Posted by Neil Paine on July 20, 2010
Just when you thought the offseason chatter was finally going to die down, the most recent salvo in the aftermath of LeBron James' controversial "Decision" was fired by the GOAT himself, Michael Jordan:
"There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry, called up Magic and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team,'" Jordan said after finishing tied for 22nd in the American Century Championship golf tournament in Stateline, Nev. "But that's ... things are different. I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys."
An interesting argument some have raised in response is that as great as Jordan was, his supporting cast was good enough that he didn't really need to "call for help" -- the Bulls actually won 55 games the year after he retired. Think about that: Chicago won 57 games in 1993, lost the greatest player ever (in the middle of his prime), and they declined by all of two wins the following season.
How was that possible?
First, here are the two rosters side-by-side (bold = played for both teams):
|1993 Bulls||1994 Bulls|
|Scottie Pippen||27||81||3123||B.J. Armstrong||26||82||2770|
|Michael Jordan||29||78||3067||Scottie Pippen||28||72||2759|
|Horace Grant||27||77||2745||Horace Grant||28||70||2570|
|B.J. Armstrong||25||82||2492||Steve Kerr||28||82||2036|
|Scott Williams||24||71||1369||Pete Myers||30||82||2030|
|Bill Cartwright||35||63||1253||Toni Kukoc||25||75||1808|
|Stacey King||26||76||1059||Bill Wennington||30||76||1371|
|John Paxson||32||59||1030||Bill Cartwright||36||42||780|
|Rodney McCray||31||64||1019||Corie Blount||25||67||690|
|Will Perdue||27||72||998||Scott Williams||25||38||638|
|Trent Tucker||33||69||909||Stacey King||27||31||537|
|Darrell Walker||31||28||367||Luc Longley||25||27||513|
|Corey Williams||22||35||242||Jo Jo English||23||36||419|
|Ed Nealy||32||11||79||Will Perdue||28||43||397|
|Joe Courtney||23||5||34||John Paxson||33||27||343|
|Jo Jo English||22||6||31||Dave Johnson||23||17||119|
56.7% of the 1994 Bulls' minutes were filled by players who had been on their roster in '93 (15.5% were lost when Jordan departed). Of the remaining playing time, 92.6% was filled by five new players -- Steve Kerr, Pete Myers, Toni Kukoc, Bill Wennington, and Corie Blount. Losing MJ and adding those 5 to a 57-win team doesn't exactly seem like a recipe for maintaining the status quo, but there are several explanations for the Bulls' surprising success without Jordan:
- One major reason for the Bulls' apparent lack of decline was simply luck. In 1993, Chicago's pythagorean record was 58-24 and they only won 57 games, but in 1994 their luck reversed and then some -- they won 55 despite a pythagorean record of 50-32. Further reinforcing this point is the fact that their SRS fell from +6.19 (4th in the league) in 1993 to +2.87 (11th) in 1994. They may have won only 2 fewer games in '94, but in reality the drop-off in performance was more like 8-9 wins. Still, remember this post about how much losing LeBron would hurt Cleveland? Using SPM, I estimated the loss of James would cost the Cavs 20-25 wins even if they replaced him with an average player... And Jordan's SPM in 1993 was higher than James' was in 2010!
