Monday, April 11, 2011

Michael Jordan: Not a One Man Show pt. 2

Originally written July 3, 2010. Updated 4/11/11.

In part one, I examined the cornerstones (Pippen, Grant, Rodman) of the help that Jordan received in his championship years. In addition to the main two or three pieces that every championship team has, there are role players that contribute to the success of the team. How good were the key role players from the Bulls' dynasty? Let’s examine some of the main role players and see.

Role Players: First Three-peat
John Paxson-
Paxson was a near picture perfect role player. He didn’t put up fantastic numbers, but that wasn’t required of him. He was efficient with the numbers he put up, and was a clutch shooter. In fact, he literally won the Bulls’ third championship, with a series clinching three-pointer in the last seconds of game six. Paxson misses that shot and the Bulls would have had to play a game seven in Phoenix. Luckily for Jordan, and the rest of the Bulls, Paxson didn’t miss.

Paxson’s regular season percentages:
’91: FG%- .548, 3-Pt%- .438
’92: FG%- .528, 3-Pt%- .273
’93: FG%- .451, 3-Pt%- .463

Paxson’s posteason percentages:
’91: FG%- .530, 3-Pt%- .143
’92: FG%- .525, 3-Pt%- .444
’93: FG%- .583, 3-Pt%- .625

During the Bulls’ first three-peat, Paxson averaged .523 FG% and .403 3-Pt% in the regular season and .538 FG% and .446 3-Pt% in the postseason. Those are very solid averages. Good role players don’t take a lot of shots; they just make the ones they do take. That’s just what Paxson did.

Craig Hodges-
Craig Hodges was a very good three-point shooter. In fact, he won three consecutive Three-Point Contests [1]. Only other person to do that? Some guy named Larry Bird. Look how many times Hodges’ name appears in the Three-Point Contest records.

Hodges played during the Bulls’ first two championships. Here are his three-point percentages:
’91:  .383 in the regular season and .393 in the postseason
’92:  .375 in the regular season and .450 in the postseason

The guy shot an average .379 3-Pt% in the regular season and .419 3-Pt% in the postseason. Man, role players that knock down 40% of their three-pointers are so worthless. Oh yeah, Hodges only ranks 36th all-time in 3-Pt pct.

B.J. Armstrong-
The Bulls only had Hodges for two championship runs. I guess it’s a good thing they had Armstrong for all three.

Here’s his regular season averages:
’91: FG%- .481, 3-Pt%- .500
’92: FG%- .481, 3-Pt%- .402
’93: FG%- .499, 3-Pt%- .453* (*led the NBA in 3-point percentage)

Postseason averages:
’91: FG%- .500, 3-Pt%- .600
’92: FG%- .453, 3-Pt%- .294
’93: FG%- .524, 3-Pt%- .512

Armstrong shot .497 FG% and .441 3-Pt% in those three regular seasons, and .493 FG% and .460 3-Pt% in those three postseasons. Armstrong wasn’t half bad. He only ranks 9th all-time in 3-Pt pct.

Now that it’s clear that Jordan had no help during those first three championships, let’s look at how little help he had in his last three…

Role Players: Second Three-peat
Ron Harper-
Was Ron Harper any good? His stats on the Bulls weren’t that great, but was that a result of what he brought to the table or what he was asked to bring to the table? In his first 8 years in the league, prior to going to Chicago, Harper averaged 19.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, and 2.1 spg (Jordan’s career steals per game was 2.3). Those are very, very strong averages. Harper was capable of performing well in a big role; it just wasn’t required of him.

Toni Kukoc-
During the Bulls’ second three-peat, Kukoc was the team’s third leading scorer and a productive bench player. In 1996, Kukoc won the Sixth Man of the Year award.

Here were his regular season averages:
’96: FG%- .490, 3-Pt%- .403
’97: FG%- .471, 3-Pt%- .331
’98: FG%- .455, 3-Pt%- .362

Postseason averages:
’96: FG%- .391, 3-Pt%- .191
’97: FG%- .360, 3-Pt%- .358
’98: FG%- .486, 3-Pt%- .377

Kukoc shot over 45% from ’96-‘98, and did so once in the postseason. He was a decent three-point shooter, as he shot between 33% and 40% over the same span of time, and only dipped under that in the ’96 postseason. Being only a decent three-point shooter means that Kukoc doesn’t quite live up to Hodges and Armstrong before him. The only way the Bulls could make up for that is if they had, say, someone with the highest career 3-Pt pct of all time.

Steve Kerr-
Well, you don’t say. If it isn’t the guy with the highest 3-Pt pct of all-time. What a coincidence! Does anything else need to be said, other than that he has the highest 3-Pt pct of all-time? From downtown, Kerr shot .515 in ’96, .464 in ’97 and .438 in ’98. Also, Kerr shot .448, .429, and .434 in the postseason of those respective seasons.

No one can doubt the quality of those late-90s teams, with Pippen and Rodman. Add in Harper, Kerr and Kukoc, and Longley for good measure, and those are far from subpar teammates. There’s no room for argument that Jordan’s late-90s teammates were not of high quality. But what about those early-90s teams? If the earlier exposition didn’t do enough for you, I guess I will have to give a practical example of those early teammates being good.

Let’s go back to 1994. Michael Jordan has left the Bulls. They must have been in shambles, right? The so-called “greatest player ever” leaves, that has to make some kind of dent. So what happened? In '93, the Bulls’ record was 57-25. In ’94, Pippen leads the Jordan-less Bulls to a measly 55-27 record. Oh yeah, and Pippen missed 10 games in the beginning of the year (at which time the Bulls went 4-6). Had he not missed any games, it’s more than plausible that the Bulls match, or beat, their record from the year before. Man, the Bulls sucked without Jordan. He leaves and virtually nothing happens. The team doesn’t miss a beat. Maybe that was because of the guy that took his spot. Who was that? Pete Myers. Who’s Pete Myers? Exactly. Now granted, ’94 was when the Bulls brought in Kerr and Kukoc to come off the bench, but still…Pete Myers?

Imagine what they could have done if they had replaced Jordan with a decent sidekick for Scottie. Not necessarily a Hall of Fame player, but just an All-Star caliber player (maybe someone like Alan Houston, in his prime). If Scottie could do what he did with Myers playing, imagine what Scottie could do with Alan Houston instead. Now is it becoming clear why Tex Winter considered the idea that Jordan needed Scottie more than Scottie needed Jordan?

Even with Pete Myers, the Bulls were close to advancing, past the Knicks, to the Eastern Conference Finals. In The Book of Basketball, here’s what Bill Simmons has to say, “During MJ’s ‘sabbatical,’ Scottie (20.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 5.6 APG, 49% FG) dragged the Bulls to within one fecally pungent call of the Eastern Finals and should have been our ’94 MVP runner-up behind Hakeem.” He adds, “Hue Hollins whistled a touch foul on a last-second Hubie Davis jumper in Game 5, pretty much gift-wrapping the series for the Knicks. Even Vince McMahon was embarrassed by that call.”

Now I'm not saying Michael Jordan wasn't valuable, or instrumental to the Bulls' success. Of course he was. But at the end of the day, he was surrounded by the following:Two of the greatest defensive players ever (one of which happens to be a top 25 player of all-time, and the other is the greatest rebounder of the past generation), a guy with the 36th best 3-Pt pct ever, a guy with the 9th best 3-Pt pct ever, and a guy with the best 3-Pt pct ever. On top of that, role players such as Horace Grant, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, John Paxson, Luc Longley and Bill Cartwright.

Yeah, Michael Jordan barely had help.

*stats provided by

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