Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Michael Jordan ranks No. 3

Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What’s Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 3, Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan’s career highlights:

  • Six-time Finals MVP
  • Five-time league MVP
  • 14-time All-Star
  • 10-time first-team All-NBA, one-time second team
  • Nine-time All-Defensive first team
  • 1988 Defensive Player of the Year
  • 10-time scoring champion
  • Three-time steals leader
  • 1985 Rookie of the Year
  • Highest career scoring average
  • Fifth on all-time scoring list

The biggest difference with basketball compared to other team sports is how much influence one player can have on the results. You do not have to come off the court, much less wait your turn. Your involvement is continuous and, effectually, limitless.

No player has exercised that power as intensely and consistently and effectively as Michael Jordan. 

“What he did was arguably have the highest peak of any player ever,” Wright said. “Jordan’s apex, you could argue, is the GOAT apex.”

It’s a pinnacle that includes a plethora of records, notably six Finals MVPs (in six appearances), 10 scoring titles and the highest scoring average in the regular season (30.1) and postseason (33.4). 

Equally impressive is that Jordan’s entire Bulls tenure was one prolonged prime. Infamously drafted No. 3 overall in 1984 behind Sam Bowie, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard immediately outplayed the most favorable projections. He averaged 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists with 2.4 steals and 51.5% shooting, made the All-NBA second team and finished sixth in MVP voting while claiming Rookie of the Year honors. 

That was his worst full season in Chicago.

After a broken foot sidelined him for most of his second year, Jordan fought the front office over his playing time before being fully unleashed in the postseason. The 23-year-old wunderkind followed up a 49-point opener against the eventual champion Celtics with an NBA-record 63 points in Game 2. The lowly Bulls, however, were swept. 

“Starting in Year 3, before he ever sniffed a championship, Michael Jordan was already arguably the best player in the sport,” Wright said.

Chicago would finish below .500 again that season, despite His Airness putting together the most prolific scoring campaign (37.1 PPG) of the past 60 years. In the playoffs, the Bulls were swept again by Boston. MJ’s postseason averages thus far were 36-6-7 with four blocks plus steals, and his team was 1-9.

In 1987-88, Jordan averaged 35-6-6 and a league-high 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks (topping 200 and 100, respectively, for the second year in a row). That added up to a historic trifecta: scoring champ, Defensive Player of the Year, MVP. It then took Jordan averaging 45.2 points on 56% shooting for the Bulls to finally, and narrowly, win a first-round series.

“I hate when we just distill the career to the championship years,” Wright said. “It actually denies some of the greatness of early, peak-athleticism Michael Jordan.”

The younger version was so much more than a dunking machine. MJ temporarily moved to point guard in 1989 and finished the season averaging 33-8-8. He soon punctuated the unprecedented stat line with a hanging, double-clutch jumper to beat the buzzer and eliminate the Cavaliers in the first round. 

“That’s as true of a do-or-die shot as you can get,” Wright said.

Jordan posted 36-10-8 while shooting 55% to drag Chicago past the Knicks, marking the first time in franchise history the Bulls won two playoff series. His 46-point effort gave the Bulls a 2-1 series lead in the conference finals, only to see Detroit effectively double- and sometimes triple-team him – this became known as the “The Jordan Rules” – amid winning three straight close games. 

MJ put up 37-7-7 the following postseason, as Chicago pushed the Pistons to seven games in the East finals. Game 7 served as a microcosm for the first half of MJ’s career. While he dropped 31-8-9, his teammates shot 15 of 63 (23.8%) from the field in the blowout loss.

Jordan would lose just one more playoff series, and even that one comes with an asterisk. 

Buoyed by an ascending Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and the leadership of second-year coach Phil Jackson, Jordan put together four magnificent rounds to deliver Chicago its first title in 1991. That involved sweeping the defending-champion Pistons and taking out Magic Johnson’s Lakers in five games. Jordan’s 11.4 assists and 55.8% shooting would be personal bests for a Finals series. 

