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September 11, 2009
The Jordan Stats
Projecting the Missing Years

by Kevin Pelton

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As Michael Jordan is officially enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame tonight, he enters with one great "what if" about his career--what he might have accomplished had he not twice retired before completing his career with the Washington Wizards at age 40.

Because the NBA is not nearly as focused on career totals as its professional sports leagues peers are, when Jordan's absences are discussed it is usually in the context of championships--how many in a row might Jordan's Bulls have won had he not stepped away twice at the conclusion of threepeats? However, the retirements also cost Jordan a chance to build on his career totals. That's why Jordan goes into the Hall of Fame as the third-leading scorer in NBA history.

What might Jordan's line look like had he played a full career? The question is impossible to answer conclusively, but modern basketball analytics allow us to take a run at the issue. Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system uses similar players to project the development of NBA players over the course of their career, not unlike the PECOTA system popularized by Nate Silver in baseball.

While SCHOENE's main use is for looking into the future, we can also use it to peer into the past and project Jordan's stat line for his missing seasons. Doing so, while putting Jordan in the context of the 1993-94 and 1994-95 Bulls and average teams the other three years, assuming his minutes stayed relatively constant and that he averaged 76 games a season--fewer than he played in his full seasons to account for the chance of a serious injury--yields the following projected stat lines.

Year    GP     MPG     PPG    RPG    APG    SPG    BPG    Win%    WARP

1985    82    38.3    28.2    6.5    5.9    2.4    0.8    .736    20.4
1986    18    25.1    22.7    3.6    2.9    2.1    1.2    .732     2.9
1987    82    40.0    37.1    5.2    4.6    2.9    1.5    .758    22.7
1988    82    40.4    35.0    5.5    5.9    3.2    1.6    .816    27.0
1989    81    40.2    32.5    8.0    8.0    2.9    0.8    .832    27.8
1990    82    39.0    33.6    6.9    6.3    2.8    0.7    .807    25.6
1991    82    37.0    31.5    6.0    5.5    2.7    1.0    .811    24.0
1992    80    38.8    30.1    6.4    6.1    2.3    0.9    .756    21.6
1993    78    39.3    32.6    6.7    5.5    2.8    0.8    .773    22.4
1994    76    39.0    29.0    6.5    5.6    2.6    0.9    .730    19.4
1995    76    39.0    29.0    6.6    5.2    2.4    0.8    .704    17.8
1996    82    37.7    30.4    6.6    4.3    2.2    0.5    .762    22.1
1997    82    37.9    29.6    5.9    4.3    1.7    0.5    .714    19.1
1998    82    38.8    28.7    5.8    3.5    1.7    0.5    .665    16.2
1999    46    38.0    25.4    5.9    3.4    1.9    0.6    .650    14.0
2000    76    37.5    24.8    5.9    3.3    1.6    0.6    .599    10.9
2001    76    37.0    22.3    5.9    3.0    1.5    0.7    .571     9.1
2002    60    34.9    22.9    5.7    5.2    1.4    0.4    .566     6.5
2003    82    37.0    20.0    6.1    3.8    1.5    0.5    .545     8.1

The projection plays it conservative with Jordan's missing 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons, suggesting a steep drop-off from the final year of the Bulls' first threepeat and worse seasons than Jordan managed in his first full year back, 1995-96. The next set of three seasons, starting with the lockout year and concluding with the 2000-01 campaign, have Jordan gently trending downward before picking up his actual numbers in 2001-02, the first of Jordan's two years with the Wizards. Other than the fact that Jordan was more of a playmaker in Washington, the projected numbers seem very reasonable in light of what Jordan did in his second and final comeback.

When we add up the projections for Jordan's missing seasons and subtract what he actually accomplished during the 17 games he played for Chicago at the tail end of the 1994-95 season while wearing the number 45, the difference is significant. Based on a relatively conservative projection, Jordan missed out on 8,702 points, more than 2,000 rebounds and nearly 1,400 assists.

Adding in these projected stats produces the following career numbers.

        GP    Min     Pts     Reb    Ast    Stl    Blk    WARP 
Career 1405  53683   40994   8719   7004   3179   1140   337.5

The most obvious change is in Jordan's career point total. Had he played a full career, Jordan would have likely edged past the 40,000-point mark, becoming the first player in NBA history to reach the milestone midway through the 2002-03 season. Fittingly, if the projections are taken completely literally, Basketball-Reference.com's game log indicates Jordan would have scored his 40,000th point against his former team when the Wizards hosted the Bulls on Jan. 8, 2003.

