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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What is Love? The Greatest NBA Commercial of All-Time

We live in a "Who's Now?" culture, to quote the lamentable fluff on which ESPN is wasting so much airtime. True greatness is about sustaining production over time. Michael Jordan ushered in a new type of marketing when he entered the NBA in 1984--but he backed up all the hype with substance. How would you explain Jordan's greatness to someone who never saw him play? There are a lot of adjectives that you could use--or you could just watch this video:

What is Love?

Yes, it is "just" a commercial but the footage covers the whole arc of MJ's career, from high flying, skinny rookie, to more muscular veteran battling the Pistons, to battle-tested champion, to struggling minor league baseball player, to aging yet still proud Wizard. I remember stopping in my tracks, transfixed, the first time that I saw this commercial; for someone who followed all of Jordan's career, it is like traveling in a time machine. Jordan's last line stays with you, because even though it is "just" a commercial, it rings true to how Jordan played: "Love is playing every game as if it's your last." The footage at around the 4:10 mark shows a quick glimpse of Jordan's amazing two-handed block of a Ron Mercer layup. What most people did not realize is that Jordan was basically playing on one leg; Wizards' practices were closed to the public so that no one would realize how bad Jordan's knee was, how at times he literally was dragging his leg up and down the court. Late in a game versus Chicago, Jordan felt that he was fouled but nothing was called. He raced downcourt, blocked Mercer's layup from behind, pinned it to the glass, caught the ball and barked something at Mercer. That moment is quintessential Jordan--athleticism, fury, competitiveness, trash talking, never quitting, channeling frustration into productivity. Phil Jackson often tells his teams, "Go down as you live," quoting his old teammate "Super" John Williamson's motto--fight to the end, stay true to what your core values are, never quit. To Michael Jordan, there were no "meaningless" games; a regular season game near the end of his career when he had one good leg had to be played with the same intensity as an NBA Finals game.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:43 AM



At Thursday, July 05, 2007 7:10:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

That is a nice video. While not that closely related to your post, watching the many phases of Jordan's career reminds me of something which I do not think has been looked at enough: how did Jordan's two retirements in the middle of his career affect his performance on the court when he did play, and how have the retirements shaped the popular perception of Jordan?

While reading Elliot Kalb's thought-provoking book Who's Better, Who's Best? in Basketball a few years ago, Kalb (who ranked Jordan #3 all-time) knocked Jordan for taking "too much time off during his prime" compared to other players.

I was initially puzzled by Kalb's statement, but after a while I have come to agree with it to a certain extent. I think Jordan's retirements helped his place in history by 1) enhancing his performance on the court and 2) helping to create a certain "invincible" image. Let me explain.

First, I think Jordan's first retirement gave him a needed break and enabled him to come back refreshed, physically and mentally, for his second three-peat run. I think nearly every great player and team in NBA history has suffered at some point from "burning out". According to Billy Cunningham (in your interview with him), that is what hurt the 76ers after their 1983 Championship. I think that's what hurt the Lakers in 1990 and 2004(and maybe 1986), the Celtics in 1988, the Pistons in 1991, etc. (One could argue that Russell's Celtics never burned out, but I'd counter by saying that, aside from Russell, those championship teams featured 2 or 3 different casts of stars over the years.)

I think Jordan's year and a half away from basketball helped him rest physically, regain his drive and desire to play basketball at the highest level, and eventually infuse the Bulls with a fresh drive and perspective when he came back. I certainly think the Bulls would have remained title contenders if he never retired in 1993. But do they win 6 titles in a row, or even 6 overall? Maybe not. I certainly do not think they would have won 8 in a row (from 1991-1998) as many people suggest.

Secondly, one of the main arguements (and perhaps THE main arguement) supporting the idea of Micheal Jordan being the greatest player of all time is: once Jordan got a team good enough to win a championship, no one was able to beat him. I think Jordan's retirements are what allowed him to have this "invincible" mystique. As I stated above, I think Jordan's time off in 1993-95 enabled him to compete in 1995-98 at a level he otherwise may not have been able to. Also, his retirements saved him from losing a playoff series after 1991 which "counted".

Yes, the Bulls lost to the Magic in 1995, but that is usually rationalized as being due to Jordan's rust (due to retirement), so it doesn't "count". People who make this rationalization ignore the fact that the Bulls lack of a good power forward, along with Jordan's going outside of the team gameplan to prove he could still take over individually hurt more than any "rust" Jordan had. (Interestingly, no one ever tries to let Wilt Chamberlain off the hook for the Lakers 1970 loss to the Knicks, even though Wilt missed most of the season and, unlike Jordan, came back to a team with a new coach and new system.)

