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Michael Jordan and the joys of an undying, insatiable need for revenge

Did the legend actually get better when he was out for vengeance?

Photo credit: Gapvenezia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

On Sunday, ESPN wrapped The Last Dance, an expansive ten part documentary on all-time NBA great Michael Jordan and his final Chicago Bulls season. The film dove into the Bulls’ stars and role players, examining the life and time through the lens of this final hurrah and the history that brought the team to this pivotal season.

I’m very disappointed I didn’t get asked to appear in this film. As a kid in 2000, I barely avoided getting beaten up by MJ’s security guards after I spotted him gambling at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.

I would have been just as useful as Justin Timberlake’s interview.

The documentary highlighted Jordan’s fanatical devotion to winning, his larger-than-life fame and cultural impact, and his ritualized abuse of his teammates. My favorite moment of the entire series came in episode seven. David Aldridge, the legendary NBA reporter now writing for The Athletic, smiles at the camera and asks if everyone knows the LaBradford Smith story. He recounts the story in this post about the documentary:

I tried to do it the right way the night I wrote for The Washington Post about LaBradford Smith, the former first-round pick of the then-Washington Bullets, and his career night in Chicago against Jordan and the Bulls in 1993, the first of a back-to-back set with Chicago. Smith had been a star at Louisville (and, ironically, as it came to Jordan, a very good baseball player in high school). Washington’s general manager at the time, John Nash, told fans at the 1991 draft, “you may judge me by LaBradford Smith.”

Unfortunately for Nash, Smith didn’t live up to that in his career. But one night — March 19, 1993 — was LaBradford’s night. He made 15 of 20 shots from the floor, going for a career-high 37 points. Some of them were against Jordan, but more were scored on Scottie Pippen. The Bulls won, but the story was Smith. You didn’t have to be a genius to figure that out. Me, being no genius, wrote about him for the next day’s Post.

The film goes on to play some of Smith’s highlights and MJ’s lowlights, and Jordan explains that Smith then decides to finish his career night by sarcastically congratulating MJ for a good game.

Jordan frames this game as one of many moments where a hapless antagonist pokes the sleepy beast and awakens the most ruthless form of Michael Jordan. He perceived a greeting or a smile from Smith as the pinnacle of rude shit-talk, and used this to enact his patented form of basketball evisceration.

However, as Aldridge tells with a laugh, the slight never happened. Smith didn’t antagonize Jordan at all, but instead fell victim to the odd mental gymnastics Jordan used to hype himself up for competition against mere mortals.

Jordan’s need for revenge, even fictional versions of it, plays out across the ten episodes of The Last Dance. A Finals victory over the Utah Jazz in 1997 becomes twice as sweet after Jordan can embarrass the Jazz’s Karl Malone, recent recipient of the NBA MVP award.

Does Jordan’s career actually support this self-made theory? From Basketball Reference, I pulled every regular season game for his career in Chicago–like The Last Dance, I too ignored the entire Wizards run–and tried to determine if MJ did best in moments of vengeful rage.

Did Jordan score more after a loss?

Michael Jordan posted an obscene 639-291 record as a Bull, winning nearly 70% of his regular season games. This jumps to 387-99 for his six title-winning seasons; the man barely lost.

Yet, for someone who found revenge a potent motivational ploy, Jordan’s output barely changed in the games following a loss. He averaged 31.4 points in games following a win, and 31.6 after a loss.

How does this look season-to-season?

This trend follows across every Chicago season, with little to no variance between games after victory vs defeat. I understand that averaging a 30 point night is not bad news by any means, but I definitely didn’t expect such similar results for these splits.

Familiarity bred contempt, but not necessarily more success.

During his six championship years, Jordan didn’t necessarily improve his record after facing the same team multiple times. This chart highlights his winning percentage based on the number of games played against that team; for example, all instances where Jordan played a team for the fourth time would fall into the fourth bucket.

