The All-Time #NBArank has concluded with Michael Jordan landing in the top spot. Our experts weigh in on all things Jordan, including their favorite MJ moments and whether LeBron James will ever surpass His Airness.
1. Rank your top three Jordan moments.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com:
1. The glare he gave the media in the midst of scoring 55 points in Game 4 of the 1993 NBA Finals. It was as if he had conquered everyone on the court, and he felt the need to take on us as well.
2. How wobbly he looked while walking into the arena for Game 5 of the 1997 Finals, the Flu Game. He sure didn't look like he had 38 points in him.
3. Going downstairs at old Chicago Stadium before a game in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals and hearing Jordan chirping, to no one in particular, "Three-peat! Three-peat!"
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine:
1. I was an eighth-grader lying in bed sick with the flu, watching the 1982 NCAA championship game between Georgetown and North Carolina. With 17 seconds left, freshman Michael Jordan attempted a game-winning jump shot. As soon as MJ released the shot, I remember saying to myself, "This guy is going to be great!" Make or miss, I was sold on Jordan at that moment because he had the guts to take the game-winner with All-American upperclassmen James Worthy and Sam Perkins on his team. Of course he hit the shot.
2. MJ's game-winning, playoff series-clinching jump shot against Cleveland in 1989. As a Clevelander, part of me was rooting for the Cavs, but as an MJ fan and a basketball fan, part of me wanted Jordan to keep playing. Tremendous game. Tremendous shot.
3. I could say the game-winning, Finals-clinching shot against Utah, but I'll go with Game 1 of the 1992 Finals against Portland. MJ hits six 3-pointers, scores 35 first-half points, and gives us all a shoulder shrug for the ages.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider:
1. Shot over Bryon Russell to win his sixth title. Lost in the annals of history is that MJ was having an awful shooting game but basically willed the Bulls to a win with a steal on one end and a game-winning J.
2. The 63-point playoff game vs. the Celtics in 1986. Gave us the Larry Bird "God disguised as Michael Jordan" quote.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider:
1. The shot over Russell to win the 1998 NBA Finals. Come on, what else?
2. Passing to Steve Kerr for the winning shot of the 1997 NBA Finals.
3. The Flu Game.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com:
1. Jordan's 63-point playoff game in Boston Garden, because this child of the '80s simply couldn't process how someone could do that to those Celtics.
2. Jordan's flu game in Utah in 1997, because that was the first NBA Finals that I got to cover in my fourth season covering this league.
3. Jordan's final All-Star Game in Atlanta in 2003, because that was my first All-Star Game working for ESPN.
2. What is the most underrated aspect of Jordan's career?
Adande: HIs ability to describe his greatness. It's not easy to formulate the proper responses when constantly asked how great you are, yet Jordan managed to find the narrow path of providing proper perspective without wallowing in arrogance.
Broussard: His fundamentals. Most people think about MJ's otherworldly athleticism, tremendous one-on-one ability, and unmatched competitiveness. Practically an entire generation of players became one-on-one and iso guys -- and an entire generation of scouts and talent evaluators became obsessed with "athleticism'' -- because of Jordan's greatness in those areas.
But what most don't realize, or focus on, is the fact that it was Jordan's ability to combine his great athleticism with terrific fundamentals and an understanding of the game that made him the greatest ever.
Elhassan: Subjugation to the system. He inadvertently ushered in the glorification of Hero Ball due to his penchant for late-game heroics, but at his most dominant and successful, MJ played within the system and sacrificed volume numbers for greater team success.
Pelton: It's hard to find much that hasn't been given credit by this point, but I'll say his passing. I've always been curious what might have happened had Jordan stayed at point guard, where he averaged eight assists per game in 1988-89, Doug Collins' last year as head coach.
Stein: Underrated? Not a word we often associate with His Airness. If I reach I suppose I would look at all those points he scored in his peak years without the benefit of prolific 3-point shooting. You have to believe that, were MJ playing now, he'd find a way to transform himself into a consistent 40-percenter from deep, but he didn't make much use of the long ball until after his dalliance with baseball.
Which reminds me: The more underrated aspect of his career is really the fact he was able to play Double-A baseball off the street. Hitting. 202 and playing in 127 games for the Birmingham Barons with no baseball experience as an adult is still way tougher than it sounds.
