Are We Exaggerating the Exploits of Michael Jordan in the Present Era?

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Are We Exaggerating the Exploits of Michael Jordan in the Present Era?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There is a growing trend of people wondering whether the exploits of Michael Jordan are being exaggerated in the present. Those who didn't watch him are questioning whether he really was as good as people who did say he is. Is he becoming more fable than reality?

Generally speaking, there are two camps that question don't so much question his legitimacy as they question the degree of it. Those two camps tend to coincidentally be fans of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant

I'm not going to pull any punches here. You need to read this entire article in your best Stephen A. Smith voice. This suggestion has me smoldering. This article is more rant than article, but it's going to be a substantive rant with a solid basis in fact. 

Michael Jordan, if anything, is getting underrated in the present. Let's put away our own fan favoritism right now and just have an intelligent discussion. 

First, we need to talk a little bit about the way to have an intelligent discussion when it comes to this type of thing. You absolutely must include stats in the conversation. Do they mean everything? No, but they mean something. 

Yes, there are other things to consider, but considering the stats doesn't preclude considering those other things. The single-most tired argument in the Internet is along the lines of, "you can make the stats say anything you want to say" than skipping the stats and just saying what you want to say without them.  

If you can make the stats say whatever you want, make them say it. Don't just say you can make them say it. I'll have a thousand times more respect for an argument that says "whatever you want to say" and then gives a factual basis for it than argument that says whatever you want to say without one. 

Can stats be misleading? Yes. But usually if they are, there's a reason they are being misleading, and you can counter that misleading conclusion by the use of other stats. In other words, the problem isn't really that the stats are lying; it's that the analysis is incomplete. 

Furthermore, often times people will say, "there's more to the story than just stats" and then assume that all other parts of the story land squarely in their favor. Not so fast. You have to prove that too. 

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Finally, people are going to argue, "Well you're just a  Bulls fan." True, I am a Bulls fan. Oddly, though, my being a Bulls fan has surprisingly little effect on reality. My being a Bulls fan and writing this article has absolutely no affect on what happened 15 years ago when Jordan was playing basketball. 

Whether you're a Jordan fan, a James fan or a Bryant fan, it doesn't matter. What matters is the actual, substantive reality and having an actual substantive discussion steeped in fact is what we're going to do here. 

So let's start talking. 

The first thing I want to bring up here is the theory that Michael Jordan's era was more difficult for the perimeter player than the current NBA. This is not an opinion, nor is it a fact—it is theory. A theory is falsifiable. By that, I mean that there is a way that it can be proven to be wrong by an observation or experiment.

There were a series of rule changes spanning from 1996-2004, but the biggest of them came in 2001. The intention of the changes was to open up the game. These rule changes included taking away the hand check, allowing for zone defense, installing the defensive three-seconds rule and other more minor changes. 

All of these changes were intended to allow for a more "open" basketball game that allowed the perimeter player a better opportunity to drive through the lane and make more exciting plays. In effect, the goal of the rules was to make more "Michael Jordans." 

There are those who argue that the current rules make it harder for perimeter players today than in Jordan's era because they have to work against the zone defenses, which is something Jordan never had to worry about. 

I think this is balderdash, as the whole reasoning for the changes was to open up the game. The thing is, though, it's not what I think versus what someone else thinks. This is something that stats can tell us. Stats can't tell us everything, but there's no reason to throw out what they can tell us. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

We can test whether it's easier for perimeter players to score now versus the Jordan era by simply looking at the facts. 

My theory is that the rule changes centered around 2001 affected the game in the way in which they were intended to, making it easier for perimeter players to succeed. If my theory is wrong, there won't be a significant difference in the success of perimeter players after that. 

If, however, there is a substantial difference in the success of perimeter players after that, it will mean the rule changes had their intended effect, and perimeter players now have it easier than they did while Jordan was playing. 

Since the main objective of opening up the game was to allow perimeter players to score easier, the obvious way to see if perimeter players were scoring more. In order to do that, I looked at all the players who scored at least 20 points per game in the two eras. 

I then assigned each player as a predominantly perimeter player or interior player. If a player's main scoring role is either to catch it at the perimeter and drive it to the lane and finish (e.g. Derrick Rose), or if they were a shooter (e.g. Ray Allen), I called them a perimeter player. 

