The first 45 years of NBA basketball were among the most predictable of any sport in history.
Winning was simple: find a big man, build around him, and play as a team. Do those three things, and winning was guaranteed. Do those three things well, and winning a championship was a definite possibility.
The Championship Formula
By my count, of the 45 NBA Champions from 1946 to 1990, exactly three were built without a dominant big man: the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics and the 1988/1989 Detroit Pistons.
And as lackluster as Jack Sikma and Bill Laimbeer may seem to be compared to Russell, Wilt, Reed, Mikan, Pettit, Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, and Parish, even those Sonics and Pistons were blessed with above average bigs who could more than hold their own against some of the league’s best centers.
From 1946 to 1990, a big man led the league in win shares in all but eight seasons. The exceptions: Oscar Robinson (once), Jerry West (once), David Thompson (once), Adrian Dantley (once), and Michael Jordan (four times). These were the only guys under 6’8″ to finish a season at the top of that category.
Over the same span, no non-center ever led the league in scoring and won a title in the same season. After George Mikan completed the feat twice in the 40s, no one did it again until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished the feat for the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks and the 1972 Lakers. Of course, this came during the ABA era, a time when both the NBA and ABA were watered down because the best players were split between the two leagues.
Mikan and Kareem accomplished their scoring title/league title feats under extenuating circumstances. Mikan was a foot taller than everyone on the planet and Kareem was playing in a watered-down league.
During that span, the league was littered with great scorers who never seemed to be able to win the big one.
- Wilt Chamberlain set record after record early in his career, but he didn’t win a single title until 1967, when he “only” averaged 24 points per game.
- Rick Barry, who had averaged more than 35 a game in the same season, lost to Wilt in the Finals.
- Tiny Archibald, Bob McAdoo, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, Alex English, and Dominique Wilkins were all great scorers that either never won a ring or only won a title late in his career when no longer such a prolific scorer.
In fact, of the top 25 scorers of all time, only four (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal) have won more than two championships. A staggering 40% of the list never even won a single title.
In a sport largely assessed by numbers, the single most prominent one – points scored – didn’t seem to matter a whole lot. Compare that to a stat like rebounds where only three guys in the top ten and seven of the top 25 are “ring-less.”
As the 80s dragged on, the big-centric formula for winning seemed to be cementing itself as the only way to win. The three best teams of the decade: the Lakers, Celtics, and 76ers were all built around a big man. While each team had a go-to guy, only four times did a guy average more than 27 points per game for an entire season (Julius Erving in 1979-80 and Larry Bird in 1984-85, 1986-87 and 1987-88), and all four times, those teams failed to win the title.
A Breath of Fresh ‘Air’
This was a guy who hated the predictability that the league had grown accustomed to. This was a guy who fought against the idea that you had to be big to dominate the league. This was a guy who thought he could buck the trend, and win on his terms.
Michael Jordan was a breath of fresh air.
It didn’t matter that he was literally fighting against 45 years of solid evidence that said it couldn’t be done his way. He was just stubborn enough to make it work.
You know the rest of the story.
Magic, Larry, and Isiah got old. The league expanded and the level of competition got watered down. The new salary cap made it impossible for six or seven Hall of Famers to play on the same team as they did in 1986.
And in this new, weaker league, Michael Jordan shattered all of the stereotypes that basketball had ever known. Michael Jordan did what nobody before him was able to do … he won on his terms.
The 90s Bulls won without a big man.
Oh sure, they had Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman manning the boards, but Luc Longley, Bill Cartwright, and all of the other stiffs that they paraded through the front line for Jordan’s prime were simply laughable.
Jordan also became the first little man to win a scoring title and a ring in the same season – and he did this six consecutive times.
These reasons, among others, prove to many that Jordan is the greatest basketball player in NBA history. Not only did he win six titles, but he won six in a different manner than everyone else. THAT, in their eyes, indicates true greatness.
Of course, there could be another term for it.
The Ultimate Basketball Outlier
In statistics, an “outlier” is an observation that is numerically distant from the rest of the data. Outliers may be more numerous in sports than any other aspect of every day life. Anyone who has ever studied Brady Anderson’s baseball career could instantly give you a great example of an “outlier.”
Outliers aren’t necessarily bad or even completely invalid. In some cases, everything falls into place perfectly for a player or team and statistical greatness is achieved.
But we always have to remember this with outliers: just because something may have happened once, that doesn’t mean it will happen again or that we should try and force it to happen again. It also doesn’t mean that the specific outlier was necessarily greater than every other example.
Sometimes variables coincide that wind up creating a unique set of circumstances which prove profitable for a specific result.
It’s my assertion that it was the coinciding factors described above that helped Jordan win those six rings, creating the ultimate outlier in NBA history.
