“The Last Dance” reinvigorated the unsolvable discussion of who’s the greatest and reintroduced a lot of people to Michael Jordan. The first four episodes reminded us that before he was the invincible 90s MJ, there was a lot of losing in the 80s. “The Jordan Rules” epitomized the 80s with a simple explanation – if you go in the paint, there’s a price to pay.
So when people engage in GOAT discussions, there always comes the point when someone asks, “are we playing by 80s/90s rules, or the 00s/10s?” That question, in addition to revealing the futility of cross-era comparisons, always implies one thing. If it’s old school, MJ and his generation win – no way the new kids could stand the physicality. On the other hand, if we were to play with the new rules, we may have a competition, but most people say stuff like “Jordan would score 50 a game.” MJ doesn’t agree with them.
“If teams were able to play zone defenses, he [Jordan] said, he never would have had the career he did.”Sam Smith, Chicago Tribune
That’s the first mistake people make – they think that making hand checking illegal was the only change that happened and that teams didn’t react to the change. Jordan himself said that allowing defenses to play zone will eliminate to “gang up on the stars.” For the best, hand checking one-on-one basketball is more appealing than zone defenses honing in without so much contact.
“But for scorers like myself and Carmelo and KD, the rules from the ’80s can be more beneficial for us, because you have to be played straight up. You want to double team; you got to come all the way over. So, for us, I don’t care if you hand check us with three hands. If there’s nobody behind you, you’re not going to stop us. So the zone I think cripples some of the top scorers.”Kobe Bryant
Kobe’s precisely on point. Yes, 80s basketball was more physical and hand-checking was a big part of that. But if we assume that MJ, Bird, and Magic would feast on defenses in the 2000s and later, we have to give the same benefit of the doubt to Kobe, Carmelo, KD, LeBron, and the lot. Just because they didn’t have to take as much punishment in the paint, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t.
That brings me to the other point people talk about when discussing MJ over Lebron. The clutch factor – always coming up in big moments. LeBron’s continuously criticized for being more of a playmaker than a scorer, implying he just doesn’t have the killer instinct that MJ did. Yet, rarely do people take the era he grew up in into account. LeBron makes the smart play because in his period of no hand-checking, but also zone defense allowed, passing up to an open shooter is the best play for the team.
Exactly as MJ did to Steve Kerr is one of the most significant moments of his career. Thinking that Jordan’s game wouldn’t be more similar to LeBron’s if he had been drafted in 2003 and reached his prime in 2010 is living in denial. Everyone says, “MJ would’ve figured it out.” Probably, and we have the blueprint for it – his name is LeBron James. The same way a 6’9”, 250 lbs machine from Akron would figure out how to take an elbow (and dish out a few)
I get it, nuance and context don’t fit in 140 characters. I just wish we all listen to people like Toni Kukoč, who said he is confused with all the negativity and arguing. The 90s Bulls were spectacular basketball, and the 2010s NBA gave us spectacular basketball. When brilliant scientists figure out a vaccine, and we get back to life before COVID-19, let’s all appreciate and enjoy what we have in front of us, and the evolution of it all. Instead of MJ or LeBron, I choose MJ and LeBron.