I asked the question I had asked myself so many times before: what if Michael Jordan had never retired (the first two times).
As we all know, Jordan shocked the world by retiring at what seemed like the top of his game in 1993. He lost two of his prime years playing baseball and helping the Looney Toons avoid eternal enslavement (or serving a secret suspension for gambling, or abducted by aliens, or whatever). He returned, won another three rings, and then promptly retired again, this time staying out of the league for three years before returning to play for the Washington Wizards.
But what if he hadn’t? What if Jordan hadn’t lost 5 possibly very productive years of his career?
So, I put on my Math Hat (a.k.a. my Beats) and got to work. For the sake of brevity and my sanity, I’ll only be looking at scoring and steals, both of which Jordan is top 5 all time in.
Most people remember Michael Jordan for his dunking and his big numbers in the points column of the box score. In his 13 seasons with Chicago, Jordan scored 31.5 PPG and 29,277 points in total. Crazier still, Jordan played less than 20 games in 2 of those 13 years (he was injured his second year and came out of retirement for the tail end of the 1995 season). So in his 11 full years, Jordan scored 28,412 points.
For reference, LeBron has been in the league for 14 years and still has not reached that mark. Kobe didn’t surpass this number until his 16th year in the league. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the record holder for most points scored in an NBA career, only reached this mark in his 13th season. Karl Malone was in his 13th season when he reached this mark. Now, I know you can put asterisks next to probably all 4 of these names, but I just wanted to give a quick reference of just how freaking much Jordan has actually scored.
In the three years preceding his first retirement, Jordan averaged 31.4 PPG and 80 games per season. In his first full year back, Jordan averaged 30.4 PPG and played 82 games. So, for some easy math’s sake, let’s say he would have scored 31 PPG and played 80 games in the two years he missed. This adds 4,960 points to his total, which brings him to 33,780 total points for his career, which is actually MORE than what he totaled without these years in his career and more than what Kobe and Malone totaled.
But, we still have 3 more productive years Jordan might have played. In 1998, Jordan’s stats take a slight dip. He scores less and shoots less efficiently, the most inefficient full year from the field for him as a Bull. For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that Jordan averaged about halfway between his 28.7 PPG in 1998 and his 22.9 PPG in 2002. I’ll even lowball him a little and say he averaged 25 PPG in that 3-year span. And, since he’s older, let’s drop his average number of games per year to 75.
Even with these lowered numbers, Jordan would have added a total of 5,625 points to his total points scored over these three years. This, added to his previous hypothetical total of 33,780 points now brings him to 39,405 career points, shattering Kareem’s record of 38,387.
If we assume MJ’s last two years go the same as they did in real life, we can add his 3,015 points as a Wizard to the total. This results in Michael Jordan scoring 42,420 over the course of this hypothetical career and bringing his scoring average down to about 29.2 PPG. Still not shabby for an 18-year long career.
It’s interesting to note that these totals still include Jordan’s short second year in the league where he was injured (he scored 408 points total). If he had played a full year, it isn’t impossible to think he could have added another 2,000 points or more to his hypothetical total.
The other category that Jordan ranks very high is in steals. He is currently third in NBA history with 2,514 behind Jason Kidd (2,684) and John Stockton (3,265). I’ll keep this section a bit shorter, but use the same methodology as I did for scoring.
In the three years preceding his retirement, Jordan averaged 2.6 SPG and averaged 2.2 his first full year back. So if we assume he would have averaged 2.4 SPG and 80 games a season, Jordan would have totaled 400 steals in those two years, adding 370 to his total. This brings him to 2,884 career steals and into second place all time.
Between, 1998 and his Wizard years, MJ’s steal numbers only slight dipped. I think it is reasonable to assume he could have averaged 1.5 SPG and 75 games per season. This adds 338 steals to his career total (rounding up from 337.5) and bringing his hypothetical career total to 3,222 career steals. Amazingly, this is still 43 steals short of Stockton. In fact, Jordan would have had to have averaged 1.7 SPG at 75 games per season in these three years to beat Stockton, edging him out by just 2 steals! This is a real testament to Stockton’s ball hawking skills!
So what should you take away from this? That I have too much time on my hands? Probably.
In any case, I just wanted to try and make a reasonable guess as to what Jordan could have reasonably added to an already unreasonable career. As I’ve said many times before, people rarely consider that Jordan did everything he did in what amounts to essentially 11 good years. In fact, Michael is ranked 4th all time in scoring, 3rd all time in steals, and 81st all-time in games played. The men ahead of him in scoring are 2nd, 4th, and 11th all time. The men ahead of him in steals are 3rd and 8th. The amount of production he fit into his truncated and sporadic career is what really boggles the mind in my opinion.
Now, there are a lot of things you can say to invalidate everything I just bothered typing. Would Jordan have been as good if he hadn’t taken time off from the game? What if he had broken his neck in a game he would have played in 1994-95 and never played again? What if he had gotten burnt out and run down far sooner than 2003? These are all valid points that make these “what if” games completely irrelevant. So everything you just read, take with a large sack of salt. What Jordan actually did is pretty much as damn near impressive as what he could have done.
If Jordan hadn’t fake retired (twice), he could have possibly scored 42,420 points and gotten 3,222 steals. Jordan is the G.O.A.T.