Michael Jordan’s five biggest on-court rivals

Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and Bulls guard Michael Jordan
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Michael Jordan didn’t have one great rival throughout his career.

There was no Bird to his Magic or Kareem to his Wilt. LeBron James has had a couple of different rivals — the Big 3 Celtics, then Stephen Curry‘s Warriors — but there were clear ones at points through his career.

With Jordan, it was rarely that way. There was not one great foil through most of his career; instead different teams were presenting different challenges at different times.

Still, some rivals rose up and pushed Jordan, each eventually falling by the wayside. (A note: This list is on-court Jordan rivals from his playing days, not rivals to his legacy such as LeBron or Kobe Bryant.)

Here are the biggest five.

Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons

Ironically, Jordan’s biggest rival was a kid from Chicago.

Isiah Thomas grew up in the Windy City and went on to be the leader of the Bad Boy Pistons, the team that for years blocked the path of Jordan and the Bulls, forcing coaching and roster changes in Chicago. Those championship Pistons teams forced Jordan and the Bulls to reach legendary status just to get out of the East.

The rivalry goes back to Jordan’s rookie year in 1985, when he was an All-Star and the conspiracy theory goes Thomas orchestrated a plan to freeze Jordan out in that game. Like belief in a fake moon landing or UFOs, this seems more paranoid theory than reality — Jordan took nine shots in the game, and good luck getting Thomas to organize rivals Larry Bird and Dr. J — but Jordan used it as fuel. He used everything as fuel. Eventually, Jordan got his revenge when he helped freeze Thomas out of the 1992 Dream Team.

Thomas and the Pistons — particularly Joe Dumars — were the ones who pushed Jordan and the Bulls to greatness. Jordan couldn’t just score his way past this smart, deep, championship team.

The Bulls’ run of losses to the Pistons started in the 1988 Eastern Conference second round, when Jordan averaged 27.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game but it was not near enough as the Pistons won in five games. There simply wasn’t enough talent around Jordan at that point (the second-leading scorer for the Bulls in that series was Sam Vincent).

The 1989 conference finals was the series the Pistons broke out the “Jordan Rules” — double-team early, foul hard if he drives, but do not let him get a rhythm — and it worked. While Jordan averaged 29.5 points and 6.5 assists a game, the Pistons won the final three games of that series and moved on to the NBA Finals, winning their first title.

By 1990 the Bulls had Phil Jackson in place and they were developing a system — it wasn’t just all Jordan. Against Detroit that year, Jordan averaged 32 points a game, and the Bulls pushed the Pistons to seven games in the conference finals, but again it was the Bad Boys who advanced (and won another ring).

We all know what happened next. But if it wasn’t for Thomas, Dumars, and the Bad Boy Pistons pushing him, teaching MJ what it would take to win, Jordan would not have achieved the same heights.

John Starks, Patrick Ewing, and the Knicks

Jordan’s rivalry with Patrick Ewing goes back to college — Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship game lifted his North Carolina team past Ewing’s Georgetown team.

Nine years later, when the Bulls had absorbed the lessons of the Pistons and were ready to start winning, it was Ewing, John Starks, and the Knicks who were a thorn in their side nearly every year. The teams meet in the playoffs in 1991, ’92, ’93, ’94, and ’96.

That 1991 playoff — a 3-0 sweep by the Bulls — included one of the iconic dunks of Jordan’s career, spinning past Charles Oakley to dunk on Patrick Ewing.

There would be no more easy sweeps of the Knicks, by the next season that was a knock-down, drag-out seven-game series that came to typify this rivalry. John Starks was the guy often lined up on Jordan (it’s never just a one-man job to guard him) and said the scouting report on MJ was not complex, everyone knew what he wanted to do, it was just impossible to stop him. Starks tried, he and the Knicks were physical and knocked him around as hard as they could. In the end it didn’t matter, Jordan could create a little bit of space against Starks and that’s all he needed.

Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley and his Philadelphia 76ers teams were the other rising power in the East in the late 1980s into the next decade — just not rising as fast or as high as the Bulls.

