Written by David Eller
Often when in the room with a Kobe Bryant fan and someone who remembers when Jordan used to play, the debate of who is better will inevitably occur. More often than not I will be part of the conversation, but as a Kobe fan, I will admit: Jordan was better. However I will always argue that Kobe is close and given a few seasons could surpass MJ. When making this assertion MJ diehards will often respond to me by saying that the league today is weak and not physical, and MJ will always be better because he posted his gaudy statistics in a day and age where the feared rules allowing hand checking were allowed. Recently I grew tired of these assertions so I did a bit of research to find out about the rules of the hand check with the purpose of being able to determine whether MJ would have an easier time today playing under the current rules than he did in the 80,s and 90's.
Following are the years that MJ played, with an explanation attached to corresponding seasons:
MJ's first game was October 26th 1984
He retired in 1993 and returned from retirement in 1995
He re-retired in 1998 and then played for the Wizards for two seasons from 2001-2003
Recently MJ made the claim that if playing under today's rules he could score 100 points in a game mainly because of rules that make it easier for offenses and harder on defenses, one of the rules that he cited was the hand-checking rule. However a simple checking of when the rules where enacted doesn't agree with his version of events. The rules Jordan played under from 84-94 regarding hand checking are as follows *"Clarification [has been] added to prohibit hand-checking through "rigid enforcement" of rule allowing a defensive player to retain contact with his opponent so long as he does not impede his opponent's progress." Jordan played under these rules for 9 years. Although these rules don't seem to allow a whole lot of physical contact and advantage for the defender, I'm sure that officiating hand-checking would have been a nightmare, and more often than not I imagine that the ball-handler got screwed. However the league cleaned up the hand checking rule for the 94-95 season, which coincidentally was the season that MJ came out of his first retirement. The new rule that was enacted, believe it or not, is very similar to what the league currently has today. The 1994 rule is as follows: *Hand-checking [is] eliminated from the end line in the backcourt to the opposite foul line. What this effectively means is that hand checking is prohibited except for post play in the paint, something still allowed today. That 1994 rule stayed in effect till 2004 until it was changed to the form that it currently is today *"A defender may not place and keep his hand on an opponent unless he is in the area near the basket with his back to the basket. A defender may momentarily touch an opponent with his hand anywhere on the court as long as it does not affect the opponent's movement (speed, quickness, balance, rhythm)." The current rule in its wording actually permits more contact than the 1994 rule, although it doesn't permit as much contact as Jordan played under for his first 9 years. My whole point in bringing up hand-checking at all is that while hand checking is largely pointed at today as a reason why the league is less physical than it was in Jordan's prime, it actually isn't that much different from when Jordan played. Also, there is absolutely no way that it has changed to the point where Jordan could score more than his career average, let alone 100 points in a game.
Statistically from 1984-1993 Jordan averaged approximately 32.56 PPG (throwing out his sophomore season when he was injured) during the time that hand checking by defenders was allowed. After the league instituted the no hand checking rule except in the post area, (thus making it easier on offensive players like Jordan) Jordan actually averaged less points. From the 1994 season through the rest of his career he averaged 26.4 PPG. Lest you say this is because he got older and played in Washington I calculated his averages if you exclude Washington and his average is still lower than it was before the rule change. (28.9 PPG in his last 4 seasons in Chicago) Thus I wish to make the heretical statement that not only would Jordan not have been able to score 100 pts in a game, but when looking at the hand checking rule statistically, had Jordan played today in his prime in all likelihood his scoring would have been unchanged. On the flip side, Kobe played with the same rules that MJ played with from 1996-2004 and after the NBA updated the hand checking rule, his averages didn't jump significantly either, suggesting that in the grand scheme of things, hand checking never did have as much as an impact on the game as people have suggested that it did.
All this to say that if an MJ fan ever points to hand-checking as a reason why Jordan was better than Bryant, it's not a statistically fair thing to say. While MJ might be greater than Bryant for a higher FG% or the MVP's he's won, hand checking isn't an issue that contributes to His Airness' supremacy.
*All rules cited were from NBA.com and the NBA's official rulebook.