While his NBA championships are part of Michael Jordan’s legacy, how many chances did he get in the playoffs to get those six rings? Jordan’s 15-year career spanned 13 seasons with the Chicago Bulls and, following a three-year retirement, two more with the Washington Wizards.
Jordan posted some incredible numbers in both the regular season and the playoffs. But part of the Jordan legacy is to wonder how much further up the career lists he could have climbed. His Airness opted to take nearly two seasons off during his prime to play baseball. He also skipped his age-35 through age-37 seasons before his Wizards cameo.
But the Jordan legend was formed in the postseason, even if ultimate success took longer than critics may have wanted. In all, Jordan went to the playoffs 13 times in his 15 seasons. The breakdown was he was in the postseason every year he was with the Bulls, but Washington didn’t qualify during his final two seasons.
Michael Jordan’s Bulls lost their first three playoff series
As a rookie, Michael Jordan reached the playoffs for the first time. The NBA Rookie of the Year had helped Chicago to an 11-victory improvement over the previous season. The Bulls entered the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Milwaukee Bucks bounced them in four games.
The following two postseasons, Chicago was the No. 8 seed, and despite Jordan’s Herculean efforts, the Bulls were swept in consecutive years by the Boston Celtics. From there, Jordan and the Bulls made a steady climb through the playoff bracket. In 1988, Jordan led Chicago to a Game 5 victory at home over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Detroit Pistons bounced the Bulls in the conference semifinals.
That would be a theme in each of the next two seasons, as well. The Bulls upset both the third-seeded Cavaliers and the No. 2-seeded New York Knicks to reach their first Eastern Conference Finals. (They had played in a pair of Western Conference Finals in the 1970s before the NBA brain trust discovered the existence of these things called maps.) The Bulls went down to the Pistons in six games in 1989 and pushed Detroit to a seventh game in 1990.
But with the Bad Boys aging, Jordan and the Bulls were ready to take a new step.
The championship years redefined Michael Jordan
It seems heretical to think this now, but after the Pistons defeated the Bulls in the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, sports media (in its pre-Internet and pre-talking head shows form) swarmed Michael Jordan.
As the narrative went, Jordan shot too much to lead a team to a championship. He needed to be humble. There was a lot of criticism leveled at Jordan’s perceived arrogance without the hardware to back it up. Sure, he had his MVP and Defensive Player of the Year trophies, five All-NBA selections, and three All-Defensive nods.
But Chicago kept falling short in the playoffs. Detroit didn’t have the individual star power, but they booted the Bulls out of the postseason three years running. Jordan was seen as a guy with excellent stats and not much more.
That all changed in 1991. The Bulls earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and rolled through to the NBA Finals with 11 wins in 12 games. That run included what had to be a satisfying sweep of the hated Pistons in the conference finals. After losing Game 1 to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Bulls charged to four straight wins and a first NBA title. They repeated in 1992 and made it three consecutive championships in 1993.
After his nearly two-season hiatus from 1993–95, Jordan led Chicago to three more titles from 1996–98 before retiring a second time.
Michael Jordan by the numbers
Playing in an era during which the first round was a best-of-five format rather than today’s best-of-seven, Michael Jordan played in 179 playoff games. But despite ranking 19th on that list, Jordan is second in total points scored behind LeBron James. Jordan scored 5,987 points in 179 games; James has 7,578 in 264 postseason games through June 1, 2021.
In terms of averages, Jordan is the all-time leader at 33.5 points per game. He’s the only player in NBA history to average more than 30 points a game in his playoff career. His average of 41.8 minutes per game ranks 13th, but if you limit the field to the post-merger era (beginning in 1976–77), he moves up to fourth. That trails only Allen Iverson (45.1), Elvin Hayes (42.1), and Larry Bird (42.0). For the record, LeBron is fifth, averaging 41.5 minutes per playoff game.