What is it about Michael Jordan that over 15 seasons after his third and final retirement he's still by far the most successful sneaker salesman in the world? Is it the shoes? Is it the hang time? Is it his 6 championships with two 3-peats? Is it the fact that everyone in the arena and across the globe watching basketball knew that anything could happen once the ball landed in his court?
GOAT debates are interesting in a number of sports - for a well-informed soccer fan, there clearly is no specific GOAT out of the 5 candidates he knows are at the same echelon. For an American football, hockey or a baseball fan, difference in era have shrouded in doubt the status of who really is the greatest to ever play those games, though the argument for Wayne Gretzky is akin to an argument for Don Bradman as the GOAT cricketer because the stats are too good to be denied.
The GOAT of basketball, however, has been a mantle resting with Michael Jordan for nearly 30 years now - from the time he won his first championship with the Bulls in 1991. The following is a list of his achievements that could conceivably stand the test of time for 20 more years:
#1 Highest scoring average in regular season, playoffs and Finals
MJ has universally been acknowledged, and with good reason, as the greatest and most skilled scorer of all time. What makes this achievement even more impressive is that he achieved this playing in an era with a really low pace, which is why his stats per 100 possessions are ungodly in the playoffs - a truly impossible-to-match 43.3 points per 100 possessions per game through the course of his career.
His per-100 possession stats from the Bulls' first 3-peat speak for themselves:
(a) 41.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 3.2 steals, 1.8 blocks on 52.4% shooting from the field and 84.5% on free throws in the 1991 playoffs through 17 games
(b) 44.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 2.6 steals, 0.9 blocks on 49.9% shooting from the field and 85.7% on free throws in the 1992 playoffs through 22 games
(c) 46.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 2.7 steals, 1.2 blocks on 47.6% shooting from the field and 80.5% on free throws in the 1993 playoffs through 19 games
#2 6 Finals MVPs - 3 more than any other player ever
Everyone knows that the NBA Finals were the scenes of MJ's greatest triumphs. An unbeaten 6-0 record (only beaten by John Havlicek's 8-0 record among first options who played in as many Finals) is further augmented by the fact that he was pretty handily the best player on the floor at all times at that stage.
The likes of LeBron and Kareem are the only players who can claim to have dominated the league for an entire decade or more in similar fashion to MJ, but their teams were never good enough to walk into every single Finals series as overwhelming favourites (after 1991), or consistent enough to make it to that stage as the Bulls did during their threepeats.
#3 Only player to win the scoring title, MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season
There are quite a few historic seasons by a number of players like LeBron, Kareem, Hakeem, Shaquille O'Neal and more recently, KD and Steph. It is probably impossible, however, to top what Michael Jordan achieved through the course of a barnstorming 1987-88 regular season for the Bulls.
MJ murdered the entirety of the box score statistics in a fashion that we're really yet to see from any other player. True, LeBron's rebounding and assist numbers are routinely higher than MJ's, but the sizeable advantage His Airness has in the other 3 categories and accolades puts the '87-88 season aside as one of the anomalies in league history.
Jordan became the only player to ever record 200 steals and 100 blocks in a single regular season campaign in '86-87, but somehow still missed the MVP trophy. He raised the bar the following season to become the only player to record 250+ steals and 125+ blocks through 82 games.
Here's a look at all of Jordan's stats from the 1987-88 season, one in which he won the scoring title, Defensive Player of the Year honours, MVP trophy, the Slam Dunk Challenge and the All-Star Game MVP in addition to making the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team. Truly a season for the ages.
#4 9 All-Defensive First Team selections, tied for #1 all-time
MJ's reputation as a lockdown perimeter defender is so overshadowed by his greatness at the other end of the floor that most basketball fans clearly have no idea how good he was at locking people down.
At a time when there were all-time great defensive centers like Mark Eaton, Hakeem, Patrick Ewing and Moses Malone and lockdown perimeter defenders of the caliber of Sidney Moncrief, Alvin Robertson, Michael Cooper, Dennis Johnson, Mo Cheeks and Bobby Jones, MJ won the DPOY title pretty handily - that's just how good he was at that end of the floor.
He maintained the same level of defensive intensity through the entirety of his Bulls career. After all, the one play that probably defines his career the best came about in his last few seconds as a Chicago Bull when he stole the ball from Karl Malone and walked it up the court and knocked down a jumper from the elbow region against Bryon Russell.
There are circlejerks today that MJ took a backseat defensively during the Bulls' 3-peat, but anyone who actually bothered to watch those games knows the reality of his elite play at that end.
