Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James and Michael Jordan are usually three of the names that are staples in the greatest of all-time player debates. While they are undoubtedly great regular-season players, it is the playoffs where they are measured the most.
Nick Wright, who has been compiling his version of the top 50 best players over the last 50 years, recently remarked on MJ’s postseason displays. Here’s what the NBA analyst had to say on what made the six-time champ stand out:
“Unlike LeBron and unlike Kareem, he never had a true dark playoff moment. LeBron obviously in 2011 … Jordan didn’t have that and that’s to his credit. Even when he got swept, he wasn’t playing poorly.”
Michael Jordan was swept by Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in the 1986 and 1987 playoffs. However, he was far from the culprit during those stinging defeats. In those two playoff losses, MJ averaged 39.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.8 assists.
“His Airness” put up those numbers without much of a supporting cast. He also went up against Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and a squad considered by some to be the best team ever assembled.
Michael Jordan notably never lost in the NBA Finals and was named Finals MVP each time the Chicago Bulls won the title.
On the contrary, LeBron James’ darkest playoff series came in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Peak “King James” averaged 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.7 steals. He was the third-leading scorer on the team behind Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
In his first year of taking his talents to South Beach, James was a huge flop. The supposedly best player in the NBA played second fiddle to Wade and couldn’t lead the Heat past Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks. It wasn’t the kind of performance Heat fans expected from a player who proudly promised several championships once he stepped foot in Miami.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s worst series arguably came in the 1983 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, led by a young center named Moses Malone. “Big Mo” was named Finals MVP and made Abdul-Jabbar look ordinary in the series.
“Captain Skyhook” was already 35 years of age during that series, but still led the Lakers with 26.6 points. He also had 8.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.1 blocks as the Hollywood squad was swept by Philly.
Abdul-Jabbar later confirmed that it was one of his worst NBA Finals performances due to a debilitating migraine. He didn’t blame it entirely on the ailment, though.
Michael Jordan had his most challenging NBA Finals against Gary Payton
The 72-10 Chicago Bulls faced Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle Supersonics in the 1996 NBA Finals. Chicago raced to a 3-0 lead before Sonics head coach George Karl decided to use defensive ace Gary Payton as Michael Jordan’s primary defender.
The move paid dividends as the Sonics won two of the last three games. They ultimately lost the championship, but Payton’s time on MJ made a huge difference in the series.
In Michael Jordan’s first three games of that championship round, he averaged 31.0 points and 5.0 assists per game on 46% shooting. Since “The Glove” started shadowing him, Jordan’s averages dropped to 23.7 points and 3.3 assists per game on a miserable 36.7% shooting from the field.
Why George Karl didn’t start the series with that matchup is something Sonics fans are still in utter disbelief about.