3. Describe the gap between Jordan and the other greats in NBA history.
Adande: There's no way to quantify the gap because there's no objective measure that explains Jordan at No. 1. (You could say he's the all-time leader in PER, but that would mean you believe Neil Johnston ranks ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson). My criterion is simply: If I needed to win a playoff game, Jordan would be my first pick.
Broussard: I agree that MJ is the GOAT, but it's certainly arguable that runner-up Abdul-Jabbar, who finished far behind MJ, fourth place Johnson, or fifth place Wilt Chamberlain could claim that spot. Kareem had the most unstoppable shot in history, won a record six MVPs, averaged 23 points a game as a 38-year-old and played a key role on a championship team at age 41.
Magic was perhaps the only player in history who could have been an All-Star at all five positions (when the game still had great big men), and Wilt's individual statistics are beyond belief. But MJ changed conventional wisdom. Before him, the general belief was that you couldn't build a dynasty around a shooting guard; nor could a guy lead the league in scoring and (consistently) win titles. MJ did both.
Elhassan: I think because of the era MJ came up in, the gap is more pronounced then it probably actually is. The marketing push for the NBA in the late '80s and '90s and the rise of sneaker culture made Jordan a household name across the globe, and that adds a considerable amount of shine to his legacy. But players like Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Johnson and Chamberlain all had their own dominant histories, with feats that Jordan didn't accomplish. I'm not a fan of comparing across eras for this reason: greatness is greatness.
Pelton: I don't think it's enormous in terms of total value, but there's no single player who can match Jordan in every aspect: peak value, longevity, playoff impact and iconic moments. That's what separates Jordan from everyone else in league history.
Stein: Remember how I said I'm a child of the '80s? As such, Magic and Larry are my standard-bearers, even though Bird obviously didn't have the longevity -- due to injury -- to assemble a top-five resume. The gap has always been extremely modest on this scorecard. I don't have Magic miles behind MJ ... and I'm not apologizing for that.
I'd also argue that Bill Russell has to be in the top five (ahead of both LeBron and Wilt for me) because of all the winning he's done. In any case I think it's no secret that I've never been a Jordan Lords Above All guy. The fact he never had a consistent rival team or player that he had to grapple with and get past, like Magic did with Bird or Russell did with Wilt, has always cost him a point or two with me.
4. True or False: LeBron James has a chance to surpass Jordan as the greatest of all time.
Adande: False. It's impossible, because even if LeBron wins five more championships he won't be able to erase his four NBA Finals losses. LeBron would have been better off competing directly against Jordan, because trying to battle the legend of Jordan is impossible -- especially because Jordan's 6-0 Finals record can never be tarnished.
Broussard: False. LeBron is deserving of top-five status, but he's not and never will be, as good as MJ.
Elhassan: False. That ship has sailed for LeBron, barring a highly unlikely run of championships to end his career.
Pelton: I'd say it's still in the realm of possibility, but James has to start winning more championships in a hurry. Jordan's advantage in titles at this point makes it too easy to dismiss how James may ultimately blow by his career totals by playing much longer.
Stein: Don't see it. Not sure there's enough time left in LeBron's career to win enough titles to make people forget A) He's 2-4 in the NBA Finals so far or B) That Jordan was 6-0 on the game's grandest stage. Leading the Cavs to an upset in the 2016 Finals and ending the Cleveland Curse -- if they could somehow dethrone mighty Golden State -- would certainly help in terms of changing the narrative.
But I'm afraid not much nuance is applied to these debates. Which is why you rarely hear the part about LeBron's teams being favored in only one of the four trips to the Finals (2011 versus Dallas) that he lost.
5. Sum up Michael Jordan in 23 words.
Adande: His tongue wagged, his eyes seared with competitive fire, he soared through the air and took the rest of us along in flight.
Broussard: Impeccably skilled, incredibly athletic, incomparably competitive, graceful. His statue sums him up: "The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.''
Elhassan: Greatest shooting guard ever. The blueprint for the modern player. Sociopath-level competitor. The Godfather of sports marketing. Work in progress basketball executive.
Pelton: The single greatest player in NBA history, but also the greatest narrative arc -- perfectly timed for the world to embrace a basketball star.
Stein: So transcendant that my 12-year-old, born months AFTER MJ's last game, studies Jordan's shoe history like it's his future college major.