Michael Jordan stands fifth all-time in scoring in NBA history, third in steals, fifth in Win Shares, and second in VORP.
By any account, the argument for the greatest player ever to play professional basketball is a two-horse race between Jordan and LeBron James.
But what if Jordan—who played in 1,072 career NBA games, 90th all-time—didn’t spend two seasons of his prime trying to play baseball? What if he hadn’t taken three years off before an ill-fated comeback attempt in Washington in 2001 that nearly knocked him out of the top spot for points per game, leaving him in a tie with Wilt Chamberlain that needs to be taken to a second decimal place (30.12 for Jordan, 30.07 for Wilt)?
Put simply, what if His Airness had a fairly normal career track for a player of his era and caliber, playing all of the 1993-94 and ’94-95 seasons then sticking around for as long as it took to secure whatever legacy we can assume he’d have gone after given the situation in terms of setting or extending records for him after the 1998 Finals?
I’m not going to talk about playoffs other than to project that the Bulls would’ve won eight in a row including the 1994 and ’95 seasons, because that will be important when we talk GOAT legacy. It’s otherwise irrelevant to the simple question—what would Jordan’s career stat totals have been? Would he have passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the career scoring list? Or John Stockton for career steals? How untouchable would his statistical legacy have become?
Let’s start with one simple assumption. Everything that actually happened during his career in Chicago when he played full seasons—from 1984-93 and then from 1996-98—stays on the books here. We’ll treat 1994 and ’95 like “typical MJ years” in terms of the level of production he was putting up as he entered his 30s, then look at post-1998 in terms of the trajectory of decline that had already started to show ever-so-slightly in that 1998 season and surprisingly tracks a line through his real-life seasons in Washington in 2001-02 and ’02-03.
Don’t worry, that will make more sense as we go.
First, let’s project 1993-94. Jordan won the scoring title every full year he played from 1986-87 through ’97-98. More importantly, as competitive as His Airness was, he wasn’t about to let anyone else in the league show him up, and coach Phil Jackson knew it well enough that he’d have designed the Bulls’ offense to get MJ as many shots as it required to put him over the hump to pass whoever won those scoring titles.
While we’re on the subject, Jordan played all 82 games in almost every season he played in, including playing 82 games in 2002-03, his age-40 year in Washington, so let’s not question his durability.
Jordan also led the league in steals in 1992-93, at a time in the NBA when the steal was the prevailing measure of defensive quality and before advanced stats conspired to reduce its impact by bringing into account stuff like the increased field goal percentage players tended to shoot when their opponent gambled for a steal and didn’t come up with it (this is the same reason NFL defensive backs don’t get near as many interceptions as they used to; nobody wants to get beat on yards after the catch when they go for the ball and don’t come up with it.)
Let’s give Jordan in his prime every benefit of the doubt.
That leaves us with 30.8 points per game (one point more than Robinson ended up with and about on track with Jordan’s mid-career scoring averages), 3.1 steals per game (enough to edge Seattle’s Nate McMillan for the league lead and a bit better than MJ’s 2.8 SPG career high from the previous year), and we’ll fill in the blanks on his other major counting stats by giving him an about-par-for-the-time 6.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game.
In 1995, we can learn a few things from MJ’s actual stats in 17 games, but there’s no way he only would have scored 26.9 points per game in an 82-game season for which he was fully prepared.
So let’s up his totals to 31.0 points per game (more than enough to leave Shaq eating his dust for the scoring title), 2.5 steals (as many as Gary Payton got that year), and leave his other counting stats at the same 6.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists he picked up per game that season.
That gives him 2,526 points in the 1994 season and raises his 1995 number from the 457 points he actually scored to 2,542.
Which means his career total through 1998 rises from 29,277 all the way up to 33,888.
Now, mathematically speaking, that would’ve been pretty cool all by itself; to break Kareem’s record, someone would need to score 38,388 points, and MJ’s projected total is just a digit swap from that magic number.
But it’s also 4,500 points short, and that’s where we’re going to have to get creative in trying to figure out how much deeper that rabbit hole goes.
Before we get in the time machine and fast-forward three years, however, let’s also note that Jordan ends up with 254 steals in 1994 and 205 in 1995, giving him an extra 429 steals over the 30 he actually recorded in 17 games in the ’95 season and bringing his as-of-1998 total up to 2,735. That’s enough to vault him over Jason Kidd, but he’s still got 530 steals left to catch Stockton. Keep that number in mind as well.
