Despite G.O.A.T. Status, Michael Jordan's NBA Career Still a Tale of 'What If'

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Despite G.O.A.T. Status, Michael Jordan's NBA Career Still a Tale of 'What If'
Steve Freeman/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1999, Michael Jordan retired from the NBA for a second time.

That we have to say "a second time" should incite some level of curiosity. But seldom, if ever, does Jordan's NBA career trigger "what if" questions—implications of unfinished business or untapped potential.

Maybe that's because he, despite walking away from the game twice in his prime, collected six titles. Or perhaps it's because each of the first two times he retired, Jordan quit as a champion at the back end of a three-peat.

Or maybe it's because his resume, even with two separate sabbaticals, is good enough to dominate the greatest-of-all-time discussion. And, to that point, what good can possibly come from harping on the unknown?

"I played it to the best that I could play it," Jordan said at his retirement press conference in 1999, per NBA.com, "I tried to enhance the game itself. I've tried to be the best basketball player that I could be."

Nothing could be truer almost two decades later. Yet, as the 17th anniversary of Jordan's second retirement comes to pass, it's silly to ignore the context of his sudden departures—that at those moments, he could still do so much more.

 

Championships Left on the Table

JACK SMITH/Associated Press
How many titles should Jordan's Bulls have actually won?

Six championships are a lot.

And yet, Jordan could have won more.

He first retired in 1993 to play baseball at 30 years old, still very much in his prime. That essentially cost him two seasons. He missed all of 1993-94 and played just 17 games in 1994-95.

It's fair to assume those mid-'90s Chicago Bulls would have earned at least one more championship during those two seasons if Jordan never left. Bilking the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets of both championships in 1994 and 1995 would have been a distinct possibility.

No single player came close to touching Jordan before he first stepped away. In the six seasons leading up to his initial departure, he towered over the league in Total Points Added (TPA)—a metric developed by Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal that shows how many points better the average team is with a given player on the floor:

David Robinson (1991-92) and Olajuwon (1992-93) nearly bested Jordan's TPA mark the latter two years, but first place is first place, and it's possible he would have reigned over the rest of the league in the coming seasons.

Think about what this would have meant for the Bulls. They won 55 games in 1993-94 without Jordan, as both Scottie Pippen (third) and Horace Grant (10th) ranked in the top 10 of TPA. Jordan would have made an exceptional team that came one win shy of an Eastern Conference Finals berth without him indomitable championship material.

The 1994-95 campaign is slightly less certain. Chicago lost Grant to the Orlando Magic in free agency during the summer of 1994 and finished third in its division even after welcoming Jordan back into the fold.

Jordan battled efficiency issues upon that return, posting what was, at the time, the worst true shooting percentage of his career. But he nevertheless ranked in the top 10 of player efficiency rating, and it would be naive to think he wouldn't have played even better had he not abandoned the NBA scene for more than 20 months—especially after you take into account how he fared up until his second retirement:

Jordan's second-place standing is legit. It doesn't just validate what the Bulls could have done with him for all of 1993-94 and 1994-95; it suggests they would have kept humming along beyond his final season in Chicago.

Not that those 1997-98 Bulls wouldn't have needed to change. Five of their top six win-share leaders were 32 or older. Three were 34 or older, including Jordan. Keeping the same core together, just as the Tim Duncan- and David Robinson-driven San Antonio Spurs were gearing up for their first title push, wouldn't have sufficed.

But Jordan finished fourth in PER and second in win shares for 1997-98, and he joined Shaquille O'Neal and Karl Malone as the lone players to register a true shooting percentage better than 50 and a usage rate higher than 30.

There's no doubt he could have remained a superstar.

This is the same Jordan who at the age of 38, following a three-year hiatus, ranked in the top 20 of PER during his first season with the Washington Wizards. So in 1998, at the age of 34, on the heels of his sixth and final championship, he certainly remained healthy enough and great enough to anchor a newer version of Chicago's dynasty.

Penciling him in for eight championships had he never retired the first two times is reasonable. Ruling out nine titles underestimates all he might have done during the three-year gap that preceded his stint in Washington.

 

Jordan Could Have Been a 10-Time MVP

Charles Bennett/Associated Press
Should Jordan have won more than five MVP awards?

Voter fatigue is real. If it wasn't, Jordan would have more than five MVP awards under his belt.

Five qualifies as second-most in NBA history—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grabbed six. Jordan, much like LeBron James today, didn't need MVP validation every year to substantiate his best-player-of-the-moment status.

All five of Jordan's MVPs came during his final 10 seasons with the Bulls. In the five years he didn't win, he either finished second or third in voting, with the exception of his 17-game 1994-95 season.

Malone's selection over Jordan in 1996-97 was the least controversial of his exclusions. A 33-year-old Jordan led the league in win shares, but Malone was right behind him and paced everyone in PER.

