The Case for Michael Jordan

Posted on June 1, 2006 by


As I wander through the blogosphere I have come across a few comments from people – who I gather have not actually read The Wages of Wins – that we argue that Dennis Rodman is better than Michael Jordan.

The statement is taken out of context from an article I published in 1999, where I outlined how one can use regression analysis to measure player performance in the NBA.  That article only looked at one season of player performance, which happened to be Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls.  It is very important to note that the model we employ in The Wages of Wins is not the same as the model previously published, a point one might know if one read the book.  And yes, I think the model outlined in The Wages of Wins is the better model.  In other words, some learning took place between 1999 and the present.

That being said, what do we actually say about Michael Jordan in The Wages of Wins?  Here is a brief excerpt from the book:

p. 140-141 in The Wages of Wins

Jordan entered the league in 1984 and retired a third and final time—at least as of this writing it is the final time—in 2003. Over this time period Jordan played in fifteen seasons, playing his last season when he was 40 years old. How does Jordan’s performance across all these years compare to what we have seen thus far from Kevin Garnett? As we noted, in Garnett’s first nine seasons his WP48 was 0.326. Now we must remember that Garnett began his career when he was nineteen and at the conclusion of the 2004–05 campaign he was only 29 years old. So we are only looking at Garnett in his prime, while we are considering both MJ’s prime years and also his time as the very elderly statesmen of the Washington Wizards. Surprisingly, MJ’s WP48 across this entire career bested Garnett in his prime. When Jordan retired in 2003 his career WP48 stood at 0.346.

Now what if we only considered MJ’s seasons before his first retirement? Well, in Garnett’s first ten seasons he produced 200 wins. Jordan was hurt for much of his second season, and he retired the first time after only nine years. Yet despite playing only a bit more than eight seasons, Jordan produced 219 wins before giving baseball a try. Jordan’s WP48 across these years was an amazing 0.406. What does that mean? With a bit of math we can see that a team of average players plus Jordan would win 61 games.

We go on, but I think these two paragraphs highlight the tone of our argument.  The Wins Produced model indicates that Jordan was an extremely good player.

Just to clarify, WP48 is Wins Produced per 48 minutes.  So WP48 is a per-minute measure of performance, and on a per-minute basis Jordan generally performed at a higher level than Kevin Garnett.  And hopefully our readers understand what we have said about Kevin Garnett.

As we say in the book, if you look at Jordan’s entire career you can make an argument that he is the best to play the game.  And this result fits the conventional wisdom.  It is important to note what we say about the basic premise of our book at The basic premise is that much of what people believe about sports is not true when one looks at the very numbers sports generate. 

We do not say “everything you believe about sports is not true.”  In the case of Michael Jordan, what people generally believe is true. Jordan was a great player.  And if you look at the numbers, that is indeed the story that is told.

Of course, we also tell the story that Dennis Rodman was a very good player.  This is a story that does not fit the conventional wisdom, wisdom that undervalues the contributions of non-scorers.  I will comment more on that story soon.

— DJ