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Michael Jordan Dominated His Era, but He Wouldn’t Rule This One

While ‘The Last Dance’ showcased the Bulls legend’s greatness, it also served as a reminder of just how much time has passed—and just how far the game has come

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most outdated aspect of The Last Dance wasn’t Michael Jordan’s wardrobe—it was the basketball games. MJ is just as compelling a figure as he was in 1998, but the documentary didn’t really address the dramatic differences between the way the game was played during his prime and the way it’s played now. It’s the one glaring hole in a project that seems to have been designed to solidify his legacy. So how would MJ, the greatest player the game had ever seen up until his era, hold up against today’s competition?

The most obvious change to basketball in the past 20 years has been the rise of the 3-point shot. Jordan was never a prolific 3-point shooter, averaging just 1.7 attempts per game over his career and shooting a pedestrian 32.7 percent. The shot used to be such a novelty that Jordan famously shrugged his shoulders after hitting six in one half in the 1992 NBA Finals. Now it’s a go-to for almost every perimeter player and the best bigs, with the top teams in the league deploying it as their weapon of choice. In the 1998 Finals, Jordan’s last championship season, the Bulls and Jazz shot 20 total 3s in the decisive game. In the most recent Finals, the Warriors and Raptors shot 64 in their final clash.

That difference would be a huge problem for the Bulls in any hypothetical matchup with a modern champion. The 2017-18 Warriors would pack the paint, send multiple defenders at Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and dare players like Ron Harper (28.9 percent from 3 on 1.8 attempts per game) and Dennis Rodman (23.1 percent on 0.4 attempts) to beat them from the perimeter. If Chicago responded by bringing shooters like Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc off the bench, Golden State would spread the floor to prevent the Bulls from helping them out and then put them in pick-and-rolls against Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. (Imagining how Kerr, the Warriors coach, would strategize against Kerr, the Bulls player, is one of the more mind-bending aspects of these made-up scenarios.)

The rise of the 3 is about more than offensive efficiency. It’s also a response to the rule changes of the early 2000s that gave defenses the ability to run zones and play farther off of offensive players than ever before. The best defenses of the past decade would have been illegal in the 1990s. In so many ways, the game is much more complex than it used to be. All 10 players have to be engaged on both ends of the floor. Even a simple isolation play still requires the other four offensive players to pose a threat to their defenders in order to facilitate the one-on-one matchup.

Many assume that MJ (who averaged 30.1 points over his career) would average 45 in today’s NBA since defenses aren’t as physical and can no longer use their hands to guard on the perimeter. But opponents would be able to force Jordan to be a passer in ways they weren’t allowed to in his prime. Anytime that 2020 Jordan were to play with a nonshooter, that player’s defender would clog the lane and force him to give up the ball.

The biggest beneficiaries of time-swap scenarios are the modern players going back to an era when defenses couldn’t crowd them and spacing didn’t matter. How much of a difference would hand checking have made against guys as big as LeBron James (6-foot-9 and 250 pounds), Kevin Durant (6-foot-10, 240 pounds), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (6-foot-11, 240 pounds)? The question isn’t whether LeBron would be tough enough to survive his own version of the Jordan Rules. It’s whether they would even work against someone who weighs almost 300 pounds.

Prime Jordan was always the best athlete on the floor. He never had to deal with centers who could play like guards. The big men of his era played under the basket, not at the 3-point line. Jordan (6-foot-6 and 195 pounds) and Pippen (6-foot-8 and 210 pounds) terrorized a generation of smaller, slower perimeter players. You know what they would be to a 7-footer with a turnaround jumper? Chairs.

Modern players tend to be too respectful when discussing previous eras of the game. But every once in a while they will let you behind the curtain and tell you how they really feel. Just listen to this conversation between Lou Williams and Gilbert Arenas on the No Chill Podcast last year:

Arenas: I’m starting to hate everyone in the ’90s who played basketball. That whole group. They just think their shit don’t stink. You have Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman talking about they going to stop somebody in today’s game. You are a little guard in today’s game. You are little guys.

Williams: Every 10 years the game changes.

Arenas: They have no idea about evolution.

Williams: I always have these debates with my friends. Can you imagine dropping LeBron in 1975? He would win 15 championships in a row.

Arenas: They forget evolution. They say this game is soft. They flop too much. I say no. That’s the skill.

Players from the ’80s and ’90s who think modern players couldn’t survive in their era have things backward. The vast majority of older players would have no chance of spreading the floor on offense or keeping up on defense in 2020. They would get run right out of the gym. Only the very best would even have a chance.

It’s hard for any player to dominate his era as thoroughly as Jordan did, but there also comes a point when that very dominance can be turned back against him. It’s the same reason that neither Bill Russell’s 11 NBA championships in the ’50s and ’60s nor Wilt Chamberlain’s holding every scoring record is taken seriously in most greatest-of-all-time conversations. The grainy black-and-white film of Russell and Chamberlain looks prehistoric in the world of HD. Will fans in the 2050s look at the VHS tapes from Jordan’s day in the same way? Time waits for no man.

So much of our perception of Jordan as a player is shaped by the myth surrounding him. His career was essentially the hero’s journey popularized by Joseph Campbell and Star Wars come to life. The hero proves the doubters (the coach who cut him in high school, the team who passed on him in the draft) wrong on his quest for greatness. But he must defeat a ruthless villain (the Bad Boy Pistons) to become a champion. So he enlists the help of a Yoda-like mentor (Phil Jackson), who imparts life lessons in the form of arcane knowledge passed down from the ancient masters (the triangle offense). Unseen forces then drag him away at the height of his powers (his first retirement) and he returns from a period of self-reflection (his baseball excursion) to vanquish his challengers once more (the second three-peat) and leave as the undisputed champion. The greatest who is, was, and is to come.

It’s no wonder that we have spent the past 20 years waiting for “the next Jordan.” We return to the ancient tapes to relive the legend. We pass his story down to those who weren’t lucky enough to experience it themselves. We saw him play with our own eyes. The people who come after us must know what it was like. They have to understand how he made us feel. And one day, maybe, just maybe, we might see someone who can make us feel that way again. So we are ever watchful for signs among the next generation of the second coming. Everything they say, everything they do, must be compared to the Jordan standard. He would never team up with his greatest rivals. He would never pass up the last shot. He would never subtweet his teammates. OK, he probably would have done that.

Jordan inspired the next generation of players to play like him and changed the game forever. There’s an alternate universe where LeBron and Durant and Giannis would be forced to spend their careers on the low block. But they didn’t want to do that. They wanted to be like Mike.

The same applies for the international players who watched the ’92 Dream Team and chose to play basketball over any other sport. Dirk Nowitzki’s father was a professional handball player. Maybe Dirk would have been like him if the NBA hadn’t exploded the way it did thanks to Michael.

The sport is so much bigger than it was in Jordan’s time. A lot of people from Jordan’s generation will never accept that his heights could be surpassed, the same way that people who grew up in the ’60s swear the Beatles were the greatest band of all time. It’s hard to come to terms with your own mortality.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. It doesn’t matter whether Isaac Newton was a greater scientist than Albert Einstein—Einstein couldn’t have existed without him. LeBron took what Jordan gave him and pushed the game to new heights. Let’s hope the players who follow him can do the same.