- The Chicago defense actually improved after Jordan retired. In 1993 the Bulls allowed 106.1 points per 100 possessions, 1.9 better than the league average and good for 7th in the NBA, but in '94 they pushed that number down to 102.7 pts/100 (3.6 better than avg., 6th). Here are the relevant defensive stats for both teams:
1993 Bulls 1994 Bulls Player Age G MP DRtg DPA Player Age G MP DRtg DPA Scottie Pippen 27 81 3123 103.7 1.22 B.J. Armstrong 26 82 2770 107.0 -1.20 Michael Jordan 29 78 3067 102.4 0.33 Scottie Pippen 28 72 2759 96.9 2.90 Horace Grant 27 77 2745 105.3 1.72 Horace Grant 28 70 2570 101.0 2.10 B.J. Armstrong 25 82 2492 110.9 -1.54 Steve Kerr 28 82 2036 106.2 -0.81 Scott Williams 24 71 1369 101.3 3.98 Pete Myers 30 82 2030 105.1 0.11 Bill Cartwright 35 63 1253 109.1 -0.48 Toni Kukoc 25 75 1808 102.4 -0.19 Stacey King 26 76 1059 108.5 -1.11 Bill Wennington 30 76 1371 101.2 1.50 John Paxson 32 59 1030 110.1 -0.89 Bill Cartwright 36 42 780 105.3 -0.22 Rodney McCray 31 64 1019 109.9 -0.81 Corie Blount 25 67 690 100.4 2.28 Will Perdue 27 72 998 104.2 1.94 Scott Williams 25 38 638 101.1 1.87 Trent Tucker 33 69 909 110.3 -2.11 Stacey King 27 31 537 101.7 0.95 Darrell Walker 31 28 367 106.4 1.15 Luc Longley 25 27 513 101.0 2.13 Corey Williams 22 35 242 111.6 -3.02 Jo Jo English 23 36 419 105.5 -0.58 Ed Nealy 32 11 79 105.4 -0.06 Will Perdue 28 43 397 100.6 1.30 Joe Courtney 23 5 34 107.4 0.99 John Paxson 33 27 343 107.8 -1.30 Jo Jo English 22 6 31 97.3 4.06 Dave Johnson 23 17 119 106.3 -3.14 Ricky Blanton 26 2 13 96.3 0.35
Although mediocre defender B.J. Armstrong led the team in minutes, Chicago's D improved in large part because they received outstanding performances from Pippen & Grant, each of whom earned Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Pippen had been known as a tremendous defender for years, but in 1994 he was the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and his 96.9 DRtg was one of the best ever by a player 6'8" or shorter. Also, not to be forgotten was Pete Myers' ability to vaguely approximate Jordan's defense at SG, Scott Williams' strong post D, better play from Stacey King, and solid interior performances from Wennington, Blount, and Longley (a major improvement over what Cartwright & King delivered in '93).
Despite the plaudits Jordan received for his D, defense remains largely a team activity, so it makes sense that this was the area in which Chicago did the best job of surviving MJ's retirement. With one of the greatest coaches ever, one of the greatest perimeter defenders ever, and a supporting cast of mostly solid defensive players (especially on the defensive glass), it should not have come as a surprise that the Bulls cobbled together a defense that was largely unfazed by the loss of Jordan. This is also good news for Cleveland, who had the NBA's 7th-best D in 2010 and might expect to retain most of that in 2011 despite losing James, a 1st-Team All-Defender.
- The Bulls' offense weakened, but didn't totally collapse. There's no question that Chicago's offense suffered a major setback with Jordan's departure -- they fell from 112.9 pts/100 (4.9 better than average, 2nd in the league) in 1993 to 106.1 (0.2 worse than avg., 14th) in 1994 -- but Pippen proved himself a capable high-usage #1 option, and Armstrong/Grant/Kerr were very efficient complimentary players. You can't deny that the Bulls' offense without Jordan was pretty ordinary in '94, but the loss was not catastrophic like it would be in '99, the second time MJ retired.
So there you have it -- thanks to some strong coaching, defensive cohesion, a passable offense, and a fair amount of luck, the 1994 Bulls finished their first Jordan-less season with only two fewer wins than they had in 1993 with His Airness. But does this mean Jordan was blind to the difference between his situation and LeBron's when he made his statement? Maybe. The Jordan ethos was always "going it alone" (remember "Michael and the Jordanaires"?), so it's certainly in the best interest of his continued mystique to maintain the perception of neither asking for nor needing "help".
Next season could alter the mainstream view of LeBron's legacy relative to MJ's, however, depending on how the Cavaliers weather James' departure. If, like the 1994 Bulls, they rise to the occasion on defense and post 50+ wins, it's going to look very bad for James, since a major rationale for his "decision" was the lack of a supporting cast in Cleveland. But if they completely fall apart without LeBron, the question could be raised about why Jordan criticized James' need for help when his own (supposedly equally inferior) teammates were able to survive far better without him.
As is the case with almost all of the debates surrounding James' move to Miami, only time will tell for sure.