Yes, the Wizards failed to make the playoffs while Jordan played for them. Rightfully, it is not held against Jordan because of his age. However, I think Jordan's 1998-2001 retirement made a clear separation in people's minds between Jordan's prime and his twilight. Other players who never retired are not afforded the same understanding because their decline of skills was gradual, and there was no clear-cut separation between their prime and twilight. A good example can be seen in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It's amazing how many people have the idea that Kareem was not a very good rebounder or defender, and just not a dominant player because they confuse the many years he played past his prime with his prime.

If Jordan played continuously from 1991-2003, I'm convinced his teams would have lost some playoff series which would have "counted" in people's minds, and his post 1991 track record would not look as impeccable as it does. Other greats are knocked in comparison to Jordan for not having such an impeccable playoff record, and I don't think that's quite fair when you look at all the time Jordan took off.

At Friday, July 06, 2007 2:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This is another fascinating journey into the realm of the hypothetical. We can never really know what might have happened in "alternative realities," so all we can do is try to extrapolate from what actually happened and the information that we know.

You certainly make a valid point regarding the burn out phenomenon, both in terms of Jordan and in regard to some other prominent teams. The whole question may be moot in a sense because after his father's murder and the whole gambling issue it may simply not have been possible for Jordan to play (due to the psychological burdens he was carrying)--but if he played I certainly believe that the Bulls would have won the '94 title. Grant was still there, so the power forward position was not a weakness. Pip carried that team deep into the playoffs without MJ; if MJ had come back, even in a diminished fashion in some sense due to everything that had happened, Pip could have still carried the team and then MJ would have been there to "close," which is the one thing that he was much better at than Pip (Pip was actually at least as good as MJ, if not better, as a rebounder, passer and defender, but what separated MJ from Pip--and everyone else--is that MJ had the all-around game plus the ability to not only score 30+ but to deliver big shots down the stretch on demand; Pip's inconsistent J and less versatile offensive repertoire did not allow him to do those things). If MJ had committed to playing in '94 then I don't think that he would have accepted anything less than the best from himself and that '94 team was certainly a championship caliber squad (with MJ on it). It is harder to figure out what would have then happened in '95. Grant left after '94 to sign with Orlando and play alongside Shaq and Penny. If MJ stayed, would Grant have left? I'm not sure how one could ever answer that question with much certainty. Grant was Jackson's whipping boy at times and he resented the special treatment that MJ got more than some other players did but I think that it is easier to leave Chicago after losing to NY than it would be after four-peating. Now, if Grant stays then the Bulls don't sign Rodman. What happens with the other reserves? Keep in mind that the 96-98 teams were completely different rosters than the 91-93 teams other than Pip and MJ. So your question really becomes could the MJ-Pip-Grant nucleus have won eight straight titles. Things get more complicated because if Rodman is not on the Bulls then which team is he on? That could make a difference. If Grant is not with Orlando then the Magic are much weaker in '95 and the Bulls would beat them (but maybe they sign Rodman!).

I think that you make a good case that the Bulls would not have won eight straight but I think (1) a case can certainly be made that they would have won four or five straight and (2) a good case could also be made for them winning eight straight, depending on where you assume Rodman goes and who you assume are the remaining players on the Bulls besides the MJ-Pip-Grant nucleus.

I must say that I do buy into the "invincible" mystique that you described. The '95 MJ was not in basketball shape physically; he had spent a year and a half playing baseball and was not in the cardiovascular shape that you need to be in to play elite level basketball. That fatigue affected him greatly, particularly in late game situations; his shot was also more erratic, even when he was not fatigued. It just took one summer of working out for him to once again become clearly the best player in the league. Once he regained his conditioning, MJ seemed like a pretty "invincible" playoff performer to me, although he of course had a very good team and an exceptional partner in Pippen.

I agree with you completely that Wilt gets a bum rap regarding 1970 and have said as much in print in various places.

