Illustration by Daniel Rowell
#HOOP10 is our summer project where through a collaborative and democratic effort, we try to pinpoint the top 10 individual seasons of all time. We kept it simple: We polled a few opinions of some voices (complete list below) that know a thing or two about the NBA, tallied up the results and present one every Monday and Thursday.
It’s easy to remember Michael Jordan as a flawless basketball angel sent from the lord on high to entertain the sporting universe. Six championships, six Final MVPs, five MVPs, one DPOY, and a multi-billion dollar brand to boot make that an easy narrative to sell. However, prior to 1991, His Airness was still in the hunt for everlasting greatness, just another superstar looking for the Holy Grail. Jordan was pre-2012 LeBron, minus the 24-hour news cycle and social media.
It wasn’t just the NBA community, Jordan was forging an eternal bond beyond the hardwood. Jordan might’ve been ascending to the title for the first time but he was already on his sixth signature shoe that year. He was already blossoming as a global icon and lacked only the Larry O’Brien Trophy. All the other trappings of a Hall of Famer were already there: six All-Star nods, four scoring titles (his 37.1 PPG the highest by anybody outside of Wilt Chamberlain), five All-NBA Team selections (four of them First Team), an MVP trophy. The only thing that stood in the way of Jordan’s brass ring was the Detroit Pistons, the reigning champs of the last two years who have denied the Bulls in consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.
Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player, All-Star MVP, All-NBA, and All-NBA Defense are all pretty benchmarks but can you imagine Jordan without a ring? It’s now a foreign concept but before the 1991 Finals, the hot takes on Jordan said that he is one of the greatest singular talents to ever play but would likely never win a championship, he was all flash and no substance and he could never win because he couldn’t involve his teammates.
As hot takes usually are, Jordan would prove them all wrong. Jordan won six titles and any one of those six title years could’ve made this list without forcing you to blink, hell, his 1988 season made it and there was no title in hand. Of the eight Jordan seasons to receive a vote over the course of this project, 1991 reigned supreme for a reason. There was a feather missing from Jordan’s cap and no, I’m not referring to 1992 Dream Team gold medal (in case you didn’t know, that was his second gold medal). The 1991 Larry O’Brien Trophy launched a chain of events that would redefine our criteria for the NBA’s elite (a high bar for any and every promising player to dominate the headlines, as James himself has attested to). The first one is always the most difficult and Jordan’s first championship is one that he’ll treasure, the one that got the weight off his back and became the cornerstone for his legend.
Jordan may have been the prince of the NBA entering the 1990-91 season. He was easily its most popular player as fans came out en masse to get a glimpse of Air Jordan. The Chicago Bulls were on the upswing, coming off a season where they won 55 games and went the distance with the eventual champs in a tough series. Anything short of playing in the Finals would mean a regression. The 1991 season was an utter conquest for Jordan and his Bulls. The 61 wins were a franchise record, the two playoff losses were the least of any Jordan title run.
Being the League’s best offensive player is no small feat, being the best player at both ends is incredibly rare, but being the best player at both ends as a perimeter player is unheard of. Jordan pulled up to the playoffs in style: he was the regular season MVP, a member of the All-Defense First Team and All-NBA First Team. Jordan’s regular season numbers were beyond stellar: 31.5 PPG, 6 RPG, 5.5 APG, a 31.6 PER, a .605 True Shooting Percentage, and a stupid .321 Win Shares per 48. If any team was going to get in their way it was the Detroit Pistons who had sent the Bulls packing each of the three previous years.
The 1991 playoffs were all about Jordan re-acquainting himself with old friends and enemies.
The First Round brought on the New York Knicks and friend Patrick Ewing. In the time it took you to read this sentence Jordan had swept them out the door.
The Semifinals saw Jordan and the Bulls locking up with buddy Charles Barkley and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers willed a win in Game 3, overcoming a 46-point masterpiece by Jordan, but in Game 5 Jordan’s 38 points, 19 rebounds, and 7 assists decimated any chance of a real series.
