There are not many players in NBA history that can brag about being able to defend the GOAT Michael Jordan with some success. Of course, no one could stop MJ, but there were a handful of players that would make Jordan work much harder for his points. One of the best defenders in history, Gary Payton, was one of them.
The rivalry between these two is notorious, as they are both known for being very feisty competitors and trash talkers. To no surprise, there are different views on the level of Payton's success - he thinks he gave MJ problems, MJ's reaction to that statement created the most viral moment of 2020.
I'll let you be the judge of that discussion, but before watching any game, here's how Payton broke down his strategy when it came to defending Michael Jordan. This is from an interview with Colin Cowherd in 2018 - before The Last Dance aired.
"He didn't have slight holes; you needed a guy that needed to get into him a lot...What I did when I went in to play him I made him work. I made him work work work. Made it hard for him to get the ball. People were so easy on him to give him the ball, and then he'll kill you. He'll jump over you and make shots. If you tired him down and wore him down. Then when you wear him down, and then he has to guard you because he took the personal challenge very personal."
Gary Payton, via The Herd
Payton's whole concept revolved around two factors. Denying MJ the ball in and making him work hard even to get possession of the ball, and then capitalizing on that on the other end, by making Jordan burn more energy defending him. It wouldn't stop him from getting his buckets, but it would for sure exhaust MJ and make him less dangerous towards the end of the game. "The Glove" also mentioned Joe Dumars as the type of player that would apply those same principles successfully when guarding MJ.
GP was obviously onto something, as his decision to guard Jordan in the 1996 Finals almost turned the whole series around. In the first three-game that the Bulls won, Michael was averaging 31 points on 46,2% from the field. When Payton took him on, he dipped to 23.7 points on 36% from the field. MJ's assists also went down, and his turnovers went up. Payton did a heck of a job based on pure stats as the Sonics managed to get two games from the Bulls. If the switch was done earlier, who knows how those Finals would have gone. We can only imagine.