Chicago Bulls get new life with Arturas Karnisovas hire

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Chicago Bulls get new life with Arturas Karnisovas hire

In April 2003, despite losing the job he loved, Jerry Krause invited John Paxson to his home in a northern suburb of Chicago.

The secretive, longtime Bulls general manager, and the main architect for one of the most captivating dynasties in sports history, held court with his replacement on philosophies and agents, on broad themes and tricks of the trade. Paxson, whom team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf plucked out of the radio booth to be Krause’s replacement despite no executive experience, greatly appreciated the gesture.

Perhaps that’s why it was Paxson who first approached Reinsdorf early in the Bulls’ 2019-20 season and told his boss he’d identified the problem with a season that began with such optimism and promise but quickly devolved. Most importantly, he knew how to fix it.

The Bulls, Paxson said, needed to change their front office structure. 

It’s astounding that in the 35 years since Reinsdorf led a group of investors to purchase the Bulls for $16 million that only Krause and Paxson have helmed basketball operations. But such loyalty breeds loyalty in return.

That’s why the man known as “The Sleuth” opened up his home to Paxson, whom he had once acquired as a player and signed off on Phil Jackson hiring for one season as an assistant coach. And it’s why Paxson is willingly moving into an advisory role -- as big or as small -- as the new head of basketball operations, Arturas Karnisovas, sees fit.

In their latest valuations, Forbes pegged the Bulls as being worth $3.2 billion, not a bad investment for Jerry Reinsdorf, his son, Michael, the current president and chief operating officer who led the search for Karnisovas, and their group of investors.

It’s one reason why, despite the Bulls’ rebuild currently being stuck in neutral and a largely disgruntled fan base, such potential still exists for Karnisovas.

Chicago is a major market. The history of the franchise is rich. The facilities are top-notch. Intriguing young players dot the roster. And the Bulls’ books are largely clean with all of their first-round picks intact. 

“It’s not a good job,” one rival executive told NBC Sports. “It’s a great job.”

How did we get here?

It’s not hard to find the similarities between Paxson replacing Krause and the current situation. Attendance has waned. A rebuild that ownership signed off on has yet to take flight. Also, Krause held his spot for 18 years, while Paxson and Gar Forman, who was promoted to general manager in 2009, have been empowered for 17 years.

Forman, who worked for Tim Floyd at Iowa State, actually first joined the organization in 1998 as a scout.

Though the currently disgruntled fans don’t want to hear it, Paxson’s tenure has been defined by more hits than misses. From 2003 to 2005, he completely flipped the roster he inherited from Krause, save for Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, and built a perennial playoff team out of shrewd draft-day acquisitions like Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon and solid free-agent signings like Andres Nocioni.

In one stretch, the Bulls made 10 playoff appearances in 11 seasons. And coaches Scott Skiles and Tom Thibodeau, both hired by Paxson, helped define a culture and style of play befitting the blue-collar nature of Chicago.

When the Skiles era crashed and burned, the Bulls cashed in their ridiculous 1.7 percent odds to win the 2008 draft lottery and drafted homegrown product Derrick Rose with the No. 1 overall pick over Michael Beasley. More shrewd draft picks like Taj Gibson at No. 26, Jimmy Butler at No. 30 and even Joakim Noah at No. 9 -- while fans clamored for University of Washington standout Spencer Hawes -- positioned Paxson and Forman for another successful run.

Critics of the so-called “GarPax” era point to the Bulls winning just five playoff series and making one conference finals appearance during their tenure. That’s what happens when the previous general manager, who inherited Michael Jordan from previous general manager Rod Thorn, won six NBA championships over a pair of three-peats.

But the Bulls were positioned for sustained greatness when Rose became the youngest most valuable player in NBA history in 2011 and signed a maximum contract extension on the eve of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Then, in a tragic twist of fate, Rose’s succession of knee injuries, surgeries and rehabilitations betrayed him and his hometown Bulls.

The failure to add a superstar to push the Skiles-led Bulls over the top and augment Rose’s early brilliance are legitimate stains on this regime’s resume.

