJ's teams averaged (roughly) 103.8 points per game over his career. Doug Collins and Phil Jackson weren't in a hurry, and his teams constantly played at the slowest paces in the league -- a "pace" average of 93.6 for his career.
Wilt's teams averaged (roughly) 116.5 points per game over his career, and is team usually played at one of the fastest paces in a fast-pace league -- a "pace" average of 120.9. That MJ managed to outscore Wilt while playing that many fewer possessions is BONKERS.
**Tangent -- MJ had the 3-point line and Wilt didn't, but MJ only added 581 points using the 3-point line (with a lot of those coming when they moved the line in) and I doubt Wilt would have been putting up 3s anyways (although he may have -- there are tall tales about Wilt casually draining jumpers from half court, and Wilt truly and honestly did not give a shit -- he once led the league in assists just to prove he could, passing up shots and yelling at his teammates if they didn't shoot the ball after he passed it to them.) Anyways, the extra possessions for Wilt should absolutely balance this out. Okay, back to the gimmick.**
Alright, anyone can score a lot of points, that mostly comes down to how many times you're allowed to shoot. So how efficient was MJ? Very good but not incredible -- 56.9% career TS% compared to a league average of 53.4%. I mean, Devin Booker scored 30 on 60.1% TS% this season, and the league average TS% was 56.7%.
So why do all of these numbers, which LOVE efficiency, love MJ? Well, there's one list I wasn't able to find MJ at the top of -- turnovers.
All-time turnover leaders
- Karl Malone
- LeBron James
- John Stockton
- Kobe Bryant
- Jason Kidd
Okay, looks like racking up turnovers is the price of business for being one of the best offensive players of all time...but where's MJ? All the way down at #30. In fact, when you look at turnover rate, he's the 33rd-best all-time, which is absurd
-- almost everyone above him on that list is a catch-and-shoot guy.
So it looks like MJ was able to get tons of shots up during a time when the league wasn't getting many shots up, making them at a significantly higher clip than his peers, and never ever turning the ball over. I wonder how he did it. Awards:
Okay, stats can be misleading. Let's see if other people thought this stat geek darling was good. Okay, he seems to have won 5 MVPs -- only Bill Russell has also won 5, and Kareem is the only guy with 6. That seems good.
14 All-Star games? That's good, but those can be popularity contests. 10 All-NBA first teams, and a second team. And 9 all-defensive first teams? I better take a look at that -- like I said, I'm drawing on my powers of baseball nerdery to try and make it out of this jam, and we all know about Derek Jeter's gold gloves. Alright, he won the Defensive player of the Year award, let's take a look at that.
In 1987-88, MJ's bulls were 3rd in defensive efficiency, Pippen was only a rookie, and Michael averaged 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks per game?
Holy SHIT. HE HAD MORE STEALS THAN TURNOVERS THAT YEAR.
He won the MVP and DPOY in his mid-20s, then got eliminated 4-1 in the second round of the playoffs. I'm sure if that happened today, the basketball internet would appreciate how special of a season he'd had.
In any case, he's 3rd all-time in steals, both total and per game, and consistently played on great defensive teams, so I'm going to assume he wasn't gambling for them too much. Playoffs:
Alright, I hope this guy wasn't basketball's Mike Trout, or I'm in trouble. Playoff PER: Okay, he's #1 in that.
Can't imagine people hating on someone with a top-3 playoff PER
. Playoff WS/48: #1 again. Box Plus-Minus: Believe it or not, he's #1. Playoff Offensive Rating: Jordan is #18, Tristan Thompson is #1
. Just sit on the curb and breathe, Offensive Rating, I'm trying to get you an Uber. Playoff VORP: Again, #2 to this LeBron fella
, who seems to be the all-time leader in playoff games played and playoff minutes. Playoff PPG: Well, at this point I was just silly to expect anything different. Team Success:
My captor is letting me know that unless you win a championship, anything you did that year tends to be seen as insignificant. 6 Championships seems like a lot, especially since the league had less than 14 teams or less when Bill Russell won his 11 rings. And it seems he was Finals MVP on each one of those teams, and nobody else has 5 Finals MVPs. And he did this in the span of 8 seasons, and he sat out the majority of one of those 8 seasons.
If you take away Michael's rookie season, his foot injury season, the season he only played 17 regular season games after coming back from baseball, and the Wizards seasons (you decide how fair that is), MJ won the championship 6 out of 10 times. That's adequate. Although he is only #2 in Finals PPG
-- maybe he just didn't do well in big moments.
So if you've made it this far, congratulations. And I want to go through why I did this -- I made what I think is a pretty decent argument for MJ as the GOAT without mentioning any of the following words:
-- Final shot
I could go on. The point is I think there are certain athletes we simultaneously overrate and underrate -- MJ wasn't just the possible GOAT because he had mystic powers, he was also really really really goddamn good at basketball.
Not just in the fourth quarter, not just in the Finals, not just on the last possession, but every damn possession of every game.
A big reason he was the best player at the end of games is because he was the best player before the tip-off. And every now and again, that should be enough. We're so eager to attribute MJ's success to these grand narrative factors that we miss just how good he really was on the court, to appreciate the work put in, to really analyze the intricacies and brush strokes of a true basketball genius.
I should probably mention here that I'm possibly the biggest LeBron homer of all time, and I feel like both guys get disrespected when the GOAT debate comes up and the conversation inevitably goes to "killer instinct" or quarter-tossing or whatever -- what if MJ was better than LeBron at basketball because he was...better than LeBron at basketball? I'm a masochist so I watch those Undisputed clips from time to time where Shannon says "LeBron is the GOAT" and Skip says "Actually, LeBron is weak-willed and trash" and they argue about it for 40 minutes and BOTH OF THEM ARE WRONG. It's like a Beckett play with more shouting. Look up at everything in this post and see what MJ did. Do you really need "I took that personally" to have it be enough?