Michael Jordan: Could He Really Score 50 with the Hand-Check Rule in Place?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2011

Michael Jordan: Could He Really Score 50 with the Hand-Check Rule in Place?

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    Scottie Pippen declared once that Michael Jordan could score 50 in today’s league. That’s quite a boast. It, of course, leaves one wanting the answers to two questions. First, what’s different about today’s league that he could do so? Second, is it true?

    Now, let’s address the first question first. There are actually two rules which have changed that have made the game different. First there’s what is commonly referred to as, “the hand-check rule” and the other is the change in allowing for zone defense. Both rulings have their own impact.

    The first rule change is easier explained than to just put the official NBA rule, which is the equivalent of basketball legal speak. Essentially what it means is that in the olden days of Michael Jordan, when a player was guarding a perimeter player he could extend his hand and put it on the player to “check” him.

    As a point of clarification on the hand check rule there’s a lot of disinformation available in various forums which debate the subject. The hand check rule that players are referencing when they speak of “today’s rules” is the rule as it was amended prior to the 2004-05 season.

    While part of that was just a matter of clarifying the rule, the major part of it was its emphasis to officials. There was technically a hand-check foul in 1994-95, but it wasn’t the same type of foul or called with the same frequency.

    For the purposes of this article, the 2005 season is when the hand-check rule started to have an impact. As you will see, the definitive separation is evident for this being a clean divide.

    The purpose of this article is to consider how Michael Jordan would do in today’s rules. It is not to address a semantic argument drummed up by certain fans of a certain player to distort the history of the rule.

    In the 2004-05 season the NBA changed the rules and enforcement in regards to hand checks and the impact of that is clearly seen by viewing it in the context of what has occurred in the NBA since then.

    As the reasoning and history of the hand-check rule have been addressed, and as it’s really not a matter for dispute in any real terms, I won’t be addressing any arguments in regards to this in the comments section. Simply put, it’s a non-issue.

    Michael Jordan never played with the same type of hand-check rule as the game is called today. That’s the subject of the article.   

    This gave the defender two advantages. One, he could actually slow him down a bit with his hand. Second, with more athletic players who could explode to the basket, it meant they could “feel” which way the player was going.

    This gave the defender an advantage in that day that he doesn’t have in this day, at least in the eyes of those who tout its influence.

    However, there are those who claim that it’s really just a rule that hasn’t had an impact, that it’s rarely called and that it’s just a thing blown out of proportion by Jordan fans to make him seem better than he was.

    In an interest to be fair on this, I sought to consider what would be a fair way to measure, statistically which side of the argument was true.

    Since the basis of the argument is that the hand check rule “opens up the game” meaning it allows perimeter players more opportunity, there should be three things that are visible if the argument is true.

    First, there should be a rise in unassisted field goals. Second, there should be a rise in “big games” from perimeter-style players. Third, there should be a rise in the importance of “penetration” players in the NBA.

    There will be those who say that stats don’t “prove” anything. However, if there is little to no change, then history is consistent with the hand-check rule not having an effect. If those three things are true, then history is consistent with having an effect. 

Assist to Field Goal Ratio, Pre Hand Check

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    The first thing to look at is to check if there’s a rise in unassisted field goals. Now since there was no thought as to separating field goals into these two areas before, I can’t simply look and see if there is a direct rise in unassisted field goals.

    However, what I can do is look at assists and field goals and sees if there is a change in the ratio of assists per field goal. If there is a significant dip in that ratio, then that means that there is a reduction in the number of assisted field goals and by logical extension, a correlating increase in the number of unassisted field goals.

    I went back and charted the year-by-year statistics going back to 1985. I tracked overall the number of total field goals made each year, the total number of assists and the ratio for each season. I then looked at two specific time frames, before and after the year the hand-check rule was enforced. 

    Above, you can see the chart of what that ratio looks like. Note how the ratio was actually trending up after Michael Jordan retired. In fact it’s even more striking that the years that Jordan was with either out on his baseball gig for all or part of the season.  

    Prior to his “retirement” he was virtually bringing down the average himself. The year 1992 and 1993 were the two lowest over the time frame covered and six of the seven lowest year in the 20 prior to the hand check rule were the vintage Jordan days where he sliced through traffic and finished at the rim.

    During the post-retirement years, where he changed his game a bit to be more of a jump shooter, there was a higher average league wide in the assists to field goal ratio. It’s quite significant that at least at first brush it looks as though Jordan, all by himself, was affecting the assist to field goal ratio.