#5 6 seasons with scoring title and NBA title
Jordan is one of 3 players in NBA History to win an NBA scoring championship and NBA Championship in the same season. George Mikan, Shaquille O'Neal and Lew Alcindor did it once each. Jordan did it all six times that he won a championship ring. All six times, he also led the playoffs in scoring, which Mikan and O'Neal did but Alcindor (Kareem) didn't.
Here's what Scoop Jackson pointed out in ESPN's NBA Rank article on MJ done in February 2016:
Be like Mike? He left room for others to come close. But could you be like him as often? As consistently?
All due respect to Wilt, Kobe, LeBron, Steph, Magic and all other players who fall below Jordan's No. 1 position on this list, but what set Jordan apart was his ability to follow up his own "God-like" performances with something greater the next game, the next series, the next season.
And when you glance through the record books, you can see how true it is.
#6 All-time leader in playoff win shares per 48 minutes
This is probably the one stat where other all-time greats approach MJ. LeBron, for example, places 3rd on this list with a win share average of 0.2436 wins per 48 minutes - essentially meaning that he influenced a win all by himself for every 4 games played
The #2 player on this list, George Mikan, played in an era when he was by far the most skilled and had the most well-endowed physique of all players in the NBA, and he averaged 0.2541 win shares per 48 minutes. The rest of the players on this list are way down the list - Kawhi comes in 4th at 0.2095.
MJ? He checks in with a score of 0.2553 for the playoffs, and he led the all-time regular season leaderboard until he was overtaken by Chris Paul by the margin of 0.007 win shares per 48 minutes. This also factors in his Wizard years, when he was aged 39 and 40 and still a legitimate All-Star, but way below his peak play.
Advanced stats were not used during MJ's time, but he still measures incredibly on all of them as you'll see later.
#7 All-time leader in regular season and playoffs PER
Like I said before, advanced stats love Jordan like they love no one else. In this case, PER is a measure of the efficiency of a player that gives volume a huge consideration, in a departure from normal metrics that almost exclusively use efficiency as the main variable in the calculation of Player Efficiency Rating.
In today's game, players have every kind of stat available to them in order to help improve their efficiency and affect games more positively. Players are handed their own scouting reports which account for the number of dribbles they take before making a shot, whether they moved left or right, whether they were in the pick-and-roll, what distance they were from the basket during the shot attempt et al.
And yet, MJ has a clear lead in regular season Player Efficiency Rating at 27.91, and playoff PER at 28.6. This is despite the fact that players in the modern era have the benefit of knowing their best spots, have the best schemes and can play off of other skilled players on their own team.
#8 Most 50-point games in the playoffs - 8
When Michael Jordan took on one of the greatest basketball teams in history, the Bulls were greatly outmatched by the Celtics, who had a stacked starting lineup of Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish while former MVP Bill Walton came off the bench. While being guarded primarily by Larry Bird, Jordan dropped a jaw-dropping 63 points on 41 shots, making 19 out of 21 free throw attempts.
After the game, Larry Bird looked back at his performance saying, "He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan."
The thing about Jordan is, this wasn't even his greatest ever playoff performance. It is the all-time scoring record for a single game in the playoffs, and yet Jordan produced even more memorable performances that forced people to coin a new superlative in his honour - Jordanesque - to describe all forms of greatness, perfection, superiority, or flawlessness.
Jordan is also the only player to record 50 points in back-to-back playoff games.
#9 Never scored fewer than 15 points in a playoff game
Not only was Jordan the epitome of spectacular basketball, he was also the personification of basketball consistency. Evidence of this is the fact that in 179 playoff games through the course of his career, Jordan never recorded fewer than 15 points - not once. With all due respect to the likes of LeBron, Kareem, Magic and Bird, to name a few, every single all-time great has had a game or two in which they've been outrageously bad and detrimental to the play of their team.
Not Michael, however. On top of playing his heart out on defense on a nightly basis, he put his mind to developing a scoring repertoire like few others in the history of the game and made sure the box score reflected this. Every. Single. Game.
#10 Averaged over 30 points per game in 12 different playoffs
Unlike nearly every other all-time great of their generation, Jordan never played with a natural scorer who was good enough to get double-teamed in the playoffs. This meant that he often had to carry superhuman offensive loads in order for his teams to be dominant the way they were.
Thus, his 30+ points per game average through every playoff campaign isn't as unexpected as one would expect - except for the fact that no other comparable player has averaged 30+ in more than 6 playoff runs.
There's a reason why other sporting greats are called the Michael Jordan of something - so good that everyone recognizes you as the best.