Michael Jeffrey Jordan has GOAT listed as one of his many nicknames on Basketball Reference. That tells you all there is to know about his status in basketball history.
Jordan’s case as the greatest basketball player has won over many – it is LeBron James against His Airness, a duel that divides generations and has filled hour upon hour of talk-show discussion.
Some of the Jordan arguments are chorused on the aforementioned chat-shows. Others are overlooked. Jordan’s impact on the NBA, as a business and a product, is phenomenal, and he continues to make millions a year on the back of his Hall of Fame career.
Iconic doesn’t do Jordan justice. His name transcends basketball in a way few athletes manage.
Count The Rings
Individual greatness only elevates a player to a certain level. If team glory doesn’t follow, their legacy will often be smaller than they may deserve.
Jordan had team success by the bucketload, winning six rings across two spells with the Chicago Bulls. Robert Horry is the only non-Celtic with more championships than Jordan and his robin, Scottie Pippen.
The ‘six rings’ argument might be shallow, and often oversimplified, but it’s also an undeniable fact. Jordan led a team to an unprecedented era of dominance (once again, post-Celtics).
Sport is about winning ultimately, it’s about lifting trophies. Jordan did that as the star player better than anyone other than Bill Russell.
It’s the most common discussion point when Jordan is pitted against James. The Los Angeles Lakers might be a title favourite in this season’s NBA betting, but James only has three championships to his name.
Many would say that gap needs to close before he can truly threaten Jordan’s GOAT status. Another player in the discussion for greatest ever, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, matched Jordan’s six rings (one with Milwaukee and five with the Lakers) over his 20-year NBA career.
Jabbar wasn’t the undisputed best player on those teams, however. As great as Pippen was, the Bulls were Jordan’s team, and he was the player who took responsibility for winning games in the fourth quarter.
Jordan = Clutch
Without getting bogged down in clutch time shooting percentage and comparing moments against one another, James is Jordan’s only rival when it comes to delivering the game-winning moments in the dying embers.
The shot against Utah in 1998 is the moment most well-remembered, but it’s not the only example. That dagger against the Jazz secured Chicago’s sixth title – and their second three-peat.
Nine years previous, Jordan delivered a similarly devastating shot to knock the Cleveland Cavaliers out in the first round.
Our all-time NBA starting five featured Jordan and James. Jordan was known for his self-belief in clutch moments, an unwavering desire to take the shot.
It didn’t always result in the best basketball play, but that helped him shrug off the occasions when it didn’t work out.
James’ defence – until 2019/20, anyway – has been on the decline in recent years. He has coasted on that side of the ball in his second Cleveland stint and his first year in Los Angeles.
In contrast, Jordan never developed such a reputation. His Airness was named in the All-Defensive first team on nine occasions, including the 1997/98 campaign, which was his age-34 season.
James’ peak defence may well be superior to Jordan’s, but James managed his workload in a way that Jordan didn’t choose – or perhaps need – to.
Jordan was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate throughout his career – the Bulls were first, fourth and fourth in adjusted defensive rating in the three full seasons following his sabbatical.
Impact On NBA
Jordan ‘saved the NBA’. As much as dynasties are criticised, the NBA has seen ratings increase when there’s a big, bad dominant force beating everyone before them.
The Chicago Bulls generated that feeling, and Jordan’s ascendance from third overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft to become one of the most famous people in the world drew attention to the NBA in a way few envisaged.
The 1992 Dream Team played a significant role in the growth of the league. It exposed Europeans in particular to NBA stars in a way they hadn’t been before.
Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the faces of the league at that point, and the Bulls’ dynasty was the first taste of the NBA for many fans.
If Jordan had left for baseball permanently, or his career had taken a different path, there’s no doubt the NBA would look very different today.
*Credit for the main photo belongs to John Swart / AP Photo*