Even when the Bulls surprised the NBA by stealing Ben Wallace, the reigning and four-time Defensive Player of the Year, from their Central Division-rival Pistons in 2006, it only produced middling results.

It’s not like Paxson and Forman didn’t take big swings. The Bulls traded Hinrich, a fan favorite and franchise stalwart, and the draft rights to Kevin Seraphin, to the Wizards for nothing but salary-cap space and a forgotten draft-and-stash international player in 2010. They did this to pursue the same Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that landed in Miami for two Heat championships. 

Wade was serious enough about joining his hometown team -- six years before he actually, and surprisingly, did -- that he requested a second meeting with them during free agency. James connected with Thibodeau so well that during the Bulls’ scheduled meeting with James in downtown Cleveland that he requested an extra, private session with Thibodeau.

The idea of a James-Wade pairing in Chicago was far enough along that the Bulls held advanced trade talks with the Clippers about trading Deng to create the needed cap space for a third maximum contract. When those talks stalled, James and Wade kept their word to Bosh and teamed up in Miami. 

"I know LeBron's eyes were here," Wade said of the duo teaming up in Chicago during an October 2016 interview. "I know my eyes were here."

After James took his talents to South Beach, the Bulls pivoted to Carlos Boozer and bench depth with solid role players like Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, among others. For two straight seasons, the hard-charging Thibodeau maxed out the talent on the roster and the Bulls led the league in regular-season victories.

But James, Wade and Bosh ruled the conference. 

In 2014, the Bulls again pulled out all the stops to woo top target Carmelo Anthony, envisioning him as the elite scorer to add to Rose, Deng and Noah and vault the Bulls back to championship heights. Instead, despite his agent and college coach suggesting the Bulls as the best fit, Anthony re-signed with the Knicks.

“I just think that playing against those guys over the years and knowing the guys they had on those teams and knowing how hard those guys really worked, I was trying to see where I could fit in that. They were always missing one or two pieces with that team. We used to always talk about, ‘Man, that’s a team I could see myself playing for,’” Anthony told NBC Sports in November 2019. “They were very impressive with their pitch. Everything about it -- the organization, the players, Coach Thibs, the front office, ownership -- was exciting. But I chose to stay home.”

Again, the Bulls quickly pivoted to a solid consolation prize, signing Pau Gasol, who made All-Star appearances in both of his two seasons in Chicago. But James, now back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, bounced the Bulls from the playoffs again and a season-long cold war between Thibodeau and management led to Thibodeau’s firing.

The following season, Fred Hoiberg’s first as coach, a dysfunctional locker room torpedoed that team. As Butler rose to alpha-dog status, he waged his tough-love leadership style against that of the more passive Rose and inclusive Noah. The Bulls failed to even make the playoffs.

The Bulls first gave up on Rose, trading him to the Knicks in June 2016. With Providence point guard Kris Dunn as his target, Paxson pushed for a draft-day trade of Butler to the Celtics to blow it all up in one fell swoop.

Instead, the Celtics’ offer underwhelmed and the Bulls tried one last gasp at keeping a championship window open. They signed Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency and after a chaotic start to the year, the Bulls charged into the playoffs. Chicago even built a 2-0 lead over the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2017 playoffs before Rondo broke his thumb and the Celtics stormed back to win the series. 

Wade asked for a buyout -- pocketing a tidy $38 million for one season of work -- and the Bulls traded Butler to Thibodeau’s Timberwolves in June 2017, finally landing Dunn, Paxson’s former draft-night flame, in the package. The Bulls were officially in full rebuild mode around Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen -- and later, Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. For two seasons, some fan frustration mounted but the losses largely were understood.

Then, ownership, management and freshly extended coach Jim Boylen, who had replaced Hoiberg in December 2018, publicly talked up expectations for the 2019-20 season and said the playoffs were the goal.

“Our goals for the season are to make the playoffs,’’ Boylen said

Paxson cited the revamped roster as a reason for raised expectations.

