Michael Jordan’s terrorizing back-to-basket game is the best we have ever seen from a perimeter player in league history.
The former Chicago Bulls star is already universally celebrated by most as the greatest player ever. Heck, if my word is not sufficient, feel free to take in the thoughts of Hall of Fame point guard Magic Johnson on the matter.
Jordan is the standard by which the greatness of individuals is measured and the same can be said about the low-post game of perimeter players.
Just to be clear, we are talking about scoring from the post as opposed to simply orchestrating the offense from the block. Thus, players like Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson are immediately disqualified.
That leaves us with every other perimeter player the league has ever seen to choose from. That ranges from anywhere between Larry Bird to the more recent young superstars such as Kevin Durant.
And yet, they all pale in comparison to the six-time champion.
Jordan was a high-flyer early in his career and he took a lot of physical abuse from opponents when driving to the hoop. After winning his third straight title at the conclusion of the 1992-93 season, he retired from basketball.
He eventually returned towards the end of the 1994-95 season but was not in optimal basketball shape. The Orlando Magic eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs and Jordan spent the entire 1995 offseason working on his game.
The five-time league MVP was already a good post-up player at the time, but he decided to push his limits. He worked on his fadeaway jumper and turned it into the most devastating offensive weapon in basketball.
Sam Smith of Bulls.com has the details of Jordan’s evolution as a player after the 1995 offseason workout:
Michael [Jordan] was no longer the explosive leaper he once was after being out of the game for so long and the natural effects of aging. Plus, there were the exercises and conditioning for baseball that changed his body. But he had become much stronger, even more a student of the game, and had developed an indefensible fall away move in the post. Plus, he still had the attitude and raging competitiveness, and he could dunk in your face if he needed to.
That fall-away move became the bread and butter of the game’s most celebrated athlete and turned him into a new kind of unstoppable scorer. Hubie Brown, one of the best basketball analysts out there, echoed those sentiments:
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.
That one move Brown is referring to is right here:
Earlier in his career, Jordan was a terror in the post because of his drop-step move. He consistently beat defenders baseline and scored at the hoop with it. In the video below, he victimizes John Starks of the New York Knicks:
Refined Post Game
With the 1995 offseason concluded, the six-time Finals MVP started off the 1995-96 season armed with two great post-up moves: the fadeaway jumper and the drop-step. Jordan used the threat of both to set up and torment defenders.
In his next two seasons with Chicago—also his final ones—the Hall of Fame guard converted a sizzling 44.1 percent of his jump shots per NBA.com. His jumper was simply one of the deadliest the league has ever seen.
For the sake of context, have a look at the conversion rate of some of the NBA’s premier perimeter scorers on jump shots since the 2011-12 season courtesy of NBA.com (listed alphabetically):
FG% on jumpers since 2011-12
In the interest of full disclosure, the NBA.com database now offers a far greater breakdown of the type of shots players attempt, which was not the case during the time Jordan played. For instance, we now have information on the marksmanship of players on fadeaway jumpers whereas those details are not available for Jordan’s final seasons.
Nonetheless, the graphic gives an indication to Jordan’s superior shooting prowess on jumpers in comparison with modern-day superstars. Hence, defenders simply could not sag off on the former North Carolina player during his post-ups.
And boy did Jordan know it. Again, everything he did with his back to the basket came as a result of defenders fearing his drop-step and his jumper. Look at the video below where Jordan works on Allan Houston of the Knicks in the pinch post:
Houston initially defends against the drop-step and pushes his opponent towards the middle of the floor. Because the defender has taken away the baseline, Jordan is left with either going towards the middle of the floor or settling for his deadly jumper.
He tricks Houston into thinking his next option is the jump shot and gets an easy left-handed layup against the Knicks.
In reviewing the footage of Jordan’s low-post game, it became painfully obvious that he did in fact have two moves with which he froze defenders. Those tasked with guarding him were simply always on high alert for his pet plays.
The three-time All-Star Game MVP simply toyed with defenders by always making them believe he was going to his favorite moves. He does it once more against the Utah Jazz:
As far as perimeter players go, Jordan is the best post-up player we have ever seen as a scorer given how easily he manufactured high-percentage shots.
He shifted from aerial assaults to jump shooting in his final three seasons with the Bulls and still produced 29.6 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting during that time span per Basketball Reference.
Challengers to the Crown
As great as he is, there are still two players that come dangerously close to challenging his crown: Bernard King and Kobe Bryant.
King is one of the most underrated players in basketball history. He played his final season with the New Jersey Nets in 1992-93 and yet was only inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.
King is one of the most potent scoring machines ever seen given how well he mixed and matched his interior game with his mid-range skills. The one area where he falls short in comparison with his Airness is his ability to handle double-teams. He was not bad on this front, but the game’s best player was superior in this aspect.
That leaves us with the Los Angeles Lakers’ all-time leading scorer. As famous Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan put it, Bryant has mastered the art of basketball much like only a handful of players have. He had this to say about the two-time Finals MVP during the 2012-13 campaign:
Truth is, I am more impressed than ever with Kobe’s [Bryant] constant reinventions of himself and his game this year. He seems determined to drag the Lakers into the playoffs all by himself. I wouldn’t bet against him, either.
Indeed, Bryant has consistently added new layers to his game, which has allowed him to produce points at a rate that few will ever surpass by the time his career comes to a close. The Lakers superstar has a low-post game that is the envy of just about all of his peers.
Synergy Sports began tracking data in 2009-10 and their information tells us Bryant has converted 48.5 percent of his field goals in post-up attempts since the start of that season.
Much like Jordan, Bryant has weapons at his disposal that he uses to bait opponents into giving up their great defensive position. The Laker legend loves to use his jump shot as a setup move because of how often he can make impossible shots seem routine.
He is not as proficient as Jordan with his jumper, but they share the ability to score with it, especially after a few jab steps to create space. Watch below as Bryant does just that to Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors:
There are multiple differences between Jordan and Bryant, but none more apparent than the ball-handling ability. The five-time champion is simply superior than his predecessor on this front and it is not even close.
Bryant is not only a great ball-handler, he is also a very willing one. In his post-ups, he favors using his dribble and keeping it live until he is ready to get into his shooting motion. With his back to the basket, his favorite moves are the turnaround jumper or the baseline spin off the bounce.
Watch how Bryant backs down O.J. Mayo and then spins baseline for the score:
Even when defenders know that it is coming, they struggle to stop it because he can simply counter by going directly to the middle of the court. Watch Bryant get cute here with Jamal Crawford as the Los Angeles Clipper expects him to go baseline:
The Lakers guard simply plays the game on a level that is vastly superior to most players. The scouting report on Bryant ends up playing tricks on defenders because the superstar himself knows where defenses are trying to send him.
For instance, in the next video, Shawn Marion of the Dallas Mavericks is trying to take away the baseline and force his opponent into multiple dribbles and a turnaround jumper. Watch what actually happens:
On the play, Bryant fakes as though he is going baseline and forces Marion to open up the middle and from there he gets a layup. The idea is essentially the same as Jordan, but the execution is different.
The 17-year veteran is a more than accomplished post-up threat, but he still comes in short in the comparison versus the former Bulls superstar. Jordan gets the nod because of the efficiency of his movements and the sheer volume of great looks he created.
Bryant is a talented shot creator, but he settles for his fair share of low-percentage shots.
Perhaps one day Kevin Durant will eclipse both and redefine post play for perimeter players. Until that day comes though, Jordan sits at the top of the list.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and can be found on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.