    Now let’s take a look at what’s been happening since the hand-check rule has been imposed.

Asst to Field Goal Ratio, Post Hand Check

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    Rather than get caught up in the numbers first, just take a look at the difference in the trendline. Incidentally, if you have a sharp eye and you’re wondering why 2004 is included here, it’s for the sake of the trend line, i.e. so that the fall off from 2004 to 2005 can be reflected.

    Whether this “proves” anything or not is a bit premature. What we can say though is that the theory that the hand check rule has steered the league has more towards ball handlers who can penetrate and create their own shots is entirely consistent with the data, and the notion that the hand check rule has had little to no effect is not.

    In fact, the six years with the lowest assist to field goal ratio in the NBA since 1985 are the years since the hand check rule was imposed. Furthermore, from 1985, the cumulative ratio was 0.604.

    Over the time frame since then, it has been 0.577, constituting about a 5 percent increase in unassisted field goals since the hand check rule was imposed.

50-Point Games by Perimeter Players

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    The next thing I wanted to look at was the number of “big games” that perimeter players had over each time frame.  The reason for that is I wanted to check the effect of “dominant performances.”

    Therefore, I wanted to make it a big enough number that had a large enough sample size to not be misleading but small enough to actually still be an accomplishment that was rare.

    I chose 50-point games because that’s the number that Pippen stated and the one that raised all the controversy.

    I went through each game and took note of whether the player was a “post” player who scored his points the traditional way of getting the ball passed to him inside or a perimeter player who either scored from the outside or drove the ball inside.  In other words, did he fit the Jordan model of player?

    What you see above is the number of 50-point games per year scored on average before and after the hand check rule started to be enforced. As you can see, the number has climbed by 80 percent.

    Again is this “proof positive?” Is it possible that it’s just coincidence? Yes, I imagine so, but again, the theory that the hand-check rule is making it easier for the perimeter big game is consistent with what’s actually been happening. 

50-Point Games by Perimeter Players Adjusted for Jordan and Bryant

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    What’s even more amazing is if you adjust the stats for Kobe and MJ, who have accounted for 55 of the 50 point games between them. Kobe had 24, Jordan had 31. That means that Jordan and Kobe combine for 40 percent of all 50-point games by perimeter players in the last 26 seasons.

    If we take out those games and look at the difference before and after, we see an even larger difference. That’s more than double the number of 50-point games per year by perimeter players!

    This again, suggests the conclusion that Bryant has benefited from the rule change. If mere mortals result from the rule change, it stands to reason that the nearly immortal would too.

    Incidentally, just as an aside, I noticed Jordan had 49-point games on 10 different occasions.

50-Point Game Distribution Between Perimeter and Post Players, Pre Hand Check

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    The other intriguing thing about this is that the number of 50 point games from low post scorers has dropped off the cliff. Looking at the chart to the left, you can see that from Jordan’s rookie season to the addition of the hand-check rule, low post players accounted for slightly less than 22 percent of all 50 point games.

    Certainly that’s the minority, but if you account for the “Jordan/Bryant factor,” then post players accounted for almost 40 percent of all 50 point games in that time frame.  In short, post scoring still was a significant factor in terms of the “big game,” although the majority were coming from the perimeter.

    Now I know that some might be thinking that I’m trying to use this “Jordan/Bryant” thing to skew the numbers. I know this because in previous experience, there are some people who seem incapable of having any Jordan-related discussion  First, that’s why I’m including both sets of numbers.

    Second, I’m doing it because it’s clear that both players are outliers. I’m not trying to do another Kobe vs. MJ article here. I’m trying to evaluate the difference the hand check rule has had on the perimeter game.

    That means that I have to consider that both players might have skewed the stats, so that’s why I’m looking at them both ways. 

50-Point Game Distribution Between Perimeter and Post Players, Post Hand Check

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    Here’s what the same chart looks like since the enforcement of the hand check rule. Not only has the number of 50-point games gone up by perimeter players gone up, the number of post players that have 50-point games has gone down, both in real terms and percentages.

    In fact, since the NBA began enforcing the hand-check rule, there’s been only four 50-point games by low post scorers.

    This indicates that there’s been a shift in the actual game. The emphasis has gone through a gradual and consistent shift from being a low-post game to being a perimeter game over the course of the NBA’s history, from widening the lane, to instituting the three-point line to instituting and then enforcing the hand check rule.  

    Even instituting the zone defense, particularly with the defensive three-second rule, has pushed the importance of the perimeter game. One of the weaknesses of zone defense is that they are prone to players who are able to penetrate and split the zone.