“We see real talent,’’ he noted on media day. “We see a versatile roster, we see depth on this roster, we see some leadership on this roster which we haven’t had, and because of that, our goals this year are really simple.

“... Jim (Boylen)  talks about it, he’s not afraid of it, and our guys through their work have shown us that they want to make that commitment, so we feel good about that.’’

Then, the wheels fell off. 

The Bulls’ highest-paid player, Porter Jr., missed four months with a foot injury. Carter Jr., and Markkanen, two premier pieces of Paxson and Forman’s rebuilt roster, missed 22 and 15 games, respectively, due to injury. Once again, the Bulls struggled to keep their best players healthy.

According to injury tracker Jeff Stotts, the Bulls ranked dead-last in games lost to injury last season (291 games) and consequently finished 20-62. Looking over the last five years, the Bulls have lost the sixth-most games due to injury among all teams -- and that doesn’t include Rose’s injury-marred 2012-13 and 2013-14 campaigns.

The players that did manage to stay in the lineup -- Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young and Luke Kornet -- either underwhelmed or were miscast.

The ever-reliable Young, for instance, took minutes from Markkanen, who clearly regressed, and didn’t fully fit Boylen’s late-in-the-offseason decision to employ a largely perimeter-based offense. Satoransky, while a valuable piece, wasn’t a break-down-the-defense point guard who could facilitate offense for primary scorers.

And Boylen created headlines for everything from unconventional late-game timeouts to benching LaVine. 

In a one-on-one interview with NBC Sports back in December, Paxson looked inward.

“Given the offseason we had and the September we had, all of us in basketball operations thought we would have won more games. So that’s disappointing,” he said then. “If I have to point to reasons why, first I assume responsibility for the organization always. And I own where we’re at.”

Old fashioned

The Bulls should be in the conversation with the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and L.A. Clippers as a go-to, marquee destination in the NBA. Instead, in recent years, they’ve struck out trying to re-establish themselves as a premiere NBA organization.

The hope and belief is that Karnisovas is the man to do it. 

Flush with revered history, loads of cap space in 2021 and a marquee market, the Bulls should, on the surface, have an inside track on the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Chicago’s own Anthony Davis hit free agency that summer. They can lure the lot of 20-somethings who grew up in the Michael Jordan era by flaunting all of the nostalgia bombs of the 1990s: The Bulls’ iconic red-white-and-black jerseys; the hypnotic Alan Parsons Project intro music; the six championship banners that hang in the rafters.

After all, this is the Bulls, the very embodiment of success during their childhood. Who could resist?

However, the Bulls’ brand has hit some hard times around the league while the other major markets are thriving. The Brooklyn Nets got Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Los Angeles Lakers reeled in James and Davis as the Clippers got Kawhi Leonard and Paul Goerge. The Celtics netted Kemba Walker. The Miami Heat swooped in and snagged Butler. And the New York Knicks ... well, nevermind.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, their spotty track record with luring talent to Chicago suggests their reputation sits closer to the Knicks than other big market teams. As one rival GM framed it: “There’s a lot of growth potential in Chicago.”

According to multiple sources around the league, the Bulls are battling a perception that they’re an old-school organization catering to the past rather than the future. In other words, the brand had grown stale among players and the championship-laden organization had been in serious need of a facelift.

“They are in the same boat as the Lakers were before LeBron fell in their lap,” an Eastern Conference top executive said. “They didn’t think they needed to upgrade the front office because ‘Hey, we’re the Bulls.’”

League insiders rate the Bulls’ front office as one of the least-equipped staffs from a modern perspective. Under Forman and Paxson’s leadership, there was a consensus around the league that the scouting and analytics staff in particular were comparatively thin, relative to their peers. 

Bulls assistant GM Steve Weinman is well-respected around the league and has led the analytical charge for the Bulls, trying to modernize the team’s shot selection and eschew mid-range jumpers for 3-pointers. But the impact hasn’t fully resonated. In October, on The Lowe Post podcast on ESPN, Bulls star Zach LaVine went as far as to say the Bulls didn’t even have an analytics department. 

