Jan 18, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Snow falls on the Michael Jordan Statue before the game between the Chicago Bulls and the Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
A frequent topic for players reaching and surpassing the 30-32-year range is how their game will “age” into the latter stages of their career. Will an explosive guy heavily reliant on athleticism be able to parlay enough of that physical talent into skill areas as his hops deteriorate? An easily presentable case study here, one oft-mentioned by Grantland’s Bill Simmons, is that of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade — though three years apart in their career trajectory, Bryant would appear to have the advantage thus far in the longevity battle, smartening up and diversifying his offensive game as his explosiveness wore down. This while, at least for now, Wade remains a largely similar player stylistically despite a body that won’t cooperate like it used to.
Of course, like several (most) other elements of his career, Kobe took his inspiration here from the best to ever do it, His Airness himself. While still no slouch athletically in his post-baseball days as he reached his mid-30’s, Michael Jordan had accumulated a decade of incredibly high-intensity NBA basketball on his legs, and could no longer dominate games through sheer physical talent. As the 1996-97 season began, a 33-year-old Jordan had already racked up over 35,000 NBA minutes. His per-minute stats were beginning to show the strain, with per-36 career-lows showing up in rebounds, assists, steals (a particularly large drop here from his athletic peak when he and Scottie Pippen would fly around the court as a ball-swiping tandem), and free-throw attempts. And yet, Michael once again took the scoring title, finished second to Karl Malone in MVP voting (a voter fatigue result in the eyes of many), and won his fifth championship and Finals MVP. How did he do it?
A large part of the answer here lies in the way his shooting game progressed in his later years. Jordan was always a strong midrange shooter, and though a lack of shot data preceding the 96-97 season keeps us from contrasting directly with his earlier years, his post-baseball numbers showcase him as one of the league’s premier virtuosos here once he returned to the league. Check out his chart for this first available season, courtesy as always of Nylon Calculus guru Austin Clemens:
Specks of three-point range are present, likely one of the first years this would have been the case if we could go back further – his 3.6 attempts per game were a career high, and his 37.4 percent figure from deep trailed only the previous year, 95-96 (42.7 percent). But inside the arc is where the real magic happened, with Michael scorching opponents from everywhere. He hoisted 1,202 total midrange attempts on the year, per NBA.com, 310 more than the next-highest guard by volume, Mitch Richmond. He was seventh of 99 guards attempting at least 150 midrange looks at 48.9 percent, trailing specialist-types like Mugsy Bogues, Dell Curry and teammate Steve Kerr.
Delving a little more deeply, Jordan carved out his largest niche in the 10-14 foot area. He attempted 466 shots within this range – second here was Grant Hill with 258 attempts, the only other guy to post even half of Jordan’s number. Michael’s 480 points scored on such shots is far and away the benchmark from this distance since NBA.com began their location tracking:
Given such a huge number of attempts, his accuracy was staggering – 51.5 percent within 10-14 feet trails only 2005-06 Sam Cassell (52.5 percent on 238 attempts) and 2010-11 Kobe (51.8 percent on 257 attempts) among players attempting at least 150 such shots in a single season, a large pool that includes nearly every elite “gunner” season since the late 90’s.
His dominance here speaks to an understanding of his strengths and how they’d translate to both his aging game and the overall NBA game as a whole. With zone defenses still illegal, hand-checking still ever-present and the league not yet entering its age of three-point enlightenment, Michael understood perfectly what his remaining skill set would lend itself to. A guard with his combination of post skills, face-up moves, footwork and a killer J was a hugely valuable in the late-90’s era of NBA basketball. He couldn’t finish at the hoop like earlier in his career – his 51.8 percent mark in the Restricted Area was just 59th of 97 guards attempting 100 or more looks from there despite being 17th of this same group in attempts. Again, contrasting precisely with earlier in his career is impossible given lack of shot location numbers before 1996, but it’s a fair assumption that 33-year-old Michael wasn’t jumping over helpless defenders for easy dunks and layups quite as often as his decade-younger self – an emphasis on his midrange game is part of what helped him make this sort of transition.
Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time for a number of reasons – talent, heart, competitive fire, hard work and even some small amount of luck among them. But underrated among many are his smarts and self-awareness as a player. Even as one of the most maniacally competitive athletes of all time, he put aside his ego and recognized he had to adapt to continue dominating. Were it not for this recognition and the hard work required to transition smoothly, we might view history very differently today. Or maybe he’d have still crushed anyway. It’s Michael Jordan, after all.