What if Michael Jordan Played in Today’s NBA?

By: Dr. Ikjyot Singh Kohli

It seems that one cannot turn on ESPN or any YouTube channel nowadays without the ongoing debate of whether Michael Jordan is better than Lebron, what would happen if Michael Jordan played in today’s NBA, etc… However, I have not seen a single scientific approach to this question. Albeit, it is sort of an impossible question to answer, but, using data science I will try.

From a data science perspective, it only makes sense to look at Michael Jordan’s performance in a single season, and try to predict based on that season how he would perform in the most recent NBA season. That being said, let’s look at Michael Jordan’s game-to-game performance in the 1995-1996 NBA season when the Bulls went 72-10.

Using neural networks and Garson’s algorithm , to regress against Michael Jordan’s per game point total, we note the following:

In this plot, the “o” stands for opponent.


One can see from this variable importance plot, Michael’s points in a given game were most positively associated with teams that committed a high number of turnovers followed by teams that make a lot of 3-point shots. Interestingly, there was not a strong negative factor on Michael’s points in a given game.

Given this information, and the per-game league averages of the 2017 season, we used this neural network to make a prediction on how many points Michael would average in today’s season:

Michael Jordan: 2017 NBA Season Prediction: 32.91 Points / Game (+/- 6.9)

It is interesting to note that Michael averaged 30.4 Points/Game in the 1995-1996 NBA Season. We therefore conclude that the 1995-1996 Michael would average a higher points/game if he played in today’s NBA.

As an aside, a plot of the neural network used to generate these variable importance plots and predictions is as follows:


What about the reverse question? What if the 2016-2017 Lebron James played in the 1995-1996 NBA? What would happen to his per-game point average? Using the same methodology as above, we used neural networks in combination with Garson’s algorithm to obtain a variable importance plot for Lebron James’ per-game point totals:



One sees from this plot that Lebron’s points every game were most positively impacted by teams that predominantly committed personal fouls, followed by teams that got a lot of offensive rebounds. There were no predominantly strong negative factors that affected Lebron’s ability to score.

Using this neural network model, we then tried to make a prediction on how many points per game Lebron would score if he played in the 1995-1996 NBA Season:

Lebron James: 1995-1996 NBA Season Prediction: 18.81 Points / Game (+/- 4.796)

This neural network model predicts that Lebron James would average 18.81 Points/Game if he played in the 1995-1996 NBA season, which is a drop from the 26.4 Points/Game he averaged this most recent NBA season.

Therefore, at least from this neural network model, one concludes that Lebron’s per game points would decrease if he played in the 1995-1996 Season, while Michael’s number would increase slightly if he played in the 2016-2017 Season.

Data Analytics and The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls

It is without question that the greatest team in NBA history was the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls. They went 72-10 that year and went on to win the NBA Championship against a top-notch Seattle Supersonics team.  

Phil Jackson’s system and first-class coaching were the major reasons why the Bulls were so good, but I wanted to analyze their reason for winning using data science methodologies.

The results that I found were very interesting. First, I mined through each individual game’s data to obtain patterns in the Bulls wins and losses, and this is what I found:

One sees that the Bulls were a defensive nightmare, and if you look at these results in detail, it makes sense that the Sonics were really the only team that ever posed a threat to them. This shows that to beat the Bulls, the opposing team would have to simultaneously:

  1.  Ensure Ron Harper had a FG% less than 44.95% in a game,
  2. Ensure Dennis Rodman would have less than 17 total rebounds in a game,
  3. Ensure Luc Longley had less than 2 blocks in a game,
  4. Ensure Michael Jordan had a FG% less than 46.55% in a game.

If any one of these conditions were not met, the Bulls would win!

This analysis on some level also dispels the notion espoused by several sports analysts like Skip Bayless of ESPN who continually claim that the Bulls’ sole reason for success was Michael Jordan. Ron Harper’s contributions although of paramount importance are rarely mentioned nowadays.

This analysis also shows that the key to the success of the Bulls was not necessarily the number of points that Jordan scored, but the incredible efficiency with which he scored them.

A boosting algorithm also allows us to deduce the most important characteristics in the Bulls’ quality of play and whether they would win or lose a game.  The results are as follows:

We see that a key feature of the Bulls’ quality of play depends on how efficient Ron Harper in terms of his FG%.

It is quite interesting that this analysis shows that winning a championship is not about one player, sure, every team needs great players, but the Bulls were a great team, consisting of many great components working together.