The biggest Bulls question in league circles and perhaps the largest variable at play is whether the Bulls are willing to spend money to equip Karnisovas with trappings of a modern front office, including on the injury-prevention side. 

Skeptics point to the fact that Reinsdorf initially went after high-profile names like Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti and Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, but reportedly balked at the salaries that they’d likely covet and then turned his eye toward up-and-comers at a more affordable payscale.

Said one rival executive, “The reality is they don’t spend like a major market and don’t pay like one either. Maybe that changes now.”

The Once and Future Kings?

The chasm between what Chicago basketball can be and its current state was never more obvious than at All-Star weekend in February. A season that began with the Bulls touting All-Star aspirations for LaVine and Markkanen ended up featuring a dressed-up United Center with little Bulls representation.

LaVine spurned the dunk contest in favor of the 3-point shootout and exited in the first round. Carter Jr., meanwhile, was selected to the Rising Stars Game but didn’t participate due to injury. Fitting. 

When LaVine joined the “Inside The NBA” set and was pressed by Charles Barkley on the state of the Bulls -- and in particular Markkanen’s play -- LaVine tried to defend his teammate.

“He got hurt, man,” LaVine said. “He got hurt like last year. All our troops are hurt, man.”

And all of this was after -- deep breath here -- a fan rented a “Fire GarPax” billboard to welcome the NBA world to Chicago, chants with the same sentiment broke out as LaVine gamely tried to answer a question on a live ESPN show, and Hall of Famers like Pippen and Barkley bashed the franchise on TV. 

For Chicago fans, the biggest highlight of the NBA season at the building came when Common and Chance the Rapper dropped their wise wordplay during pregame and halftime shows, respectively, doesn’t bode well for the current basketball product.

The fact that Butler played in the game as a member of the Heat and Jordan appeared in a stirring pregame video as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets only served to underscore the divide.

So how do the Bulls get it all back?

The decision to trade Butler placed a premium on the draft again. With back-to-back No. 7 overall picks in Carter Jr. and Coby White, there is hope for the future. 

Finding young talent in the draft should continue with Karnisovas. The former FIBA Player of the Year was part of the Denver front office that found Nikola Jokic at No. 41 in 2014, Monte Morris at No. 51 in 2017 and took a chance on Michael Porter Jr at No. 14 in 2018, the latter showing flashes of brilliance after an NBA “red-shirt” year in 2018-19. Another feather in his cap, Karnisovas served as the Nuggets’ assistant GM in the 2014 draft when Denver swapped No. 11 pick Doug McDermott to none other than the Bulls for No. 16 pick Jusuf Nurkic and No. 19 pick Gary Harris.

League insiders have tabbed Karnisovas as one of the pre-eminent scouts in the sport, dating back to his days directing the Adidas Eurocamp while being an international scout for the Houston Rockets, essentially running Europe’s version of the Chicago NBA combine.

“Arturas is one of the best executives in the NBA, I am so happy he is getting this opportunity,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told NBC Sports. “He was instrumental in our success when he was with the Rockets and then he went on to turn Denver into the contender they are today. I am also thrilled he is in the Eastern conference now!”

Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas was equally bullish about Karnisovas’ future in Chicago.

“The Chicago job is a great job, good market, team is in a good spot with young players, assets, attractive market and stable ownership,” Rosas told NBC Sports. “Arturas is a great person with incredible experience as a player and an executive and is prepared to come in and lead the organization where it needs to go. Excited for Arturas and his family as he is well prepared for this opportunity and will do great!”

But in today’s NBA, drafting typically gets teams only so far. At some point, LaVine needs to stop flirting with All-Star consideration and become one. 

Markkanen must be a consistent matchup nightmare and not fade into the background. Perhaps most importantly, the Bulls need to sign a star.

Largely, the Bulls have operated in the rental market for aging stars or middling young players. In recent years, the Bulls have little to show for their free agency exploits beyond signing a 34-year-old Wade (two years, $47 million in 2016), a 30-year-old Rondo (two years, $30 million in 2016) and Jabari Parker (two years, $40 million) -- all of whom the Bulls cut ties with before the two years was up.

