One of the most exciting debates among basketball fans is whether some of the greatest NBA players would perform better in different eras. Even though most people know these debates are foolish, they are always interesting because other people have different views. In an interview for Sports Illustrated, former head coach and NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy talked about Michael Jordan, whom he faced multiple times when coaching the New York Knicks in the '90s.
Less physicality in today's NBA
Van Gundy talked about the difference in how basketball was played back then compared to today's game, which is mostly focused on shooting threes. He points out another big difference: the physicality present in the NBA back in the day, with teams having completely different defensive strategies.
Van Gundy thinks the reign and efficiency Jordan had during the 80s and 90s when it was much harder to score because players were not relying on their shooting so much as nowadays. There was a lot more driving to the paint or shooting mid-range jumpers while shooting threes was only reserved for the best shooters, and even they only had several attempts per game.
I lived it. And fans, if they watch closely, they'll see how little room Jordan had on the floor. The three-point shot was in less use, and there was less three-point shooting. If you look at how tight the spacing was in the triangle, and how much physical contact was allowed, people will be amazed. Everyone thinks they know how good Jordan was, but until you go back and actually study him, you'll never understand what a great, great player he was. He shot over 50% a lot of times through the physical contact he had to play through—if that happened in today's game, you'd be absolutely living at the free-throw line.
Jeff Van Gundy, Sports Illustrated
Jordan would average 40 points per game
In Van Gundy's mind, that is one of the biggest reasons Jordan would average more than 40 points per game today. His playing style and mentality on offense were to go after the defense and exploit any potential weakness they might have had. In today's NBA, players like Jordan would love it because the physicality is not on the same level, and players who initiate contact like James Harden, for example, get a big chunk of their points from the free-throw line.
"That's why I have no doubt, if you dropped him in at his prime, in today's game, he would average north of 40 points a game. He would be either living at the line or his variety of shots would just be too hard to handle. If fans watch the game footage closely, the amount of contact that was allowed then versus now, you're going to be even more astounded at Jordan's efficiency from a scoring perspective."
Jeff Van Gundy, Sports Illustrated
It's obviously impossible to make any predictions or assessments on how many points Michael Jordan would score in today's NBA. It's fair to say the defenses have changed dramatically, and players have more room to operate, especially on offense. But, unlike in Jordan's time, there are no longer big bodies clogging up the middle, making life easier for slashers like Jordan. It's probably right what JVG said, and Jordan would probably average around 40 in the NBA today when you consider that we had several players that averaged over 30 this season which definitely makes the argument that the GOAT of basketball would score over 40 per game if he were in his prime years.