Ask five people who the greatest basketball player of all time is and you might think you’re getting five different answers. M.J. His Airness. Air Jordan. The G.O.A.T. Mike. Of course, they all refer to the one man who deserves that title: Michael Jeffrey Jordan, who scintillated the world with his stupefying feats of athleticism, and dominated opponents with his unrivalled drive to win. The shadow of his legacy still hangs over the basketball landscape nearly two decades after he won the last of his six championships. Every great player since has been chasing his accomplishments, every analyst compelled to use him as a point of reference.
Oh, and about those accomplishments: the aforementioned six titles. Five MVPs. 14 All-Star appearances and 11 All-NBA selections. Great accomplishments, you might be thinking, but not record-breaking. Okay, how about highest scoring average of all time, for both the regular season and playoffs? Or most scoring titles? Or most Finals MVPs? It all starts to add up quickly, and taken together they form the most formidable case for untouchable greatness that’s ever been put together—so far.
Records are made to be broken. While Jordan’s array of accomplishments might never be replicated by a single player, surely some of them will be surpassed by the game’s present and future greats, perhaps sooner than we might imagine. This season alone has seen a number of historical, seemingly impossible record-breaking feats, most notably from Russell Westbrook. Offensive efficiency and pace have been climbing league-wide, bringing once-untouchable numbers back within reach. Seventy point games, fifty point triple-doubles: who knows what else these playoffs and the seasons ahead might hold in store?
Still, Michael Jordan remains the gold standard in basketball for a reason. In contrast some of his records will fall in the coming years, some are completely untouchable. Here’s a look at which of his records are safe, and which ones will fall.
15 Unbreakable: Highest career PER (27.9)
For those of you not familiar with advanced metrics, PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is an attempt to sum up a basketball player’s on-court contributions into a single number. While not perfect, it can be used as a rough indicator of where players fall on the spectrum of “great” to “terrible”. Jordan most definitely falls into the former category, leading all players in average career PER at 27.9. To put that in perspective, Kobe Bryant’s best season ever in terms of PER was 28.0. That’s right, Jordan’s average was basically exactly the same as Kobe at his best. LeBron James’ current career PER mark of 27.6 is Jordan’s main competition, but James’ efficiency will likely start to decrease as he heads into the twilight of his career, so it’s highly unlikely he, or anyone else, catches Jordan.
14 Breakable: Scoring title and DPOY in the same season
With all his gaudy scoring numbers, it’s easy to forget that Jordan was also one of the most feared perimeter defenders of his era. In 1988, he became the first—and to date only—player to accomplish the ultimate “two-way player” feat: winning the Defensive Player of the Year award while leading the league in scoring. While this is a remarkable achievement, a few players have come close. Hakeem Olajuwon was third in scoring when he won his second DPOY, and David Robinson accomplished both feats, but in separate seasons. With the new resurgence in big men in today’s game, it’s not impossible to imagine someone like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, or Joel Embiid taking home both titles in a single season at some point in their careers.
13 Unbreakable: Highest scoring average in a Finals (41.0)
When LeBron James was forced to carry an entire team on his back two Finals ago after season-ending injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, many of us were in awe of his performance. James seemingly did everything on the court, and in the process averaged a staggering 35.8 points in a losing effort. However, this pales in comparison to Jordan’s finest scoring output in the Finals, when he averaged a ridiculous 41.0 points to take out Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns. Going for 40 in a Finals game is noteworthy on its own; to do it on a nightly basis is crazy. Most teams that make it all the way to the Finals these days have more balanced scoring, so I don’t see this record falling for a long, long time—if ever.
12 Breakable: Oldest player to score 40 points in a game (40)
When Jordan came out of retirement for the second time, people didn’t know what to expect. It seemed more like a gimmick than a serious comeback attempt. As he had done throughout his career however, Jordan defied expectations, putting up over 20 points per game in his two-year stint with the Wizards. Though much less illustrious than the previous chapters of his career, this final one proved his transcendence. Playing until 40 is a feat in and of itself, let alone scoring that same number in a game, but Jordan did just that.