Anthony was asked if he saw any similarities between when the Bulls struck out chasing James, Wade and Bosh and the time he served as their primary target. 

“I don’t know about their situation. For me, I think it was because I was already in New York,” Anthony told NBC Sports. “So it was between the Knicks and them. It wasn’t between anybody else.”

Paxson made a blunt public admission when the Bulls punted on free-agent mistake Parker and traded him and Bobby Portis to the Wizards for Porter Jr. in February 2019. He said landing Porter and his maximum salary represented, essentially, the Bulls’ foray into free agency since the franchise wasn’t relevant enough to attract a star in the offseason recruiting period.

The good news for Karnisovas is that the books are relatively clean beginning in 2021 when Porter Jr.’s ($28.5 million due in 2020-21 if he picks up his player option) and Cristiano Felicio’s ill-fated four-year, $32 million contracts expire. There’s some runway here to repair the team’s reputation among players, but Karnisovas certainly has his work cut out for him. It should start with this question: Why can’t the Bulls be at the top of Anthony Davis’ list next summer? 

Obviously, the Lakers superstar has made his intentions known that he’d like to be in Los Angeles, but as an organizational thought exercise, the Bulls should wonder: where and why did we fall out of the picture for a homecoming move after Leonard and George just signed up for one in the City of Angels?

The worry for the Bulls is that a brand rebuild will take years on top of the current rebuild. Under Karnisovas, the Bulls have to figure out their identity and rejuvenate their standing around the league with a clear vision. The Paxson era struggled to commit to a small-market youth movement versus a blue-chip free agent play. One former long-time Bull couldn’t put a finger one single reason why the free agency route hasn’t worked.

“Maybe a little bit of weather, plus no one wanting to follow Jordan,” the former Bulls player said. “Plus the idea that the city is not glitzy, but more blue collar.”

Luol Deng, whose early 2000s Bulls teams epitomized that aesthetic, knows how the game has evolved to one where player empowerment is front and center and stars go to join other stars. The days of the try-hard teams battling for championship contention, or even perennial playoff positioning, could be over.

“Back then when we came in as rookies, we were a bit older. We had older guys on the team, so the league is different in that aspect,” he said. “… I know everyone wants to win, but it takes time. I think for these guys, developing a character and becoming familiar with each other, that’s when you change your mindset to really become a team. If you get a group of guys to commit to that with this talent that they have and the potential, I think it will be exciting for the city.”

Deng also knows what Chicago can be like when the United Center is sold out and the Bulls are rolling. He played on the 2004-05 team that ended a six-year playoff drought and helped restore basketball in Chicago after Jordan, Pippen and Jackson left town in 1998. And he achieved All-Star status playing alongside Rose and Noah as those teams challenged for conference championships.

“I don’t really like to compare. Everyone kind of has to figure it out as a team,” Deng said. “It’s such a different league now. But individually, I try to tell players what my mindset was, how I was approaching games. It’s about having that win-at-all-costs mindset.”

Paxson certainly possessed that as a player. He helped close out the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals with a flurry of fourth-quarter jumpers and sank one of the most memorable shots in franchise history, a 3-pointer in Phoenix to beat the Suns and seal the Bulls’ first three-peat in 1993.

His competitiveness as an executive was also evident often, cresting in a 2010 confrontation that represents possibly the nadir of his Bulls tenure. On March 30, Paxson had a brief, physical postgame altercation with then-coach Vinny Del Negro after Del Negro surpassed a medically imposed minutes limit for Noah. That incident, along with Paxson’s son’s decision to enlist in the Marines, led to him stepping back as Forman briefly became the face of the franchise and Thibodeau replaced Del Negro.

But the incident also is illustrative of Paxson’s mindset for the organization---do what’s best for it at all costs. He felt Del Negro put Noah in harm’s way and it incensed him.

That same mindset is leading Paxson to take a bigger step back this time. He’s expected to move into a senior advisory role with no daily presence around the team, sources said. He has offered to help Karnisovas in any manner in which Karnisovas sees fit and Karnisovas views Paxson as a resource, not a roadblock. The future of current general manager Gar Forman, who has moved largely into a scouting role, will be discussed.

