Playing a ball-dominant style similar to today's NBA stars, Michael Jordan won scoring titles and All-Star recognition but never more than 50 games in a season and no championships. Only after he bulked up his 6'6" frame and began operating below the free-throw line did he become a six-time champion and the most feared finisher in the NBA.
With the NBA on hiatus, the ESPN documentary on Jordan, The Last Dance, has become the focal point for any and all discussion about basketball, particularly how the game has changed since Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' decade-long dynasty. With that comes the thought: how would MJ and his game look in today's radically different NBA? Which of today's players would he fit with best? And perhaps most importantly: would he be just as dominant?
An array of current general managers and coaches provided answers but requested anonymity, with Jordan still prominent in the NBA as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets.
"You want a guy who is OK not being 'the guy'"
There were differences in how they envisioned using him in today's game and the ideal co-star to put alongside him, but there was a consensus on where he'd stand among today's stars: same place he did then. Alone. At the top.
"There's nobody with his drive," one Eastern Conference GM says. "Nobody with his killer instinct. Nobody close."
Team success would depend on providing him the right pieces, but doing so might not be as demanding as it was in Jordan's era. Fewer teams today maintain their continuity, offenses are both less elaborate and more star-centric, and Jordan's ability to prepare his teammates for big moments has been well-documented.
"He could've won in today's game the way he played pre-triangle," the Eastern Conference GM says. "You don't have as many good teams as you had then. It's not about the team. It's two or three guys teaming up."
Identifying just who those ideal wingmen would be nowadays proved to be a Rorschach test of sorts for the executives and coaches. "You want a guy who is OK not being 'the guy,' if need be," a former head coach and current Western Conference assistant says.
Several executives mentioned Clippers small forward Paul George and Lakers forward-center Anthony Davis as ideal candidates to be a modern-day version of Scottie Pippen, Jordan's co-star for all six championships. Their versatility, defensive tenacity and temperament to accept Jordan as the undisputed leader were the primary reasons. Both are viewed as having alpha skill sets but not alpha attitudes.
"It's not the franchise-type guys," a second Eastern Conference GM says. "It's the next level."
As they might be perceived now, that is. Playing alongside Jordan could've highlighted their strengths and mitigated their weaknesses.
"Davis would be at the top of the list of guys Jordan would make better," the first Eastern Conference GM says. "And there's something missing in PG—that extra gear no one's been able to reach. Michael would've helped somebody like him too."
There was also a consensus on the one player who would not work as Jordan's right-hand man: Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant. Too much of an alpha in his own right, those canvassed said, and not likely to respond well to Jordan's demands.
"There's only one guy who wouldn't willingly move over and be No. 2—KD," the first Eastern Conference GM says. "He'd struggle playing with Michael. Too sensitive, and he'd want to shoot all the balls. If Michael yelled at him for missing too many shots, he wouldn't have liked it."
The second Eastern Conference GM was more succinct: "KD? No chance."
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid might've been a tough fit as well. "A guy like that would have a hard time," a third Eastern Conference GM says. "He'd slow the game, and he needs the ball in his hands. He doesn't give the best effort. Underachievers of any kind would not work."
The Western Conference assistant coach imagined playing Jordan as a point forward and surrounding him with tough-minded role players. "I'd like PJ Tucker and Pat Beverley next to him," he says. "Mike's a dog, and you have to have guys who aren't afraid. Trevor Ariza in his prime is another one. So is Mike Conley. He wouldn't be fazed by anything [Jordan] might say to him."
The second Eastern Conference GM rattled off Nuggets center Nikola Jokic ("playmaker who doesn't command the ball"), Pelicans guard JJ Redick ("stone-cold flamethrower"), Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal ("on the cusp of being the best two-way 2-guard in the league") and Draymond Green ("doesn't need the ball in his hands") as players particularly suited to play with Jordan in today's game.
He also envisioned Warriors point guard Steph Curry being able to flourish next to Jordan. "He proved he has enough of a deferential mindset to play with another superstar when he got KD," the second Eastern Conference GM says.
Getting along with the NBA's current top dog, LeBron James, would've depended on when they joined forces.
"If he had got LeBron early, [James] would've deferred right away," the first Eastern Conference GM says. "He would've been a bigger, badder version of Scottie."
A former head coach and now Western Conference assistant agrees. "LeBron loves to facilitate," he says. "He's Pippen on steroids."
"He would've been quicker"
While finding the right teammates for Jordan would depend on their ability and willingness to fit around him, today's analytics-inspired pace would've demanded the Bulls abandon the triangle and for Jordan to find a less deliberate method of defeating defenses. Still, if there's any question if Jordan could handle the modern game, the documentary's look at his early years should answer that.
"The one thing it shows you is how good his body control was," a fourth Eastern Conference GM says. "You watch him move around the court, he's so fluid. He just moves at a different level, in a way that today's players would love to move. Think about it—guys are still practicing his moves. He's so much more athletic than anybody else. … His athletic ability transcends. He's like Michael Johnson or any of the elite sprinters. Their times hold up over time."
And that's without specific training for today's game. Rob McClanaghan, a skills development trainer who has had many current stars as clients—Curry, Durant and Russell Westbrook among them—worked as a counselor at three of Jordan's post-Bulls summer camps and believes Jordan's training regimen would've been considerably different.
The NBA played a slower, more physical game in Jordan's day, which is one reason he decided, after six years of solely relying on his speed and quickness to attack the rim off the dribble, to reshape his body with weight training and his game by developing post moves. The added strength and weight, combined with a more ground-bound approach that dovetailed with coach Phil Jackson's triangle offense, resulted in six title runs over a nine-year stretch.
