With the "Last Dance" coming out Sunday, it got me thinking about what the best version of MJ really was.
84-89: The most explosive force in the history of the league, can beat anyone off the dribble and get in the lane, but didn't have the power (no Tim Grover training yet) or the reliable jump shot to sustain the full season. I don't think there's a defender in the history of the world who could have slowed down this MJ, but it wasn't built for long-term success.
90-93: To me, this was the best version of Jordan, because it was the true blend of him still having the explosiveness and driving ability he had in the 80's to get into the lane on any defender, but also had built his body up to take the hit and still maintain control of the ball, and finish the basket mid-air. By this time, MJ had also really developed his post-up and fade-away game, and his jumper was more reliable down the stretch to save energy. He never shot well from 3 but his mid-range game and back to the basket post game was much improved from 84-89. He had bought into the triangle, become smarter, and maybe most importantly, learned how to not waste any space and movement. To me, this is the greatest 3 year stretch in the history of the game from any player.
95-98: There's no question 95-96 was the most motivated MJ the world has ever seen. For the first time since 1991, he had something to prove and felt that hard chip on his shoulder. He was dominant, a better leader, more appreciative of his gifts, smarter player, mastered his post-game, was physically stronger than ever, and his mid-range game was incredible. He conserved his energy but had no question lost a step in explosiveness from the 91 MJ who dunked on Ewing. He just couldn't get to the lane as effortlessly.
I sometimes think the 1991 Bulls were the best team b/c Jordan and Pippen were at their best. But I also think the 95-96 team had better role players in Rodman, Harper, and Kukoc, and Longley, and they were stronger, smarter and more experienced. I feel by 97-98 Pippen's body was failing and Rodman and Harper were just old. That 98 team I don't think was too great outside MJ.
I think you have it right, which means I agree. I've always believed the first threepeat group was far superior because Jordan and Pippen were at their athletic best, which was unmatched, really, in the history of the game to have the league's best two perimeter defenders at the same time. And Horace probably was the best power forward defender, at least athletically, the way he could trap and play 94 feet. Rodman was regarded as a better defender in that era, but didn't play the full court game like Grant did. It's what shocked the basketball world, which wasn't taking the Bulls seriously in the 1980s as great as Jordan was. There was almost no media members or league veterans outside Chicago who picked the Bulls in the 1991 Finals. And then when they won everyone couldn't believe how they'd missed it. Pippen probably was the second best player on the Dream Team. The competition in the early 90s was at a higher level as well. The second threepeat was much more famous because of Rodman, Phil becoming the Zen master instead of the former CBA hippie, Michael's celebrated return and the intimidation factor with the winning record. Michael had lost that amazing athleticism that made him able to embarrass four Celtics Hall of Famers on defense in those 1986 playoffs. The 80s Jordan, which I hope they show in the series, was this never-before-seen or imagined athletic marvel. Basically a version of Derrick Rose's quickness if he needed it with a spectacular first step, a Magic Johnson feel for the game and the intimidation and IQ of Bill Russell.