It’s beyond cliche to say it now, but Michael Jordan in his prime was without equal — even as a young player he torched defenses to the tune of 37 points per game by his third season in the NBA. What’s not so remembered now that the dust has been settled for so long is how critics often ripped His Airness as a selfish gunner who failed to understand the concepts of team basketball.
Early in his career, Jordan was routinely bounced out of the playoffs by the likes of the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons despite racking up massive individual statistics in each series, and because he was ringless he was a prime target for derision. In fact, Jordan did not actually win his first championship until age 28, after he “learned to play the game the right way,” if you put any stock into what Joe Dumars has to say, and put trust into his teammates.
Ultimately, Jordan brought six championships to Chicago as an all-around player, leader, and ultimate gamer who struck the right balance between sharing the ball and taking over in the clutch. There’s no doubt that MJ turned back all challengers — why else would he be considered one of, if not the greatest, of all time? While his competitive streak is legendary (and factually if not emotionally embellished) there’s little doubt that Jordan’s five fiercest rival helped to drive his insatiable will to not only win, but to dominate.
5. Clyde Drexler
In 1983, the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Clyde “The Glide” Drexler with the 14th overall pick, a move that set the stage for one of the most infamous drafts in history. A year later, in 1984, the Houston Rockets drafted hometown hero Hakeem Olajuwon (a former teammate of Drexler at the University of Houston) with the first overall pick.
With the following pick, the Trail Blazers took big man Sam Bowie — the Portland front office reasoned that the team was set for years at shooting guard because they had Clyde the Glide. With the third overall pick, the Chicago Bulls drafted Jordan, a move that tortured Portland fans for years, as Sam Bowie developed into nothing but an outright bust and was dealt to New Jersey after four injury-riddled seasons.
As rivals, Jordan and Drexler locked horns in the 1992 NBA Finals. MJ dominated Drexler on his way to claiming his second championship, averaging 36 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists per contest while also holding the Glide to 40% shooting from the field through the six game series. As a shooter, Jordan showcased an added dimension to his game, blitzing Portland for six three pointers before halftime in Game One. The shooting barrage appeared to surprise Michael himself, as the display led to yet another Gatorade “Like Mike” moment.
4. Gary Payton
Gary Payton was the greatest defensive point guard of all time. Out on the West Coast, Payton earned his nickname, The Glove, for his lockdown defense, racking up 2,445 steals over the course of 17 seasons, which is still good for fourth of all time (Jordan is third in steals, with 2,514).
Beyond the stats, Payton may have been most notable for his brash confidence and non-stop trash talk. In 1996, The Glove took home Defensive Player of the Year honors by swiping nearly 3 steals per game, and leading the Seattle Supersonics to a 64-18 record. That postseason, Payton dropped in 20 points, dished out 7 assists, and hauled in 5 rebounds per game on the way to an NBA Finals showdown with the 72-10 Bulls, who had just compiled the greatest regular season record in league history and had only lost one playoff game blazing their way through the East.
Still, a young GP refused to back down from Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. In Game 2 of the Finals, Vincent Askew stripped Jordan at the top of the key. Payton then outhustled MJ to the loose ball, before turning up court, throwing down a dunk, and wolfing back to Jordan and the silenced Chicago crowd. After that, Sonics head coach George Karl ultimately made the decision to switch Payton onto Jordan for games 4, 5, and 6.
With Payton unleashed, Jordan was held to relatively subpar 23-, 26-, and 22-point scoring totals through the final three games of the series. Seattle fanatics have even gone so far as to suggest that the Sonics would have won the championship had Payton matched up against Jordan from Game 1.
3. Charles Barkley
When he was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Charles Barkley couldn’t get the best of MJ — the Bulls knocked Philly out of the playoffs in two consecutive seasons, and while Barkley helped the Sixers make six trips to the playoffs in eight years, they could never get it together. Ultimately, the Round Mound of Rebound was sent out West: traded to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for the rights to Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang, and Tim Perry prior to the 1992-1993 regular season.
That year, a rejuvenated Barkley tore through the league for 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, and claimed MVP honors on his way to a showdown with the Chicago Bulls. Friends off the court, the two could not have been more different in the public eye, with Chuck going out of his way to declare that he was not a role model in a series of Nike commercials, while Jordan carefully guarded his squeaky clean image and refused to comment upon the controversial issues of his time so as not to risk offending any of his adoring fans.
When the two finally met in the ’93 Finals, Jordan, famously miffed at Barkley’s MVP title, proceeded to dominate Sir Charles for 41 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Needless to say, the Suns lost.
2. John Starks
The ultimate scrapper, it’s easy to paint John Starks as the antithesis to Jordan’s blue blood basketball pedigree. Starks actually played ball for four separate programs in Oklahoma, prior to going undrafted. As a rookie free agent, John Starks signed on with the Golden State Warriors, but was immediately cut after the 1989 season. From there, he bagged groceries amid short stints through the WBL and CBA circuit.
In 1990, John Starks finally made the team for the New York Knicks, after sustaining a knee injury that prohibited his release from camp. In New York, Starks provided hard-nosed defense and instant offense off the bench. For his efforts, Starks was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 1993, before claiming Sixth Man of the Year honors, in 1997. As a Knick, Starks went on to average a solid 14 points, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds per game over the course of 8 seasons.
Starks, alongside Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and Xavier McDaniel, thrived within grind-it-out half court sets and the physical schemes of head coach Pat Riley. John Starks was especially cantankerous toward both Reggie Miller and Jordan, in brazen fits of trash talk, rough play, technical fouls, fist fights, and ultimately, ejections.
The Knicks were dismissed by Jordan and the Bulls in the NBA Playoffs in 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1996, but Starks will always be revered for feinting toward a Patrick Ewing screen before spinning and driving baseline against BJ Armstrong. From there, he elevated to throw down a dunk over the top of Horace Grant and a rotating Michael Jordan at the front of the rim.
1. Isiah Thomas
Hailing from the West Side of Chicago, it’s possible that Isiah Thomas took exception to the idea of Jordan supplanting him as the most popular athlete in his Windy City hometown. As a young star in his own right, Zeke was schooled by the likes of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in going down in the Eastern Conference playoffs and NBA Finals. Thomas did not break through until 1989, when, at 28, he won the first of his two back-to-back titles against the Lakers and Trail Blazers. Sound familiar?
Thomas appeared to take special delight in throttling the Bulls. A baby-faced assassin, Thomas was the ringleader of the Bad Boy Pistons who turned back the Baby Bulls in the 1988, 1989, and 1990 playoffs. The so-called “Jordan Rules” saw Dumars and Thomas funnel Michael into the paint, where bigs like Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer, and Dennis Rodman lay in wait to intimidate and slam the more athletic player into the basket support. In the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, the Bad Boy Pistons humiliated the Bulls 93-74 in Game 7.
The following year, the Bulls dedicated their season to beating Detroit – and the two teams were to meet again in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. By this time around, however, the battle-tested Bulls had secured home-court advantage, while MJ had also emerged as a willing passer. For the series, Michael dished out 7 assists to complement his 30 points per game. The Bulls went on to sweep the Bad Boy Pistons en route to winning it all. In response, Thomas led his team off the Detroit floor, and refused to shake hands with his arch nemesis. The following year, Jordan stood in the way of Thomas joining the 1992 Olympic Dream Team.