We find ourselves in interesting times on NBA Tuesday today, as we witness the return of Michael Jordan to the NBA after a two-year hiatus playing minor-league baseball. Will this mean the end of the David Robinson MVP Award streak? Will it mean a return to the kind of game MJ dominated the NBA with for so many years straight? The sabermetric analysis below can answer all the questions for us, as it always does. That’s why we are here, after all, doing what we do …
On with the second act of the Jordan Era!
1996 NBA MVP: Michael Jordan (original), David Robinson (revised)
The Chicago Bulls set an NBA record with 72 victories, and Jordan won the MVP vote. But we are not so sure, as Jordan (20.43 Win Shares and 29.35 Player Efficiency Rating) and Robinson (18.25 WS, 29.41 PER) split honors as the best sabermetric players in the league—and the San Antonio Spurs won 59 games themselves to finish atop their division. On the surface, it seems like Jordan still has a slight edge for MVP, but let’s dive deeper just to be sure.
MJ won another scoring title (30.4 points per game) while playing 37.7 minutes per outing over all 82 games. Meanwhile, Robinson scored 25.0 ppg in 36.8 mpg in 82 games himself, not to mention his 12.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks every time out. Jordan added 4.3 assists and 2.2 steals per game—averages well below his career bests, but still good numbers, of course.
We have to look at relative team quality around each player to really decide this: The Bulls had three players post over 10 WS each, while Robinson more than doubled up the next-best guy on the Spurs roster. That’s shocking, actually, and it tells us that maybe Jordan was still the “better player” at this point, but there’s no way San Antonio would have been a division winner without Robinson. The Bulls were still a playoff team in Jordan’s absence, while the same could really not be said of the Spurs at this time.
Yes, it seems to be sacrilege to strip His Airness of an MVP award, and we do understand why the voters gave it to him. We also don’t really have an issue with the vote, in general; we just think Robinson was more valuable to the Spurs than Jordan was to the Bulls—which seems hard to imagine, but it also seems very true.
1996 NBA ROTY: Damon Stoudamire (original), Joe Smith (revised)
The five best first-year players in the NBA were Golden State Warriors power forward Joe Smith (6.8 WS, 17.2 PER), Toronto Raptors point guard Damon Stoudamire (4.3 WS, 16.7 PER), Phoenix Suns small forward Michael Finley (6.3 WS, 14.0 PER), Portland Trailblazers center Arvydas Sabonis (8.4 WS, 24.7 PER), and Los Angeles Clippers shooting guard Brent Barry (4.9 WS, 15.9 PER)—son of 1966 NBA ROTY winner Rick Barry.
Here’s the deal: Sabonis was clearly the best NBA “rookie”—but we have an issue with his “rookie” status, due to his extensive international playing experience. He was 31 years old by this time, and Sabonis had played 9 seasons of professional basketball already in European nations like Lithuania and Spain—not to mention his national experience playing for the Soviet Union. He was a professional already, while the other four guys were kids, really. We loved Sabonis then and now, but he was no “rookie”!
So, we can’t, in good conscience, consider Sabonis for this award. Stoudamire won the vote, but he may have been the least of these top players, in truth. Plus, the Raptors won just 21 games as voters were swayed by his 19.0 ppg scoring average for some reason. The Warriors missed the Western Conference playoffs by 3 victories, while the Suns nabbed a postseason berth with a 41-41 record—five games better than Golden State. The Clippers were 7 wins behind the Warriors, so this would seem to give Finley an edge over the others.
But then there is this: Smith helped Golden State improve 10 games, while the Suns actually were 18 games worse than the year before, in a slide that cost their coach his job. The Phoenix roster was still laden with All-Star players, too, while the Warriors roster was definitely not stellar despite the presence of a few fading legends. Maybe Phoenix would have missed the postseason without Finley, but Golden State definitely would have been nowhere near the playoffs without Smith.
He was the best rookie and probably the most valuable one, as well, in truth.