MJ's Wizards' years really don't factor in to any discussions of him as the greatest player of all-time, nor should they. You previously said that Kareem's non-prime years should not be held against him and the same thinking should apply to MJ's Wizards' years, whether they were preceded by a brief retirement or not. I actually think that some of the things that MJ did as a Wizard were pretty remarkable considering his age and the condition of his knees; he could still be the very best player on the court for stretches even when going against All-Stars who were 15 years younger. If the NBA season were a college-length of 30-35 games, affording him more rest, old MJ could have still made a run at MVP and taken a decent team on a playoff run.

To summarize, you make a couple very intriguing hypothetical arguments. I agree with a lot of what you are saying in terms of how people perceive MJ and how those perceptions have been shaped by his retirements but I don't completely agree with your opinion of how things would have gone if he had kept playing when he was a Bull.

At Friday, July 06, 2007 3:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the 93 team was already pretty different from the 91-92 teams (which were the same except for the Hansen for Hopson trade) mostly because Paxson and Cartwright were less relevant due to age. In any case, it's true that both threepeats are very different from each other.

Back on topic, I find the commercial a boring re-hash of themes already ground to dust - the Nike? commercial with kids doing Jordan moves was class, this is waxing lyrical just for the sake of it.

By the way, as his career progressed Jordan looked less and less like loving basketball. He did love winning at basketball, and probably he loved basketball in training and away from the public focus, but after all the media controversy regarding gambling, his father, his retirement and his comeback, he seemed more remote than ever.

He wore a scowl like a mask, much like other great players have done (Jabbar, Kobe, Pippen himself). Some players always looked like they would pay to play if nobody paid them to do it: Magic, Bird, Stockton... but not Jordan. [Note I say "looked", I am talking about perceptions and not about the actual feelings of players I know nothing about.]

The one about the missed shots that took him to win was great, the one with Bird about the burger was overhyped but good - this one is just "look at him, look at him, remember how good he was".

And just for the record, he was.

At Friday, July 06, 2007 6:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

It is interesting how two people can watch the same game or the same commercial and interpret it differently. Obviously, this commercial evokes very different thoughts and feelings for you than it does for me. I can't say that you are wrong but I certainly see it differently than you do. To me, the commercial with the kids doing MJ moves is OK but if anything the imagery is a little forced--these weren't random kids filmed doing Jordan moves (as far as I know) but kids being told what to do and then being filmed; the MJ game footage shows his creativity flowing out of him naturally in a competitive situation.

I don't think that MJ becoming remote from the media means that he did not love the game. I think that he still loved the game but felt that he had to be more guarded about what he said and to whom he said it. He also holds grudges in certain instances against various publications; I am thinking specifically of Sports Illustrated--as far as I know, he did not do an interview with them after they ran the cover story saying that his minor league baseball career was making a mockery of the game.

The idea of playing for free is a bit overstated (not just by you but in general). Maybe it is true of Stockton, who turned down numerous commercial opportunities, but most of the big name stars certainly seem to try to get the biggest deals that they can at every turn, both in negotiations with their teams and in terms of endorsements--not that there is anything wrong with that, but it seems odd to me to talk about guys who are worth tens of millions or hundreds of millions and say that they would play for free. Have they donated their fortunes to charity and taken a vow of poverty? Of course not--and I would not expect them to do so. Kareem, MJ and your other "scowlers" expressed their love by honing and perfecting their skills so that they made the most of their talents; that in itself is a beautiful thing to behold.

I agree with you that the one about the missed shots was classic and the Bird/MJ "horse" commercial was entertaining.

At Friday, July 06, 2007 6:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I don't mean playing fulltime for free, of course. I mean you could picture Stockton being an administrative clerk somewhere and still playing in some city league or something and coaching his son's school team, etc.

Maybe Jordan would, too, but I did not feel it from his game, especially in his later seasons. Maybe it's me, but the feeling is that he would have been a pro golfer or a pro baseball player if only his skills had pointed that way.

I can't imagine Magic being a pro golfer. I am sure Jordan loved basketball and all, his level of concentration and dedication are proof enough; but it did not show.

Although the kids' commercial was indeed forced, what I liked was the way it made us remember details we had forgotten we remembered: the defensive stance, the position to rebound free throws, etc. Also, having the "household highlight plays" re-enacted by kids cushioned the "oh no the shot again" deja vu thing.

PD: On Bird and 80s advertising, I wonder if he has ever shown his kids the printed ads for the "Dr J vs Bird" videogame. "This was all before I met your mother, of course".

[Sorry if it shows up twice, blogger.com hates my browser.]