Now then. It’s 1998. The NBA owners and players are in a deadlock, and that means that Jordan’s first “extra” season is only going to be 50 games long. That’s bad for history, but his stats are still strong. He’s 36 years old in 1999, and as an older player, he’s going to be playing with a chip on his shoulder and a freshness that you wouldn’t ordinarily see in a guy that age at that point in his career.
With that in mind, he’s going to be gunning for another scoring title.
Allen Iverson led the league that year with 26.8 points per game, which brings us to another problem.
The pace of the NBA was the slowest it had ever been during the shot clock era; it was fully 10 percent slower than during Jordan’s prime. Jordan himself led the league in scoring with only 28.7 points per game the year before.
So let’s give him a linear rate of decline and also a linear rate of acceleration for his decline years. He had 30.4 points per game in 1996. He had 29.6 in 1997. And he had 28.7 in 1998. That’s a dropoff of 0.8 points and 0.9 points.
Indeed, if we drop him off 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 points for the 1999 through 2002 seasons, he’d be left with 23.1 points a contest; in actual fact, he scored 22.9 a game in Washington that year. This seems a highly plausible rate of projection for our ideal scenario here.
As such, it means Jordan gets 27.7 points per game in 1999 and finishes with 1,385 points for the season, winning the scoring title.
He also picks up 85 steals; he averaged 1.7 steals per game in both 1997 and ’98 and grabbed 1.4 and 1.5 per game respectively in DC. This seems to be a relative constant (he played slightly fewer minutes a game on the Wizards), so we’ll use it as a constant for our projection here.
That gives him a career total after 1999 of 35,273 points and 2,820 steals.
In 2000, he scores 26.5 points a game. This gives him 2,173 on the season and pushes him into the 2000-01 offseason with 37,446 points. The steals record is probably out of reach; Stockton is still active (he retired in 2003), but MJ’s 139 steals leave him with 2,959; he’s not going to get to 3,265 in his career unless he plays another three years.
Jordan is looking at an upcoming age 38 season and decides, since the scoring record is in reach for him, that the 2000-01 season will be his last. He has nothing left to prove but wants to retire as the all-time scoring champ.
So he goes out. He gives 82 games. And the Bulls, knowing this is MJ’s farewell tour, feed him the ball with no regard for the state of the game; Scottie Pippen is gone, Dennis Rodman is gone, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant are the league’s championship tandem to beat, Phil Jackson is coaching the Lakers because Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf chased him out of Chicago.
Jordan’s only there because the Bulls threw gobs of money at him to keep him for three years longer, only there because he wants to go down in history as the guy who conquered Kareem. The team around him isn’t much better than the “bunch of coke fiends” he played with as a rookie. The Bulls can’t beat anyone in the playoffs; they haven’t even hosted a Game 1 in the first round since that 1998 title, Jordan willing them through a weak East to a 7 seed by himself.
But he scores like it’s his prime. He ends up dueling with Iverson for the scoring title all year long. Iverson—who had 31.1 points per game in the real-life NBA in 2001—demands the ball even more than he already got it in history and posts 31.9 a game.
But on the last day of the season, Jordan pours in 60 points against Philadelphia. He locks down Iverson on defense, not giving The Answer an inch, summoning everything he has to stop AI and hold him to a horrific 15 points on 6-of-30 shooting in a Bulls win.
And Jordan finishes with 32 points per game. His first basket is, by a happy coincidence, his 40,000th career point; he retires with 40,058. His 8 titles in a row, a feat otherwise managed only by Bill Russell, Sam Jones, and K.C. Jones of the 1959 through 1966 Celtics, would grant him undisputed GOAT status when combined with being the only player ever to score 40,000 points and one of only two players to finish with 3,000 steals (3,098, if we’re projecting another 1.7 SPG for that ’01 final flourish.)
Jordan would also have played in 1,323 career games instead of the 1,072 he actually played in when we factor in two extra full seasons plus a partial campaign compared against the actual length of his career.
He’d have, assuming his rebounding and assist averages held, grabbed 8,203 rebounds and dished out 7,012 assists, good for 65th and 20th respectively in NBA history.
20 years later, some folks would try to put up LeBron’s “career triple-double” of 10,000 rebounds and 10,000 assists (King James is on pace to do this early in the 2021-22 season if not in 72 games this upcoming year) as a sign that he was somehow better than MJ, but not even that would be enough to overcome “All-time scoring champ. Eight rings in a row. Get outta here” for the GOAT discussion.
It’s enough to make you think—if only Jordan’s father had lived, if only he’d been singlemindedly focused on his place in NBA history even beyond the championships, if only…
Because there’s just so much more we could’ve seen than what we actually got.