Michael Jordan yesterday celebrated the most talked about 39th birthday in the history of the NBA. So how did he spend his special day once he and his Wizards’ teammates finished preparing for today’s game with the Houston Rockets?
“Most of it will be on the couch just relaxing,” Jordan said.
That’s not a bad idea, because what Jordan is doing at 39, other than leading the Wizards (27-23) back to respectability, is unprecedented.
Jordan’s scoring average (24.8) is good enough to rank him eighth in the league, but it falls well short of his career scoring average (35.1). Still, scoring at such a clip one year shy of 40 quite simply defies logic.
In league history, no guard ever has started a season at 35 three years younger than Jordan at the start of this campaign and averaged better than the 18.9 points Indiana’s Reggie Miller averaged last season. The comparison is relevant because Jordan, although listed as a small forward, spends much of his time playing guard in a three-guard offense.
This season, Miller, who will turn 37 over the summer, is averaging 16.8 points and has become the team’s third option.
In his final season with the Philadelphia 76ers (1986-87), Julius Erving was an average player at best, the 37-year-old Dr. J averaging just 16.8 points as he exited the league.
In fact, only one player, Utah’s Karl Malone, has finished a season with a better scoring average than Jordan’s present average past the age of 35. Malone, still a physical specimen at 38, jumped his average from 23.8 in the 1998-99 season to the 25.5 he averaged the next season, which he began at 36.
Jordan’s scoring average started to creep up when Richard Hamilton went down for 17 games with a groin injury. It was during this amazing stretch that Jordan recorded four of his five 40-point plus games, and his 51-point effort against Charlotte.
What’s so unique about this is that in Malone’s case, or any player for that matter who makes his living close to the basket, there simply isn’t that same amount of energy that has to be expended, particularly at the defensive end. When he’s on offense, Malone, once again playing at an All-Star level, somebody is bringing the ball to him, and he sets up in most cases no more than 12 feet from the basket.
And at the defensive end, Malone is typically guarding guys who primarily play the same, low-energy game that he plays, though in most cases not nearly as well.
Jordan, on the other hand, plays both guard positions often bringing the ball up court against pesky defenders and also small forward. In essence, he’s expending a whole lot more energy which he simply shouldn’t have at this stage of his career to get his points.
Said Philadelphia coach Larry Brown when last the Wizards played the 76ers: “I think it’s absolutely remarkable that he’s doing the things he does. Some people will make the argument that he’s 38 but he took those three years off so he didn’t take the pounding. That makes no sense to me. It should be physically impossible to do this at his age.”
Perhaps the most stunning performance so far for Jordan was the night he lit up emerging New Jersey forward Kenyon Martin for 45 points. This was just two nights after his 51 against the Hornets made him the oldest player in league history to break the 50-point barrier.
But what he did against Martin, the top pick in the 2000 draft, was criminal. Jordan at one point notched 22-straight points and added 10 rebounds and seven assists. This while giving away six inches to one of the more aggressive young defenders in the league.
“Pretty amazing, wasn’t it,” Nets coach Byron Scott said.
What is unknown at this point is whether Jordan will continue to score at this clip for the remainder of the season. He doesn’t want that, and neither does coach Doug Collins. Both want to see Jordan’s minutes decline, and they want to see Hamilton return to the form he showed before his injury on Dec. 21 in Orlando. And that appears to be happening.
There are 32 games left in the regular season and then, perhaps, the playoffs. Jordan and Collins keep reminding all who will listen that the broken ribs Jordan suffered last summer were responsible for the slow start that had so many writing him off, and they are starting to look like they knew exactly what they were talking about. Jordan is lifting weights with the passion he did when he became a gym zealot in his 30s.
So if he can keep this up, and get the Wizards into the playoffs which to our knowledge only Sports Illustrated predicted what does Jordan, 40 this time next season, do for an encore?