Skip to main content

For better or worse, there’s nothing sports fans love more than debating how current players would stack up against historical greats. Michael Jordan, despite being firmly entrenched in the latter category, seemingly can’t help but join in on the action.

While His Airness doesn’t give too many interviews anymore, he once provided ESPN’s Wright Thompson with plenty of access for a 50th birthday-based story. In that piece, MJ waded into the sports-talk-radio territory and proclaimed that only four modern NBA players could have cut the mustard in his era.

Michael Jordan, for better or worse, isn’t afraid to speak his mind

As anyone who ever saw him play can confirm, Jordan was supremely confident in his own abilities. The Chicago Bulls star also had no issue speaking his mind.

By and large, most of that confidence translated into trash-talking. His Airness never pulled any punches; if there was a prize on the line, he was going all-out. Whether you were a teammate like Rodney McCray, an opponent, or a former president of the United States, MJ had no problem giving a tongue-lashing.

His Airness’ willingness to speak his mind wasn’t limited to basketball, though. During his time in Chicago, he found himself in the spotlight for saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” While he later claimed he made the comment as an off-hand remark, Jordan still said what he was thinking at the time. More recently, he’s also spoken up about social and racial justice, throwing his weight around in a space that’s bigger than sports.

Only 4 modern players could have starred in Jordan’s day, if we take the legend at his word

Even though he’s been retired for quite a while, Jordan is still involved in the NBA scene as an owner. Unsurprisingly, the living legend has plenty of opinions about today’s game.

Around MJ’s 50th birthday in 2013, ESPN’s Wright Thompson penned a feature looking at the more human side of His Airness. As part of his reporting, the veteran scribe witnessed Jordan watching an NBA game on TV. That quickly turned into a discussion of all-time greatness and competition between different eras.

Jordan plays his new favorite trivia game, asking which current players could be nearly as successful in his era. “Our era,” he says over and over again, calling modern players soft, coddled, and ill-prepared for the highest level of the game. This is personal to him, since he’ll be compared to this generation, and since he has to build a franchise with this generation’s players.

Wright Thompson, writing for ESPN

According to Thompson, Jordan quipped that he could “only come up with four” modern players. Those select few? Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and Dirk Nowitzki.

While some additional players could make the cut, don’t expect Jordan to provide an update

In fairness to Jordan, quite a bit of basketball has been played since he turned 50; theoretically, it’s possible that he believes a few more players from today’s game could shine in the 1980s and 1990s. Stephen Curry — who we’ll discuss shortly — certainly deserves to be in the conversation. Giannis Antetokounmpo has the sheer athleticism to survive in any era, although old-school coaches probably wouldn’t have any idea how to utilize his talent. Similarly, Nikola Jokic’s skill set might confuse people in the 1980s, but the big man certainly knows how to make an impact on the court.

Beyond those sure-fire inclusions, you can also make the case for plenty of other inclusions. Kawhi Leonard’s load management wouldn’t fly back in the day, but it’s tough to argue with his two-way game. Russell Westbrook became something of a joke after arriving in Los Angeles, but it’s easy to imagine his scoring potential dominating a more static game featuring illegal defense rules.

So while we can’t really hold those omissions against MJ — he may be incredibly talented, but expecting him to predict the future is a bridge too far — we also shouldn’t expect him to issue a revised version of his list anytime soon.

In the fall of 2019, Jordan made headlines by saying Stephen Curry wasn’t a Hall of Famer just yet. During that same interview, His Airness confirmed that if he were building a starting five, he’d still hit the court with Scottie Pippen, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, and Hakeem Olajuwon. That would have been a chance to acknowledge the modern era, but all of those men played in Mike’s day.

But there’s also another piece of the contextual puzzle to consider.

Before we bury Jordan for being biased toward the past, it’s important to look at a different quote. During an NBA press conference in early 2020, MJ fielded a question about comparisons between himself and LeBron James. In that setting, the living legend provided a more measured response.

“We play in different eras,” Jordan explained. “He’s an unbelievable player. He’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best player in the world. I know it’s a natural tendency to compare eras to eras, and it’s going to continue to happen. I’m a fan of his, I love watching him play.”

“But when you start the comparisons, I think it is what it is,” MJ continued. “It’s just a stand-up measurement. I take it with a grain of salt. He is a heck of a basketball player without a doubt.”

So, while you can claim plenty of players could have cut the mustard in Jordan’s day, it’s probably not worth getting too far down the rabbit hole. Mike isn’t going to change his list, and there’s no point in getting so bogged down in arguments that you miss the greatness in front of you.

Debates can be fun, but sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy the show.


Michael Jordan Once Got Called to the Manager’s Office After Breaking Baseball’s Unwritten Rules: ‘What Are You Doing, Trying to Get Us Killed?’