The Reinsdorfs still believe in Paxson’s roster-building, drafting and character, but the Bulls need a new vision and a new direction. After trusting in a regime that had as much longevity as any in the league, Reinsdorf’s Bulls haven’t hoisted the Larry O’Brien championship trophy since 1998. Winning an NBA championship takes talent, sacrifice, some luck and strong vision.

Whether or not Karnisovas can lead the Bulls there is unknown. What’s certain is that the Reinsdorfs will give him plenty of runway to try.

K.C. Johnson is the Chicago Bulls Insider for NBC Sports Chicago. Follow him on Twitter (@KCJHoop). Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for his latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Why now? It’s one of the great underlying questions around the Michael Jordan-centric “The Last Dance” documentary.

The behind-the-scenes footage that provided the bedrock of the amazing 10-hour ESPN series had been locked away in Secaucus, N.J., for about two decades. For any of that film to see the light of day, as agreed upon by then-head of NBA entertainment and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan himself would need to sign off on any sort of project using it.

For years, it sat there locked away without Jordan’s key to unlock it. We waited and waited and waited, until the morning of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in 2016, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. That day, after an in-person meeting with Mandalay Sports Media executive Mike Tollin, Jordan finally decided to greenlight the documentary.

The timing is undeniably fascinating. LeBron James had just beat a Golden State Warriors team that not only featured NBA history’s first unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry, but one that broke the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a regular season. James also delivered a championship to Cleveland, ending the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The triumph was enough for James to declare himself the GOAT in 2018 during ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete:” “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt. Everybody was just talking about how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all-time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’”

Did that backdrop make Jordan nervous about his place in the history of the game? Did Jordan feel that a generation of young fans needed a reminder of his greatness?

We may never know the answer to that, but we do know that the documentary has, in some circles, become something of a Jordan haymaker in the GOAT debate. In many eyes, this wasn’t just a documentary; it was a verdict.

In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson on Monday, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, unsolicited, made his stance in the debate extremely clear.

“‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time,” Reinsdorf said. “In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.”

He continued.

“I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary.”

It’s interesting that Reinsdorf didn’t mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird in those quotes to NBC Sports Chicago. He mentioned LeBron James, perpetuating the notion that the Jordan documentary was, at some level, a James counterstrike. 

But is Jordan actually head and shoulders over everybody? Not even close with James?

At the risk of wasting Reinsdorf’s time, it’s definitely a topic worth exploring, especially since the overall numbers don’t agree with Reinsdorf’s assessment.

* * * 

“The Last Dance” might as well be named “Six” for the lasting image of Jordan flashing his digits after the 1998 Finals, symbolizing his championship total. Yes, the documentary used the 1997-98 season as a storytelling anchor, but it felt more like a celebration of Jordan’s glorious career than a blow-by-blow examination of the 1997-98 season. Jordan last faced the Bad Boy Pistons on the playoff stage in 1991, but they received far more play in the docuseries than the Bulls’ actual 1998 Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Jordan’s 6-0 record is spotless and beautiful and irretrievable for James, who has instead gone 3-6 in the Finals. For Jordan's strongest supporters, this is the nail in the coffin. However, reducing the GOAT debate purely to one’s Finals record would mean that John Havlicek (8-0), K.C. Jones (8-0, Tom Sanders (8-0) and Robert Horry (7-0) all have better cases than Jordan. And that’s before mentioning Bill Russell’s baffling 11-1 Finals record.

The James-vs.-Jordan debate needs a little bit more nuance than that. Jordan may have 6-0, but James has longevity in his corner. James has simply lasted longer than Jordan, both in career seasons and in deep postseason runs. 

James is in the midst of his 17th season and still playing at an MVP level. Jordan played 15 seasons, electing to retire twice during his prime years. Part of that gap in career length can be explained by James skipping college and entering league as an 18-year-old, which Jordan did not. 