It wouldn’t be his best championship performance, though.

In 1992, Jordan repeated as league MVP after eclipsing 30 points and 50% shooting for the fifth consecutive year. The Bulls won 67 games, but their repeat title run proved much more arduous. Jordan scored 42 points to put away the Knicks in Game 7 of the second round. He poured in 37 to break a 2-2 series tie with the Cavs in the conference finals. Next came the shrug, an unforgettable gesture from Jordan as he sank six 3s in the first half of a Game 1 rout over the Portland Trail Blazers. What’s often forgotten is MJ dropping 46 to go up 3-2 and directing a 15-point comeback in the fourth quarter of Game 6. 

His shooting splits for the series victory: 53%/43%/89%. 

“Kobe Bryant was the best Michael Jordan impersonator we ever had,” Wright said. “What Kobe Bryant was never quite able to master was the efficiency that Jordan was able to score with.”

This actually marked the first time anyone had ever won consecutive Finals MVPs. MJ, naturally, topped that feat in 1993. 

Facing a frisky Phoenix Suns squad featuring Charles Barkley at his peak, Jordan ascended to a level perhaps only he’s traversed. He dropped 40 in four consecutive games, including a record 55 points to go up 3-1 in the series, and averaged 41-9-6 over the six games. The Bulls, needing all of it as they won each of their four games by eight points or less, became the first team to three-peat since Bill Russell’s Celtics. 

“The greatest Finals anyone has ever had in terms of start to finish? Giannis [Antetokounmpo] in 2021 is close, but Jordan in ‘93 is pretty spectacular,” Wright said. “It might be the greatest Finals performance anyone’s ever had.”

And then he retired – for the first time. 

Nick defends ranking Michael Jordan behind LeBron and Kareem

Nick defends ranking Michael Jordan behind LeBron and Kareem

Nick Wright ranked Michael Jordan No. 3 on his Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years list. Predictably, the internet and NBA fans went into a frenzy. Nick explains why Jordan rightfully belongs behind LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Devastated by the death of his father and longing to try his hand at baseball, his first love in sports, a seemingly exhausted Jordan walked away from basketball at the peak of his powers. Following a 17-month sabbatical, MJ rejoined to a Bulls team that was scuffling through the 1994-95 campaign after losing in the second round the year prior without him. 

Sporting a No. 45 jersey, he led Chicago to a 13-4 mark to close out the regular season, though his production was markedly down across the board. It’d return to normal in the postseason, which he opened with a 48-9-8 showing. But the Bulls were considerably weaker than the championship crew he left behind and fell to Shaquille O’Neal’s nascent Magic. 

“In those ‘95 playoffs, he was absolutely awesome until the very last game where he wasn’t,” Wright said. “Because people don’t want to acknowledge that he ever lost, they try to tell you this story, ‘Oh, he was rusty.’ He was awesome.”

The loss made him more determined than ever. Now 32 and no longer able to get to the rim at will, Jordan mastered the midrange jumper and leaned heavily on an unguardable fadeaway. He also reasserted himself as one of the best defenders in basketball. 

Add in career years from Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr, and the unique contributions of Dennis Rodman, and the Bulls were a two-way juggernaut. They’d win a record 72 games in the regular season and storm through the Eastern playoff bracket, exacting sweeping revenge on Orlando in the conference finals. Jordan was dominant until scuffling in the latter part of the Finals, in which he averaged 27-5-4 over six games against the Seattle SuperSonics.

“It’s his only Finals MVP where the numbers are not off the charts,” Wright said.

To be fair, the Bulls didn’t need it. But they would in the 1997 title round versus the Utah Jazz, and Jordan delivered. 

