Michael Jordan is the greatest champion in NBA history. His six rings count more than Bill Russell's 11, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's six, or Kobe Bryant's five. There is considerable good reason to make this statement, even if it sounds like the convenient position of a Bulls fan.
The "ring debate" is one that is so easily obscured by fuzzy logic. When considering greatness and counting rings, there's more than just how many rings you have. Not all rings are evenly earned. Basketball is a team sport, and you can't consider the ring discussion without considering the team.
If you do feel that's the case and would like to present your argument as to why Robert Horry is greater than Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Larry Bird, you just go right ahead and post a comment. I would love to see that logic defended.
At the same time, I don't think that any of the 28 combined rings earned by these four players are in the category of "Horry rings," where they were essentially along for the ride. No, in every case the players really were an essential and critical member of the team.
However, that doesn't mean that they all played equal roles in every ring either. Just as neither extreme example is a good argument, neither is only two extreme positions. The amount of value that is placed on rings is determined by the amount of value that the player added to the team.
So, then, it really becomes an issue of how you define value. There are two ways of defining it: absolute value and relative value. Absolute value is a constant. It is what it is. If a player scores 25 points, it's 25 points.
Relative value is more subjective as it involves what else is on the team. The greater of a proportional difference a player has on a team, the greater relative value he has. On the 1994 Houston Rockets, Otis Thorpe had a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 16.1, making him arguably the worst second-best player on a team in NBA history.
The gulf between Hakeem Olajuwon and Thorpe was tremendous, with Olajuwon averaging more than nine points higher on the season in PER and nearly 11 points more in the postseason, when he had the 17th highest in NBA history with 27.7.
The relative value of his postseason was much greater than the constant value of his contributions. The greater contributions of your teammates, the less that's demanded of your play in order to win it all. Therefore, players that have less contributions form their teams deserve more credit for winning.
I will compare both the constant value and the relative value of the four players in the postseason, showing on both accounts that Michael Jordan separates himself from the other three and that's why his six rings count more.
The first, and easiest, thing to do is to simply look at their postseason statistics and see how they compare in that regard. These are the overall postseason stats for each of them.
|Player||Min||Pts||Reb||Ast||Pts /Gm||Reb /Gm||Ast /Gm||TS%||PER||WS||WS/48|
Michael Jordan leads the four players in points, assists, and win shares—all cumulative stats despite of the fact that he has the fewest minutes. In the PER game stats, it's even more apparent that in terms of total value, his contribution is even greater.
Now, granted that postseason stats aren't the same as finals stats. Not piling on, but case in point: LeBron James this year. Great postseason..until the finals. Because of that, I also went and looked at, specifically, how players did in the finals.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any sites that had box-score specific stats for the finals before 1970, therefore I couldn't see how Russell did specifically in the finals. I think it's safe to assume, though, that if we saw them, it would indicate something similar to everywhere else (i.e. lots of rebounds, good defense, and not a lot of scoring). Here are the finals totals and averages for the other three though:
It's hard to believe, but Jordan actually improved his amazing playoff performances when he got to the final stage. Perhaps the most unbelievable thing is where he doesn't lead. In spite of the fact that the NBA's all-time scoring leader played 50 percent more games than Jordan, he only scored six more total points.
I'd also like to point out that Kobe's finals averages are slightly higher than his overall career averages. People tend to overlook an important thing when they look at finals performances—namely that they're going against a really good team.
For a player to have finals numbers better than their career numbers is an incredibly impressive feat. Kareem's numbers are slightly off his career numbers, but considering that his competition was often the likes of the greatest frontcourt in NBA history, you can't fault him too much. That being said, it's not like Russell, Jordan and Bryant were facing chopped liver.
If there is a number that's more impressive than Jordan's eye-popping 34.5 points per game in the finals, it's his 71.1 percent winning percentage there. In fact, you can argue that the only reason that Jordan doesn't have more total points than Abdul-Jabbar is that he played too well. If Jordan's Bulls had won one less game, they would have played one more, and that would compensate for the six-point difference.