What gets lost in the discussion is the fact that both Jordan and James have made 13 postseason appearances, but Jordan fell short of the Finals seven times. Whereas Jordan failed to reach the Finals more often than he made them, James has only fallen short four out of his 13 appearances. So not only has James been in the league longer, but he has had much longer playoff runs than Jordan, even if they didn’t always end in a Larry O’Brien trophy.

That has to matter in the larger conversation. Playing at a high level for that long begins to tip the scales in James’ favor, and that’s before we get into the individual barometers. 

The advanced metrics agree that this is a much closer affair than Reinsdorf would assume. Using win shares, which is an established all-in-one value metric that estimates a player’s contributions to overall team success, James has Jordan beat in cumulative value, according to Basketball Reference data. 

In fact, James eclipsed Jordan in that department years ago. At the moment the NBA halted play on March 12, James had 287.1 career win shares compared to Jordan's 253.8 figure.

Case closed, James is the GOAT, right? 

Not so fast. It turns out neither James nor Jordan possess the most win shares in NBA history. That distinction belongs to eternally-great Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons, with all but one of those being All-Star campaigns. 

If James plays two more full seasons at a high level, he will undoubtedly unseat Abdul-Jabbar in career win shares. Trailing Abdul-Jabbar by just 21.9 win shares at the career level, James averages 16.9 win shares per season in his career (this suspended season included) and appears to have several years left in the tank. If win shares aren’t your thing, James has already surpassed Jordan in other cumulative measuring sticks like career VORP and the championships added metric from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. 

Individual all-in-one metrics aren’t meant to be judge, jury and executioner in these debates, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that James has distanced himself from Jordan in measures outside of title count. And it’s here where the GOAT discussion becomes more art than science. Do you prefer Finals records or overall playoff records? Do you prefer longevity or peak seasons? 

If you prefer looking at peak seasons, Jordan has the upper-hand on James. If you rank Jordan’s best seasons by win shares and compare it to James’ best, it’s clear that Jordan’s peak years are superior to those of James.

The chart above is my favorite way to distill the Jordan and James debate. As you can see, Jordan’s best seasons are superior to James’ best, with Jordan’s red line resting comfortably above James’ purple line until their respective 10th-best season of their careers. After that, James far outpaces Jordan’s best. If we include his MVP-caliber ‘19-20 campaign, James has 15 high-level seasons while Jordan only had 11, due to his foot injury and his two retirements. (Jordan’s final two seasons with the Washington Wizards at the ages of 38 and 39, after three years away from the game, don’t move the needle in the GOAT discussion, but appear here near the back end of his red line.)

The fact that Jordan’s heights are taller than James was hammered home in Pelton’s recent ranking of the best individual seasons in NBA history. In that study, Jordan made five appearances in the top 25 at Nos. 1, 5, 12, 17 and 31, while James sat slightly lower at Nos. 3, 8, 9 and 23.

Jordan has higher ceilings and James has higher floors. That’s the crux of the debate.

The former will always resonate far more with the masses on an emotional level than the latter. And with good reason. Though James has already registered considerably more career value than Jordan by advanced metrics, Jordan’s six championship seasons continue to stand out -- not just in the minds of basketball fans, but also in the numbers.

Looking at the conventional GOAT standards, James’ biggest flaw may be that he took his teams too far. Take the 2006-07 season. James was just 22 years old, with Larry Hughes serving as the Robin to his Batman, when James led the Cavs to the Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. 

If James had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals like most expected, James’ NBA Finals record would be shinier. Instead, by getting to the Finals and losing, it’s a strike against him. Same goes for the 2014-15 Finals run when James’ Cavs swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were sidelined (Irving played two games of that Eastern Conference finals). If James simply lost earlier, again, his Finals record would be cleaner.

Because of his lopsided 3-6 record in the Finals, most fans may view James as an underachiever but, according to Vegas, the opposite is true. James’ teams were favored in just two of his nine Finals appearances (2011 and 2013) and overall, he actually surpassed expectations, ending up with three titles. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six Finals and won all six. Jordan took care of business.