At Friday, July 06, 2007 6:06:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

According to many sources, Jordan had made the decision to retire in 1993 before his father's murder. Certainly, his father's death probably added to his desire to retire. Still, many other great players have played basketball under depressing circumstances, and it affected what happened to them on the court and damaged their track records. Wilt Chamberlain's father was ill in 1968 and died shortly thereafter. This influenced Chamberlain's decision to leave Philadelphia so he could be close to his father's home in LA (and may have cost Wilt some great championship opportunities he would have had with a 76ers team equipped to contend for several years). It may have also made Wilt more moody and easily agitated, and Wilt's feud with Butch Van Breda Kolff was a big reason the 1969 Lakers failed to develop a great chemistry. For another example, several close friends of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were murdered in a house he owned during the 1972-73 season. Kareem played the rest of the season facing death threats. The Bucks had the number one seed in the Western Conference that year, and would have had a good shot at a title. With Kareem clearly not focused on basketball, however, they were eliminated in the first round by an inferior Warriors team.

Of course, Michael Jordan had no obligation to play basketball if he didn't want to, but I think it's unfair to disregard the probable blemishes that would have been left on his record had he played through it, as most athletes have.

However, such tragic personal incidents are not the norm, so let's go back to something which I think affects almost every great team and player: burn-out.

I agree with you that the Bulls probably would have won more championships if Jordan never retired (though maybe not in a row). I think eight straight is REALLY stretching it though.

Sure, it's possible that the Bulls would have made key roster additions as the years passed to re-energize their team, and MJ, Pippen and co. would have stayed motivated and kept getting along, and they would keep winning titles. Looking at virtually every other great team in history though, I see that situation as unlikely.

Yes, the Bulls played great in 1994, but I think Jordan's retirement inspired the rest of the team to sort of rally themselves to prove their worth (they hadn't exactly gotten much respect from most people). It's possible that if Jordan stuck around that the others may not have been as motivated, and some key players may have become disgruntled. Pippen may have left at some point, wanting more money and more respect. I think the adversity Pippen faced while Jordan was gone (like the Kukoc taking the last shot situation) may have shaped his decision to stick with the team. It's also possible that at some point, some key players would have begun to tune out Phil Jackson.

I think it's not just about who you have on the team, but also about the team's emotional state. The 1984 76ers suffered a bit from the fact that Moses Malone was hurting, but with virtually the same roster as the year before, it was much more than Malone's aching knees which led to their first-round defeat. Billy Cunningham thinks they were emotionally spent. The 1990 Lakers had the best record in the league with Magic Johnson winning an MVP and Byron Scott and James Worthy still in their prime. But the team was beginning to tune out Pay Riley and went through the motions as they got embarrased by the Suns in the playoffs.

I was not saying that Jordan's Wizards years should be held against him because they were preceded by a brief retirement. I am saying that the brief retirement created a separation in people's minds between the "prime" Jordan and the "elder statesman" Jordan that other players, like Kareem, did not have the benefit of. People rightfully do not judge Jordan based on his performance with the Wizards. However, many people base their opinions of Kareem heavily on the type of player he was in his late 30s and early 40s. I think this is due largley to the fact that the NBA was much bigger during that time than it had been in Kareem's prime, but I also think it is due to the fact that the average fan is not as easily able to separate Kareem's prime from his twilight as they are in Jordan's case. For instance, I once read a Bill Simmons column where he claims Kareem is never brought up as a potential greatest of all time player because he got outplayed badly during his "prime" by Walton, Malone, and Olajuwon. Kareem was 36 and 39, respectively, in the series he faced Malone and Olajuwon (and the idea that Kareem got outplayed by Walton in 1977 is simply bogus, and comes from the same group of people who swear Russell always ate Chamberlain's lunch).

As for Jordan's "invincible" mystique, let me first acknowledge how incredible his performance was during all of the Bulls' championship years. However, the bottomline is that it's much easier to come off as invincible when taking so much time during your prime than it is if playing continuously. Jordan looks a lot less invincible if he sticks around in 1999 on a depleted Bulls team which gets eliminated early in the playoffs. It wouldn't change what he accomplished, but it would affect his image. Jordan's many reasons for retiring in 1993 fall under the large "burned out" umbrella, and I'm convinced that if he continued to play while burned out, at some point he would have had a sub-par playoff series in which the Bulls would have lost. This happened to every other great player who played while burned out, and I see no reason why it wouldn't affect Jordan similarly. Again, in such an instance, Jordan's invincible reputation takes a hit.