Barkley had some monster games against Jordan and the Bulls, and that includes in the playoffs. The Sixers and Bulls met in the second round in 1990 and Barkley averaged 23.8 points and 17 rebounds a game, but the Bulls won the series in five. The next year, the two met again in the second round, again Barkley put up big numbers — 25.6 points and 10.2 rebounds a game — and again Jordan and the Bulls won in five.

For the 1992-93 season, Barkley was traded out West to the Phoenix Suns and turned in the best season of his career, averaging 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, winning the MVP award and leading the Suns to 62 wins — and eventually the NBA Finals. Where Jordan was waiting. Barkley averaged 27 and 13 for the series, had an efficient 54.4 true shooting percentage; he rose to the occasion.

Jordan averaged 41 points a game, had a 55.8 true shooting percentage, and the Bulls won the series in six.

Jordan and Barkley were good friends, golfing and gambling together for many years, but that ended when Barkley, on TNT’s Inside the NBA, criticized Jordan’s ownership style in Charlotte saying he had too many “yes men” around him. Accurate or not, Jordan took it personally and holds on to grudges like no other. Barkley says he misses Jordan, the two have not mended fences to this day.

John Stockton, Karl Malone, the Utah Jazz

This Jazz team is one of the greats never to win an NBA title. They had the all-time assists leader in John Stockton and arguably the greatest power forward ever to play the game in Karl Malone (Tim Duncan is the other guy in that debate). Quality role players surrounded that duo and everyone was buying into the system of hard-nosed former Bulls star Jerry Sloan.

They may not seem like rivals from the Bulls perspective. By the time of the 1997 NBA Finals, the internal fights amongst the Bulls — as The Last Dance shows — outweighed the challenges on the court. However, the Jazz were no easy out, and it took an iconic shot to beat Utah, win the title, and end this era of the Bulls.

Clyde Drexler

The Portland Trail Blazers drafted Kentucky center Sam Bowie with the second pick in the 1984 draft, passing on Jordan because they already had Clyde Drexler. That example is used to this day by team executives and fans arguing to “take the best available player in the draft” regardless of position.

Drexler was elite, the second-best two-guard in the NBA of his era, a 10-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, and future Hall of Famer, a true Portland legend. He just wasn’t Jordan.

That became evident in the 1992 NBA Finals, when Portland advanced to take on the Bulls. Jordan dominated Drexler in the series, averaging 35.8 points and 6.5 assists, with a 61.7 true shooting percentage. Jordan even dropped six threes — not the strong part of his game — on Portland in Game 1.

Jordan guarded Drexler much of the series and Clyde put up good numbers — 24.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, with a 52.2 true shooting percentage — but he couldn’t lead his team to the heights Jordan could lift the Bulls. MJ just had another level that separated him from Drexler and everyone else.

Nick Nurse doesn’t ‘vibrate on the frequency of the past,’ talks winning with 76ers, Harden


In his first day on the job, Nick Nurse didn’t shy away from the hard topics and high expectations — he embraced them.

Nurse is the new 76ers head coach — and Doc Rivers is out — because the team was bounced in the second round. Again. Nurse said at his introductory press conference that he doesn’t see the way past this is to ignore the problem (from NBC Sports Philadelphia).

“We’re going to hit that head-on,” he said… “We know we’re judged on how we play in the playoffs. It was the same in Toronto. We hadn’t played that well (in the playoffs) and certain players hadn’t played that well, and all those kinds of things. So the reality is that’s the truth. I would imagine that from Day 1, we’re going to talk about that and we’re going to try to attack that. We’re going to have to face it and we’re going to have to rise to it.”

Nurse stuck with that theme through multiple questions about the past and what he will do differently. Nurse talked about the players being open-minded to trying new things, some of which may not work, but the goal is to get a lot of different things on the table.

He also talked about this 76ers team being championship-level and not getting hung up on that past.

“My first thought on that is this team could be playing tonight (in the Finals), along with some others in the Eastern Conference that wish they were getting ready to throw the ball up tonight… And as far as the rest of it, I look at it this way: I don’t really vibrate on the frequency of the past. To me, when we get a chance to start and dig into this thing a little bit, it’s going to be only focused on what we’re trying to do going forward. … Whatever’s happened for the last however many years doesn’t matter to me.”

The other big question in the room is the future of potential free agent James Harden.

