Michael Jordan appeared in the NBA Finals six times in the 1990s. All six times Jordan won the title. At least that’s the story told. If we think about it, though, we realize that Jordan didn’t win any titles. Jordan is a player. And its teams that win games and titles, not one single player.
Still, Jordan was such an incredible performer that one suspects that Jordan could have won six titles with any collection of teammates. In fact, his actual teammates almost drowned in Jordan’s brilliance, earning the moniker “the Jordanaires”.
Jordan’s brilliance has caused people to question the contribution of the architect of these championship teams, Jerry Krause. With but one exception, every player on these title teams was chosen by Krause. The one exception was MJ, who just happened to be there when Krause became GM. And again, since anyone could have won with Jordan, why should we credit Krause with doing anything?
When we look back at these teams we do see that Jordan clearly was the best player on the Bulls (and perhaps the best in the league). But the data clearly tells us that Jordan didn’t win by himself.
The Efficiency Differential Story
While looking back at the Bad Boys I noticed something odd about Jordan and the Jordanaires. In my memory the Bulls gradually improved each year until Chicago eventually surpassed the Pistons (or maybe the Pistons just got old). But my memory was incorrect. In reality there was very little improvement for years, and then one giant leap. To see this, consider Chicago’s efficiency differential and regular season wins in the early years of Jordan’s career.
– 1984-85: -0.8, 38 wins
– 1985-86: -3.7, 30 wins (Jordan misses all but 18 games)
– 1986-87: 0.9, 40 wins
– 1987-88: 3.4, 50 wins
– 1988-89: 1.4, 47 wins
– 1989-90: 3.2, 55 wins
When we look over this data we see that for the first six years of Jordan’s career the Bulls were a bit short of amazing. Their best season in terms of efficiency differential in the first six seasons was 1987-88, when they posted a 3.4 mark. To put that in perspective, seven teams bested this differential this past season. Eight teams bested that mark in 1987-88. In sum, for six seasons Jordan and the Jordanaires were hardly a hit group.
Then in 1990-91 the team took off. Its efficiency differential increased to 9.2 and the team won 61 games. What exactly happened?
The Wins Produced Story
To answer this question, let’s consider the Wins Produced from the players on this team from 1988-89 to 1992-93. Across these five seasons we can see how this team evolved from a slightly above average team to one of the dominant teams in NBA history.
In 1988-89 the Bulls were indeed Jordan and the Jordanaires. Jordan produced 34.1 wins on a team whose summation of Wins Produced only reached 48.1. The Bulls had eight players in the negative range and no player – other than MJ — who posted a Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] above 0.150. In sum, this team was quite similar to the Minnesota Timberwolves today who employ Kevin Garnett and not much else.
The next season we see a similar story. Again, Jordan produces more than half the team’s wins. The Bulls did get close to 19 wins from Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. And this tells us that help was on its way.
In 1990-91 we see that help finally arrived. Pippen posted a WP48 of 0.306 and produced 19.2 wins. Grant chipped in 11.2 wins and a WP48 of 0.204. Meanwhile Jordan’s performance was virtually unchanged from the previous season. If we add it all together we see that these three players combined to produce 57.5 of the team’s 65.3 Wins Produced.
As amazing as this threesome was in 1990-91, they were even better in 1991-92. The Bulls that season won 67 games. More than 60 of these can be linked to the efforts of the amazing trio: MJ, Pippen, and Grant. Yes, Jordan was still the best. But all three posted a WP48 in excess of 0.300, an amazing achievement for three players on the same team.
The 1991-92 season was the peak for Jordan, Pippen, and Grant. The next season the team only won 58 games as the performance of Pippen and Grant both declined somewhat. In the summer of 1993, Jordan retired for the first time. Although Pippen and Grant combined to produced 35 wins in 1993-94, without Jordan the team was obviously not quite as good (a story detailed in The Wages of Wins).
By the time Jordan returned to play a full season in 1995-96, every member of the 1993 championship team – except for Pippen — was gone. Yet in 1995-96, with Dennis Rodman on board, the Bulls were even better than the 1991-92 team (another story detailed in The Wages of Wins).
The Jerry Krause Legacy
Let’s just summarize the Jordan and the Jordanaires story. MJ was an amazing player. In the book we argue that he might have been the best ever (although one could argue for Magic Johnson, a story I might get to tomorrow). But without Pippen and Grant – and later on, Pippen and Rodman – Jordan could have been Kevin Garnett, part one.
Jordan was fortunate to play with players who were extremely productive. These players all posted outstanding numbers without Jordan, suggesting it was not Jordan who made them better (and as detailed in the book, the Law of Diminishing Returns tells us that Jordan did not make them better). And Pippen and Grant were both acquired by Krause in the 1987 draft.
Yes, Krause was given a huge building block in Michael Jordan. But other general managers – like Kevin McHale – have been given similar building blocks and yet failed to build a championship contender. Again, one player cannot win a title. Teams win titles. And on the Bulls, it was the team of Jordan, Pippen, and Grant that dethroned the Bad Boys and won three titles. Two-thirds of this trio was chosen by Krause, and for that he should be given a substantial amount of credit (even if it was all just luck, but that’s another story of another day).