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How the Point-MJ Experiment Foreshadowed the Modern NBA

Long before Luka and LeBron were putting up 30-point triple-doubles, there was a big playmaker named Michael Jordan who briefly dabbled with playing point guard, to great effect. The move was short-lived, but the ripple proved long-lasting.

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By the spring of 1989, Michael Jordan had already announced himself as a forever talent. He’d made the All-Star Game in each of his first five NBA seasons and earned three All-NBA selections along the way, including two to the first team; he’d led the league in scoring twice, and became the first player ever to win Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.

Before turning 26 years old, Jordan was already the kind of basketball player whose marriage of awe-inspiring athleticism and fine-honed fundamentals could short-circuit scoreboards, coax hosannas from choirs of basketball lovers, and stand up against the most impressive individual achievements in history. The “individual” part remained a sticking point, though.

Nobody averaged more points per game in the playoffs than Jordan from 1984 through 1988, but his Bulls went a combined 5-15 in those four postseasons and didn’t advance past the second round. It feels ludicrous, with the benefit of three decades of hindsight and history to lean on, to consider the existence of the question Can Michael Jordan win the big one? But in early March 1989, concerns still swirled around how much a single star—even one as incandescent as MJ—could accomplish against the galaxies arrayed around the league.

“He is, by himself, a one-man team, clearly deserving of the MVP award; but in a league that is evolving toward deeper, more balanced play, he is something of an oddity—almost an albatross,” wrote Ted Cox for the February 1989 issue of Chicago magazine. “How can a player so good treat others as equals? How can a player so accomplished be simply a member of a team?”

Jordan never quite got there. The stories of how hard he could be on teammates became the stuff of legend, and even later in his career, as he won championship after championship flanked by one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, he still famously referred to his teammates as “my supporting cast.” (Jordan’s predilection toward taking over late in games became a long-running gag in Chicago. Bulls assistant coach John Bach called it “the Archangel Offense,” later described by Phil Jackson as, “That’s where we give the ball to Michael Jordan and say, ‘Save us, Michael.’”)

But during the stretch run of that ’88-89 season, Jordan found a pretty compelling facsimile of an answer to those questions of equality and shared responsibility, one that drew on the do-it-all legacy of Oscar Robertson and inadvertently foreshadowed the modern game’s stylistic shift toward monster-usage primary playmakers. A quarter-century before LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Luka Doncic started making 30-point triple-doubles seem downright commonplace, Michael Jordan decided to start playing point guard.

The experiment got its start in Boston, right around this time 31 years ago. After pulling his groin in a March 7 loss to the 76ers—or maybe he had the flu?—Jordan sat out the next night’s matchup with the Celtics, snapping a string of 236 consecutive games. With Jordan unavailable to carry the scoring load, a punchless Chicago side lost for the fourth time in six games, leaving the Bulls in sixth place in a brutally tough Eastern Conference.

It also left Jordan, well on his way to a third straight scoring title but often operating against loaded-up defenses, wanting to see some changes to both the team’s offense (read: Let’s get the rest of the team involved) and his role in facilitating it (read: Let’s try to make the process of generating buckets a little less exhausting for me). That led to a lengthy closed-door chat with Doug Collins—a two-hour sitdown, per some reports—in which Jordan called on his head coach to toss him the keys.

“I mentioned that something had to be done to get more consistency in our play,” Jordan said, according to Robert J. Murphy of UPI. “He asked me to be a leader, and I said it’s hard to lead from the second guard position, and it’s better for me to lead from the point guard position.”

It made sense. If the goal of most Chicago possessions was to get Jordan the ball with a chance to create a bucket, then why not just eliminate the part where the play starts with someone else having the ball and Jordan has to fight through traffic to get it?

“It’s different,” Jordan said, according to Sam McManis of the Los Angeles Times. “It changes your emphasis on the game. You have to be running everything, keep the tempo, get everybody in their right places. But it helps our fast-breaking game, and that’s the tempo and the style we want to be in.”

And not the one that Bulls opponents wanted them to be in. Said then–Hawks head coach Mike Fratello, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “He was a nightmare already. Now, he gets the ball even more.” (Fratello’s point guard in Atlanta, eventual NBA champion coach Doc Rivers, put a pretty fine point on it: “I don’t like it. I think it’s terrible. It’s not fair.”)