Harden has a $35.6 million player option for next season he is widely expected to opt out of, making him a free agent. While rumors of a Harden reunion in Houston run rampant across the league, the 76ers want to bring him back and Nurse said his sales pitch is winning.

“Listen, I think that winning is always the sell,” he said. “Can we be good enough to win it all? That’s got to be a goal of his. And if it is, then he should stay here and play for us, because I think there’s a possibility of that.”

Whatever the roster looks like around MVP Joel Embiid, the 76ers should be title contenders. Nurse has to start laying the groundwork this summer, but his ultimate tests will come next May, not before.

Silver: Ja Morant investigation results, possible suspension to come down after Finals

Dallas Mavericks v Memphis Grizzlies
Justin Ford/Getty Images

DENVER — The NBA has nearly concluded its investigation into the latest incident of Ja Morant apparently waiving a gun on social media, however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league plans to “park” the report and any announcement of a possible punishment until after the NBA Finals, so as not to distract from the games.

“We’ve uncovered a fair amount of additional information, I think, since I was first asked about the situation,” Silver said in a press conference before Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “I will say we probably could have brought it to a head now, but we made the decision, and I believe the Players Association agrees with us, that it would be unfair to these players and these teams in the middle of the series to announce the results of that investigation.

“Given that we’re, of course, in the offseason, he has now been suspended by the Memphis Grizzlies indefinitely, so nothing would have changed anyway in the next few weeks. It seemed better to park that at the moment, at least any public announcement, and my sense now is that shortly after the conclusion of the Finals we will announce the outcome of that investigation.”

The Grizzlies suspended Morant after he appeared to flash a handgun on friend Davonte Pack’s Instagram account. Morant has since released a statement taking responsibility for his actions, but otherwise staying out of the spotlight.

That came months after Morant was suspended eight games after another video of him flashing a gun in a Denver area club was posted on Instagram Live.

After that first incident, Morant spent time away from the team to seek counseling, and he met with Silver about what had happened. Morant admitted after the No. 2 seed Grizzlies were eliminated in the first round by the Lakers his actions were part of the distractions that threw off the Grizzlies.

Silver was asked if he had come down harder on Morant after the first incident — his suspension was seen as player-friendly — if things would have been different.

“I’ve thought about that, and Joe Dumars [VP of basketball operations with the NBA], who is here, was in the room with me when we met with Ja, and he’s known Ja longer than I have, Silver said. “For me at the time, an eight-game suspension seemed very serious, and the conversation we had, and Tamika Tremaglio from the Players Association was there, as well, felt heartfelt and serious. But I think he understood that it wasn’t about his words. It was going to be about his future conduct.

“I guess in hindsight, I don’t know. If it had been a 12-game suspension instead of an eight-game suspension, would that have mattered?”

Silver would not divulge any potential punishment, but the expectation in league circles is for him to come down much harder on Morant this time. While Morant did not break any laws, this is a serious image issue for the NBA (one that reverberates through decades of the game).

Morant lost about $669,000 in salary with the last suspension, although the real hit was his missing games and the team stumbling after this incident was one reason he did not make an All-NBA team — that cost him $39 million on his contract extension that kicks in next season.

Three takeaways from Nuggets dominating Game 1 win against Heat


DENVER — It was a full-throated celebration inside Ball Arena as a fan base that waited 47 years for this moment was going to be heard.

It was a full-throated celebration in the hallway outside the Nuggets locker room after Game 1 as the players let loose some joy after a big win.

Game 1 was everything the Nuggets could have wanted with a 104-93 victory, and the game was not as close as the final score suggested (even if it got a little interesting in the fourth). The Nuggets lead the NBA Finals 1-0 over the Miami Heat with Game 2 Sunday in Denver.

Here are three takeaways from Game 1.

1) Nuggets’ size early, poise under pressure late earned them win

Before the series started, one of the big questions was how the smallish Heat would deal with the size across the board of the Nuggets.

To start Game 1, they couldn’t — the Nuggets scored 18 of their first 24 points in the paint. Denver used its size advantage to punish every switch that gave it a matchup advantage. Aaron Gordon was at the forefront of that, overwhelming Gabe Vincent among others on his way to 12 first quarter points (with none of his made shots being rather than six feet from the rim).