Then came the inevitable matchup between proud champs and top contender. The 1991 Eastern Conference Finals was perhaps the most personal series of Jordan’s career. Some backstory: The Bulls had been brutally eliminated by the Pistons for three years straight. Detroit grounded Air Jordan with the “Jordan Rules,” a defensive philosophy employed by the Pistons with Jordan as its sole focus. The Bad Boys would throw their vaunted backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars at him, overplaying him, denying him the ball and forcing Jordan out of his comfort zones. If Jordan got by, as he often so did, he would be met by the Pistons’ goon squad, led Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman, who made they got their money’s worth on every foul. This punishment was successful for three years running, but with each passing meeting the Bulls would show more resolve, winning an additional game each time.
According to Stacey King, following the Game 7 loss in 1990, Jordan said, “This will be the last time this happens. We will never have this feeling again.”
As promised by the GOAT himself, this year was different, the Bulls were no longer young and outmatched. In fact, the Bulls didn’t even take a blow in the bout. Jordan made up his own rules in the 1991 meeting. The Pistons didn’t notch a single win and infamously walked off the court with 7 seconds left in the game in the Game 4 blowout in the Palace of Auburn Hills. Jordan didn’t need the formality of the passing of the torch, he firmly snatched it away from the Pistons.
The Finals and the final test to become a legend was to vanquish another legend. Waiting in the 1991 Finals were Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers were potent, but Magic was showing the first signs of slowing down (it would also be his final full season in the NBA before announcing his retirement stemming from HIV). It was Showtime’s final run. Game 1 gave the proud Lakers a bit of hope, but Jordan and the Bulls were too much to overcome. The old MJ era would make way for a new MJ era to be ushered in the NBA.
Jabari Davis of Basketball Insiders:
“Jordan was still the League’s best two-way player at this stage and it wasn’t even close. Not only did he lead his team to the first of six titles and six Finals MVP awards, but he was still a first team All-NBA and Defensive player and led the League in scoring.”
Matthew Drappel of Sportsnet:
“Simply unstoppable from beginning till end. The individual stats (31.5 PPG, 6 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.7 SPG, 1 BPG, 53.9 FG%) and the awards (Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team) are obviously all there but when you add the championship with his versatility, his undeniable impact on the game, his defense, his clutch performances, and his leadership…. I kept trying to find a reason to not have this as No. 1 and I just couldn’t do it.”
Anthony Irwin of Silver Screen and Roll:
“Michael’s first title came after his best overall season. Yes, he had seasons in which his scoring and other stats were more impressive, but his impact was at its greatest around the entire court in this campaign. On a semi-related note, having to pick the greatest Jordan season is ridiculously difficult. This was a trend throughout this entire list.”
Adam Joseph of Welcome to Loud City:
“The greatest all-around season of all time and the crowning moment for a player who had tried again and again but failed to reach the pinnacle of the game. He took a stranglehold on the mantle of the world’s best player, sweeping his rival bad boy Pistons before slaying Magic’s Lakers 4-1 in the Finals. His Finals averages of 31 points on an efficient 56 percent shooting, alongside 7 rebounds, 11 assists, 3 steals and over 1 block per game. It had to be seen to be believed.
It was a campaign so dominant it was even more impressive by the fact Jordan’s performance was elevated during the postseason on all fronts. There are so many worthy seasons to choose from with Jordan but this was him at the peak of his powers. Jordan was the second player (at the time) to win MVP, All-Star MVP, Finals MVP and an NBA Champion in the same season. MJ might have won five more titles along the way, but his first was certainly his best.”
Keith Smith of RealGM:
“There are any number of great MJ seasons you could pick from, but 1991 stands out because that year His Airness became a champion for the first time. He averaged 31.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.7 SPG, and 1.0 BPG. For play on both ends of the floor, you’d struggle to find a better performance. He captured both regular season and Finals MVP awards. And he forever exercised the notion that he couldn’t get it done when it counted the most. Of all the dominant years when we watched him fly, this one stands alone.”
