Michael Jordan caused a little bit of a controversy earlier this week by proclaiming he could have scored 100 points in a single game in today’s NBA. Since his 69-point outburst against Cleveland back on March 28, 1990, revamped hand-checking rules give perimeter scorers a much better chance to do what they want with the ball, which is score points. MJ added that the current players are “less physical,” so he could have dominated opponents so badly just from a physical standpoint, he could have joined Wilt Chamberlain in the 100-point club.
I actually agree with Jordan, but I also think it’s a stupid argument. Allow me to explain myself on both fronts. I’ll get to the “stupid argument” part in my third point below.
For starters, the hand-checking rules of today don’t allow perimeter defenders to hack the hell out of opponents like the Knicks teams of the 1990’s used to do. This alone would have made MJ that much more impossible to guard; he would be able to get shots off easier from outside, he could have driven to the hole more cleanly, and he would have gone to the free throw line many more times. Add these things up, and it’s not hard to imagine his scoring averages increasing 5 points per game. And that’s just the averages, let alone those certain games in which he gets super motivated because of some stupid grudge and just makes a whipping boy out of someone for 48 minutes.
Second, the fast teams of today are considerably worse than the fast teams from Jordan’s era, which would have made scoring lots of points in a single game easier. Consider all of today’s teams with fast paces: who’s any good? Phoenix, who is known for poor defense, and the Nuggets. That’s it. The rest of the teams that like to run generally suck: Golden State, Minnesota, Indiana, New York – you get the point. There were 7 teams in 1989-90 who averaged over 100 possessions per game, and 4 of them were in the top-7 in terms of Defensive Rating. Another one was right near the league average. The best defensive team this past year of those that had the 7 fastest paces was Denver, and they had the 16th-best Defensive Rating. If you need proof that this type of thing affects single-game scoring exploits, I present to you Brandon Jennings. The rookie PG dropped 55 points in his 7th game ever last year against the hapless and super fast Warriors. His only other 30-plus games went for 32 and 35 points. He averaged 16 ppg and shot a miserable 37% from the field and from deep, plus he only averaged 3.3 free throw attempts per game. Imagine a much stronger, 33-37 ppg scorer in that environment.
Another caveat to the pace argument is that Jordan regularly played on one of the slowest teams in the league. In fact, the 1986-87, 87-88, and 92-93 Bulls were the slowest teams in each of their seasons, and MJ still averaged 37.1, 35.0, and 32.6 ppg those years. If he played on a team with even a regular pace against horrible fast teams, he would have had at least a couple 60-point games each year, making it much more likely one of those contests got out of control and his points spiked upward toward triple digits.
Third, a player who really wants to play outside of the flow of the game for the sake of accruing stats can manipulate the numbers, which Jordan certainly could have done against a fast team if he was motivated. As many people are learning recently because of Jordan’s comments, Wilt’s 100-point game was a joke. It was the end of the regular season and Chamberlain’s Sixers were great (49-31) while the Knicks were terrible (29-51), so no one cared on the way to a 22-point Philly win. New York was playing without their top two big men, which was huge back then since teams only had a couple half-decent bigs anyway. The pace of games were out-of-control ridiculous in 1961-62, with teams averaging 119 ppg, even with no 3-point line and the league FG% down below 43%. As was the case for most of Wilt’s career, he did all the shooting (63 field goal attempts, 32 free throw attempts – think about those numbers, seriously), plus the Sixers went into intentional foul mode in the fourth quarter so he could score more points. Pretty much every part of this contest tells you he was not scoring within the flow of the game; it was a farce to stroke his ego.
Kobe Bryant’s 81 points in 2006 weren’t much better. The Lakers faced a terrible Raptors team (14-27 on their way to 27-55), he took 46 shots and 20 free throws, and he furiously scored 28 in the fourth quarter of an 18-point victory (yes, I know the contest was kinda close to start the fourth). Any time a team’s superstar is playing tons of minutes late and taking every shot in the final period of a huge win on his way to a big scoring night, you have to question it being a real accomplishment versus what we all do in sports video games: something that looks good when you ignore the context. Jordan’s 69 came against a playoff-bound Cavaliers team in a 4-point overtime win; Chicago needed every point MJ could muster that night. You can’t question why he was playing late and shooting so much (37 shots and 23 free throw attempts, by the way).
In fact, most of the other games that have topped Jordan’s biggest one have some serious scoring-for-scoring’s-sake issues. David Robinson’s 71 in 1994 happened in the final game of the year and involved non-stop fouls by his teammates so that The Admiral could take a zillion shots and win the scoring title away from Shaquille O’Neal (Robinson won it 29.8 to 29.3). There were five other games by Chamberlain, whose career was defined by being a my-stats-over-team-success selfish prick who constantly drove his coaches away (he went through nine I believe) by doing everything outside of the flow of the game. I doubt Elgin Baylor’s 71 in 1960 were terribly selfish based on who he was, the fact the game was reasonably close and on the road (123-108 at NY), and it was early in the year (November 3), but it should be noted that he took 48 shots (11 more than Jordan) to do it. David Thompson’s 73 in 1978 might be the only totally legitimate scoring night in NBA history that tops Jordan’s 69 and wasn’t at least a hint of overshooting. He had 52 points at halftime on 20-for-23 shooting, and according to then-coach Larry Brown, Thompson didn’t want to go for the record like his teammates were pushing him to do, but rather “he just wanted to play the game.” Thompson ended up taking 38 shots and 20 free throws in a 139-137 loss (all numbers are very similar to Jordan’s game).
So there you have it; if Jordan could play in an era with tight hand-checking rules, against a ton of really terrible—especially on defense—fast teams, on a squad that was faster than his slow Bulls’ squads, and have enough of a grudge with Chamberlain’s legacy so that he bullies his teammates into letting him do all the scoring for a night, His Airness could have scored 100.
It probably would have been inevitable. Just ask Jordan.