Other MVP ladders were much more puzzling. Jordan topped the NBA in both win shares and PER for the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons; the gap between him and the field was statistically enormous. But it was Magic Johnson, not Jordan, who took home the award both years.

That 1989-90 vote was especially baffling, and it rightfully stuck with Jordan, as Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney previously detailed:

Jordan was right to be bitter. Unlike Johnson or [Charles] Barkley, he was a fearsome defender -- so much so that he was voted first team All-Defense in the previous two seasons and would be selected again in 1990. He led the league in points and steals per game, and in retrospect we know that he bested all players that season in win shares and Player Efficiency Rating. No player, Barkley included, used more of his team's possessions in 1990 than Jordan, and yet for all that shot creation Jordan still ranked in the top 15 in true shooting percentage with an amazingly low turnover rate. His was one of the great statistical seasons of all time, and yet the majority of his votes came as a third-place candidate.

Fast-forward to the 1992-93 race, and there's more evidence of voter fatigue. Jordan once again overshadowed the competition in win shares and PER. Somehow, he finished third in voting, ceding status to a wildly talented, albeit still inferior, Charles Barkley.

Would Jordan miss out on that recognition if he didn't win the MVP in each of the previous two years?

MJ's MVP Credentials with Chicago
Season PER Rank Win Share Rank MVP Voting Rank
1984-85 2 2 6
1985-86* 2 92 N/A
1986-87 1 1 2
1987-88 1 1 1
1988-89 1 1 2
1989-90 1 1 3
1990-91 1 1 1
1991-92 1 1 1
1992-93 1 1 3
1994-95* 9 94 11
1995-96 1 1 1
1996-97 2 1 2
1997-98 4 2 1

Source: Basketball-Reference. (*Played in fewer than 20 games)

Then there's the recurring matter of his retirement.

Jordan won two MVPs after his first retirement, in 1995-96 and 1997-98. He would have assuredly been in the conversation for 1993-94 and 1994-95.

He secured another award in 1997-98, and the 1998-99 prize went to a 35-year-old Malone. He would have had at least one more MVP effort in the tank beyond his last go-round with Chicago.

Putting an exact number to Jordan's should-have-been MVPs is an inexact science. He could have won every (active) year between 1986-87 and his second retirement in 1997-98 without inciting much fuss.

And knowing this, it's hard not to conclude that a combination of voter fatigue and self-imposed absences cost Jordan his deserved spot in the MVP record books ahead of Abdul-Jabbar.

 

Jordan Could Have Been NBA's All-Time Scoring Leader

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Had Jordan's career unfolded differently, Abdul-Jabbar might not be the NBA's all-time leading scorer.

Kevin Durant and James are the players most often tied to Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record, and their chances of eclipsing his 38,387 career points remain slim.

Remove each of Jordan's first two retirements from the history books, and they would be unsuccessfully chasing him, not Abdul-Jabbar.

Jordan ranks fourth on the all-time scoring list with 32,292 points, a full 6,095 behind Abdul-Jabbar. That chasm reads larger than it actually is, because Jordan, like Abdul-Jabbar, churned out 2,000-plus-point seasons in his sleep.

In the three seasons leading up to his first furlough, Jordan averaged 2,508 points per campaign. He nearly maintained that level of normal during his last full three years in Chicago, allowing us to safely count him in for a 2,508-point performance that wasn't in 1993-94.

Tallying 457 points through 17 appearances in 1994-95 put Jordan on pace for a 2,204-point display over a full schedule. That should be higher, since Jordan wouldn't need to work off rust if he never retired, but we'll roll with it anyway.

Completely playing out 1993-94 and 1994-95 would have ended with Jordan's tacking at least another 4,255 points on to his career total—4,712 projected, minus the actual 457 points he scored in 1994-95—narrowing the space between him and Abdul-Jabbar to 1,840.

This revised separation is nothing. It's less than a full season in Jordan's heyday. If we use the 1,508 points per season Jordan averaged with Washington as our baseline, expunge his three-year hiatus from existence and adjust for the shortened 1998-99 season, he would have comfortably exceeded Abdul-Jabbar:

Barely having Jordan, sans any detours, eclipse 40,000 points falls on the conservative end of the spectrum. If we use his pre-existing career arc to map out a scoring trend, his projection climbs above 41,000.

Either way, had Jordan forgone his mid-career pauses and continued to enjoy good health, Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record would be his own.

 

What-Ifs Only Make MJ's G.O.A.T. Argument More Compelling

BETH A. KEISER/Associated Press
The NBA's greatest of all time could have been even greater.

The unscheduled time Jordan spent off the court, away from the game, as someone other than the best basketball player, is an important part of his legacy.

It does not detract from his reputation. It is not something to reflect upon angrily or with powerful pangs of regret.

Instead, those gaps in Jordan's NBA career act as flattering footnotes—surreal reminders that the greatest player of all time only ever scratched the surface of his greatness.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and Adam Fromal's TPA database unless otherwise cited.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.

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