Allana Tachauer of HoopsHabit:
“This is probably the obvious choice, but it does not mean it is the wrong one. Realistically, how can you not put Jordan at No. 1? Especially, during the season that brought him his first championship. Jordan stayed in beast mode, but he seemingly took things to a new level in 1990-91. Averaging 31.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game that year, he was also only the second player in history to win Most Valuable Player for the regular season, the Finals and the All-Star game, on top of also earning a title. His PER was the highest in the league and he never shot better overall, than in 1990-91. Jordan obviously went on to achieve many more accomplishments, but it all started in 1990.”
Justin Rowan of Fear the Sword:
“Jordan’s first championship and arguably his greatest season ever. He managed to get over the mountain that was the Detroit Pistons by sweeping them in the Conference Finals and defeated Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the Finals. Jordan was league MVP, Finals MVP, All-NBA and All-Defensive First Team and led the league in scoring.”
Phil Watson of HoopsHabit:
“The brick wall separating Jordan from his first NBA title was blown up convincingly when Chicago swept the Pistons in the ECF and Jordan earned his second MVP award. He had a career-best .321 WS/48 and was out of his mind during the playoff run, averaging 31.1/6.4/8.4 during the Bulls’ 15-2 blitzkrieg of a postseason.”
Michael Gallagher of Rotoworld:
“MVP, Finals MVP and All-Star MVP isn’t too shabby. He played in all 82 games, led the NBA in scoring at 31.5 points per game and just totally filled it up in every category.”
Adi Joseph of the Sporting News:
“Jordan’s best individual regular seasons arguably came before the Bulls were good enough to win championships, in no small part because he had to literally do everything. But his first championship came after a regular season that at the least competed with his historic 1987-88 (when he won All-Star MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP). Jordan averaged 31.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting a career-best 53.9 percent from the field. He followed that with his very best postseason showing, posting a 32.0 Player Efficiency Rating, 4.8 Win Shares and a 13.8 Box Plus-Minus. Above all else, though, this was the important season where Jordan put to rest any doubt that he was the best player in the NBA, beating Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the Finals and sweeping Isiah Thomas’ Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls went 61-21 in the regular season, then 15-2 in the playoffs.”
|The #HOOP10 results will be shared one season at a time every Monday and Thursday.
No. 9 LeBron James 2012-13
No. 8 Michael Jordan 1987-88
No. 7 Larry Bird 1985-86
No. 6 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1970-71
No. 2 Michael Jordan 1990-91
Full List of Contributors: Josh Eberley, HOOP; Daniel Rowell, HPBasketball and FearTheSword; Brandon Anderson, Medium and The Cauldron; Andrew Bailey, Bleacher Report and Today’s Fastbreak; Carson Cunningham, KOCO-TV; Jabari Davis, Basketball Insiders; Tommy Dee, SNY; Matthew Drappel, Sportsnet; Sam Esfandiari, Warriors World; Michael Gallagher, Rotoworld; Lang Greene, Basketball Insiders; Marc Griffin, Press Basketball; Anthony Irwin, LakersSBN and LakersOutsiders; Tony Jones, Salt Lake Tribune; Adam Joseph, SB Nation and BBallBreakdown; Adi Joseph, Sporting News; Robert Littal, BlackSportsOnline and BSO ENT; Oliver Maroney, Basketball Insiders; Coach Nick, BBallBreakdown; Maxwell Ogden, DailyKnicksFS and HoopsHabit; Carter Rodriguez, FearTheSword and 120Sports; Justin Rowan, FearTheSword, HoopsHabit and HoopsLounge; Brad Rowland, Peachtree Hoops, FanSided, and UPROXX; Keith Smith, RealGM and Today’s Fastbreak; Allana Tachauer, HoopsHabit and AllUCanHeat; Justin Termine, NBA Today, SiriusXM NBA; Chris Walder, The Score; Phil Watson, HoopsHabit