“I definitely think they came out with a lot of physicality, and we have to be able to match that,” the Heat’s Jimmy Butler said.

Leaning into that size advantage was all part of the plan.

“Most definitely. You’ve got to play to your advantages at this time of year and all the time,” Gordon said. “I was just looking to play to my advantages.”

This was not some new wrinkle the Nuggets put in just for the Finals or the Heat, this is how they beat the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers all postseason.

“No, those are sets. We’re making reads,” Jamal Murray said. “Like I said, we’re just making reads. If I’m not open, somebody else is open if I cut.”

“If you make the right read or make the right cut or set the right screen, you’re going to be open, and the ball moves, the ball finds the open man,” Gordon added. “The open man is the right play, and that’s how we play the game, and it’s a fun way to play.”

That size advantage got the Heat a lead early that they grew to 21 by the end of the third quarter. But then the Heat made an 11-0 run to start the fourth, and for Heat fans things started to look familiar — they had made big comebacks with a dominant quarter all playoffs.

The difference was when the Heat made these kinds of runs against the Bucks and Celtics, those teams became rattled and made mistakes. They helped fuel the Heat runs.

Not the Nuggets.

They have poise and Nikola Jokić — they just throw the ball to him and get a good shot and a bucket. The Nuggets don’t beat themselves, they just keep scoring. Miami got the lead down to nine for a possession, but that was as close as it ever got. The game was never in doubt and the message was sent to the Heat — there will be no dramatic comebacks in this building.

2) Miami has to be more aggressive, and they know it

The shotmaking that fueled Miami’s run past the two teams with the best records in the NBA was nowhere to be seen in Denver. Particularly in the first half, when the Heat were 4-of-17 from 3 — led by Max Strus being 0-of-7 — and shot 37.5% as a team.

More than just missing open shots, the Heat settled for jumpers in the face of the length of the Nuggets.

“We shot a lot of jumpshots, myself probably leading that pack, instead of putting pressure on the rim, getting layups, getting to the free throw line,” Jimmy Butler said. “When you look at it during the game, they all look like the right shots. And I’m not saying that we can’t as a team make those, but got to get more layups, got to get more free throws…

“But that’s it as a whole. We’ve got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included.”

The evidence of the Heat settling for jumpers, they had just two free throws all game. As a team. That clearly bothered Bam Adebayo postgame, who was careful not to say something that would earn him a fine from the league, but his frustration with not getting calls was clear. And maybe he could have gotten a couple more, but he was one of the guys taking jumpers rather than attacking.

More than settling for jumpers, the Heat kept passing up open looks in search of the perfect look, when they just needed to take the good and knock the shot down. They seemed to overthink their half-court offense.

The one Heat player putting up numbers was Adebayo, who finished with a team-high 26 points, but needed 25 shots to get there. He took what the defense gave him, which was 10-15 foot jumpers and floaters, and he put up 14 of those — but with that he was not pressuring the rim. While he racked up points the Nuggets will live with those shots.

“If you’re giving up tough mid-range contested twos, that’s better than them getting a lot of open threes,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Obviously, we can do a better job of contesting some of those mid-range shots that Bam was getting, and I think we have to mix up our levels.”

3) There is no answer for Nikola Jokić, but can Heat limit him?

It was another master class from Jokić, right from the opening tip. He came out dishing the ball and carving up the Heat defense — Jokić only took one shot in the first quarter (a putback dunk in the final minute) and three shots for the half. But he had six first-quarter assists as Gordon was dunking inside, some 3-pointers fell, and the Nuggets were up 29-20 after one, and by 17 at the half.

“That’s just the way he plays the game,” Jamal Murray said. “If the team is rolling, that’s just how you play basketball. If everybody else is scoring, then there’s no need to force it. He’s a great passer, great facilitator. They’re digging, they’re doubling, they’re trying not to let him score.”

The Heat had talked about making Jokić more of a scorer, staying home with shooters and trying to take away his passes. It’s one thing to have that plan, it’s another to deal with the reality of player and ball movement Jokić orchestrates. Throw in the unstoppable Jokic/Murray pick-and-roll — Murray finished with 26 points and 10 assists — and even a good defense can look bad.

