In 1986, MJ went back to North Carolina to finish college and get a degree in cultural geography. He may have got his BA in geography in Chapell Hill, but he got his basketball doctorate in Detroit, Michigan. His final thesis was “Overcoming The Jordan Rules – successful implementation of the Triangle Offense.”
Out of all the great teams and individuals MJ played against, the Detroit Pistons will always be his arch-nemesis. Yes, MJ lost to Bird and the Celtics two times in the first round, but his team wasn’t ready yet. The Pistons were the team Jordan needed to beat to prove to himself and others he has what it takes. They were also the team he needed to overcome to advance in the playoffs.
- 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Pistons won, 4–1
- 1989 Eastern Conference Finals: Pistons won, 4–2
- 1990 Eastern Conference Finals: Pistons won, 4–3
- 1991 Eastern Conference Finals: Bulls won, 4–0
The Pistons enrolled Jordan into a four-year program, and each year he got a bit better, a bit closer. The curriculum revolved around “The Jordan Rules.” Knowing they couldn’t match Jordan individually, the Pistons developed a set of rules on how to defend and neutralize MJ. The short version would be the idea was “to play him tough, to physically challenge him and to vary its defenses to try to throw him off balance.” Here’s Pistons coach Chuck Daly explaining the principles.
“If Michael was at the point, we forced him left and doubled him. If he was on the left-wing, we went immediately to a double team from the top. If he was on the right-wing, we went to a slow double team. He could hurt you equally from either wing—hell, he could hurt you from the hot-dog stand—but we just wanted to vary the look. And if he was on the box, we doubled with a big guy.Chuck Daly
The other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him. If he was coming off a screen, nail him. We didn’t want to be dirty—I know some people thought we were—but we had to make contact and be very physical.”
How did Jordan overcome the rules? Firstly, the Pistons were exhausted, being back-to-back champions in’ 91’91. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Secondly, the Bulls promoted their assistant coach to the position of head coach in 1989. He started implementing a new system with his assistant Tex Winter, and a decade later, a documentary about their final season was made, called “The Last Dance.” Phil Jackson showed up with the triangle offense and once the team got the hang of it, “The Jordan Rules” were no longer an obstacle.
If you go back to Daly’s explanation, it may remind you of what the Mavericks did to LeBron in 2011, or what the Cavaliers tried to do with Curry. All those things: make him go to his weak side, make him take shots he doesn’t want to take, vary the defense, beat him up, hunt him on defense; all those have only one purpose. Corrupt his decision making, make him overthink.
Three years of defeat and the triangle offense gave MJ what he needed to make that final step. Have a counter for everything you throw at him, and see it before it happens. The last step to basketball pantheon always happens between your ears. MJ made it in 1991 and never looked back.