Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jordanaires extraordinaire

"There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry, called up Magic and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team...'" - His Airness

Help not wanted? Neil Paine (BRC) (via True Hoop) says well, yeah. You already had some. And they were plenty good.
An interesting argument some have raised in response [to Michael I Did It Alone Jordan] is that as great as Jordan was, his supporting cast was good enough that he didn't really need to "call for help" -- the Bulls actually won 55 games the year after he retired. Think about that: Chicago won 57 games in 1993, lost the greatest player ever (in the middle of his prime), and they declined by all of two wins the following season.

How was that possible?

56.7% of the 1994 Bulls' minutes were filled by players who had been on their roster in '93 (15.5% were lost when Jordan departed). Of the remaining playing time, 92.6% was filled by five new players -- Steve Kerr, Pete Myers, Toni Kukoc, Bill Wennington, and Corie Blount. Losing MJ and adding those 5 to a 57-win team doesn't exactly seem like a recipe for maintaining the status quo, but there are several explanations for the Bulls' surprising success without Jordan:
  1. One major reason for the Bulls' apparent lack of decline was simply luck. In 1993, Chicago's pythagorean record was 58-24 and they only won 57 games, but in 1994 their luck reversed and then some -- they won 55 despite a pythagorean record of 50-32. Further reinforcing this point is the fact that their SRS fell from +6.19 (4th in the league) in 1993 to +2.87 (11th) in 1994. They may have won only 2 fewer games in '94, but in reality the drop-off in performance was more like 8-9 wins. Still, remember this post about how much losing LeBron would hurt Cleveland? Using SPM, I estimated the loss of James would cost the Cavs 20-25 wins even if they replaced him with an average player... And Jordan's SPM in 1993 was higher than James' was in 2010!  
  2.  The Chicago defense actually improved after Jordan retired. In 1993 the Bulls allowed 106.1 points per 100 possessions, 1.9 better than the league average and good for 7th in the NBA, but in '94 they pushed that number down to 102.7 pts/100 (3.6 better than avg., 6th). Despite the plaudits Jordan received for his D, defense remains largely a team activity, so it makes sense that this was the area in which Chicago did the best job of surviving MJ's retirement. Although mediocre defender B.J. Armstrong led the team in minutes, Chicago's D improved in large part because they received outstanding performances from Pippen & Grant, each of whom earned Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Pippen had been known as a tremendous defender for years, but in 1994 he was the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and his 96.9 DRtg was one of the best ever by a player 6'8" or shorter. Also, not to be forgotten was Pete Myers' ability to vaguely approximate Jordan's defense at SG, Scott Williams' strong post D, better play from Stacey King, and solid interior performances from Wennington, Blount, and Longley (a major improvement over what Cartwright & King delivered in '93). 
  3. The Bulls' offense weakened, but didn't totally collapse. There's no question that Chicago's offense suffered a major setback with Jordan's departure -- they fell from 112.9 pts/100 (4.9 better than average, 2nd in the league) in 1993 to 106.1 (0.2 worse than avg., 14th) in 1994 -- but Pippen proved himself a capable high-usage #1 option, and Armstrong/Grant/Kerr were very efficient complimentary players. You can't deny that the Bulls' offense without Jordan was pretty ordinary in '94, but the loss was not catastrophic like it would be in '99, the second time MJ retired.
So there you have it -- thanks to some strong coaching, defensive cohesion, a passable offense, and a fair amount of luck, the 1994 Bulls finished their first Jordan-less season with only two fewer wins than they had in 1993 with His Airness. But does this mean Jordan was blind to the difference between his situation and LeBron's when he made his statement? Maybe. The Jordan ethos was always "going it alone" (remember "Michael and the Jordanaires"?), so it's certainly in the best interest of his continued mystique to maintain the perception of neither asking for nor needing "help".