Earlier this year, Michael Jordan was asked which record would be harder to break: Russell Westbrook’s consecutive games with a triple-double, or Harden’s consecutive games with 30 points or more?
The G.O.A.T.’s answer?
Michael Jordan won six championships in six tries – collecting all six Finals MVP’s – earned five regular season MVP’s, a DPOY, three steals titles, and ten scoring titles. Quite simply, he dominated the era he played in.
Now, what if a player this dominant simply didn’t exist? Who collects the accolades that Michael Jordan earned?
Let’s start with divvying up the scoring titles:
Ten scoring titles for any one player is ridiculous, and it gets more ridiculous the further you analyze it.
In Mike’s rookie year, he placed third in scoring. His second year, he pretty much sat out the entire season with an injury. So, from his third season, right up until his first retirement (seven straight seasons), he led the league in scoring. When he returned in 1995, again, he pretty much had sat out the entire season. But, again, in the three full seasons he played right up until his second retirement, he led the league in scoring.
And Mike wasn’t playing against slouches, either. To illustrate this, I removed Mike from the league – from his first scoring title on – to find out who would have lit up the scoreboards instead. Here are the results:
NBA Scoring Champions (sans-MJ)
1986-87 – Dominique Wilkins (29.04 PPG)
1987-88 – Dominique Wilkins (30.73 PPG)
1988-89 – Karl Malone (29.07 PPG)
1989-90 – Karl Malone (30.98 PPG)
1990-91 – Karl Malone (29.05 PPG)
1991-92 – Karl Malone (28.05 PPG)
1992-93 – Dominique Wilkins (29.87 PPG)
– 1993-94 – Shaquille O’Neal (29.35 PPG)
– 1994-95 – David Robinson (29.79 PPG)
1995-96 – Hakeem Olajuwon (26.89 PPG)
1996-97 – Karl Malone (27.43 PPG)
1997-98 – Shaquille O’Neal (28.32 PPG)
– indicates a season in which MJ did not play full season
What’s the result? Here’s how these Hall of Fame careers were affected by MJ’s dominance:
Scoring Titles in Reality
- Shaquille O’Neal – 2
- Dominique Wilkins – 1
- David Robinson – 1
- Hakeem Olajuwon – 0
- Karl Malone – 0
Scoring Titles Without MJ
- Shaquille O’Neal – 3
- Dominique Wilkins – 4
- David Robinson – 1
- Hakeem Olajuwon – 1
- Karl Malone – 5
Without MJ, Shaquille O’Neal finishes his career with more scoring titles than his rival Kobe Bryant (3-2, how does that taste, Kobe?), Dominique Wilkins legacy is that his scoring abilities were equally as impressive as his dunking, and Karl Malone’s place as second on the All-Time Scoring List doesn’t happen under the radar (or, under a bald headed, hoop ear-ringed shadow). Poor Karl should have gone on a tear in the 80’s, winning four consecutive scoring titles in a row.
Speaking of poor Karl and how Jordan didn’t let him win anything, just who would have won those six titles that Jordan greedily kept for himself?
NBA Champions (sans-MJ)
In figuring who would be competing for championships, I am (fairly or unfairly) omitting the Chicago Bulls with Scottie Pippen, assuming they even trade for him if MJ doesn’t exist. I’m not saying he wasn’t a fantastic player, but in his lone season as the leader of the Chicago Bulls, Scottie Pippen placed eighth in scoring, with 22.04 PPG. Not exactly setting the league on fire.
Why are you doing that? Pippen’s Bulls won only two less games without Jordan in 1993-94
True, the team did win only two fewer games without MJ in the lineup, but this is merely a convenient fact.
The 57 wins posted by the 1992-93 Bulls just before Jordan retired is the fewest win total of any of Chicago’s championship teams. In the two championship seasons prior, the team finished with 61 wins in 1991, and 67 in 1992.
And even then, Pippen’s 1993-94 team would fall in the second round to a team MJ routinely tormented, the New York Knicks. It did take them a hard fought seven games to do it, but I imagine it takes a lot of courage to finally punch your bully in the mouth, even if they are in a weakened state. And, if their boogeyman never existed in the first place, the Knicks wouldn’t have had a reason to fear the Bulls at all.
Because what was Scottie Pippen’s career high against the Knicks? 36 points, during a regular season game in December. In the playoffs, it was even worse, averaging 21.7 PPG on 40.5% shooting in his solo campaign.
How many times did MJ equal or surpass Scottie Pippen’s “eruption” of 36-points, prior to returning? Eighteen times. Yeah, the Knicks couldn’t stand playing against Michael Jordan.
