Dennis Rodman was on First Take recently and he had quite a few interesting soundbites. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the man who was famous for playing hard on the court, and even harder off of it. In the interview he sported the jersey of Stephen A. Smith’s least favorite football team (the Cowboys), mocked Draymond Green, and claimed that Michael Jordan would average 50 points per game if he played in today’s NBA.
This got me thinking, Michael Jordan is the greatest scorer in NBA history, but is today’s defense really that bad?
I can’t lie, as I went into writing this, I was completely ready to defend Dennis Rodman’s take. I mean, how many times have you heard that the defense in the 80’s-90’s was superior to the defense now?
I’ve heard it too many times to count.
As I took a look at the data I discovered that the league average for points per game has remained more or less the same since 1955. In 1991, the season that Jordan went on his first title run, the league’s team average for p.p.g. was 106.3. That’s higher than every single season in the 2000’s except for one!
As you can see from the image below, only one season in the 21st century made the top 20 for the League average Points Per Game:
I know what you’re thinking, “Oh, you just cherry picked data.”
As you can see from the highlighted column below, many of the lowest scoring seasons in NBA History have been in the 2000’s. This begs the question: Has the NBA’s defense actually gotten better?
Let me answer that for you.
For those of you that don’t know, the NBA banned zone defenses in 1947 and didn’t allow them again until the 2001-2002 season. Many claim this was due to Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance. Before the illegal defense rule was scrapped completely, it was more or less impossible to double-team Shaq, as the rule states that you have to remain within 3 feet of the man you’re guarding, and simply put, no one could take the big man one-on-one.
The same goes for Michael Jordan. No one could take Michael one-on-one in his prime. He was just simply too talented. In today’s NBA, defenses would have been throwing all sorts of zone defenses at him, and doubling him every single time he started to back a defender down.
In this debate people invariably bring up hand checking, like that gave the defense some kind of unfair advantage. Sure, it allows you to have more control over the man you’re guarding and makes it harder for him to drive to the basket, but what good is it if you’re guarding Michael Jordan and his turn around jumper goes in every single time?
Then we hear that the refs in the 80’s and 90’s let players play, and that there wasn’t the constant whistle blowing stalling the game like there is today. Well, guess what? That is also wrong. When looking at the League Averages over the years, you can see that the average free throw attempts per game were actually higher in the 80’s and 90’s than it is now.
When looking at the lowest League averages for free throws attempted per game, the first 14 lowest averages are in the 2000’s, after the supposed golden age of basketball, where hand checking made defenses elite, and the refs swallowed their whistles.
The defense was not better, and to say that M.J. would be an even greater scorer in this era is just flat out wrong. If anything, he’d be about the same if not slightly less dominant due to the new defensive strategies of the NBA’s many great coaches.
I’ve seen a lot of people supporting Rodman’s comments with the statement, “Well if Harden can average 36 than Jordan could definitely average 50.” I’m by no means saying that James Harden is better than Jordan but let’s take a look at the numbers.
When comparing the top scoring seasons from each player Jordan’s being the 87 season and James Hardens being this past season, we begin to see that those claims aren’t quite true:
1986-87 Michael Jordan: 37.1 ppg; 27.8 FGA 48 FG% 11.9 FTA
2018-19 James Harden: 36.1 ppg; 24.5 FGA 44 FG% 11.0 FTA
As you can see, in Michael Jordan’s top scoring season he averaged exactly 1 more point than James Harden did this year. However, it took him 3 more shot attempts and 1 more free throw per game to achieve that average that is only 1 point greater.
Sure, Harden’s field goal percentage is worse by 4 percent, but keep in mind that Jordan wasn’t even attempting 1 three per game, while James attempted 13 a game. Three pointers accounted for over half of Hardens field goals and yet, his shooting percentage isn’t that much worse than Jordan’s.
To discredit James Harden’s impressive scoring season, and use it as an argument for why M.J. would average 50 in today’s era is weak at best.
With the death of “Illegal Defense” the game of basketball, which had been dominated by big men for decades, has changed drastically. The difficulty of scoring in the paint has forced offenses to rely more heavily on the three point shot.
Just this year the league average for team 3-point attempts was a whopping 32 per game. Compare that to the 90’s where teams averaged just over 11 attempts per game and you have a pretty good idea of how much the game has changed since Jordan was around.
Michael Jordan was never much of a 3 point shooter. Could M.J. adjust to this game?
That’s up for debate.
As far as Dennis Rodman’s comments are concerned, he sounds like an old man who’s stuck in the “good old days”, not realizing that he’s missing out on another great era of NBA basketball. So to Dennis, and all the rest of you who are sick with a bad case of Jordan Nostalgia Syndrome, it’s time to wake up.