He won 11 of 13 fifth games during this reign, but there’s again not much differentiation between his results across frequencies; he won all the time and at nearly identical rates.

His scoring output followed a similar trendline.

He saved his best for the fifth and final games against Eastern Conference rivals, but like all things Jordan, he thrived at all times.

So, who’d he even lose to?

I broke out the win-loss records for Jordan against every team during the title reign. Unsurprisingly, he holds a winning record over every single team excluding the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, who split their twelve regular season games over those six seasons.

Jordan went a combined 30-0 against the Sacramento Kings, Vancouver Grizzlies, and Los Angeles Clippers, a level of domination so profound against the perennial basement-dwellers that Jordan might as well have been a 90s bully fighting nerds in his spare time. No need for rage when you own three franchises outright.

Teams rarely got the better of the Bulls more than once in these seasons. Here’s a list of every team with multiple victories against Chicago, with Jordan playing in that game, in a year where Chicago won the title.

In the 1990-91 season, the Chicago Bulls won their first title and went 61-21 in the regular season. Of those 21 losses, seven happened at the hands of a team that already beat the Bulls that year. Chicago lost three times to the Philadelphia 76ers that season, while dropping two games to the Celtics, Pistons, Rockets, Trail Blazers, and Spurs.

Jordan saved his revenge for the playoffs, beating the 76ers in 5 games and sweeping the Pistons to correct the wrongs of the regular season.

In 1991, Jordan had no options for revenge. The Bulls lost two of their first three against the Milwaukee Bucks, the only team to beat them more than once, but did not face the Bucks in the playoffs. Chicago did take the next two games to win the season series, but Jordan actually performed best in both losses. He scored 44 and 46 points in the two games they dropped while averaging a mortal 23.7 in the victories.

Seven teams boasted multiple victories over MJ in the 1992-93 season, but again, MJ saved his payback for the most meaningful time. Cleveland, Atlanta, and the Knicks all beat Jordan multiple times, but combined to then go 2-11 against the Bulls in three quick playoff series.

Jordan and the Bulls set a then-NBA record with 72 wins in the 1995-96 season, only losing ten times in total. Of that ten, the Indiana Pacers took two of the spots, beating Jordan in their first and final meeting of that season. MJ won their second meeting in Chicago with a 29 point, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals performance, and then doubled down on the pain by beating the Pacers in Indiana on the strength of 44 points, 5 boards, and 7 assists on 55% shooting.

He likely found great joy in silencing this particular Pacers fan, who went viral yesterday after footage of her expletive-laden heckling surfaced in The Last Dance.

In 1996-97, Jordan missed the chance to play the Knicks in the playoffs, but did beat the Heat in 5 to avenge their two losses in the regular season. He doubled down on this the following year, correcting the wrong of a Utah season sweep by taking down the Jazz in the Finals in six games.

Did Jordan ever take a night off?

MJ saved his most potent rage for his own mistakes.

In Jordan’s Bulls career, he failed to score 20 or more points 82 times, roughly 9% of his total games played.

I wanted to see how Jordan’s low share of below-average games stacks up against a couple other prolific scorers. From Basketball Reference, I pulled these results for Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. For fairness, I included both the Bulls-only Jordan and his total career.

Chicago MJ was on another planet, the only player in this cohort with a share of subpar scoring nights under 10%.

Only Durant and LeBron came close to Jordan’s level of consistency when adjusted for his entire career, putting up less than 20 in 15% and 17% of their career games, respectively.

I’m not sure we can answer the pivotal question: did MJ need revenge and rage to thrive?

Maybe, the answer’s a bit more complicated. Jordan relentlessly promoted himself as a man who needed the last word, someone who could turn an opponent’s handshake into a referendum on God, life, and Jordan’s value as a man and athlete.

Yet, he doesn’t show an increased scoring output in games where he can correct a prior loss, or huge variance in his winning percentage for the second, third, fourth, or fifth time he faces a team.

Instead, he just won, and he just scored, all the damn time.

Maybe, Jordan’s always pissed.

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