That wouldn't have been necessary today. "Back then it was free weights, bench press, a lot of shoulder work," McClanaghan says. "You'd hit the bench press and squeeze out eight to 10 reps of 225 pounds. Back in the '80s and '90s, they'd play pickup in the summers for three hours. Today it's less weight, more reps when you are lifting. Resistance work vs. curls. More flexibility and stretching."
Having seen Jordan up close—McClanaghan actually got matched up with him in a few pickup games during those camps—he's certain Jordan would've been just as lethal without any specific training. But with it, well..."His first step was next level," McClanaghan says. "He didn't just have hops, he had quick hops. I don't know how much better he could get. But I'm sure he would've done less of the heavy lifting and more explosive, band-resistance work. He would've been quicker."
Take that in for a second.
"The floor would open up so much"
No matter the era, Jordan's physical gifts and next-level vision would make him an impossible cover. He played his entire Bulls career under the NBA's first version of illegal defense rules, which essentially forced teams to play man-to-man or be very decisive if they double-teamed a player. Today's defense isn't played with the same physicality, but it also doesn't have the same limitations.
"The defenses today are a little closer, and the help can get there a little quicker," an Eastern Conference head coach says. "You'd have to mix up zones, trying to keep him off-balance with multiple looks. One-on-one, there's no way you're stopping him. And again, he's such a gifted passer that if you consistently double-team him, he'll pick you apart. You're not going to stop him; you're just looking to disrupt his rhythm."
In a lot of ways, the current up-and-down game might be better suited for Jordan than the half-court, hand-to-hand combat of the '90s.
"He'd be at his best playing fast," a former head coach, now a Western Conference assistant, says. "Defenses, schematically, are a lot better than in the past. Play fast and play open, and I don't know how you'd stop him. By slowing it down, you'd have a better chance of keeping him under 40."
The second Eastern Conference GM agrees.
"His ability to go to the basket and finish was uncanny," he says. "He could finish over you or around you. Up-and-unders and dipsy-dos. He could manipulate the ball off the backboard with all sorts of different spins."
Making Jordan the ball-handler in pick-and-roll plays, now a staple of nearly every team's offense but not a big part of the triangle, also excited the executives and coaches.
"Think of the switches he would force," says the second Eastern Conference GM. "Or simply getting a step on his man. How could you stay in front of him? The floor would open up so much."
The one element missing from Jordan's scoring arsenal that is a staple in today's game is the three-point shot. He won 10 scoring titles while never averaging more than 3.6 three-point attempts per game in a season; for comparison, James Harden has led the league in scoring the last three years, averaging 10.0, 13.2 and 12.6 attempts per game, respectively.
In Jordan's day, pulling up to take a three on the break for most players might result in getting pulled from the game, even though someone as thirsty to score as Jordan would've no doubt enjoyed doing so.
"Would MJ be a three-point shooter?" the Eastern Conference head coach asks. "He would be in today's game. Can you imagine him with the freedom to take that first open look on the break? He's strong enough and big enough he could be a spot-up shooter as well. He would've eventually perfected it."
The Western Conference assistant says while he'd move Jordan out of the post in today's game, he'd still want him operating in a more central location than out by the three-point arc.
"I'd still play iso," he says, short for isolation one-on-one sets. "I'd put him at the nail [free-throw line] and top of the key. Jab step, bam, one step, and he's at the rim before you can even think about doubling him. He'd be taking off at the free-throw line. You couldn't double on the catch—it would be too late. You'd have to send help on the pass to him. It would be a nightly highlight reel."
"He was 'the dude' and one of the dudes"
Jordan's greatest challenge might not have been on the court at all but in trying to stay off social media nightly highlight reels. He enjoyed playing as hard off the court at times as he did on it.
"We'd walk into a club, and there Mike would be at a private table in the back," former Bulls center Scott Williams says. "He was 'the dude' and one of the dudes."
Says former teammate B.J. Armstrong: "I don't know where the man got the energy. He'd walk 18 holes of golf, go to shootaround, walk another 18 and then go to the game and score 45. Then he'd get on the plane, gamble with us, get to the next city and say, 'Let's go out.' What was he tapping into? I can't tell you. If I knew I'd pass it on, and the first person I would've passed it on to was me."
Despite his seemingly indefatigable habits, he managed to maintain a low profile in his private life, but that was in the age before smartphones, wide use of the internet and digital media.
"Social media might be his biggest opponent if he was playing today," the fourth Eastern Conference GM says. "He was so many places, but back then he could control the flow. He had a day's buffer when news came out. Today? TMZ would be all over him."
Then again, it's not as if Jordan didn't demonstrate a deftness in handling difficult news stories—his gambling, Pippen's contract holdout or the Phil Jackson-Jerry Krause feud—by being direct and forthright in his day. If he found a way to adapt to a faster game, assuredly he would've found a way to adapt to a faster news cycle. No matter the era, on the floor or with the media, it's hard to see Jordan as anything other than a flow master.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
Bucher hosts the podcast Bucher & Friends with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes.
Jason Hehir, director of "The Last Dance" documentary, joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the project's reception by fans, the portrayal of former Bulls GM Jerry Krause, the decision to omit longtime shoe executive Sonny Vaccaro, the inclusion of President Barack Obama, the depiction of the Bulls' locker room friction, the importance of addressing Michael Jordan’s "Republicans buy sneakers, too" comment and the reason Jason believes "The Last Dance" is a true underdog story at heart.