It’s Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday. I’m watching the All-Star Game with a cup of coffee and my Walking Dead and Talking Dead on the DVR timer, and I’m fighting to come up with a new take on the greatest.
When MJ went into the hall of fame, I did a pretty detailed statistical breakdown and threw in a great Steve Kerr quote about leadership and making teammates better.
I put Jordan first in our stat-based ranking of the top 40 players of the last 33 years.
I pointed out that Jordan’s big statistical advantage over Kobe Bryant in each of their title reigns was his ability to gain his team more possessions and give away fewer possessions.
I gave a nod to Jordan’s ridiculous versatility and all-around game in the consecutive triple doubles post where I showed that Jordan had more triple double games in a row than any other player since 1985.
Better writers than I with closer access to Michael Jordan have discussed what MJ’s competitive edge meant to his success. My favorite is Phil Jackson’s “Sacred Hoops” where he talks about the let down in the 1995 Bulls team and the comfort they developed with losing. Phil said he needed to imbue the team with a real desire to win, and when Jordan came back to the team late in the season he brought enough will to win to carry all 12 players. So we’ll leave the MJ psychological impact on the game to Phil, Michael Wilbon, and Sam Smith.
I’m going to keep going down the statistical road with Jordan, but I’m going to center the microscope on a few specific advanced stats that really set Mike apart from the rest of the high volume scorers and all-around greats in the game. Remember when we credited Jordan, LeBron, and Bird with the ten best scoring seasons of all time?
In that post we examined seasons where a player had an Offensive Rating better than 120 (meaning his game helped his team score 120 points over 100 possessions while he was on the floor – a measure of efficiency) and a Usage Rate higher than 30%. We’re going to use the Usage Rate again, but switch out the Offensive Rating for True Shooting percentage. TS% is an estimate of scoring efficiency that factors 2 point field goals, 3 point field goals, and free throws. I’m making the switch from ORating to TS% because I’m going to take another ORating factor separately. We’re going to factor in Turnover Rate, something we looked at in this year’s post about Kobe Bryant’s highly efficient start to this season.
Now an uber-elite level True Shooting percentage is anything over 60. If you double the TS% that will give you an idea of the player’s scoring rate per attempt. So a player with a 60 TS% can be expected to score 1.2 points per attempt (including free throws earned and all made shots). The average for points scored per possession this year is 1.05 points, which amounts to a 51% TS.
A player shooting a great TS% who also uses a lot of possessions, is a special scorer, not a volume scorer exactly since he might not play a ton of minutes, but great because he not only puts up a lot of points, he does so with great efficiency. Setting the player seasons search on Bastketball-reference.com at Usage of 30% and the TS% at 60, we get the following list:
Those are great scorers, remarkable in their efficiency and their ability to soak up offensive possession for their teams. But when we add in Turnover Rate, you’ll see how Jordan truly sets himself apart from his scoring peers. Turnover Rate indicates how often a player turns the ball over while using a possession for his team. High usage players tend to be high TO% players because they have the ball so much and are always trying to make something happen. If we limit the Turnover Percentage to 10% or less, the above list becomes this:
That is to say Michael Jordan is the only player since 1985 to have a 60% TS with a Usage of 30 and turnover rate under 10%, and he did it 3 times (and he won 3 scoring titles, 2 MVPs, 1 Finals MVP, and a Defensive Player of the Year while having what may be the three best scoring seasons of all time).
To broaden the conversation somewhat, let’s look at Jordan’s full Chicago career (I’m cutting off the last two seasons in Washington. The man was 39 and 40, and those seasons aren’t exemplary of a player’s career). Jordan averaged over 58 TS% (1.16 points per scoring attempt) with a 33.5 Usage (more than a third of the available possessions while on the court) and a 9.3 TO%. The only other players to shoot at least 58% TS on 30+ Usage for their careers with a top age limit of 35 are Kevin Durant and Shaq. Neither has a Turnover Rate under 11%. As another point of reference, in his total career, Kobe only once broke 58 TS% and Wade only did it twice. Jordan averaged 58 TS% for his entire career in Chicago.
To invite a little LeBron James comparison, since James is on such a tear right now and the comparison is being made anyway, we need to go away from the TS% Usage TO% trio of stats we’ve been using. James just doesn’t quite stack up, but then LeBron’s not really the pure scorer that Jordan is, so maybe that isn’t surprising. We can look at a couple commonly used metrics instead – PER, John Hollinger’s one number player efficiency rating, and Win Share per 48 minutes, the Basketball-Reference metric based on Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper”.
Jordan has a significantly higher career average in both stats, but given that LeBron started so young, that’s maybe not a fair comparison. If we look at both players between age 21 (when Jordan started in the NBA) and age 28 (LeBron’s current season in the NBA), the numbers get very close.
Michael Jordan: PER – 29.8 and WS/48min – .275
LeBron James: PER – 29.0 and WS/48min – .265
The good news for folks calling for LeBron to surpass Jordan is that those numbers are pretty close and since Jordan took two years in his prime to play baseball, James may beat him by age 35. The good news for Jordan fans… 10 years since his final retirement from the game, it’s still possible to use metrics to pull a full on Bret Hart argument for MJ as the best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be.
Happy Birthday, Michael Air.
Tags: 50th birthday, Basketball, Dwyane Wade, Karl Malone, Kevin Durant, kobe bryant, Larry Bird, lebron james, Metrics, Michael Jordan, michael wilbon, NBA, PER, sacred hoops, Shaquille O'Neal, statistics, true shooting percentage, turnover rate, usage, win share, Yao Ming