The extra steals actually don't change Jordan's ranking, since he retired No. 2 all-time behind John Stockton and was too far behind Stockton to catch up even with the extra five seasons. However, Jordan would jump up the career assist leaderboard from No. 35 to No. 14, just ahead of Bob Cousy.

The biggest difference for Jordan comes in terms of advanced stats. Currently, he is fifth in NBA history in career Wins Above Replacement Player, Basketball Prospectus' measure of player value covering the last three decades. Jordan's projections suggest he missed out on nearly 70 WARP because of his retirements, more than players like Mitch Richmond and James Worthy totaled in their entire careers. Adding these to Jordan's total moves him clearly atop the leaderboard.

Player                      WARP

Michael Jordan (pro.)      337.5
Karl Malone                305.3
John Stockton              300.1
Hakeem Olajuwon            282.3
Shaquille O'Neal           280.4
Michael Jordan (act.)      269.3

While none of Jordan's peers could have competed with him for career value if he had not spent nearly five seasons watching from the sidelines, even his inflated career totals are being threatened by a new generation of superstars. Most notably, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James both started their NBA careers earlier than Jordan because they entered the NBA out of high school, giving them more time to pile up statistics--which they have done at a prodigious rate.

Using the same method that filled in Jordan's missing seasons, we completed the careers of Bryant and James. We assumed that the NBA environment in terms of pace of play, efficiency and other factors stayed constant starting with last season, and gradually transitioned Bryant and James from their current systems--Bryant's relatively fast-paced, James' one of the slowest in the league--towards average.

As with Jordan, the assumption was made that Bryant and James played 76 games a season until dropping off during their final NBA campaigns--James at age 40, like Jordan, and Bryant at 39 because he would have been 40 before the start of the next season and his numbers faded badly late in his projected career. The games-played assumption is probably conservative during the prime of the players' careers, but somewhat optimistic later in them. It did result in both players being projected to surpass Robert Parish's record of 1,611 games played, though that assumption is not unreasonable given how young both Bryant and James started.

First, the projection for Bryant.

Year    GP     MPG     PPG    RPG    APG    SPG    BPG    Win%    WARP

1997    71    15.5     7.6    1.9    1.3    0.7    0.3    .466     1.1
1998    79    26.0    15.4    3.1    2.5    0.9    0.5    .546     5.4
1999    50    37.9    19.9    5.3    3.8    1.4    1.0    .553     8.6
2000    66    38.2    22.5    6.3    4.9    1.6    0.9    .642    11.8
2001    68    40.9    28.5    5.9    5.0    1.7    0.6    .650    13.5
2002    80    38.3    25.2    5.5    5.5    1.5    0.4    .651    15.0
2003    82    41.5    30.0    6.9    5.9    2.2    0.8    .706    20.5
2004    65    37.6    24.0    5.5    5.1    1.7    0.4    .672    13.0
2005    66    40.7    27.6    5.9    6.0    1.3    0.8    .658    13.4
2006    80    40.9    35.4    5.3    4.5    1.8    0.4    .692    18.6
2007    77    40.8    31.6    5.7    5.4    1.4    0.5    .675    16.8
2008    82    38.9    28.3    6.3    5.4    1.8    0.5    .700    18.9
2009    82    36.1    26.8    5.2    4.9    1.5    0.5    .650    14.5
2010    76    36.0    26.4    5.1    4.9    1.5    0.4    .623    11.8
2011    76    37.0    25.9    5.0    4.7    1.4    0.4    .618    11.8
2012    76    38.0    25.4    5.1    4.8    1.4    0.4    .586    10.2
2013    76    38.0    24.6    4.9    4.6    1.4    0.5    .574     9.5
2014    76    37.5    23.1    5.0    4.3    1.3    0.5    .536     7.1
2015    76    37.0    19.5    4.9    4.3    1.3    0.5    .485     4.0
2016    76    37.0    19.4    5.0    4.2    1.3    0.5    .475     3.5
2017    76    36.5    16.5    4.6    3.8    1.3    0.5    .438     1.3
2018    70    36.0    15.8    4.9    3.4    1.3    0.4    .450     1.8

Career 1626  59624   38679   8378   7344   2363    865      -    232.1

SCHOENE suggests that Bryant's production will begin to erode heavily around the age of 35, during the 2013-14 season. By the end of his career, he rates as barely better than replacement level. That indicates he'll have a hard time matching Jordan's career value in terms of WARP even if we do not account for the time he missed. Bryant fares better compared to Jordan in terms of scoring. His projected total of more than 38,000 points would allow Bryant to pass fellow Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer late in the 2017-18 season--probably the last hurrah before his retirement. Still, Bryant would be hard-pressed to catch Jordan's total with the missing seasons included.