Finally, on Jordan in 1995: yes, he was fatigued at times. Overall though, he put up better numbers in the 1995 playoffs than in 1996, so he was still reasonably close to his normal self. I think what hurt the Bulls at least as much as Jordan's fatigue was his yearning to prove his individual skills and going outside the team concept to do so (as documented in Sam Smith's book Second Coming), along with the lack of a Grant/Rodman. I agree with you that Jordan was not at peak form and in ideal circumstances during the 1995 playoffs, but many other early playoff exits of other great players could be rationalized in a similar way. However, people rush to defend Jordan's 1995 playoff performance MUCH more than they do for other players.

At Saturday, July 07, 2007 2:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I have seen various conflicting reports about when exactly MJ decided to retire the first time and I don't know if a definitive version of that story has ever been produced. MJ was certainly contemplating retirement around that time but I don't know if even he knows exactly when he decided. The reason I say that is that MJ did not announce his retirement until just before the season started, which is why the Bulls did not address the shooting guard position in the draft or free agency (unless you count the signing of Pete Myers). The most plausible accounts that I've read have MJ spending most of that summer waffling back and forth and kind of asking Jackson if Jackson can provide a challenge or reason to continue playing. At various times MJ said he was retiring to spend time with his family, to fulfill his father's dream that he play pro baseball or so that his father would have seen his last game. At this point, I doubt that a definitive version of these events and thought processes will ever be published. MJ was clearly in mourning and that clouds one's thinking, so he could very well have been changing his mind on a daily or weekly basis that summer.

Overall, you have constructed an interesting hypothetical alternative history that is at least somewhat plausible. I think I disagree a little bit with the forcefulness of your convictions. You may be right but you seem insistent on the point that MJ's career (or, more precisely, people's perceptions of it) would have received a "blemish" without his various retirements. I just don't see how we can be certain of that. You may be right--but maybe he plays on and achieves equal or greater icon status by winning more titles in the immediate aftermath of his grief; maybe writers and opinion makers take the stance that this "humanizes" MJ. You are talking at least as much about perception as the actual results and I think that how people will perceive things is even harder to predict that what might have actually happened.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I do think that there is something to the "invincible" image, as you describe it, that MJ had during his prime. He didn't have that many bad playoff games, let alone playoff series, so I think it is a bit of a reach to say if he had played then his performance would have declined. He broke a record for scoring titles that seemed pretty safe and he became the first non-center to anchor a "dynasty," so maybe he could have played straight through without falling off until he got to 38 or so.

Since you agree that neither MJ nor Kareem should be judged by what they did past the age of 38 or so, what you really are questioning is not MJ's performance at that age but rather how people perceive it. You believe that his retirements kind of cushion or separate that part of his career. You may be right that this has shaped people's views but I think that some players are just viewed more favorably than others for whatever reason. People like MJ. People like Shaq. People don't feel as warmly about Kareem or Kobe, even if they respect their accomplishments. What I'm saying is that even if you are right about what MJ might have done had he played straight through I'm not convinced that you are right that it would really change people's perceptions.

One interesting side note to all of this is that when I read your comment about MJ's 95 playoff performance versus his 96 playoff performance I thought it didn't sound right but I looked up the stats and MJ's numbers were indeed better in most categories in 95 than 96. The difference is that in key late game moments in 95, especially against Orlando, he committed turnovers or missed shots. His 95 playoff run was roughly half as many games, so I think--without checking each boxscore--that he had some big first round games that may have skewed the totals a bit. He certainly seemed more in command of his overall game in 96. You are of course right that Grant had a major impact on that Orlando series.

At Saturday, July 07, 2007 3:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Sorry for answering out of order.

MJ set up a makeshift court on the set of Space Jam in the summer of 95 and was playing hoops all summer long in preparation for the record breaking 95-96 season. Don't forget that when he first signed with the Bulls he had a "love of the game" clause in his contract that permitted him to play pickup ball at any time (NBA players played in the Rucker and other places in the 1970s but by the 1980s everything had become more corporate and most NBA contracts had restrictions abou such things). I just don't think that MJ's love of the game can be judged by his facial expressions. I know that there are guys who are only in the NBA because they have the size and skills to be very successful but MJ just does not strike me as one of those guys; I think that he loves the game as much as anyone who ever played and that is part of the reason that he kept coming back. If he didn't have tendinitis in his knee I think that he would still be playing now.

