It is hard to pinpoint just one thing that separated Michael Jordan from most NBA players. After all, he had six finals MVPs, five regular-season MVPs, countess scoring titles, and an unparalleled competitive drive. One particular stat from his second stint in Chicago, however, may confirm what made Jordan different from today’s NBA stars.
Michael Jordan’s return to basketball
Jordan was 32 years old when he returned to the Bulls at the end of the 1994-45 season. While this isn’t ancient by any standards, most athletes have seen their best days once they hit 32. They are in worse shape, and every injury will likely impact them long term.
With nearly two years away from the game of basketball, things weren’t working in Jordan’s favor. He wasted no time getting back into things, however. While the Bulls suffered their only playoff defeat since 1990, Jordan looked as good as ever despite changing sports during his hiatus.
Baseball brings its own set of physical challenges, but the level of fitness needed is entirely different than the competence needed for basketball. Somehow Jordan seemed to be in playing shape for the NBA.
As a result, Jordan played in every single game after his NBA comeback in over three seasons. He won two MVP awards, three Finals MVP awards, three scoring titles, three rings, and three All-Defense awards — all in his mid-thirties. In a world of load management, this puts things into perspective when it comes to Jordan and the modern NBA.
Load management in the NBA
TV commentators, fans, and even current players regularly chime in about the onslaught of load management in the NBA. Some players, like Kawhi Leonard, use load management to ease minor injuries and rest up for deep playoff runs. Other players, like James Harden, don’t miss games unless they are medically obligated.
Charles Barkley has been particularly vocal about his disdain for load management, according to Fox Sports. He believes NBA players are the best athletes in the world, and they should be able to handle an 82-game schedule unless injured. He went on the show The Odd Couple to voice his reasoning.
“The thing that bothers people is when guys are resting healthy,” Barkley said. “Guys are making 30 and 40 million dollars a year.” Several players from Jordan’s era have weighed in on this debate. Barkley wasn’t afraid to mention them and others who played no matter what.
“If Doctor J, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem, Bill Russell, and those guys could play every night in crappy shoes, fly commercial, and make $100,000 a year, a guy making $40-$50 million a year don’t need ‘Load Management,'” Barkley stated. “These guys don’t have any loyalty to a team or a city and it’s why ratings are down.”
Certain factors come into play when we discuss load management. Yes, Jordan played in 82 games, just like a player who didn’t miss a game would play in today’s league. However, two different versions of the league are at play.
Michael Jordan demonstrates the difference
The modern NBA is less physical. To Jordan’s credit, this means he put up with more abuse to his body on a nightly basis. Hard fouls were called less and as a result, players committed them more often. It was a time when players like Charles Oakley were fighting anyone unlucky to be in his path.
Conversely, today’s NBA is faster-paced and more exhausting. Jordan played in an era where 100 points per game for a team was the sign of a decent offense.
Today’s NBA sees all 30 teams surpassing this mark. Three-pointers may be physically easier, but the pace is taxing on players. Furthermore, guys like Leonard have injury concerns that make it harder to do what Harden or Jordan could do.
Jordan’s feat is impressive — a testament to his will and work ethic. To ignore the context, however, also does a disservice. Either way, it’s impressive that a superstar nearing the end of his career could still do what Jordan did. The discussion about the two eras shows how much the league has changed since then.
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