If they were a player that catches the ball inside and finishes inside (e.g. Blake Griffin), then they are counted as an interior player. 

From 1986 to 1998, the bulk of Jordan's career, there were 307 20-point seasons. Of those 307 seasons, 214 or 58.47 percent of them were perimeter players and 41.53 percent were interior players. 

By comparison, there have been 270 20-point seasons since the advent of the rules changes, and 205 of those have belonged to perimeter players, while only 65 have belonged to interior players. 

That translates to 24.07 percent interior players and 75.93 percent perimeter players. That's a 17 percent swing in favor of the perimeter players, which is a significant change.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Furthermore, the average number of 20 point-game seasons by perimeter players has risen from 12.7 in the Jordan era to 17.1 per year since the rules have changed. That's a 34.6 percent rise in perimeter players who have 20-point seasons. 

Beyond that, the elite players from the Jordan era were more of a mixed bag than during the current era. 

The percentage stayed nearly identical when I looked at the top 100 scorers over the Jordan era, as 42 of the 100 top scorers were interior players and 58 were perimeter players. 

However, if I remove Jordan from the equation, then it is 53 percent perimeter players and 47 percent perimeter players that make up for the 100 best non-Jordan seasons. 

By contrast in the current era, 86 of the top 100 seasons belong to perimeter players. If I remove both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James form the table, it has little impact, as 80 of the 100 best performances came from perimeter players other than Bryant or James. 

The evidence is both overwhelming and clear. The current era is easier on perimeter players than the Jordan era. Of course, I can allow for the possibility that on opening day of 2001, all of a sudden, perimeter players just started getting better by coincidence, but I'll stick with the crazed notion that it has something to do with the rules changing. 

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

There's still another aspect that is compelling, though. Prior to the Jordan era, there were five perimeter players who had won the MVP who won it a total of nine times. 

Bob Cousy won it in 1957. Oscar Robertson won in 1964. Julius Erving won it in 1981. Larry Bird won it three times between 1984 and 1986. Magic Johnson won it in '87, 89 and '90. 

Then, Jordan won it six times, with his first win coming in '88. During the Jordan era, with the exception of the previously mentioned Johnson awards, the only other players that won it were power forwards or centers. 

Since the Jordan era, there have been five unique players who have won it a total of nine times. Allen Iverson won it in 2001. Steve Nash won it in 2005 and 2006. Dirk Nowitzki (while a power forward is shooter, not a traditional low-post power forward) won it once. 

Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Derrick Rose have combined to win the last five. That's five players who have won nine awards. 

Before Jordan, there was a 31-year history. Since Jordan, there has been a 14-year history (if we ignore the Wizard years). In that span, there have been as many perimeter players who have won the MVP as in the 31 years before that, and they've won it the same number of times. 

Perimeter players have also won the last eight awards, and every one since, the new rules have gone into full effect.

Do MVPs count? I suppose that depends on what you're trying to count them for. They certainly "count" when you're trying to measure subjective valuation of players.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Media vote subjectively on which player has the most value. It is literally a survey of what the media considers to be value based on subjective criteria.

My point is that the based on the intangibles, i.e. the subjective aspects, as opposed to "just stats" the value of the perimeter players has gone up too.  

So if you want to play the "stats don't mean everything" card, Jordan is still holding a better hand. 

No matter how you look at it, statistically, subjectively or some combination of the two, the perimeter player has it better now than during the Jordan era. 

So having said all of that to compare Bryant or James to Jordan, they would have to have better numbers than Jordan, or at the very least, their numbers should be as good. 

Do they?

Well first, let's look at their overall numbers for the first nine years. Since both Bryant and Jordan have considerably longer careers, it wouldn't be fair to compare their career numbers. 

Player

G

MP

FG%

3P%

FT%

TRB

AST

STL

BLK

TOV

PTS

Kobe Bryant

627

21962

.452

.333

.831

3209

2788

912

401

1780

14034

LeBron James

689

27497

.483

.331

.746

4943

4751

1194

582

2299

19045

Michael Jordan

667

25842

.516

.301

.846

4219

3935

1815

684

2006

21541

 

Now, one thing that jumps out is that Kobe Bryant has way less minutes played than LeBron James over the first nine years, and you can bet they're going to bring up that he didn't start at first. They have a point too, so let's look at the adjusted per 36 minute stats. 