At Saturday, July 07, 2007 1:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the subject of Jordan's career, it's impossible to know when he did decide what - probably he couldn't tell either. The late season - post season of 1993 was full of conflicting statements and signs: this is the last time, I can't leave this, etc.

But the thing is that in any case the timing of Jordan's career makes it look even more dramatic: three-peat, retirement, return, another three-peat. He was utterly dominant in his prime, but the timetable of his retirmenets and returns make him seem even moreso.

I think that his winning three titles in eight seasons seems more dramatic than if he had not retured but won "only" seven and lost one in a fair fight. Once he started winning, he became unbeatable.

The media has a share in this perception too. Despite the rise in prominence of a few ... shall I call them "purveyors of a negative image", all in all Jordan's public image has remained unblemished partly because of selective blindness.

Everytime I talk to a fan of Jordan, I am inevitably told that a) his time at the Wizards doesn't count, b) his 95 playoffs don't count, and c) there was nothing wrong with his stint with the White Sox farm team.

At Saturday, July 07, 2007 6:57:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

You make a good point about some players being liked and others being disliked no matter what.

As for the 1995 series vs. Orlando, I don't exactly remember what Jordan's numbers were. I think there were at least 2-3 games though where he scored in the high 30s, so I don't think he had an incredible first round series and then just fell off badly in the second round. The book I previously mentioned, Sam Smith's Second Coming, has a very good account of the series and the challenges Jordan faced during his comeback, from others and from within.

I guess the main question I'm asking in all of this is: would you agree that playing continously for his entire career, rather than taking time off twice in the middle of it, would have made Jordan (or any player) and/or his team significantly more susceptible to suffering from a burn out at some point?

I'm not saying I think Jordan would have "fallen off" at some point, or declined earlier. I happen to think that Jordan, had he never retired, would have played at a high level throughout his career and put up 30/6/5 into his late 30s. I also think his teams would have regularly contended for titles, so long as he played on teams with a talent level in the same neighborhood as his champion Bulls teams.

However, I do think it is likely that there would have been a playoff series or two where his team would have been burned out or going through the motions, and would have lost. I don't even think that Jordan would have had a "poor" playoff series in these cases (I should have clarified what I meant when I said "sub-par". Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played very well in the 1984 and 1985 finals, respectively, but those have gone down as "sub-par" performances for them.). Maybe he would have played like he did against Orlando in 1995, where he played well overall, but made some crucial mistakes due to mental and physical fatigue. Maybe Jordan would have played great, but team turmoil would have been the problem (as it was for the Lakers in 1990 against Phoenix, when Magic Johnson was scoring more than he ever had, but the Lakers fell anyway).

You make a good point that maybe such a loss would not have really altered the public's perception of Jordan. I happen to think that Jordan never having lost a playoff series that "counted" after 1990 is a huge part of his mystique, and a playoff loss that "counted" during this time would have dealt a significant blow to Jordan's image, at least to the average basketball fan.

Finally, I don't think it's fair to use this line of thinking (Jordan never having lost a playoff series that "counted" after 1990) to conclude that Jordan is clearly the best player of all time. One of the biggest reasons I think this is unfair is because of Jordan's retirements. (Note: I know you have never made such a claim. I've have heard many other people make this arguement, however.)

At Sunday, July 08, 2007 2:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This is a fascinating thread, even if it is entirely speculative.

I wouldn't say that '95 or the Wizards years "don't count" but I would say that they don't carry as much weight, legacy-wise, as what MJ did in his prime--'95 was a truncated season with no training camp after a year and a half off, so I give MJ a mulligan for that in light of him leading the Bulls to three straight titles after that; I guess this might be the kind of thinking that you are criticizing a bit, Vednam, but for me the 96-98 titles influence my perception of 95. If MJ had never led the Bulls to another title and had played in 96-98 like he did in 95 (i.e., not producing in the clutch in his accustomed manner) it would have affected my view of him, so therefore the fact that he excelled in 96-98 enhances his legacy in my view.

Vednam, I think it is fair to ask if playing straight through might have left MJ and/or his teammates more susceptible to burnout but I am a little less convinced that this would have happened in this case than you appear to be. If MJ had played 91-98 without a break I think that the Bulls would have had an excellent chance to win eight straight; I'm not certain of that, of course, but I also don't see another team from that era that I am sure would have beaten them, either. As I indicated, if MJ had played straight through this would have rippled through history and affected the rosters of several teams (Grant, Rodman, etc.), but I guess what I'm saying is that I do at least somewhat buy the idea that once MJ learned how to win championships that he was going to keep doing it as long as he was healthy, in or near his prime and on a legitimate contender.