With the score tied and the clock ticking down in Game 1, MJ sank a fallaway jumper at the buzzer. His 38 points gave Chicago a 2-0 lead, but Karl Malone countered with two big games to tie the series. Next was the “Flu Game,” with a noticeably sick Jordan unloading 15 points in the fourth quarter, including a dagger 3, and 38 overall in a two-point win. He followed it up with 39 and the game-winning assist to Kerr to clinch another late comeback and Finals triumph.

“It did look like the Jazz could beat the Bulls, but they couldn’t because Jordan killed them,” Wright said. 

Well, he technically didn’t put them away for good until 1998. 

Jackson dubbed the season “The Last Dance” before it started, and it couldn’t have unfolded out more poetically. Jordan played every game for the third year in a row, earning another scoring title and MVP in the process. Given Pippen’s decline in play and health and Rodman’s unreliability, MJ was also carrying his heaviest workload in a decade. He led all scorers in all seven games of a tight conference finals win over the Indiana Pacers, reminding the world that all challengers “still got to come through Chicago.” 

In a Finals rematch with Utah, the 35-year-old was mostly brilliant but clearly tiring as the series wore on. He then played Game 6 like it was his last. 

The Jazz led most of the way on their home court and held a three-point cushion with 41 seconds remaining, setting up perhaps the greatest individual sequence in league history. Jordan shrewdly attacked the rim and made an off-balance layup in less than five seconds to ensure another possession. He then guaranteed it would be on his terms by stripping Malone. After running the clock down, the clutchest of them all crossed over Bryon Russell and sank a jumper from the top of the key to complete a second three-peat and sixth crown. 

Jordan accounted for 45 of Chicago’s 87 points (including 16 in the fourth quarter), while shooting 15-of-35 and tallying one rebound, one assist and four steals in 44 minutes.

“It’s kind of an odd box score,” Wright said. “The context of it and how he finished it makes it the single finest game of his career.”

It was his last with the Bulls, as general manager Jerry Krause’s insistence on parting ways with Jackson and Pippen prompted Jordan to retire in the offseason. He’d return three years later and play two star-crossed seasons with the Washington Wizards before retiring a third and final time at 40.

His legacy, of course, was already etched in stone. 

Over 11 full seasons with the Bulls, Jordan made first-team All-NBA and finished top-three in MVP voting in each of the last 10. He edged Wilt Chamberlain by the slimmest of margins in career scoring average, largely thanks to a record 562 30-point games. Only Chamberlain recorded more 40- and 50-point games. 

Jordan buries the competition in the playoffs, registering 30 on 38 occasions and 50 eight times. No one else has more than four such games. He owns five of NBA history’s 11 55-point postseason games and three of the five 50-point outbursts in the Finals over the past 50 years. 

MJ ranks fifth on the all-time scoring list, despite playing considerably fewer games than most of the top 20 members. No guard who’s in the realm of his field goal attempts touches his 49.7% shooting rate. Jordan also places third in steals, boasting a 2.35 average that trumps any player with 800 games. 

There are 12 instances in which a scoring champion made All-Defensive first team. Nine belong to Jordan. The nine first-team all-defense nods are tied for the most ever. A scoring champ has won Finals MVP eight times. He’s responsible for six of those. 

Jordan’s five league MVPs trail only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He and LeBron James are the lone two players to repeat as league and Finals MVP in the same seasons. If it wasn’t obvious, MJ has accumulated the most personal hardware. That starts with 11 combined league and Finals MVPs – the latter wasn’t awarded until 1969 – which are three more than the tally for Kareem or LeBron.

Moreover, Jordan’s ability to successfully carry out such control over outcomes as a perimeter player, following decades of basketball being a big man’s game, changed the NBA forever. His comprehensive impact is what makes him the consensus choice for the greatest of all time. But not everyone’s.

“One of the most famous, most celebrated, most accomplished athletes in the history of any sport,” Wright said. “Unlike LeBron and unlike Kareem, he never had the true, dark playoff moment. The problem is, unlike LeBron and Kareem, the career was shockingly brief. 

“Now what he fit into that shockingly brief career is all-time stuff.”

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