In terms of absolute value, there's never been a player in the history of the NBA who has contributed more in the postseason than Jordan, who has more Win Shares and more points than anyone else with 39.1. He has the highest career postseason PER with 28.59.
(For those of you who have read my previous arguments regarding the deficiencies in Win Shares and PER, bear in mind that my problems with them are actually problems that work against Jordan, so don't argue that I'm suddenly conveniently using them. The truth is they aren't even sufficiently showing Jordan's dominance.)
The thing is, that's only scratching the surface because when you look at relative value, Jordan stands out even more.
I looked at two things to see the relative value of the team. First, I looked at how many Hall of Famers each player played alongside. Then, I looked at how much disparity there was between each player and the next best player on the team. Below are the "HOF Seasons," which is the cumulative seasons of all Hall of Fame players.
The reason for doing it this way is to prevent instances where players played only one season with a Hall of Famer rather than playing an entire career. For instance, Charles Oakley and Scottie Pippen were not the same.
For Kobe Bryant, it's a little more difficult as most of the players he played with aren't even eligible yet. Only two players he played with are currently in the Hall of Fame, Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone, and both were only for one year a piece.
For Kobe, I used Basketball-Reference's Hall of Fame predictor as a guide. Players with at least a 60-percent chance of getting in as of now I counted as HOF years. I'm assuming three players in particular who played with Kobe, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol and Gary Payton, will be voted into the HOF.
The first thing that pops out is the enormous difference between Russell and the rest of the players, even Kareem. He was teamed with more Hall of Famers than the other three combined. When you look at "his" 11 rings, this simply cannot be ignored.
That Celtic dynasty may very well have been the greatest team in North American professional sports. In 1963, they literally had eight Hall of Famers playing at the same time.
It was a different era with fewer teams, regional draft choice claims, and no free agency. The Celtics amassed great players on the team, and they were able to keep them without worrying about salary caps or cost.
Additionally, the league was only between eight and 14 teams deep at that time. It goes without saying that it's easier to win a league that has only eight teams, not 30. In many ways, you can compare winning the division title now to winning the league then.
Kareem's Lakers were somewhat in the middle. While he was with Milwaukee, he didn't have a lot of Hall of Fame teammates. He had Oscar Robertson for four seasons, and that was it. He only won one title there. Once he got to LA, though, he became the cornerstone of a dynasty that included players such as Magic Johnson, Bob McAdoo and James Worthy.
It was in the middle of his career that there was the merger—the league was considerably more developed when he retired than when he started. It also merits stating that all but one of his championships came after the merger, where the "modern age" of basketball started.
Jordan and Bryant played in an era of free agency, which essentially means they weren't able to keep the same team together. Both players won with essentially two different teams in the sense of who was put around them.
Their teams were also decisively thinner. Note that I didn't say "thin" but "thinner." This may seem that I'm trying to "take away" something from Kareem or Russell, but it shouldn't be viewed like that. It should viewed as crediting Kobe and Jordan for their accomplishment.
Now, another huge factor that needs to be accounted for is the second best player on the team. Since the merger, more than half of all championship teams have had at least two players among the top 15 in PER. Over 75 percent have at least two players in the top 25 and only the Rockets have won without at least two players in the top 50.
The "Robin" factor is undeniable, too. Every player needs another star to complement them, and these four were no exception. However, were all "Robins" the same? I went through and took the PER and WS of all four players through each postseason where they won a title, as well as the best scores that didn't belong to them.
I then found the difference in each case and added the scores together to come up with a "Robin Factor" to give an estimate of how much help each player received from their superstar teammates. First, here are the average "Robin Factor" scores for each player and their teammates:
|Player||PER||T/M PER||WS||T/M WS||PER Dif||WS Dif||Robin Factor|
Now, here are the individual season scores ranked highest to lowest:
It's pretty evident by looking at the year-by-year Robin Factors that Jordan isn't benefiting from a skewed season by anyone in any way, shape or form. His six rings account for six of the highest seven scores.
