#NBArank and Michael Jordan’s Wizards Comeback

Photo by mikecogh on Flickr.

I was one of the voters for ESPN’s just-wrapped #NBArank project, but I had almost no emotional investment in the results as they played out. My formative years as a music writer made me wary of getting too attached to the outcome of any list, even one I helped create. The discussion the project spawned, mainly on Twitter, could be broken up into two types: analysis of the process and reaction to the results. The former is infinitely interesting and worthwhile, and has the ability to expose telling differences in how people evaluate players. The latter is no different than caring about the Grammys.

Still, though, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the reaction from both sides when Kobe Bryant landed sixth on the list. While it’s hardly groundbreaking to point out that Kobe is the most polarizing player in modern NBA history, occasions like #NBArank only make exceptionally clear the divide between his detractors and defenders. Of the 500 players on this list, none have accomplished as much as he has over the course of his career (only the 27th-ranked Tim Duncan comes close). However, just as uncontroversial is the fact that he is not the caliber of player he was in 2006. There are strong cases to be made that, at the very least, the three players ranked directly behind Bryant (Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, and Russell Westbrook) are more valuable in 2012.

I rated Kobe an 8 out of 10 on my ballot. The only players I gave 10s were LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul, with the Love/Westbrook tier getting 9s. Honestly, I probably should have rated Kobe a 7, as a 34-year-old coming off a season in which his efficiency decreased in nearly every shooting category even as he posted the second-highest usage rate of his career. The bump up to 8 was probably some subconscious, highly regrettable #CountThaRingzzz-ing on my part. I can’t have been the only voter who did this. Kobe was ranked higher than he probably should have been because of his importance, influence, and career accomplishments. Which led me to wonder this:

Had #NBArank been conducted in 2002, following the first season of Michael Jordan’s ill-advised comeback as a Washington Wizard, where would he have placed?

Jordan played only 60 games that season, missing time due to various injuries. He didn’t play in enough games to qualify for most statistical leaderboards, but his 22.9 points per game would have ranked ninth, behind Dirk Nowitzki and ahead of Karl Malone. He shot an underwhelming 41.6 percent from the field, by some distance the worst shooting performance of his career. On a terrible Wizards team, he posted a usage rate of 36 while ranking 17th in the league in PER. By almost any metric, it was the worst season he had ever had. Yet I can’t help but speculate that, had a project like #NBArank existed at the time, a lot of voters would have seen the name “Jordan, Michael” on the form and been unable to justify giving the greatest player of all time anything below a 10, even at that far-from-memorable phase in his career. I would probably have been among them, even though I should know better.

Michael Leahy summed up the perception of Jordan following that offseason perfectly in his terrific 2004 book When Nothing Else Matters, which chronicled MJ’s two seasons with the Wizards:

Like an aging Hollywood leading man who acknowledges the inevitable and segues from being an action hero to a venerable character actor, Jordan had already become a niche player—cast in that least flamboyant of basketball roles, the jump shooter. There was no markedly diminished stature in this: He would forever have top billing on a marquee. Only there would be no opportunities left to be swashbuckling and dunk down the throats of seven-footers. There would be far fewer chances to be heroic, for being a jump shooter is a finicky thing. Once in a while his touch would be very good, even great. But on most nights, it would be just so-so, and on a few nights very bad—which mirrored a mortal’s life and is the way it goes for even highly skilled jump shooters. There would be the pedestrian cant to describe it—good numbers, solid output, valued performance and pride, to go along with a certain All-Star selection for a cherished legend. Certainly, he would not embarrass himself if he came back [for a second season]. Even working under his new limitations, he would remain one of the best 20 to 25 players in the league, someone capable of abusing a highly touted youngster once in a while and holding his own against all but the game’s greatest. He just would be nothing close to the player remembered.

Kobe Bryant is a considerably better player today than Jordan was during his Washington stint, but the latter part of his career is seeing him make many of the same adjustments. He’s shooting more jumpers now, attacking the rim with less frequency than he did a few years ago. His defense, once excellent, has declined noticeably in recent years. But he still has those games, like his stretch of four consecutive 40-point performances this January, in which it’s impossible not to think of the Kobe of 2006. It’s those moments which justify his spot on #NBArank, and it’s not hard to imagine the flashes of the old greatness doing the same for Jordan. The top of a 2001-02 #NBArank list would rightfully be occupied by the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, and of those, only Shaq would have likely had the star power at the time to edge out an aging MJ who was still the biggest name in the league.

All of this is assuming that conducting the survey in 2002 would have meant no Twitter or blogs to power the reaction, and statistical analysis that wasn’t nearly as evolved or prevalent as it is today. What would be even more fascinating would be an alternate universe in which a 10-years-younger Jordan had the exact same career with the Bulls as he did, winning the same number of championships with Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, setting the same records, winning the same MVP awards, achieving the same stature as the consensus greatest player ever to play the game. In this scenario, his dominance began in the mid-1990s, ended around 2008, and the first season of his comeback with the Wizards would have just ended. With today’s methods of statistical analysis showing more plainly than ever that Jordan wasn’t close to the best player in the league, would a top-five finish in #NBArank have garnered a similar reaction to last week’s Kobe fallout?

Yes and no. I wrote several months ago that a large part of the reason why Kobe is both so ardently defended and scrutinized is his status as an icon with the most loathed but successful franchise in basketball, the de facto New York Yankees of the NBA. A lot of that seems to be in play with the reaction to Kobe’s rank. Every time an article is published breaking down his less-than-stellar crunch-time numbers, his fans come out in full force with accusations of anti-Laker bias in the media. We saw a lot of that on Wednesday, with tweet after tweet on the #NBArank hashtag accusing ESPN of purposely keeping him out of the top five because of some greater agenda, which is pretty absurd. On the other side, Kobe’s placement above players like Love and Westbrook prompted more outrage in the blogging community than anything else on the list.

Even though part of why the reaction to Kobe’s placement was so strong was because of the sheer amount of social-media platforms that exist for his fans to make their voices heard, I don’t think the backlash to #NBArank overrating the Wizards-era Jordan would be at this level. Part of this is because Jordan’s image was amazingly well-managed and he was always more beloved even than Kobe. But Jordan’s name was also synonymous with greatness on the basketball court in a way that no other player’s was before or likely will ever be. Which would make it harder for the same bloggers who disagreed with Kobe’s rating to vote MJ down in the first place.