Last week, Michael Jordan told USA Today that he would wild out even harder in the today’s NBA. Said Jordan, “It’s less physical and the rules have changed, obviously. Based on these rules, if I had to play with my style of play, I’m pretty sure I would have fouled out or I would have been at the free throw line pretty often and I could have scored 100 points.”
I’m not going to dwell on the actual quotation too much. His Airness was giving this interview to promote a video game, after all, and with a little more thought he probably would have concluded that both he and his opponents would modify their play to prevent a foulapalooza. I’m even going to (sort of) look past his depressing need to put down today’s stars in a misguided attempt to pump up his own legacy. Instead, I wondered if the changes in the NBA since the late 80′s and early 90′s, his scoring peak, really would benefit his scoring totals.
He put up 37.09/gm against supposedly more physical and therefore difficult defenses in 1987, so is it possible that he’d score 10pts more per game than last year’s NBA scoring leader, Kevin Durant? Would his scoring onslaughts be unstoppable because of new rule changes, or would the advances in defensive schemes actually make it more difficult for him to score?
To find out, I compared the NBA in 1989, one of Jordan’s very best statistical seasons (32.5pts, 8.0 asst, 14.2 offensive win shares, 33.7 usage%) to 2010′s NBA. In 1989, the most feared and famous defense was that of the eventual NBA Champion Detroit Pistons. That year, the Bad Boys had the league’s third best Defensive Rating at 104.7 (league average was 107.8). Their stats hold up, a 104.7 DR would still be a top ten rating in today’s NBA, and it’s clear that the two eras had negligible differences in league wide defensive efficiency (0.2 difference between league averages).
However teams in 1989 played at a much faster pace than they do now, creating far more possessions and chances to score. Jordan’s Bulls were the third slowest team in the league that year, but their Pace rating of 97.0 would have been good for third in the 2010 NBA. So, although the two eras’ defenses were similarly effective, all else being equal, Jordan would score less per game at today’s pace.
Still, Jordan may have a point: the new rules make it more difficult for perimeter defenders to guard a driving player. In 1989, Jordan used Iversonian quickness to get anywhere he wanted on the court–despite the hand checking–and at 6’6’’ he could elevate for a clean release once he got to his spot. When you watch highlights of Jordan at his scoring zenith, it’s surprising how much time he spends within 12 feet of the hoop.
Watch this clip of Jordan going off against the vaunted Piston’s “D” in the 1989 playoffs, and try to pay attention to the positioning of help defenders and the aggressiveness of their rotations.
First off, you’ll probably notice that Bill Laimbeer deters Jordan from finishing around the rim about as well as my office’s “no Youtube” policy keeps me from watching KBlaze mixtapes on slow afternoons. But besides Laimbeer’s awful individual effort, there are a number of instances in which the Pistons, as a team, wait for Jordan to make his move before taking action to stop him from scoring. Also, the on-ball defender seems to have no plan for where to push Jordan. Often Dumars et al play him straight, and let’s Jordan decide where he wants to go.
Now take a look at LeBron, pre-Funnybone-gate 2010, against the Celtics in last year’s playoffs. I didn’t choose these two clips to make LeBron seem like Jordan’s equal, he isn’t close as a scorer, but to show you the ways in which LeBron, a player who thrives on drives in the same way Jordan did, had to score against the Celtics “D”.
Notice that, when possible, the C’s send a player at LeBron on the catch, even when he’s out on the perimeter. Over the course of the playoff series, they were very effective with this quasi-double team. The main effect was to amplify a flaw in James’s game that Jordan cut out early in his career: waiting on the catch. Although LeBron is not the assassin/Batman/alpha dog scoring genius that Jordan was, the Celtics keyed their whole defense to stop LeBron, just as the Pistons loaded up to stop Jordan with Chuck Daly’s famous “Jordan Rules.”
Even a cursory examination of these two tapes will prove that the Celtics’ intricate strategy is far superior to the Pistons’ organized thuggery. In the first minutes of the clip above, the Celtics are called for two defensive three second violations because they are preemptively over-rotating to fill the spaces LeBron would like to use. Bron still managed to have an excellent game, but you can see the foundation of how the Celtics were able to force him out of simply exploding past his defender to the basket.
Although ‘89 Jordan may be able to escape his first defender more easily in today’s game, good defensive teams would employ more aggressive and nuanced schemes to keep him from the hoop. Ultimately, it’s these second and third lines of defense that matter most. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are still average defenders at best, but they can apply heavy pressure to quicker offensive players far away from the hoop because the Boston Big Men are ready to aggressively rotate. Modern defenses force wing scorers like LeBron, Kobe, and Wade to analyze layers of team defense in a way Jordan didn’t. Add that to the advances in statistics and scouting, and NBA defenses know more than ever about a scorer’s preferences and habits.
The numbers and video don’t lie. Jordan would have to ball futuristic just to maintain his 1989 scoring levels against the evolved, more sophisticated defenses and slower offensive pace of today’s NBA.