    Zone defenses are often cited as making things more difficult, but it’s a misunderstanding. First, the reality is that scoring has gone up since the institution of it, but more important than how much scoring there is, is who is doing the scoring.

    The above evidence indicates a push towards the perimeter and less on low post scoring. The big games are no longer coming from the Wilt Chamberlains and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars of the NBA, but the Kobe Bryants and LeBron Jameses. 

MVP Distribution, Pre Hand Check

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    This brings up the third point, which is the increased importance of the perimeter player. The above chart indicates the history of the MVP and the percentage of times the player who won was a “post” player or a “perimeter” player.

    I counted all the MVPs since the inception of the award as just looking at what happened since Michael Jordan’s rookie season would skew the percentages.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I counted Larry Bird as a post player. The reason being, in terms of his skill set, he wasn’t the kind of player who was known for putting the ball on the floor and driving to the hoop.

    However, just in case you want to say he’s a perimeter player because he played small forward, the percentage is 69 percent post and 31 percent perimeter.

    In that time, one half of all the perimeter players that won the MVP were named Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson had three more. The other three were Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson. In short, the MVP was a big man’s award. 

MVP Distribution: Post Hand Check

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    Here is what has happened since the inception of the hand-check rule.  As you can see, there is a complete contrast with what had happened with the award before the hand-check rule was imposed.

    The award, which was predominately a big man’s award, has become the exclusive domain of the perimeter player.

    It isn’t just the number of awards either, it’s the number of individual winners. In the 49 years prior to the imposing of the hand-check rule, there were six individuals who won at least one award who were perimeter players. In the seven years since, there’s been four.

    However, looking exclusively at winners can be misleading. So to avoid any confusion on that regard I went back and looked at the last 15 years of MVP voting to see how there might be change in overall voting, and not just in winners. 

MVP Vote Distribution, Pre Hand Check

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    The above chart reflects the distribution of the voting for MVP from 1996 to 2004, the eight-year time frame before the hand check rule was imposed.

    It is remarkable that with Jordan only playing three full seasons in that time frame he still managed to receive nearly twice as many votes as any other perimeter player.

    In fact, he accounted for nearly 30 percent of all votes received by perimeter players over that time.

    My point is merely to show that Jordan, even though he only played for a percentage of the time, still skews the numbers slightly.

    Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal both received more votes than Jordan, though, and Karl Malone came close. In spite of the dominance of Jordan, it was still a post player’s league prior to the advent of the hand-check rule. 

MVP Vote Distribution, Post Hand Check

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    Here is what has happened since the hand-check rule was imposed. Perimeter players have moved to the forefront of the MVP voting, not just in terms of the winners, but in terms of the overall vote distribution.

    They have gone from receiving 39 percent of the cumulative vote in the eight years prior to receiving 72 percent of the cumulative vote since the hand-check rule.  

    An award that had been for years the exclusive domain of big men has now become an exclusive award to the perimeter player. 

    It’s not just in the winner of the award, but in the overall vote casting. Sure, there are players like Dwight Howard still who receive some votes, but they are in the minority now, as opposed to in the past.

    This reinforces the early conclusion that both the zone defense and the hand-check rule shift the importance to the ball handler and less on the man in the low post.

    Once again, alone this might not be conclusive evidence of anything, but as it starts to pile up, you have to start considering the possibility that something in the league changed in the fall of 2005.

    Maybe it’s not just a coincidence that all of this started to change the same season they started to call the hand-check foul. 

20 Point Season Distribution, Pre Hand Check

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    Here is the distribution of 20 point scorers prior to the hand-check rule. While the perimeter players accounted for about 57 percent of all 20 point scorers, there were still a significant number of post scorers in the league.

    With both types of scorers, those who scored more than 20 points per game scored an average of 23.3 points per game. In all, there were 249 perimeter players who averaged 20 points, and 191 post players.

    What’s amazing is that if you exclude Jordan from the numbers, then the perimeter scoring average drops to 22.9. That means that Jordan, by himself, raised the scoring averages of the next best 235 perimeter scorers by .4 points per game.

    I point this out to emphasize the difference between Jordan and the rest of the perimeter scorers over that time frame. He accounted for the five highest scoring averages over that time frame. In fact, no player in the NBA, post or perimeter, had a single season that exceeded Jordan’s career average.

20 Point Season Distribution, Post Hand Check

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    Once again, we see that there is a very real shift form the post to the perimeter in terms of scoring. In all, since the hand-check rule has been in effect, there have been 118 20-point seasons by perimeter players and only 60 by post players.