I always found it ironic that in Mike’s first meeting with the New York Knicks since he came out of retirement (and one of only 17 games he played that season!), he lit them up for a new Madison Square Garden record for opponents, netting 55 points. It was almost like he was saying, “Alright, last season was cute, Knicks fans. But, Daddy’s back”.
OK, so, now we are under agreement that the Chicago Bulls are out of the conversation for What if? scenarios regarding the absence of Michael Jordan. The other fact I am willing to acknowledge is the landscape of the league.
If Michael Jordan doesn’t exist, the Bulls ranking among other NBA teams doesn’t either, and players shouldn’t end up where they did in real life via the draft or free agency
Obviously, my hypothetical scenario isn’t going to be 100% accurate, if at all. I’m simply entertaining the idea that in a league without Michael Jordan, the team who drafted Shaquille O’Neal would obviously build the team around him using a similar blueprint (e.g. Los Angeles Lakers paired him with Kobe Bryant much the way Orlando had paired him with Penny Hardaway. The Miami Heat would similarly follow suit, pairing him with Dwyane Wade). The fact that I’m using his real team, the Orlando Magic, in any scenario is incidental. Shaq is still the man.
Also, I will only be looking at potential NBA Finals where Jordan was directly involved (1991-1993, and 1996-1998). We can only imagine how many more times Dominique would have met up with Larry Bird and his Celtics, or perhaps wonder if the Bad Boy Pistons would have installed their new “Wilkins Rules” tactic against the “3-time scoring champion”. These are also interesting scenarios, but I will not be entertaining them.
At last, we are ready. This is how the NBA Finals would have looked (potentially) without Michael Jordan:
1991 NBA Finals
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons would have been trying to lock up a three-peat, returning to the Finals four straight years, and meeting the Lakers for now a third time.
Record-wise, both teams finished as the three seed. The Lakers won 58 games, compared to the Pistons, who won 50.
Head-to-head, the Lakers smoked the Pistons at home, 114-90, and then won a close one in Detroit, 102-96, in overtime.
Both teams were also pummeled by Michael’s Bulls when they eventually did meet in the playoffs, winning a combined one game in nine tries.
The Pistons were ripe for dethroning, in my opinion. Isiah Thomas was not selected to an All-NBA team, and finished thirteenth in the MVP voting (no first place votes). Joe Dumars was the only Pistons player selected to an All-NBA team (Third). 50 wins was also the teams lowest mark since the 1985-86 season, when they won 46 games.
On the flip side for the Lakers, Magic Johnson finished second to MJ in the MVP voting, which means without Michael, he would have won it. Magic was selected to the All-NBA First Team, and the Lakers also boasted James Worthy, who was selected to the Third Team.
I’m going to go with the Lakers besting the Pistons in six games, avenging their 1989 Finals defeat, and ushering in the end of both the Showtime and Bad Boy eras (six rings and four Finals MVP’s for Magic).
1991 NBA Champions – Los Angeles Lakers
1992 NBA Finals
Portland Trailblazers vs. New York Knicks
While I’m very aware the Cleveland Cavaliers may have thought it was their year, since they lost in six games to the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, I’m not going to look past the Knicks.
First, the Knicks were the fourth seed in 1992, but only as a number. Realistically, they held the same record as the second seeded Boston Celtics, but because the Celtics won the Atlantic Division by way of tie-breaker – both New York and Boston won their home games against each other, with simply three games in Boston to two in New York – they were awarded the two seed, and the Knicks got fourth.
In a world without Jordan, I think this would have been a blessing in disguise. The Cavaliers would still defeat Boston in seven games to advance to the Conference Finals, only to now face a younger, and arguably better opponent in the New York Knicks. I think this proves too much, and New York advances.
Head-to-head, the Knicks and Blazers split their two games, winning on their opponents home floor. Not much analysis can be gathered here.
Against Jordan, the Blazers were laughed off the floor in Game 1 of the NBA Finals but really held their own the rest of the series. They would eventually bow out in six. The Knicks, meanwhile, were the only team in the 1992 playoffs to take the Bulls a full seven games. And they actually had a chance to close them out, but lost a crucial Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, in blowout fashion.
Clyde may have captured his lone MVP award in an NBA without Jordan, but we’ve seen the Blazers fold before (like when they lost to the Pistons in 1990). I think the lights get too bright for Clyde and company, and New York hoists up their first title in almost 30 years.
1992 NBA Champions – New York Knicks
1993 NBA Finals
Phoenix Suns vs. New York Knicks
In 1993, the Knicks held the best record in an Eastern Conference that Michael Jordan played in (60-22). Assuming they would have already won the 1992 NBA Finals, their superior talent and newfound swagger should help them become conference champions, once again, to defend their title from the newly christened NBA MVP Charles Barkley and his Phoenix Suns.
