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.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract


Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.


Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade


While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers


The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.

Three things to know: It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT


Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

The Detroit Pistons had a two-part plan down the stretch and in overtime against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

First, aggressively trap Doncic out high on every pick-and-roll, make him give up the ball and dare any other Maverick to beat you.

Second, put the ball in Killian Hayes’ hands and turn him loose.

The result was Hayes hitting two clutch 3-pointers in the final 1:15 of overtime to lift the Pistons to a big 131-125 win at home over the Mavericks.

“They were switching me into a one-on-one matchup, so I knew I could get a shot off,” Hayes said via the Associated Press. “The first one felt good and the second one felt even better.”

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 to lead Detroit.

A frustrated Jason Kidd after the game rightfully questioned his team’s defense — Detroit, without Cade Cunningham, put up a 126 offensive rating for the night.

However, this loss speaks to the larger issue with the Mavericks.

Luka Doncic finished the night with 35 points on 50% shooting with 10 assists, but he had just seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Pistons focused on getting the ball out of his hands (Doncic had the same number of points in the fourth and OT as the Pistons’ Marvin Bailey III). Nobody else on the Mavs consistently made the Pistons pay. The lack of secondary shot creation is a real issue, and while it’s nice to see Kemba Walker back in the league it’s a big ask for him to change that dynamic. The Mavericks beat the Warriors the other night, but it took a 41-point triple-double from Doncic, and that’s what it will take a lot of nights.

Doncic is playing at an MVP level this season, and against Detroit he consistently made the right basketball play in the face of double teams. But the load the Mavericks are asking of him is going to wear Doncic down over the course of the season, and it will cost the team games. The man needs some help (and it may not come until next season).

2) Bucks Khris Middleton expected to make return Friday night vs. Lakers

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season, compiling a 15-5 record with the best defense in the league behind an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And now they are about to get a lot better.

Khris Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers. He has missed training camp and the start of the season following wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly, he is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense, the guy with the ball in his hands to create for others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense has struggled without him, they are ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession in the halfcourt (via Cleaning the Glass). It has held the Bucks’ overall offense back this season.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, just having Middleton back makes the Bucks that much better. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

3) Celtics extend Al Horford for two seasons beyond this one

Al Horford, age 36, is going to stick around in the NBA for a couple more seasons.

Horford and the Celtics reached a deal on a two-year, $20 million extension (which kicks in next season).

This is a pay cut for Horford — who will make $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia — but it’s a fair deal for both sides. This puts Horford closer to league-average money, which lines up with his value on the court at this point. Horford gets a couple more guaranteed years in the league, Boston gets a quality rotation player locked up, but at a low enough figure that if Father Time starts to win the race they will be okay.

Horford has had to play a more prominent role to start the season in Boston with Robert Williams still out following knee surgery. He is averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla needs to get the old man a little rest, but until the Celtics starting center returns he has little choice but to lean into Horford.