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 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.
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.