Despite what you may think you remember about Michael Jordan, playing “like Mike” didn’t entail being the consummate teammate. In 1987, when Jordan was assaulting the scoring record books on a nightly basis, Larry Bird had this to say about the player:
“When he came into the league, I thought (Jordan) would be a great all-around player, but his game has completely changed. Right now, the only thing he does is shoot 30 times a game. I’d never want to play like that. He’s got to play like that, I guess, but I would never ever want to take 30-to-35 shots a game. It’s too much of a load every game.”
The narrative now is that Jordan learned to be a team player and won a championship because of it. Facts say otherwise.
After hoisting up 28 shots a night in 1987, Jordan did scale it back … a little. But he only shot fewer than 23 shots a game in one of his championship years, and he hoisted it up 26 times a night in 1993. When adjusted for the slower play, it’s hard to say that Jordan played any differently in the 90s than he did as a younger player.
By nearly any objective assessment of his career, Jordan dramatically improved in only two areas of his game: defense and outside shooting. Offensively, he was the same, stubborn gunner in 1998 that he was in 1988. The only difference was that the Bulls started winning.
Had he developed some new, better formula for winning? Did he create a new model of a champion – our new template for all future superstars? Many would argue for that possibility.
- It’s also possible that he benefited from playing for Phil Jackson, one of the greatest coaches of all time.
- It’s possible that he benefited from the aging of Magic, Bird, and Isiah.
- It’s possible that he benefited from playing on a team that was far more loaded than you remember — the two best wings in the entire league played in Chicago!
- It’s possible that he benefited from an expanded league (six new teams by 1995), which watered down the competition.
- It’s possible that he benefited from a salary cap that didn’t exist in the early 80s, a cap that made it impossible for six or seven Hall of Famers to play on the same team as they did in 1986.
Of course, you may choose to remember the 90s in a slightly different lens, but the fact remains that Jordan was the ultimate outlier – a basketball player like no other, a champion like no other, and a world-class jerk like no other.
Part of Jordan’s greatness comes from the fact that he was the first.
David Thompson and Dr. J jumped really high … but nobody flew like Mike.
George Gervin and Wilt Chamberlain got buckets … but nobody scored like Mike.
Walt Frazier and Bill Russell terrorized offenses … but nobody flew around disrupting the other team like Mike.
Mike was an original. He was a prototype. He was something we had never seen. Everyone wanted to “be like Mike.”
It’s that last line that presents a unique problem, both to the NBA and basketball in general.
You see, we had 45 years of quantitative and qualitative evidence that told us how basketball was meant to be played. For 45 years, we were taught that bigs were more important than smalls, that teams always beat individuals, and that, by and large, one individual scoring points didn’t translate into winning.
When Jordan came and played the game differently, he brainwashed us into wanting to “be like Mike.” Its effect was disastrous on the league.
The Negative Impact of ‘Being Like Mike’
Basketball is a copycat sport at every level. Whether you are practicing a move you saw your dad use yesterday in the driveway, watching Steve Nash gash through defenses on YouTube, or running through a shoot around in NBA practice, all players try to emulate what they have seen in others. Great players steal pieces of their identity from a wide variety of sources. And everyone tries to copy the greats.
Jordan may have been good enough to force his style to work. He also may have benefited from a wide array of circumstances. Regardless, his way – THE JORDAN WAY – was never meant to be emulated by winning basketball teams.
From 1990 on, we are left with the following (minus Jordan’s six rings of course):
- Four rings built around Shaq (with Kobe and Wade thrown in).
- Four rings built around Tim Duncan and/or David Robinson (with Popovich and several good players thrown in).
- Two rings built around Hakeem Olajuwan.
- Two rings built around Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (with Kobe thrown in).
- One ring built around Kevin Garnett (with Pierce, Rondo, and Allen thrown in).
- One ring built around Dirk Nowitzki (with several role players thrown in).
- One ring built around the Wallaces (with several role players thrown in).
- One ring for the Big Three in Miami last year.
Of those sixteen champions, only one had a player that led the league in scoring – the Shaq-led 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers.
In the fifteen years that Jordan stopped being Jordan, basketball has reverted to normal: find a big man, surround him with pieces that make sense, play as a team, and win a championship.
Michael is even more of an outlier now, giving us further proof that basketball should be played differently.
And yet, people have been begging for more of Jordan ever since he retired. What they got instead was a bunch of cheap imitations — and the NBA suffered tremendously.
Cheap MJ Imitations
Why was 1999-2007 one of the worst eras in basketball history? Why did people stop watching games, start paying more attention to college hoops, and begin criticizing the NBA for its selfish stars and style of play? Because the NBA was BROKEN!!!!!
You don’t copy the outlier. You copy what is proven.
As soon as Jordan retired, the entire basketball world began imitating His Airness. You know how that turned out. Let’s just say there is nothing like the original.
Kobe will always be criticized for being a blatant ripoff of MJ (more on him in a minute). Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and most of the other stars of the early 00s had two things in common: they scored like crazy and never won anything.
This didn’t just start when Jordan retired.