James' chances of reaching 40,000 career points are much better because he got off to a faster start than Bryant, averaging better than 20 points per game during his rookie season (when Bryant was still coming off the bench) and reaching the 30-ppg threshold during his third year. James' projected statistics are simply staggering.

Year    GP     MPG     PPG    RPG    APG    SPG    BPG    Win%    WARP

2004    79    39.5    20.9    5.5    5.9    1.6    0.7    .543     8.2
2005    80    42.4    27.2    7.4    7.2    2.2    0.7    .752    23.5
2006    79    42.6    31.4    7.0    6.6    1.6    0.8    .741    22.6
2007    78    41.0    27.3    6.7    6.0    1.6    0.7    .690    18.1
2008    75    40.4    30.0    7.9    7.2    1.8    1.1    .775    22.6
2009    81    37.7    28.4    7.6    7.2    1.7    1.1    .839    26.9
2010    76    38.0    28.9    6.9    7.1    1.6    1.0    .792    22.6
2011    76    38.5    29.8    7.2    7.7    1.6    1.0    .780    22.2
2012    76    39.0    33.4    7.5    7.8    1.7    1.1    .801    23.7
2013    76    39.0    33.4    7.4    7.9    1.6    1.1    .788    22.9
2014    76    39.0    32.8    7.6    8.0    1.6    1.0    .773    22.1
2015    76    39.0    33.3    7.3    8.3    1.6    1.2    .761    21.3
2016    76    39.0    31.6    7.7    7.9    1.6    1.0    .723    19.0
2017    76    39.0    31.5    7.8    7.9    1.6    1.0    .700    17.6
2018    76    39.0    31.3    7.3    7.8    1.5    1.0    .695    17.2
2019    76    38.5    27.8    7.3    7.7    1.5    1.0    .667    15.3
2020    76    38.0    27.2    7.4    7.5    1.3    1.0    .646    13.8
2021    76    38.0    24.8    7.0    7.8    1.4    1.2    .624    12.5
2022    76    37.5    22.7    6.9    6.9    1.3    1.1    .555     8.3
2023    76    37.0    20.9    6.8    7.0    1.4    1.0    .526     6.5
2024    76    36.0    17.5    6.9    6.9    1.3    1.2    .520     5.9
2025    70    35.0    13.9    6.8    5.7    1.0    1.0    .459     2.2

Career 1682  65262   46412   12072  12229  2606   1690      -    375.1

Starting with 2011-12, when he will turn 27 and theoretically be in his prime, SCHOENE sees James ripping off a string of seven straight seasons of better than 30 points per game. More impressive might be the development in James' assist totals to the point where he averages as many as 8.3 a night. Along with James' rebounding totals, that would be enough to make him a nightly triple-double threat.

The projection shows James blowing past 40,000 career points during the 2020-21 campaign, not long after his 36th birthday, and piling up nearly 8,000 more points than anyone who came before him--more than 5,500 more than even Jordan's projected full career. If he fulfilled the projection, James would also retire second in league history in assists, though Jason Kidd has a chance to surpass the projected total of more than 12,000 by the time he hangs them up.

Despite never duplicating his historic 2008-09 effort in terms of WARP, projected James would be worth at least 20 wins more than a replacement-level player an amazing 10 times in his career and pile up 375.1 career WARP, easily surpassing Jordan's total from a full career. Simply put, no one can compare to the combination of how early James entered the league and what he has already accomplished at a young age. A projection is obviously no guarantee--James could decide, like Jordan, that he wants to try his hand at another sport, or his career might fall short of the 22 years we project as age catches up with him. Still, he's got a tremendous head start in threatening some remarkable records.

Even without the years he missed, Jordan's Hall of Fame enshrinement will be a special day for the basketball world. However, there could be an even bigger one coming in September 2031.

--

A version of this article appeared on ESPN Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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