I would not say that MJ is "clearly" the best player of all-time. As I indicated in several articles, I feel comfortable limiting the "greatest ever" candidates to about a dozen players but I feel that at least a decent case could be made for each of them (some of the arguments seem better to me than others but I could make a case for any of them).

At Monday, July 09, 2007 5:54:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I don't think that the Bulls' two three-peats are as good of indicators of what would have happened in 1994 or 1995 as you do. My reasoning is based upon looking at other great teams. For instance, if you only knew about the Lakers from 1980 and 1982-85, it would seem highly unlikely that they were eliminated in the first round in 1981 by a below-.500 team which didn't make much noise before or after the 1981 season. Other head-scratching seasons by teams which had much better finishes both before and after the season in question: 1986 Lakers, 1983 Celtics, 1975 Nets, 1973 Bucks and maybe the 1984 76ers. That doesn't mean something similar would happen to the Bulls, but I think in light of these facts, assuming the Bulls would have won eight straight comes off as a bit too strong.

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the idea that Jordan's performance from 1995-1998 was enhanced by his first retirement. I just think that when you are running a long distance, you have to pace yourself. I think the breaks in Jordan's career allowed him to "sprint" (play at a really high level of intensity) for large amounts of time which otherwise may not have been possible.

I'm not sure I agree with the notion that there was some point in his career where Michael Jordan "learned how to win". For one thing, Jordan had experienced a national championship in college. Sure, at times it may have seemed like Jordan did not know how to trust his teammates and be a team player. However, I think this had to do with having teammates who were either young or not very talented, rather than a poor basketball IQ. People said similar things about Kobe "learning" how to play winning, team ball earlier last season when his teammates were healthy and performing at a relatively high level. Of course, that ignores Kobe's demonstrated ability to win championships, and ignores the reasons for Kobe's seeming lack of trust in his teammates: his teammates just weren't playing well.

I think that JN makes a valid point about people (fans, media) rushing to protect Jordan's image more so than other players. I agree with you that Jordan did not have as fair a shake in 1995 and 2001-2003 (and 1984-1990) as he had in his championship years. People are VERY quick to point this out though, and they rarely do it for other players. I could probably make a timeline of, say, Magic Johnson's career and provide some sort of rationalization for every year his team didn't win it all.

One more surprising thing I find about Jordan's retirements is that no one ever uses them to question Jordan's "will to win", and his status as the "ultimate competitor". Here is another way to look at Jordan's 1993 retirement: Jordan, for a number of reasons, simply did not have the desire to play basketball in the near future. Other players have had similar periods where they didn't feel like playing basketball. Instead of retiring though (I suspect the decision not to may have had to do with a lack of the money and iconic stature which Jordan had), they went on playing without being fully into it. For instance, after the 1967 season, Wilt Chamberlain was, according to many sources, not that interested in playing basketball and had even considered retirement. His reasons (feeling he had nothing left to prove after beating the Celtics, unhappiness with the management, interest in another sport: boxing, the ilness of his father) are not far off from the number of reasons which may have caused Jordan to not want to play anymore. Chamberlain ended up playing the 1968 season, but admitted to not being very inspired, and decided to try to lead the league in assists to combat this lack of inspiration. The 76ers enjoyed a very good season, but the focus and intensity from the previous season was not there, and Chamberlain's lack of enthusiasm was probably a big part of this. This lack of focus (along with injuries, bad luck, and the MLK assasination) contributed to the Celtics' upset of the 76ers in the Conference Finals. Meanwhile, Chamberlain was criticized for "choking", being a "loser", and lacking the competitive drive to be a "winner".

Is retiring for a year or two due to lack of desire really any better than playing a year or two with subpar levels of passion and intensity? Chamberlain is criticized for lacking the competitiveness and desire at times in his career to maximize his potential. As we have seen though, even Michael Jordan (whose competitiveness most people, including myself, would not question) went through a time when he didn't have the desire to play basketball. Sure, it can be argued that at the time Jordan thought his retirement would be permanent. I have to think though, that deep down inside, Jordan must have had some idea that he would probably be interested in playing again at some point.