Twenty-seven years later, Mike D’Antoni would make a similar streamlining decision as the head coach in Houston, dispensing positional pretense and officially installing James Harden as the Rockets’ starting point guard. One reason for the shift in Houston in 2016, D’Antoni told Jared Dubin, was to give his All-Star scorer “a sense … of purpose for the team that he understands: to get everybody involved to a certain degree without losing his identity.” It worked pretty damn well in Houston; Harden (who still averaged 29.1 points per game) led the league in assists at the controls of a 55-win team that boasted the NBA’s no. 2 offense.

Jordan and Collins had the same idea back in ’89, aiming to kill two birds with one stone: making it easier to get the superstar free by just giving him the ball rather than requiring him to go get it from someone else, and making it easier for all of Chicago’s Someone Elses to take advantage of Jordan’s gravitational pull on defenses.

“We’re trying to get more distribution of shots, get everyone involved in the offense. I want to make everybody a weapon now, so we just don’t have one weapon,” Jordan told reporters. “Last year, in the playoffs, we were exposed, where one individual was doing all the scoring.”

That changed quickly when Jordan slid to the point. In Chicago’s next game, a 105-88 win over the SuperSonics, it was veteran center Bill Cartwright who led five Bulls in double figures with a team-high 20 points, while Jordan chipped in 18—on just 13 field goal attempts, his second-lowest number all season—to go with 15 assists, one off a career high, and eight rebounds. Two nights later, Jordan kept the pedal to the metal against the Pacers, rolling up 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 14 assists in just 30 minutes of floor time in a 122-90 blowout win:

It was the ninth triple-double of Jordan’s career, and his fourth of the season. More would be on the way.

Giving Jordan the ball up top in the middle of the court made it more difficult for defenses to double-team him, and gave his teammates more room to do damage when opponents still tried to tilt too heavily toward the reigning MVP. He needed teammates who could do it, though, which is why several games into the Point MJ experiment, Collins moved fourth-year point guard Sam Vincent—an inconsistent caretaker described in that Chicago magazine piece as running the Bulls offense “with all the surface cool of a compulsive coffee drinker”—to the bench in favor of sharpshooter Craig Hodges.

The former third-round draft pick (way back when the NBA draft had three rounds) had bounced around four teams in seven seasons trying to find a niche as a defensively challenged undersized combo guard. But as a willing long-range shooter who had twice led the NBA in 3-point percentage, he was a hand-in-glove fit as a floor-spacing catch-and-shoot target alongside a ball-dominating wing creator. In Jordan’s first 10 games as Chicago’s point guard, six of which Hodges started, he averaged 15 points in 31.5 minutes per game, shooting a blistering 56.9 percent from long range on 5.1 tries a night—a 3-point attempt rate that seems downright quaint these days, but was damn near unheard of during the Reagan and Bush administrations. The Bulls as a team averaged just 6.5 3-point attempts per game during the 1988-89 season; eight teams averaged fewer than 5.1.

Putting another dangerous shooter on the floor—whether Hodges or John Paxson, who stepped into the lineup late in the season when Hodges was injured—with low-post threat Cartwright and athletic young forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant gave Jordan more viable targets. That, in turn, raised Chicago’s offensive ceiling: Starting with a St. Patrick’s Day win over the Knicks, the Bulls topped 100 points in 16 straight games. The best part for Jordan? “I’m not expected to score between 30 and 50 points a night for us to win.”

“How many easy baskets do you see Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen get every day now?” Collins said. “That’s all created by the greatness of Michael Jordan with the ball. Opponents don’t know where the ball is coming from now.” (Pippen and Grant, two sophomores who would go on to play massive roles in the Bulls dynasty to come, each averaged more shots and points per game after Jordan took the reins.)

The expanded offensive menu left the Bulls wondering why they hadn’t tried this whole “let Jordan run the show” thing earlier; as Jordan himself said, “Nobody knew this would happen. If we would have known this years back, we would have done it.” Evidently, nobody consulted Don Nelson about it. In his seminal book The Jordan Rules, longtime Bulls beat man Sam Smith wrote that Hodges claimed that after watching Jordan pop for 32-12-11 against Nelson’s Warriors, the offensive mastermind/noted iconoclast remarked, “Well, they finally figured it out there. I would have been playing him at point guard from the day he showed up as a rookie.” (As ever, Nellie was ahead of the curve.)

