A few days ago Randy Garcia wrote an intelligent article on the impact of Michael Jordan to the way in which the league has been marketed. This caused me to stop and think about some of the other ways in which Jordan's decade of domination may have affected the league since his second departure in 1998. The principle effect, I suspect, relates to the perceived value of scoring.
Scoring points is obviously important in the game of basketball. Many would in fact argue that it is the whole point of the game. Even if your viewpoint is that the aim is to outscore your opponent, meaning defense is the prerequisite for success, you must still score yourself to win. So we can all agree scoring is clearly paramount.
But on what level is it important? The team level or the individual level?
This seems to be a principle cause of disagreement amongst basketball fans.
On the one hand you have those who see scoring as an output of the latter, of iso’s and "shot creation" and individual brilliance.
People of this opinion will tend to be forgiving of below average and even sometimes very poor shooting efficiency. They maintain that it is better for the high volume scorer to take that impossible shot than any of his teammates, teammates who they see as there principally to support that scorer.
The diametrically opposing view is the former—those who see scoring as an output of effective team play.
Fans who ascribe to this perspective will still admit that scorers are valuable players, but only if they score with at least an average level of efficiency and contribute to other areas of the game simultaneously.
Fan's of this perspective when asked a question such as "who else on that team could make a shot like that with three defenders in his face?" would answer along the lines of "why would a player take that shot when two of his teammates are now open?" This is the basic duality in the two perspectives.
How does Michael Jordan relate to this argument?
So, on the one hand you have guys who value spectacular individual performers, players who will reach gaudy point totals and take extremely difficult shots on a regular basis.
On the other are guys who value efficiency and believe that since the game is predicated on possessions, only those players who are efficient enough to contribute without wasting them on missed shots and turnovers have the greatest value. They see "shot creation" as a euphemism for "needlessly throwing up a prayer."
These two views seemed mutually exclusive. Until Jordan came along and united them.
What made Jordan such a great player was that he gave both these sets of fans what they wanted. He scored prodigiously, yet he did it very efficiently. He’d hit a spectacular game winner, but he’d play lockdown defense to gain the extra possession that led to the shot.
He basically did both the obvious and the discrete, and did them both extremely well. He shone because of the former, but he won because of the latter. The league’s top scorer and it’s best player, ying and yang.
It is my contention that the decade in which we were all spoilt by this multi-spectral brilliance has left an indelible impact on the game that remains to this day.
Over the years Jordan changed more than just the way the game is marketed. He changed the very way that talent is evaluated in basketball. He took high scoring outbursts and made them synonymous with winning, and that association remains to this day.
To illustrate this point I looked at three measures: the top scorer each season, the leader in win shares, and how those related to MVP voting. I took this back 30 years, to the 1979-80 season, and the data presents as follows:
Before Michael Jordan's emergence the league's leading scorer averaged a placing of 6th in the M.V.P voting. The leader in Win Shares averaged a place of 2nd in the voting.
During Michael Jordan’s career (before the stint with the Wizards) the league's leading scorer (usually Jordan) averaged a placement of 1.75 in the M.V.P voting. The leader in Win Shares (again usually Jordan) had the same average.
Thus during his decade of dominance Michael Jordan achieved a synthesis between individual scoring output and contributions to team wins which is almost completely unparalleled in at least the last 30 years.
After Jordan hung up his sneakers in 1998 however, the league's leading scorer has been placed an average of 3.8 on the M.V.P voting.
Contrast this with the Win Share average placement, which has remained almost exactly the same as it was before MJ at 1.9, and you can see that whilst the measures which make a player valuable to his team have basically remained unchanged, the perception of what is valuable has been skewed towards scoring.
The impact of being the league's leading scorer in relation to how valuable a player is perceived is now almost double what it was before MJ's emergence.
It is therefore my position, that Jordan's simultaneous dominance in both the overt area of point production, and subtler areas of efficiency (which though less obvious are in fact more important to the win column), has lead to a cognitive coalescence of these two principles in the minds of the media and the casual observer.
For better or for worse the top scorers are now more than ever seen as the cream of the N.B.A crop, and a large part of that change is due to the G.O.A.T himself.
Some other assorted observations of this data;
In the last 30 years, the leader in win shares is named the M.V.P 11 times. The leading scorer (except when he also led the league in win shares) was M.V.P 2 times. On average, win shares leaders finish twice as high in the M.V.P vote than PPG leaders, and the PPG numbers are skewed heavily by Jordan. This indicates that win shares are indeed a much more effective evaluator of a players value than points per game.
T-Mac should probably have been given consideration for the M.V.P award in 2003. He should at least finished higher than fourth place.
Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant have both had multiple scoring titles in the post Jordan era, and have won an M.V.P award despite not having yet led the league in win shares.
Dirk Nowitzki had a strong case to beat out Steve Nash for at least one of his two M.V.P awards. Dirk is the only player other than Jordan to lead the league in win shares more than twice in a row.
The only players other than Jordan to be the leading scorer, and leader in win shares in the same year are McGrady in 2003, Shaq in 2000, David Robinson in 1994 and Adrian Dantley in 84. Shaq also won the M.V.P award in 2000, the only player except MJ to lead the league in all three.
Jordan lead the league in win shares, and points per game for 7 seasons in a row, yet only received 3 M.V.P awards during that period. Magic Johnson also won 3 M.V.P awards during the same stretch.