A player’s prime is the period where he is at the top of his game. Michael Jordan had one of the most unique primes in the history of the NBA.
First, he was at his peak for an incredibly long period. Unlike today’s players, MJ came into the league after three seasons of college at age 21. He was pretty ready for the league right away.
Also, MJs prime was broken up by the two seasons where he stepped away from the sport to play baseball.
Michael Jordan’s prime was the ten seasons from 1986-1987 to 1992=1993 and then from 1995-1996 to 1997-1998 where he won six NBA titles, five NBA MVPs, made nine All-NBA Defensive first teams and ten All-NBA 1st teams.,
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When do NBA players usually have their prime?Embed from Getty Images
This great article from the Dartmouth Sports Analytics club shows that NBA players generally hit their peaks around the age of 27 or 28.
The article notes that there can be some variance in that based on what type of player it is. Players who rely on raw athleticism tended to peak at slightly younger ages while players whose advantages were based more in their skills tended to peak later.
Of course, as I will mention repeatedly in this article, Michael Jordan was no typical player. Sure, one of his great advantages was his outlier athleticism.
While MJ’s superhuman athleticism separated him from most humans, and even most NBA players, it is not the only thing that made him standout.
What separated Jordan even more was his truly outlier competitiveness. That did not dull with age. In fact, Jordan had a better understanding of how to win in the NBA as his career went on.
So while you would think MJ’s peak would be early because of his freak athleticism, his competitive nature helped drag that peak out even longer.
When was Michael Jordan’s prime?Embed from Getty Images
You could look at a player’s prime in multiple ways. One way to look at it is the absolute peak of their performance. This might be a few years but not a dozen.
Another way to look at a player’s prime is all the years they were at the top of their game.
Using the short prime theory, we would look to see when MJ was at his absolute peak. That would be when his absurd athletic advantages began to mesh well with his crazy competitiveness and desire to win.
It’s hard to pin down a statistical peak for MJ. He scored 28 points per game as a rookie and 37 points per game in his third year! But the Bulls were under .500 both of those years.
In Jordan’s 4th, 5th and 6th years in the league, he was scoring well over thirty points per game but those were the years where the Bad Boy Pistons defeated the Bulls in the playoffs every season.
Unsurprisingly, at age 27 MJ won his first title. That year, the 1990-1991 season was the first year of what I’d call his short prime. MJ was statistically dominant during the years between 1990 and 1993, but he was also winning.
Those three years were the first threepeat for the Bulls featuring MJ, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Jordan still put up crazy statistics, but he did not need to do it all alone. His teammates were good enough to deserve chances – and that is why the team was able to win.
Here is a statistical breakdown of this three year prime for MJ vs his career averages.
|Year||Points||Assts||Stls||Rbds||Off Rating||Def Rating|
As you can see, MJ was at or above career averages for all major categories at this point. He was not at his absolute individual peak numbers, but there is something to be said for having teammates worthy of getting their own chances.
Michael won two of his five league MVP’s during this stretch in 1991 and 1992. And, of course, the team won all three NBA titles.
Longer PrimeEmbed from Getty Images
If you accept the longer prime theory, as I am inclined to do, Michael Jordan’s prime lasted an incredible amount of time. He came in the league scoring at a ridiculous rate and, as his athleticism toned down just a bit, his extreme competitiveness rose to meet it.
Jordan was an All-Star every year of his career except for the season he returned from baseball and only played 17 games. They were all deserved with the possible exception of the last two seasons when he played for the Wizards.
Like Larry Bird before him, Jordan came into the league ready. He played three years at North Carolina and was a scoring machine from the jump in the NBA. He did miss most of his 2nd year to a foot injury, but after that he dominated the NBA the way no one had since Russell and Chamberlain.
Given the second season mostly missed to injury, we can start the longer prime in Jordan’s 3rd year in the NBA: 1986-1987 season. MJ led the league in scoring for the first time that year.
He would do so every year he played a full season until his second (of three!) retirements in 1998 at the end of the Bulls second threepeat.
Those ten years between ‘86 and ‘93 and then ‘95-’98 are MJ’s longer prime. During those ten seasons Jordan:
- won six NBA championships (going 6-0 in NBA Finals)
- Won six NBA Finals MVPs (‘91, ‘92, ‘93, ‘96, ‘97, ‘98)
- won five NBA MVPs (‘88, ‘91, ‘92, ‘96, ‘98)
- was an All-Star all ten seasons
- Was first-team All-NBA all ten seasons
- Led the league in scoring all ten seasons
- Made the All-Defensive 1st team every season except the first year 1987.
- Was Defensive Player of the Year (1988)
So it is safe to say that Michael Jordan’s peak was one of consistent dominance. While I left them out mostly due to MJ’s injury, it would not be a stretch to include his first two seasons as well.
If you did, with the two seasons missed to baseball, Michael Jordan was dominating the NBA for a stretch of 14 years. Even leaving out his first two years, Jordan dominated the league for ten seasons over a twelve year stretch. That is one long prime!
The only two years Jordan played that are clearly outside his prime are his two comeback years with the Wizards at ages 38 & 39. Even then MJ could score: he averaged more than twenty points a game in both seasons but not the dominant force he had once been.
Was Michael Jordan’s Prime Really That Good?
Go back and read the bulleted list above! MJ’s prime was from another planet. He was one of, if not the, most dominant defensive players in the league. AND he was the dominant offensive force in the league as well.
Not only that, Michael Jordan won. His teams took six of the ten titles available to him during his prime. MJ was not putting up empty stats. It is hard not to respect someone who brings it on both ends of the floor and focuses first and foremost on winning.
But it’s not just me who loves Michael Jordan’s prime. Ben Taylor, in his incredible series on the best peaks of NBA greats puts MJ’s peak at number 1. I urge you to check out the whole video above.
Check Out My Other Articles On Michael Jordan
- I wrote about where MJ is from here.
- I wrote about when MJ started playing basketball here.
- I wrote about the 1992 Dream Team here.
- I wrote about MJ’s crazy Finals record here.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.