The switch took the burgeoning legend’s game to new heights. Jordan outdueled Magic Johnson one night, dishing 16 assists in a one-point win over the Lakers. The next, he went out in the second game of a back-to-back on the road and got the better of Phoenix’s Kevin Johnson, putting up 32-10-9 in another one-point victory. Two nights later in Portland, he hung 34 points, a career-high 17 assists, seven rebounds, and six steals on the Trail Blazers in a commanding 15-point win that led Portland star Clyde Drexler to claim Jordan “handles the ball better than Magic.” Not bad for a career 2-guard trying something different to push his team toward home-court advantage in Round 1.

“I am turning out to be a pretty quick learner,” Jordan said.

Jordan kept rolling from there. A March 25 win in Seattle kicked off a run of seven consecutive triple-doubles—a streak the likes of which the NBA hadn’t seen since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, and wouldn’t see again until Russell Westbrook rattled off 11 straight last year—during which Jordan showcased just how dangerous he’d become by prioritizing playmaking:

You need help to put a streak like that together. Your teammates need to finish your feeds, box out so you can grab the ball, and hit you on the move so you can take it all the way to the cup. Jordan got help elsewhere, too—from the statisticians tracking his progress during the game. “The guys at the scorer’s desk let me know what I need,” he said. That communication “stopped when the league got word and ordered the scorer to refrain from giving out the information during the game,” as Smith wrote in The Jordan Rules … but not before Jordan’s remorseless push for the statistical benchmarks elicited some tsk-tsks around the league. (Time, flat circle, etc.)

All told, Jordan racked up 11 triple-doubles in 15 games. He also narrowly missed a few more during that stretch, averaging 32.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.1 assists, and 2.6 steals per game, shooting 50 percent from the field and 88 percent from the foul line.

“I think those 63-point games are gone,” Jordan told reporters on the eve of the 1989 playoffs. “I’ve had a good time scoring 60-some points and 50-some points. But it’s a lot of work, a lot of work.”

You might have deduced, from the fact that Jordan authored 18 more 50-plus-point games after the ’88-89 season, that his view on the matter changed. While he spoke early in the point guard experiment about feeling like he was saving himself a physical pounding by playing on the ball rather than off it, the sheer weight of being Chicago’s primary creator and finisher for 40-plus minutes per game began to wear on him. (Again: time, flat circle, etc.) Plus, while the shift in Jordan’s game proved thrilling and memorable, it didn’t prove overly fruitful for the Bulls, who went 13-11 to finish the regular season.

The Bulls did advance to the Eastern Conference finals that year for the first time in Jordan’s career, vanquishing the Cavs in five on The Shot and then the Knicks in six. But they once again ran aground against a deeper, tougher, more experienced Pistons team—one that believed a version of Jordan intent on facilitating was a less daunting foe than one fully committed to scoring. From the post-elimination gamer in the Chicago Tribune:

After Jordan scorched the Pistons for 46 points in Game 3, [Isiah] Thomas and fellow guard Joe Dumars made a suggestion to coach Chuck Daly, and its concept was starkly simple. Let’s not let Jordan beat us again, they said. Let’s take a chance on the other guys beating us.

“The more you make him think as a point guard—that’s important: ‘as a point guard’—the more beneficial it is for us,” explained Thomas, himself a point guard. …

“If any of his teammates had stepped up, we’d have been in trouble,” Pistons forward Dennis Rodman said after the series clincher.

As the Bulls headed toward the draft in the offseason, reports began trickling out that Jordan felt serving as both top scorer and main table-setter “was too much of a strain, along with occasionally having to defend against the opposing point guard and being pressured bringing the ball up court.” General manager Jerry Krause responded by reinserting Paxson—more of a floor-spacing point guard in name only—into the starting lineup and drafting B.J. Armstrong out of Iowa to groom as Jordan’s backcourt mate, while new head coach Phil Jackson looked to reduce the team’s reliance on Jordan’s creation by ceding more playmaking responsibility to Pippen and installing the more egalitarian triangle offense.

The die was cast: Jordan would spend the rest of his career on the wing, finishing plays more often than he created them. (And, for what it’s worth, more often and to greater effect than just about any player in the history of the sport.) Jordan would make the pass—to Wennington, to Paxson, to Kerr—but as the legend Bob Ryan said in Basketball: A Love Story, “Michael’s ultimate forte was putting the ball in the basket. Passing was secondary; he could do it, but it wasn’t what he lived for.” For about six weeks in the spring of 1989, though, Jordan seemed hell-bent on proving it was, and gave hoops watchers a through-the-keyhole glimpse into the future of the league.

“If the way I’m playing now doesn’t convince them I’m a complete player, then I guess nothing will,” he said.