Michael Jordan's mythology has exploded in recent weeks thanks to the airing of ESPN's "The Last Dance." An entire generation of fans that may not have previously been able to engage with his career has finally been able to appreciate his greatness as a player, but the documentary has unfortunately given those who were around for his dominant stretch in the 1990s the chance to bloviate about the modern game's inadequacies.
The latest to do so? Jordan's agent, David Falk. While plenty have speculated about how Jordan might fare in the current NBA, Falk took things to an utterly absurd level by arguing that Jordan would post stats that not even Wilt Chamberlain ever reached.
"I watch a lot of NBA games, as you know, and the game evolves," Falk told The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan. "And Michael, because he's such a class act, completely steers away from trying to compare himself to LeBron, or Kobe or anybody else. He says that's for the fans to do."
"But if you asked me, watching all those games," he continued, "with virtually zero defense, no hand-checking, I think if Jordan played today – if he was in his prime in today's rules – I think he'd average between 50 and 60 a game. I think he'd shoot 75 percent from the floor. If you couldn't hand-check him, he'd be completely unstoppable."
In fairness, there is an argument to be made that Jordan would have thrived in today's scoring environment. Hand-checking, the act of a defender keeping a hand on an offensive player, was a major element of just about every team's defensive strategy against Jordan, and it was banned in 2004. The NBA has also grown significantly smaller in recent years as teams have moved away from traditional lineup constructions in favor of maximizing skill and athleticism on the court. Without as many true rim-protectors, Jordan may have thrived as a driver and a post-player.
But the notion that Jordan would average 50-60 points per game on 75 percent shooting is patently ridiculous. The highest-scoring season in NBA history came when Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points during the 1961-62 campaign. Nobody besides Chamberlain has ever even averaged 40, and he had a distinct advantage in being a true seven-footer in an era filled with players significantly smaller than him. Jordan would not have that luxury.
The idea that he could shoot 75 percent from the field is even more ridiculous. Technically speaking, the feat has been achieved 76 times. The catch? No player that has done so ever attempted more than 28 total shots in that season, a record set by Drew Eubanks this season. Jordan regularly took 28 shots in a single game. Even in his injury-shortened 1985-86 season, he took 328 across 18 games. His career-high was 2,279, and he never even made 54 percent of his field goals. A perimeter player shooting 75 percent from the field under any circumstance is simply not possible.
In fact, there's an argument to be made that Jordan actually would have fared worse in today's league than he did in his era. At the very least, it is a notion that the numbers support. For all of the talk about the defensive dominance that pervaded Jordan's era, on average, NBA teams scored 107.56 points per 100 possessions during the 12 full seasons he spent on Chicago's roster, per pro-basketball reference. Over the last 12 seasons, the average has been 107.53, a lower total than during Jordan's career. The peaks of the modern game have grown slightly higher, as the average NBA team has scored 110.4 points per 100 possessions over the past two seasons, but that jump is fairly minimal, and the low of 104.6 for the 2011-12 campaign is an offensive dry spell Jordan never encountered in his career.
The league Jordan entered in the 1980s was in the midst of an offensive revolution. During the 1970s, the league's average for points per 100 possessions was regularly below 100, but was growing steadily by the time Jordan arrived. Numbers are only available dating back to the 1973-74 campaign, but Jordan's rookie season saw a new high in average points per possession leaguewide, which was summarily broken in his second season.
The biggest decline of the Jordan era actually came when he was retired. During the 1993-94 season, the league's offensive rating dipped from 108 to 106.3. As a response, the NBA shortened the 3-point line, making the arc a uniform 22 feet from the basket at all points (which is the current and original length from the corners only). That pushed scoring back up and provided Jordan an unnatural degree of space. Steve Kerr shot just under 50 percent on 3-pointers during the three seasons the league used that shortened arc. No modern shorter could come close to that, and it made Jordan's life significantly easier.
The league moved the arc back for Jordan's final season, and offensive numbers declined accordingly. They just didn't hit rock bottom until after his second retirement. The league's offensive rating was 105 during the 1997-98 season. During the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign, it dipped to 102.2 and did not rise back above 105 until the 2004-05 season. Statistically speaking, the NBA's real offensive drought came after Jordan's peak.
So where did this notion of a defensively-dominant NBA during the Jordan era come from? Mostly, it was a substantial drop in pace. The average NBA game included 102.1 possessions during Jordan's rookie year and fell to 90.3 during his last season with the Bulls. That dropped sustained for another decade or so before gradually rising back up to approximately the level it was at when Jordan entered the league.
While it's tempting to suggest that a faster game might have produced more scoring from Jordan, it's factually untrue. His highest raw numbers came during the 1986-87 season, when he averaged 37.1 points per game. The league's average pace that season was 100.8 possessions per game. The league was actually slower this season at 100.2. Jordan's slight scoring decline from there could be attributed slightly to pace, but is far more easily explained by the improvement of his teammates and the implementation of the triangle offense.
Anecdotally, the NBA appears to be far more conducive to offense now than it was during Jordan's era, but the numbers don't support that. Why is that? There are a few primary reasons. Rule changes are a major contributing factor. The elimination of hand-checking was a big win for offenses, but the elimination of the old illegal defense rules was just as big a win for defenses. Broadly, the old illegal defense rule forbade zone defenses, but in practice, it prevented most of the modern complexities of defense. Many of the doubles, hedges and off-ball sagging tactics teams use liberally today were not available to teams defending Jordan during his career.
Even if they had been, Jordan was facing defenders far less athletic and skilled than their modern counterparts. These are common-sense results of the passage of time. Athletes across all sports have grown bigger, stronger, faster and more nuanced over the years, learning from the mistakes of past generations and improving upon their tactics. Even if older defenses were more physical, modern defenses are more complex and come with more consistent effort.
The truth about Jordan is that he was so spectacular that he would have starred in any era. But the notion that the only thing preventing him from breaking every single record in the book was the era in which he played is absolutely ludicrous. Hand-checking was not the only thing preventing Jordan from scoring 50 per game, and the suggestion that it was is nothing more than unhealthy mythologizing of a bygone era. Modern scorers face an entirely different set of challenges than Jordan did. The game is easier in some ways and harder in others, and suggesting otherwise is insulting to an entire generation of modern players that have pushed the game beyond its previously defined limits.