But, for the sake of argument, what if the Bulls didn’t lose to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals? The Bulls entered the series as minus-165 favorites, according to Vegas, but the Magic went on to face (and get swept by) the Houston Rockets in the Finals. What if the Bulls didn’t blow that series and instead, like the Magic did, beat the Indiana Pacers and faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets for the title?

I recently caught up with former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich about that hypothetical (full podcast next week!) and he pointed to a conversation he remembers having with Michael Jordan at Charles Barkley’s house in Phoenix in 1996. Barkley had invited his new coach, Tomjanovich, and the team’s trainer to hang out at his abode, along with Jordan and Tiger Woods (!). That night, Tomjanovich and Jordan discussed the Finals match that never happened. 

“[Jordan] said we were the team they feared the most because they didn’t have an answer for Hakeem,” Tomjanovich said. “It would have been a great series.”

We will never know how the Bulls would have fared against a Rockets team that won back-to-back titles, but Jordan ensured his clean Finals record by retiring in 1993 and losing in the 1994-95 East semifinals. In a strange way, James reaching eight straight Finals doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the “five” in “three-and-five.” 

Fair or not, there’s only so much James can do to erase his Finals losses in the basketball world’s collective psyche.

* * * 

The hook to all of this is the fact that James is still playing -- at an MVP level, no less. Declaring Jordan the GOAT before James retires is like awarding an Oscar to a film after refusing to watch the last 30 minutes of its top competitor. 

James has a legitimate shot to change the conversation, but the pandemic shutdown hurts those chances. With regular-season games threatened, the league’s hiatus has all but ruined James’ chance to overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo and win his fifth MVP award. James was also on track to surpass 2,000 points for his 11th season as he chases down Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. In the past 14 months, James has passed Kobe Bryant and Jordan on the all-time scoring list and trails Abdul-Jabbar by 4,300 points. 

Depending on what route the NBA goes with a potential season restart, James could lose all or most of the Lakers’ remaining 19 regular-season games. Based on James’ 2019-20 scoring average of 25.7 points, that could cost James as much as 500 points. At current levels and without those 500 points, James would probably need three more seasons to catch Abdul-Jabbar. 

If he did pull it off and pass Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a world in which James’ supporters could use the trump card of James being the top scorer of all-time despite that not being his best basketball skill (that would be passing). Outside of that, James could also win a title or two alongside Anthony Davis to nudge closer to Jordan. But given the six losses on James’ ledger and Jordan’s “perfect” tally, it might be best to leave Jordan with that and change the conversation all together. 

James has a strong track record of doing that. Following “The Decision” fallout in 2010 and his 2011 Finals meltdown, even James’ strongest supporters would’ve had a hard time imagining a world in which James was largely beloved in northeast Ohio. Yet, after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers and opening the “I, Promise” elementary school in Akron for at-risk children, his reputation with local fans is fully restored. After James left Cleveland and joined a barren Lakers franchise, he helped lure Anthony Davis and returned the Lakers to title favorites. Equipped with his own production company, James is chasing Jordan on the silver-screen, starring in a Space Jam sequel with an on-the-nose title, “A New Legacy.” James has created an empire by patiently waiting to get the final word.

Ultimately, the verdict remains out on the greatest argument in basketball circles, although it is a lot closer than many, including Reinsdorf, would like to believe. “The Last Dance” may have ended with the enduring image of Jordan cackling at his vanquished foes, but James still has a chance to have the last laugh.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan dominated every Hall of Famer he faced, including the 20 fellow members he eliminated from the playoffs throughout his career. However, some superstars fared worse in their career matchups than others.

Charles Barkley finds himself at the bottom of the list as Jordan averaged 35.8 points against him in their 55 career matchups. Jordan logged his points per game record versus Hall of Famers against Chuck with 41 points in the 1993 NBA Finals.

While Sir Charles struggled against Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal held Jordan to an average of 28.7 points per game in their 21 career matchups, the lowest of those 20 Hall of Famers Jordan eliminated.

This ought to stir up some competition on the next episode of "Inside the NBA."

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