We'll skip the percentages since they aren't going to change, and that will give us a chance to also look at some of the other stats as well. 

Player

ORB

DRB

TRB

AST

STL

BLK

TOV

PF

PTS

Kobe Bryant

1.3

3.9

5.3

4.6

1.5

0.7

2.9

2.7

23.0

LeBron James

1.1

5.4

6.5

6.2

1.6

0.8

3.0

1.7

24.9

Michael Jordan*

1.6

4.3

5.9

5.5

2.5

1.0

2.8

2.7

30.0

Bryant is still second or third in every category. Jordan is the best offensive rebounder. James is the best defensive rebounder and best overall. He also has the best assist numbers. Jordan leads in steals and blocks. He also turns the ball over the least and is the leading scorer by a mile. 

In terms of shooting percentages, Jordan is way out in front too. He is also the best free-throw shooter, although he is the worst three-point shooter among the trio. This leads to an example of stats lying though. 

I often see these comparisons where Michael Jordan is shown to have a better field-goal percentage and is given a "point" for that. Then, Bryant is given a "point' for having a better three-point percentage as though they are basically the same thing. 

Let's put this in perspective. How big is Bryant's career advantage in three-point shooting? If Jordan, in his entire career, had had 18 three-point misses go in instead of out, they'd have the same percentage. 

On the other hand, if Kobe Bryant were to take 23 shots per game this entire next season and not miss a single shot the whole year, his field-goal percentage would still be lower than Jordan's. 

Do you see the fallacy of giving each a "point" for what they lead in and acting like it's about equivalent?

Do James' 0.6 more rebounds per game and 0.7 more assists per game offset the 5.1 points per game advantage that James has for a scoring edge?

That's why, while there are admitted flaws in them, there are metrics like win shares and Player Efficiency Rating to account for that.  

How do you balance the shooting percentages?

That's why there are metrics like true shooting percentage, which takes into account field goal percentage, free-throw percentage and how well you get to the line and how effective you are there are too. 

Furthermore, what about the intangibles other things that are figured in? That's why we have things like offensive rating and defensive rating and net rating. Offensive rating tells how many points per 100 possessions a player was worth while he was on the court. Defensive rating is an estimate of how many points his team gives up. Net rating gauges the net difference in score over 100 possessions. 

Granted, none of these things is perfect, but the more we look at the various details, the more complete a picture we get. 

Here is how the players compare in terms of the advanced metrics. 

Player

PER

TS%

eFG%

ORtg

DRtg

NRtg

WS

 

DWS

WS

WS/48

Kobe Bryant

22.5

.550

.480

111

104

7

 58.6

 

23.1

81.7

.179

LeBron James

27.2

.569

.516

115

102

13

90.2

 

43.1

133.3

.233

Michael Jordan*

29.8

.589

.526

121

103

18

 106.7

 

41.0

147.6

.274

James has a slight lead over Jordan in Win Shares and Defensive Rating. Other than those two categories, Jordan has a significant lead across the board over the other two. 

About now, I can hear the Kobe fans chirping that it's not fair to Kobe Bryant to include just the stats for the first nine years. So here are the total stats between Jordan and Kobe for the entirety of their career. 

Player

G

MP

FG%

3P%

FT%

TRB

AST

STL

BLK

TOV

PTS

Kobe Bryant

1161

42377

.453

.337

.838

6142

5418

1722

594

3432

29484

Michael Jordan*

1072

41011

.497

.327

.835

6672

5633

2514

893

2924

32292

There's really no need to elaborate here. Bryant has more games and more minutes. Jordan has more points, more rebounds, more assists, more steals, more blocks and fewer turnovers. He has a significantly higher field-goal percentage, and for all intents and purposes, the three-point percentage and free-throw percentage are deadlock. 

And just in case you want it, here are the advanced stats for Jordan's and Bryant's careers. 

Player

PER

TS%

eFG%

ORtg

DRtg

 NRtg

OWS

DWS

WS

WS/48

Kobe Bryant

23.4

.554

.486

112

105

115.5

46.9

162.4

.184

Michael Jordan*

27.9

.569

.509

118

103

15 

149.9

64.1

214.0

.250

 So now let's stop for a moment and consider what we've determined. Statistically, Jordan has a significant advantage over the other two players in an era where the rules were stacked against him. 