Furthermore, he's the only player who you can't argue was ever the "Robin" on a championship team. Clearly, in 2000 through 2002, Shaquille O'Neal was the driving force. For Kareem, it was 1988 because Magic Johnson was in charge. In fact, while Jordan has six finals MVPs, the other two have only two a piece.
For Russell, on his first two championship teams and his last one, it is evident that he wasn't even the second best player on the team. That's not a swipe though. He was first a very young player on a team loaded with Hall of Famers and a veteran past his prime. There were no Finals MVPs awarded then, but it's likely he could have won six.
However, there remains the earlier fact that he had by far the most Hall-of-Fame help of any of the players. In terms of help, Jordan received significantly less than any of the other three.
Statistically speaking, there can be no argument. Jordan is not only clearly ahead in terms of absolute value. He is also clearly ahead in relative value.
However, there will be those who argue that numbers don't tell the whole story. Now, first, I will say that I agree with that. It has been my observation though that generally when people make that argument, they deny the part of the story that the numbers do tell. Numbers don't tell the whole story, but they do tell a pretty good chunk of it.
As to the part that the numbers don't tell, Jordan wins there as well. He's the only one of them who never lost in a finals. He is the only one who won the finals MVP every time. He's the only one who never played a game seven.
He has won two series on a game-winning assist and he's won one series with a game-winning shot. He had the flu game. He had the shrug. He had the cry. He had not one, but two 50-point finals games. He had eight 40-point games. His "worst" game in the finals was "only" 22 points with four boards and four assists.
When John Hollinger did his 100 best finals performances, Jordan had four of the top 10 slots and five of the top 14. The narrative part of the story is not lost on Michael Jordan. No, the story is not lost there.
Nor is it stuck in only the finals. His game itself is what separates him from mere mortals, or even the "demigods," such as Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The most amazing thing about Jordan is that his best help was not Scottie Pippen. It's not to take anything away from Pippen, but it's what Pippen wasn't that makes Jordan extraordinary, and that's a big man.
When you look at every other great team, there's always been a ball handler and distributor on the outside, and a scorer, a big man, on the inside. Jordan was unique in that he served as both. He was the primary ball handler and passer on the team, and he was the primary scorer in the paint. Former Pistons guard Joe Dumars once said that 95 percent of the Bulls' plays are intended for Michael Jordan, and the other five percent end up in his hands anyway.
No other player in NBA history has won multiple championships the way that Jordan did. One could argue that LeBron James has been the same kind of player, but he hasn't won championships. Kobe could score in the paint, but he never won without a great scoring big man.
Kareem had Oscar Robertson, and then Magic Johnson. Bill Russell had Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and John Havlicek. Kobe Bryant has Pau Gasol and had Shaquille O'Neal before that.
Michael Jordan had Horace Grant, who had one season where he scored 16.2 points per game in the postseason. That's the only time in his career where he had a big man score more than 15 points in the playoffs.
That's not taking anything away from Pippen. It also says something about him that he was able to be the complement to Jordan, but Jordan was as unique as anyone has ever been in that regard.
Now the last thing you might bring up is that Russell's defense was the primary reason the Celtics won and that has to be taken into account. Well, the same is true of the Bulls. They were one of the elite defensive teams in their era, and Jordan was a big part of the reason why.
He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team 11 times as a starter, an NBA-record for a shooting guard. Since then, Kobe Bryant has tied that record. Yes, Russell played great defense, but he is not the only player on his team who did, nor is he the only player on this list who did.
The reason that Jordan's rings count for more is that he did more than any of the others' in terms of both constant value and relative value, in both the postseason as a whole and in the finals specifically, and in both the stats and the narrative, Jordan is without question, the greatest postseason player of all time, and the greatest player of all time.
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