However, I think there’s reason to believe this record can be replicated. We all saw Kobe’s 60-point farewell game last year at 37, and while he’s put his NBA career to bed, 38-year0old Dirk Nowitzki still has something left in the tank. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are strong candidates to attain the feat if they decide to keep playing for that long. Medicine is only getting better and extending players’ careers, so my bet is this record will fall in the next 10 years.
11 Unbreakable: Highest career playoffs scoring average (33.4)
The last time anyone averaged 33.4 points or better for a single playoff run was LeBron James back in 2009. The only other players to accomplish this in the past 20+ years are Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas. This gives you a sense of how rare and impressive it is to put up those scoring numbers in a season—and makes it all the more incredible when you realize this was Jordan’s career playoff average. In total, Jordan had seven seasons in which he equalled or bested this mark in the playoffs; no one else has more than three, and they happened over 50 years ago. The only way I can see this being broken is by a supreme scorer on a terrible team who always gets bounced in the first round after putting up crazy numbers, but even then the possibility is so far-fetched that I can’t bring myself to seriously consider it as doable.
10 Breakable: Most points in a Finals game (55)
50 point games are rare in the NBA, particularly in the playoffs where pace slows down and defense reigns supreme. In the Finals, it’s almost completely unheard of, but there are compelling reasons to believe someone will come along and break the double-nickel barrier. For starters, Jordan actually shares this record with Rick Barry, so his epic scoring binge against the Suns isn’t a total outlier. There’s also just the laws of probability: in a single game, anything can happen. All it would take is one magic night to rewrite this bit of history, and with scoring trending upwards these days, we might be entering an era where 55+ point games might be possible for explosive scorers like Russell Westbrook and Devin Booker—provided they can make it to the Finals.
9 Unbreakable: Oldest player to lead league in scoring (35)
It’s one thing for an over-the-hill star to have a fluky flashback to their previous glory days. It’s quite another to keep living your glory days well into your mid-30s. Jordan managed to do just that by leading the league in scoring at the ripe age of 35. While a select few players like Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone managed to stay near the top of the scoring heap in the twilight of their careers, they just didn’t have quite enough to take the top spot. In fact, you have to go all the way back to Jerry West in 1970 to find a player in their 30s other than Jordan who managed to take home a scoring title. Seeing as Jordan holds the record by a wide margin (three years), I think it’s highly doubtful we’ll ever see someone maintain that kind of dominant scoring output so deep into their career.
8 Breakable: Most points in a playoff game (63)
If you ask Larry Bird, Jordan doesn’t actually hold this record: it was God disguised as Michael Jordan who hammered the Celtics for 63 points, though Bird’s Celtics hung on to win the game and eventually, the series. Sixty points is an incredible and rare accomplishment regardless of the situation, but to do it on the biggest stage, against a championship calibre team like the Celtics is mind-boggling. That being said, single-game records are always prone to being broken, and with some of the scoring outbursts we’ve seen already this season, it wouldn’t shock me to see this record broken sooner than later. Russell Westbrook already had a 50 point outing this postseason, and you can bet James Harden will continue to put up big numbers throughout his playoff run.
7 Unbreakable: Most seasons with 200+ steals and 100+ blocks (2)
The only other players to amass more than 200 steals and 100 blocks in a single season are Hakeem Olajuwon and Jordan’s sidekick Scottie Pippen, who you might know as two of the greatest defenders in the history of basketball. If that’s the kind of résumé you need to pull it off even once, I can’t imagine what it would take to do it multiple times. Changes to the rules and style of play make it even more unlikely that this will ever happen again: the rules against hand-checking make it much harder for ballhawks to swipe the ball from their man, and game plans in general have adapted to minimize defensive gambling. No one’s even really come close to matching these numbers in the past 20 years, so unless some drastic rule changes come into effect, this record seems pretty safe.