From age 26 to 31, Charles Barkley’s field goal percentage dropped every single year, as he took more and more bad shots, trying to score like Mike. Clyde Drexler went through the exact same thing.
Two all-time greats got considerably worse in the middle of what should have been their primes because they were imitating a style of play that was never supposed to work in the first place.
In a copycat sport, players stopped imitating the proven. They stopped copying Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, and Dr. J’s 76ers. They stopped paying attention to 45 years of basketball history and tried to emulate the outlier.
The Spurs and Lakers dominated the next ten years, with championships by the Heat and Pistons thrown in for good measure. All of those teams were built around big men and teamwork.
Iverson, Carter, T-Mac, and the rest were ringless.
But everyone still loved Jordan.
The Spurs were “boring.” The Lakers had Shaq, making it “unfair” for everyone else. The Pistons were “a fluke.” The “officials gift-wrapped a ring” to D-Wade and Co.
It didn’t matter what the results were telling us, we wanted to see another Jordan. It didn’t matter who was winning championships; if they weren’t winning in the same way that Jordan won, they couldn’t possibly be his match.
The NBA indisputably declined when Jordan retired, but he was the primary cause. Even the great teams of the 00s were cursed by comparisons to Jordan.
Misconceptions of Kobe
Nobody likes to think of those Lakers teams as great “teams.” Rather, the perception is that they were blessed to ride the back of Shaq, even as Kobe tried to derail them. This, of course, completely ignores how great of a team player young Kobe really was.
As a 21-year-old, he posted a 25-11-7 in one of the most exciting Game Sevens in NBA History against the Portland Trailblazers. The next season, he had 48 points and 16 rebounds in the series clincher against the Kings before nearly recording triple-doubles in games 4 and 5 against the 76ers.
By any metric, those Lakers teams were well-balanced, built on teamwork. They copied the formula that had been set in stone for years. In fact, it wasn’t until Kobe started trying to score like Mike in 2003, the first year he averaged 30 points per game, that the Lakers actually lost.
The more players tried to play like Mike, the more they kept losing.
This is why LeBron James is so important.
The Importance of LeBron
LeBron James was the first post-Jordan superstar who actively tried to be different than Michael Jordan. From an early age, he much preferred to be compared to Magic, Oscar, or other all-around players that were known just as much for their passing as they were for their scoring ability.
Nobody doubts that LeBron could lead the league in scoring every single year if he wanted to, but he almost seems to prefer not to lead the league in scoring. Instead, he has driven the basketball world crazy with his “lack of a killer instinct” and his propensity to pass the ball to open guys late in games, no matter how clear it is that he made the right basketball decision.
Of course LeBron and Jordan share their similarities.
Both guys grew defensively as they aged. Both guys developed outside jump shots. Both guys played with better and better teammates every year.
Most compellingly, both guys steadfastly maintained that they would change for nobody — they were going to play basketball the way they thought it should be played.
Jordan made his selfishness work for him. Others imitated him. It destroyed the game.
LeBron, slowly but surely, has started to make his style of play work. The irony is that his style of play is much more in tune with the long established status quo of basketball: that teams win championships, not great individual scorers.
The best part of this is that, like they did with Jordan, others are starting to take note.
- Kevin Durant went home this off-season and worked on making his game more complete. This season, he’s averaged more blocks, steals, and assists then ever before while also keeping his rebounding at an elevated rate.
- Paul George has made a leap in Indiana this season, and Pacers fans will tell you that his defense, passing, and outside shooting have grown more than anything else.
- James Harden is averaging 6 assists a game.
- Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett find different ways to fill the stat sheet every night.
All over the league, players are doing more than just scoring.
They are imitating LeBron by playing more team-oriented basketball. The NBA, as a result, is far more watchable than it’s been in years.
Michael Jordan will always be the game’s most important basketball player. In nearly every aspect, he left his lasting imprint on the game, and in so many ways ushered us into a new era.
Many will argue now, and forever, that he was the greatest to ever play the game. There is validity to the argument.
In a way, it’s unfair to say he killed basketball. After all, why is it his fault that so many others failed to do what only he could do?
Still, I’m reminded of what Isiah Thomas famously said after his Pistons won their first title – they had finally figured out the secret to winning. And what was that secret?
The secret to basketball is that it’s not about basketball.
In a game largely assessed by numbers, it’s the other things that matter more. In a game where players are paid directly according to the numbers they amass, the teams that put all of that aside are the teams that are successful. It’s not at all a coincidence that the Pistons won their first ring immediately after they traded away their leading scorer, Adrian Dantley. The right recipe was delicate – a little less Dantley, a little more Rodman, a little more team play…and the Pistons found what worked.
MJ remains the ultimate outlier. A statistical anomaly that no one should ever try to duplicate. LeBron James is taking the sport back in a different direction — an old, familiar one. The right one.
In the process, he’s saving the game that so many of us love.