At Monday, July 09, 2007 7:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are right that history has taken some strange turns. Some of those disappointing playoff runs can be attributed to injuries (Magic was hurt in 1981), aging/complacency (84 Sixers) and other factors that may not necessarily have applied to the mid-90s Bulls--but, as you say, you never know for sure and such things are hard to predict.

I don't even necessarily disagree with you; you make some interesting points but you just seem a little bit more "sure" that the Bulls would not have kept winning had MJ not retired than I am. I am not "sure" either way but I lean more in the "keep winning" direction; you seem to be fully in the "would not keep winning" camp.

I agree that there are some benefits to having time off. Elgin Baylor once said that his abbreviated 1962 season helped him have the energy to set the all-time Finals single game record with 61 points (MJ set the single game playoff record with 63 points after missing most of 1986 with a foot injury). I don't think that MJ's retirements were calculated breaks, even if they turned out to be such refreshers in retrospect.

I'm with you all the way in the various comments that you have made about Wilt not being appreciated enough and being subject to unfair criticism both during his career and after his retirement.

To me, "will to win" has to do with how you compete when you are playing. MJ never quit midseason or midgame; when he was playing, he demonstrated supreme "will to win," just like Bjorn Borg and Jim Brown--two other guys who retired young--did.

I don't pretend to know what MJ was thinking "deep down" when he retired but I suspect that even he didn't know whether or not he would return.

I think that you and I just have a slightly different "read" on MJ's retirements, just like JN and I have a different "read" on some of the commercials--nothing wrong with that and it makes for some very interesting discussions.

At Monday, July 09, 2007 8:19:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I believe Magic Johnson was back by playoff time in 1981. I think the bigger issue that year was adjusting to Magic's return, and feuding between the team and coach on style of play.

I certainly do not think MJ calculated his retirements where he was thinking "I'll retire next year, take some time off, then return, then retire again when I feel worn out." I just think he didn't feel the drive to play anymore and decided to retire indefinitely. Other guys dealt with this in their own way: Wilt played on while he was indefinitely not as interested as he usually was in playing, Dave Cowens started driving cabs for a while.

When it comes down to a "will to win", I don't think it's as clear cut as "quitting" or "not quitting" in the middle of a season or a game. I don't think Wilt quit at all in 1968; he played hard all the way through by most accounts, even through some significant injuries. It just seems, from most accounts (including Wilt's own) that the drive and passion from the year before wasn't there. It's a subtle difference, but I think it can show a little bit on the court (and really, most areas of life).

I guess my questioning of how Jordan's retirement translates to competitiveness comes down to a matter of taste. Some athletes (and maybe Jordan was among them) are perfectionists, and only want to play when they can live up (both mentally and physically) to a certain standard. Some fans have a great amount of respect for such a point of view, others feel like such athletes "rob" the fans and are not true to the game. Other athletes will keep playing for whatever reason, maybe thinking that a subpar version of what they can offer is better than nothing at all, maybe trying to "play through" their downtime and hope their perspective improves, or maybe for other reasons (like money).

At Monday, July 09, 2007 10:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Magic was back by the 1981 playoffs; my point was that his injury and the resulting adjustments that you alluded to affected the Lakers' play that season. That injury-marred year was the only time between 1980 and 1985 that the Lakers did not make the Finals. Injuries can affect any team, of course, and it is a matter of speculation whether or not MJ or someone else might have gotten hurt had he played straight through the mid-90s.

I think that MJ's "will to win" is very high, even compared to other great players. His drive and determination are discussed with awe by other NBA players and that tells you something.

All of the points that you make are interesting but there is also a counterargument: it is tough to leave a pro sport for nearly two years and return to play at a high level. You say that MJ "refreshed" himself but just before his comeback (and even into the summer after the Bulls lost to Orlando) a lot of people questioned if he could regain his form. Not too many people took the point of view that he "refreshed" himself. It may look that way in retrospect because of the later success that he and the team had.

I don't think that MJ or Wilt ever gave less than their best during their careers and that is all that you can ask of someone.

Going back to your earlier comment, I think that players have to "learn to win" again at each level. Carmelo won an NCAA title but there are things he must improve in his own game just to take Denver past the first round. Being a winner at earlier stages of one's career is helpful--John Paxson's philosophy as Bulls' GM is to draft players from winning programs--but you still have to learn to win at the NBA level. I think that it is true that MJ had a higher quality group of teammates later in his career but it is also true that he learned to win at the NBA level and that he pushed his teammates in practice to get the most out of them.


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