6 Breakable: Most career blocked shots by a guard (891)
Blocks are usually the hardest statistic for guards to accumulate because of their shorter stature, but Jordan’s freakish length and athleticism allowed him to swat shots with regularity. Had his health held up, fellow physical specimen Tracy McGrady would have almost certainly blown past this mark, but alas he limped to the finish line 84 blocks short of Jordan’s standard of excellence. However, there are enough active guards who are closing in to make the record seem attainable. McGrady’s cousin Vince Carter currently sits at 810 career blocks, a mark he can improve upon if he decides to lace them up again next season. Dwyane Wade, however, seems to be the most likely candidate to eventually take the crown. With 800 blocks and counting, Wade likely has a few more seasons of productive basketball left in him to add to his total and make history.
5 Unbreakable: Most NBA scoring titles (10)
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Jordan’s storied career is his longevity. Most players reach their peak at around 24 and are then able to maintain a high level of play for the next four to five years before starting to fade in their 30s. But Jordan was a freak of nature. He won his first scoring title at 24, and went on to win seven in a row before he took a break to focus on his ill-fated flirtation with professional baseball. Ironically, that break may have been the reason he was able to defy the odds upon his return to the NBA by nabbing three more scoring titles in his 30s.
Kevin Durant looked well on his way to having a shot at this record when he won his first scoring title at just 21, but thanks to injuries, other emerging stars, and a change of scenery, it’s been three years since he led the league in scoring and his chances of ever doing it again are looking less and less likely. If this generation’s most transcendent scoring talent can’t even reach half of Jordan’s total, chances are nobody else stands a chance.
4 Breakable: Most consecutive double figure scoring games (866)
Jordan’s durability and consistency got him this record, but he’s got competition breathing down his neck. LeBron James currently sits at 791 straight games of scoring at least 10 points, so one more full season of good health should be enough to overtake Jordan. Of course, health is never a guarantee, particularly the older you get, and James will turn 33 next season, his 15th in the league. All of that wear and tear may finally catch up to him, but he’s shown few signs of slowing down. All in all, I think it’s more likely than not that James will catch Jordan in this particular race. Even if he doesn’t, the fact that he’s so close to doing it is a strong indication that someone will eventually.
3 Unbreakable: Most Finals MVPs (6)
A Finals MVP is one of the clearest indications of greatness there is in the NBA. It accounts for both individual production and the ultimate proof of team success. Jordan’s record six pieces of Finals MVP hardware is a big reason why most consider him the greatest of all time. No other player has more than three, so someone’s gonna have a lot of catching up to do if they hope to match or exceed Jordan’s haul. The only active player with multiple Finals MVPs is LeBron James with three, so he stands the best chance. But it’s going to be an uphill battle, and at 32, James may simply be running out of time. Another improbable championship this year would do wonders for his chances, but even still, the quest to break Jordan’s record of six Finals MVPs remains just that: improbable.
2 Breakable: Most career playoff points (5,987)
The playoffs are where Jordan really cemented his place in the pantheon of greats, so it’s only natural that he’d be the all-time leader in points scored in the postseason. It’s all the more impressive that he was able to accumulate that many points when you consider he didn’t even make it out of the first round until he was 25, and played during an era in which first round playoff series were best of five rather than seven. However, it’s all but certain that Jordan will be relegated to second place, maybe sooner than a lot of people realize. Once again, it’s LeBron James who is quickly closing in on another Jordan record. James already sits in third place with 5,703 points, and could surpass Jordan this year with another deep playoff run.
1 Unbreakable: Highest career scoring average (30.1)
This is perhaps the ultimate testament to Jordan’s greatness, a perfect summary of just how great he was over his career as a whole. Points per game has long been a favourite form of shorthand when attempting to identify the best player in any given season. His Airness narrowly holds the lead over Wilt Chamberlain, the man who once scored 100 points in a single game. For Jordan to have eclipsed one of the most dominant athletes the world has ever seen is truly astounding. No one else is really even close, with LeBron James and Kevin Durant coming closest among active players at around 27 points per game. Their numbers will decline with age though, and right now it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone even approaching Jordan’s singular dominance in this aspect of the game.
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