    Furthermore, we see a difference in what those players score. The 20-point perimeter players averaged 24.1 points, while the post players only averaged 22.1 points.

    We also see with Kobe that he raises the average of perimeter scorers by a similar .4 points, albeit it with a caveat. Namely, Kobe had a higher percentage of games and a lower overall number of scorers. It’s still amazing, just not quite as amazing.

    This distinction, and seeing how Kobe and Michael were standing out in so many ways, it got me to wondering if there would be more distinction between perimeter and post-scorer distribution at the higher scoring levels. 

Elite Scorers Distribution Pre Hand Check

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    The above chart reflects the top 20 percent of all 20-point scorers from 1985 to 2004. In the pre hand check era, there is virtually no difference as the points get higher. The distribution is only changed by .12 percent, a statistically insignificant figure.

    There is now a slight advantage for the perimeter scorers in terms of how many points they average per season, though. The elite perimeter scorers averaged 28.8 points, the elite post scorers 27.7 points.

    Michael Jordan accounts for most of that difference. If you factor Jordan out of the equation, it’s only a 27.9 average for the elite perimeter scorers. 

Elite Scorers Post Hand Check

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    Here are the elite scorers in the league and their distribution since the hand check era has started. As you can see, the elite scorers are now almost exclusively perimeter scorers. In fact, only four post scorers have been in that “elite” level since the rule change went into effect.

    The elite perimeter scorers not only have the much greater percentage, they also have the have higher average, accounting for 28.6 points per game compared to just 26.1 points for the low post scorers. 

    The significance can't be understated. The effect of the rule change has been to change the league from one which at one time depended on the post for scoring to one that depends on the perimeter for scoring.

    The hand-check rule is indisputably the reason for that. 

So Could Jordan Score 50 in Today's Rules?

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    In our trial system, there are two standards of evidence for the two types of trials. There is a need for proof, “beyond a reasonable doubt” for criminal trials and there’s proof by a “preponderance of the evidence” for a civil trial.

    According to Wikipedia, this means, “the standard is met if the proposition is more likely to be true than not true. Effectively, the standard is satisfied if there is greater than 50 percent chance that the proposition is true.”

    The numbers here show that since the rule change and the enforcement of the hand-check rule in the 2004-2005 season:

    • There has been a gradual and pronounced decline in the number of unassisted field goals, suggesting an advantage to perimeter players with significant ball-handling skills.
    • There has been an increase in the rate of 50-point games among perimeter players and a corresponding decline in 50-point games among post players.
    • There has been an increase in the perceived importance of the perimeter player as reflected in the MVP voting.
    • There has been an marginal shift in perimeter players who average over 20 points for a season and corresponding decline among post players. The elite scorers are now almost exclusively the domain name of the perimeter scorer.

    All of these things together indicate that the game has changed. The rule changes are not insignificant at all. In fact, you could argue that in terms of opening up the game, the hand-check rule is in the single most impactful rule that isn’t visible on the court (i.e. shot clock, three point line, and widening of the lane).

    Perhaps it’s because we don’t see a line or a wider lane, it’s easier to dismiss the impact it’s had, but when you look at the history of the last several years, it’s hard to deny the impact.

    It shouldn’t be surprising. This is what the rule was supposed to do. The NBA climbed to an all-time high in popularity. In fact, at one point Michael Jordan was the single most recognizable face in the world.

    After Jordan retired for good the NBA was desperate to find a new “Jordan” to be the face of the NBA. The problem was that the reason Jordan was Jordan is that there was only one Jordan. There were only two options to getting a new “Jordan.”

    Either they could start experimenting with human cloning or they could change the rules. It was easier to do the latter.

    The hand-check rule was enforced because the NBA wanted it that way and they wanted it that way because the fans wanted it that way. The wide-open scoring game is what the fans enjoy seeing.

    So does that mean Jordan would have scored 50 for a season? Well that’s hard to say, and honestly, hard to believe even seeing that. It’s impossible to take what Jordan did in one era and then transfer it into another.

    What we do know is that during his career, he averaged 16 percent more points per game than any contemporary wing player.

    We know that the skill set which he had which allowed him to achieve such unparalleled success would only be magnified by today’s rules. While 50 is hard to fathom, 40 surely is not. Certainly a season scoring in the mid-40s seems (as insane as it sounds) realistic.  

    And with MJ, you never know...

    I finally set up a twitter account. If you would like to follow me on twitter you can find me here. My goal is to get to .00001 million followers. 


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