Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest ever to play the game, and there is no shortage of reasons why that claim is made. Perhaps the most amazing thing about him is the way he re-defined himself to extend his career.
In fact, you could argue that Jordan 2.0 has as much to do with his legacy as the original version.
Sadly there are no modern-day shot charts we can examine to see how Jordan’s game changed over time. But we can look at highlight videos, which, while not as scientific, still show something.
First, look at this series of highlights from 1989.
Notice how most (though certainly not all) of the highlights are close to the rim? Jordan had more of a vertical game. He emphasized getting to the basket.
Some have posited that he’s “overrated” because he didn’t have great guards to compete against. While the likes of Clyde Drexler and Joe Dumars might disagree that he wasn’t going against anyone, it’s a moot point because they weren’t protecting the rim.
Jordan dominated the paint in an era of big men during the first half of his career. He was driving to the rim and finishing with the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Bill Laimbeer challenging his shots.
He was doing that in an age when there was no defensive three-second violation.
That meant he took a physical pounding. The infamous “Jordan Rules,” were implemented, described here by Chuck Daly, the originator of the strategy. Daly tells Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum,
If Michael was at the point, we forced him left and doubled him. If he was on the left wing, we went immediately to a double team from the top. If he was on the right wing, we went to a slow double team. He could hurt you equally from either wing—hell, he could hurt you from the hot-dog stand—but we just wanted to vary the look. And if he was on the box, we doubled with a big guy.
The other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him. If he was coming off a screen, nail him. We didn't want to be dirty—I know some people thought we were—but we had to make contact and be very physical.
It took four tries, along with adding Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson to the team, but eventually even the Jordan Rules weren't enough to stop him. Once he got past the vaunted Detroit Pistons defense, Michael Jordan never played a full season without winning a championship again.
That doesn't mean teams didn't keep trying to beat him the same way. The best way to play him was still to be exceedingly physical. It just didn't work anymore, because Jordan adjusted his game.
The problem was that Jordan was not getting any younger. He couldn't take the pounding forever.
Through the first nine years of his career, he used about 18,298 possessions, third-most in NBA history behind two centers, Elvin Hayes and Wilt Chamberlain. He wasn't going to last forever getting beaten around like that.
So Jordan worked on his post-up game. Hubie Brown describes Jordan’s metamorphosis for NBA.com.
As his career moved on, there was a slight step back because of age, but he always had the medium game, those eight to 15 foot shots that are missing in basketball today. Not only did he have that tough medium game, but he could always finish his drives when he went to the hole because of his incredible leaping ability.
And at the end of his career, Michael transformed himself into one of the best post-up players in the NBA. He was nearly unstoppable because he perfected his bump and fadeaway jump shot. That one move, never mind all of the other things that he could do with his back to the basket, made him one of the most dominating post players in the game.
And in case you want the visual evidence, here it is.
Some of these plays are from earlier in his career; most appear from later. Notice how he's moving his scoring further out from the rim, where there's less physical contact.
Without shot charts, it’s hard to define exactly when he made that transition. It would be easy to assume it occurred after he came back from his first retirement. The drop in his field-goal percentage from 1991 (.539) to 1992 (.519) to 1993 (.495) would suggest that it was a gradual process, and that it began earlier.
As he grew closer to 30 and then passed it, he slowly incorporated his post-up game and legendary fadeaway jumper. That extended his career. It's phenomenal that while he was going through the transformation, he kept winning the scoring title.
There is a shot chart available from the 1997 season via NBA.com/STATS which shows how lethal Jordan was in his mid-range game. Yet there's nothing to compare it to from earlier in his career.
He is the "three oldest players" to ever win a scoring title, securing it at ages 32, 33 and 34.
From age 30 to 35, he averaged 29.4 points per game, an unreal figure. Inevitable Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant was dubbed “Vino” this year, because he “only gets better with age.” He finished third in scoring and averaged 27.3 points per game.
That must make Jordan “The Macallan,” then.
That said, Bryant has been able to approximate Jordan’s post-30 success by imitating Jordan’s game, as shown in this video.
Let’s be clear here. This is an imitation of Jordan’s game. It doesn’t prove they’re similar; it proves that Bryant learned from Jordan. Let’s not dub the forger the equal of the original artist. There’s nothing wrong with Bryant learning from Jordan; let’s just not pretend the similarities have come in a vacuum.
Now LeBron James, the current greatest player in the game, needs to learn from Bryant that there’s no shame in learning from Jordan. Ultimately, James’ final place in history is going to depend on what he does after 30.
What he has done—and will still do—before 30 is enough to secure him a top-10 spot. However, what he does after that will determine whether he sits in the top five, the top three or even challenges Jordan for the top spot.
But now he's been to three finals in a row. That starts to wear on a body, even the body of a cyborg.
Jordan changed his game as his body aged, and he no longer possessed the same amazing agility he’d formerly had. Skill gradually compensated for athleticism.
Bryant did the same thing. As a result, he’s secured a place as one of the seven or eight greatest players in history, and he could yet climb higher.
James' first two (or perhaps three) rings will come because he is the most physically dominant player in the world. But eventually he’ll lose a step, and as he does, will he have the polish in his game to compensate?
He has begun to do so to a degree, and it wouldn't be fair to James to compare his skill level at 28 to Jordan’s or Bryant’s at 34. He has a need to grow, and room to grow, but he also has the time to grow. He’s shown the willingness to learn, and that’s all we can evaluate for now. It will be interesting to see how he develops as he ages.
Jordan made the leap from “one of the greatest” to "nearly undisputed greatest" because he finished his career as strong as he started it. For James to ever legitimately challenge him, he’ll need to do the same.