Head-to-head, the Suns would lose a close one in New York, and follow that up with an absolute laugher at home, 121-92.
Against Michael, the Suns would compete about as well as any Finals opponent MJ had ever faced, never losing by more than eight points. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks would actually lead Chicago 2-0 before losing Game 3 by twenty points and having their manhood taken from them. They would lose the next three games straight to lose in six.
For this Finals matchup, I’d have to give the nod to Sir Charles. The man won an MVP award with Jordan still in the league, not like these hypothetical MVP’s I’ve created so far. I think they figure out how to win a game in New York and close out the Knicks in seven.
1993 NBA Champions – Phoenix Suns
1996 NBA Finals
Seattle SuperSonics vs. Orlando Magic
After being swept in the NBA Finals by the Houston Rockets, Shaq and Penny return to face a new challenger from Seattle in DPOY Gary Payton and his SuperSonics.
Head-to-head, the Magic would win by twenty-two points at home, and lose by a single point during their visit to Seattle.
Against Michael, the SuperSonics would go down 3-0 before coach George Karl finally pulled his head out of his ass and tasked his DPOY Gary Payton with guarding MJ. After enjoying 31.0 PPG on 46.0% shooting en-route to a 3-0 Finals lead, Jordan would be held to 23.7 PPG on 36.7% shooting, needing three more games to finish off the SuperSonics (including twenty-one point and eleven point losses, respectively).
The Magic, on the other hand, got swept out of the Conference Finals by the Chicago Bulls.
I don’t care, I’m picking the Orlando Magic. Payton can’t guard Shaq, obviously, although perhaps he holds Penny in check? Shaq destroys Shawn Kemp and their center Sam Perkins on both sides of the floor, and The Daddy avenges his Finals loss from one year ago (also, five rings and four Finals MVP’s total for Shaq!).
1996 NBA Champions – Orlando Magic
1997 NBA Finals
Utah Jazz vs. Miami Heat
Raise your hand if you saw this matchup happening?
This NBA Finals was probably the most difficult to predict. But, everyone remembers the mid-to late-nineties Miami Heat, coached by Pat Riley, literally fighting everyone who stood in the way of their quest for an NBA championship.
Well, 1997 was this group’s greatest effort. Led by Tim Hardaway (20.3 PPG, 8.6 APG) and Alonzo Mourning (19.8 PPG, 9.9 RPG, and 2.9 BPG), the Heat would win 61 games, holding teams to 89.3 points per game (third) on 43.2% shooting (second). They’d also reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history (only to be walloped by the Bulls, 4-1).
But, the Utah Jazz win (more on this later…)
1997 NBA Champions – Utah Jazz
1998 NBA Finals
Utah Jazz vs. Indiana Pacers
Probably the dullest NBA Finals of all time. I’m not even sure the NBA allows this to happen, although both teams would be very deserving of their appearance. So, it is worthy of discussing.
Head-to-head, the Jazz and Pacers split their season series in two very close games, with the home team winning each time.
Against Jordan, both teams held their own. Jordan needed a game-winning shot to defeat the Jazz in six, while the Pacers prolonged their Conference Finals matchup with Chicago using a game-winning shot of their own. Reggie Miller’s Pacers would push the Bulls to the full seven games, with each game (other than Game 5) being decided by six or less points.
Miller appeared to be on a collision course to the NBA Finals, and had Jordan not been standing in his way, I think he gets there. But again, I believe the Jazz would prevail.
Why, you might be asking? Why, without question, would the Utah Jazz not be challenged in their two hypothetical NBA Finals appearances, when in reality, they were 0-2 in the series?
To be continued…
Final Score (sans-MJ)
Looking at the landscape of the league sans-MJ, there are a few things to note:
- Magic Johnson wins six championships in eight tries, collecting four MVP’s, and three Finals MVP’s.
- Shaquille O’Neal wins five championships, three scoring titles, one MVP, and four Finals MVP’s (Kobe would have nothing on this).
- Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing both win a ring and a Finals MVP.
- And lastly, Karl Malone becomes the undeniable player of Jordan’s era, securing two straight NBA championships, five scoring championships, three consecutive MVP awards, and (probably) two straight Finals MVP awards.
People like to claim that Jordan had no rival. But, the evidence I’ve provided shows Karl Malone was a more than worthy adversary, and possessed the makings of a G.O.A.T. candidate.
Jordan just never let him win.
All stats were found, as always, on basketball-reference.com. Follow me on Twitter, so you can not see me tweet anything of significance. I’ve been on another social media hiatus. I’ll probably jump back on once the NBA season kicks off, but, no promises.