 But then, stats aren't everything and neither is the regular season, right? Let's look at what they've done in the postseason. 

   

Shooting

Per Game

Player

G

MP

FG%

3P%

FT%

MP

PTS

TRB

AST

STl

BLK

 

Kobe Bryant

119

4556

.434

.323

.792

38.3

22.6

4.8

4.4

1.4

.7

 

LeBron James

111

4820

.468

.317

.742

43.4

28.5

8.6

6.7

1.7

1.0

 

Michael Jordan*

111

4645

.501

.352

.834

41.8

34.7

6.7

6.6

2.3

1.0

 

 Here, the difference is dramatic in terms of scoring, as Jordan actually has a 12.1-point advantage over Kobe through the first nine seasons and a six-point advantage over James. James has a pretty solid advantage in rebounding over Jordan, and Jordan has as big an edge over Kobe. 

 In terms of the shooting percentages, though, Jordan is easily on top across the board, including that devious three-point category. 

 And for the Kobe fans, here are the career numbers. 

   

Shooting

Per Game

Player

G

MP

FG%

3P%

FT%

MP

PTS

TRB

AST

STL

BLk

Kobe Bryant

220

8641

.448

.331

.816

39.3

25.6

5.1

4.7

1.4

.6

Michael Jordan*

179

7474

.487

.332

.828

41.8

33.4

6.4

5.7

2.1

.9

Let's pretend for a moment that perspective matters and put this into perspective. At this stage in his career, Bryant has played 41 more postseason games than Jordan. In that span, he has one less championship to his credit and 347 fewer points. 

Jordan' has a better field-goal percentage, a better three-point percentage, a better free-throw percentage, 7.8 more points, 1.3 more rebounds, 1.0 more assists, .7 more steals and .3 more blocks. Literally every category he leads in. 

And what about the advanced stats? Here you go. 

Player

PER

TS%

eFG%

ORtg

DRtg

NRtg

OWS

DWS

WS

WS/48

Kobe Bryant

22.4

.541

.480

110

106

4

21.0

7.3

28.3

.157

Michael Jordan*

28.6

.568

.503

118

104

14

27.3

12.4

39.8

.255 

Finally let's talk about the highest stage of all, the NBA Finals. Here are all the players averages based on their Finals appearances, including LeBron James' Game 1 performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Player

Games

FG%

TS%

PTS

TRB

AST

STL

BLK

GS*

Kobe Bryant

37

0.412

0.507

25.3

5.7

5.1

1.8

0.9

16.7

LeBron James

11

0.422

0.490

20.5

7.3

6.5

1.6

0.5

13.4

Michael Jordan

35

0.481

0.559

33.6

6.0

6.0

1.8

0.7

24.5

*GS is Game Score, a John Hollinger metric that measures a players contribution to a game. You can see the formula for it here

The bottom line is that Jordan is better in the regular season, he's even more better in the playoffs and he's even more more better in the Finals. I know that's bad English, but good English isn't sufficient here. 

Every time people try comparing Kobe Bryant or LeBron James to Michael Jordan, they chip away at his legacy just a little bit. It's not getting exaggerated; it's getting worn down. 

People will say that it's an insult to Kobe Bryant to say that he can't be compared to Jordan. They'll say that his game is as close as any to Jordan's since Jordan. That's because he copied Jordan. Comparing Bryant to Jordan is like comparing a forger to Vincent Van Gogh. 

It's not (best Stephen A. Smith voice again) disreSPECTful to say that Kobe Bryant can't be compared to Jordan. It's disrespectful to Jordan to compare Bryant to him. Don't believe me? Consider this.

The difference in PER between Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant is 4.4. The difference in PER between Bryant and Jordan is 4.5. That means that there is more difference between Jordan and Bryant than there is between Bryant and Allen. 

Now, I'm not saying that Allen is comparable with Bryant in any way. I"m actually saying he's not, so stop spitting on the screen. But that reaction you just had is how you should react to the notion of comparing Bryant with Jordan. 

If you really want to know how good Michael Jordan was, imagine LeBron's numbers with Kobe Bryant's will to win. Take LeBron's regular season success and Kobe's postseason success. Mix that all in a pot and multiply by 20 percent (because he has 20 percent more rings than the two of them combined), and you'll have Jordan. 

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