“Just how he plays, how the game comes to him, the way they were playing him — he was just passing,” Michael Porter Jr. said of Jokić. “Jamal had it going. Aaron had it going. And then to still end up with that triple-double just shows how special he is.”

Jokić finished with a triple-double of 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.

The Heat are finding what so many teams have found before them — there is no answer to Jokić. Switch the screen and put a small on him and Jokić just backs him down in the post and gets an easy bucket (he backed down Cody Zeller that way, too). Double Jokić and he finds the open shooter. Roll out a zone and cutters slash to the rim, or a shooter knocks down a shot over the top of it all.

Miami had a little success in the fourth with Haywood Highsmith on Jokić. The Heat used Highsmith sort of the way the Lakers used Rui Hachimura to try and bother Jokić and freeing up Adebayo to play off Gordon and be more of a free safety.

Except, that didn’t work well for the Lakers for the rest of the series. Jokić and the Nuggets figured it out. Erik Spoelstra tipped his hand with some adjustments as he tried things in the fourth, but that gives the Nuggets a couple of days to prepare for it before Sunday’s Game 2.

That’s when the Nuggets will pose the Jokić question to the Heat again. There is no great answer, but the Heat need to find a better one.

Jokić conducts a symphony on offense, Nuggets pick up 104-93 Game 1 win over Heat


DENVER — This is what the Denver Nuggets have done to every team that faced them this postseason. And most of the ones in the regular season, too.

There are no good answers to slowing the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokić pick-and-roll. Their passing and off-ball movement are elite. They have shooters everywhere. They have size across the board. And they play enough defense that it becomes impossible to keep up with their scoring.

Combine that with Heat shooters going cold for long stretches of Game 1 and you end up with a 104-93 Nuggets victory that wasn’t as close as the final score made it seem.

The Nuggets lead the NBA Finals 1-0, with Game 2 Sunday in Denver. It was a raucous, fun night for Nuggets fans who got everything they wanted from the franchise’s first-ever Finals game.

Jokić finished with a triple-double of 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds — Miami has to find a way not to let him both score and distribute if they are going to have a chance in this series. Of course, that’s what the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers all said.

Murray added 26 points and 10 rebounds, and Aaron Gordon scored 16 on 7-of-10 shooting.

Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 26 points and 13 rebounds, shooting 13-of-25. He played well and hard all night, but the Nuggets will be happy if he is the Heat player taking the most shots every game.

From the opening tip, Denver’s size advantage on paper became a problematic reality for Miami – 18 of Nuggets’ first 24 points were scored in the paint. The Nuggets used their size advantage to pummel the Heat inside on offense, and turn them into jump shooters on the other end.

“You have to credit them with their size and really protecting the paint and bringing a third defender,” Spoelstra said postgame. “Things [we do] have to be done with a lot more intention and a lot more pace, a lot more detail.”

Miami also just missed shots they made in the previous series, shooing 9-of-26 (34.6%) in the first quarter. For the game things got a little better, but the Heat had an unimpressive 102.2 offensive rating on the night.

The shooting trend continued into the second, as the Heat didn’t play terribly on the offensive end for most of the first half, moving the ball and getting clean looks, but they weren’t falling — Max Strus was 0-of-7 in the first half (six from 3) and those were essentially open looks. Miami did make a little push in some non-Jokić minutes in the second and cut the lead down to six with 5:47 left in the half on a Haywood Highsmith dunk.

But the first half’s final minutes were a disaster for the Heat. They didn’t score for 3:30 after Highsmith’s bucket and shot 2-of-10 the rest of the quarter. Denver got rolling at the end of the quarter, went on a 16-5 run, and it was a 17-point Nuggets lead at the break, 59-42.

At the start of both the third and the fourth quarters the Heat made runs — 7-0 to start the third, 11-0 to start the fourth — and cut the lead to 10 both times. In the third,d things returned to first-half form and the Nuggets ran out to a 21-point lead after three.

In the fourth, the Heat kept it close, partly thanks to 18 points from Highsmith off the bench, and the lead got down to single digits for a possession. But Miami was too far back for their comeback magic, especially against a team with Jokić orchestrating a symphony on offense.