How the 1994 Chicago Bulls Won 55 Without MJ

Just when you thought the offseason chatter was finally going to die down, the most recent salvo in the aftermath of LeBron James’ controversial “Decision” was fired by the GOAT himself, Michael Jordan:

“There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry, called up Magic and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team,'” Jordan said after finishing tied for 22nd in the American Century Championship golf tournament in Stateline, Nev. “But that’s … things are different. I can’t say that’s a bad thing. It’s an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.”

An interesting argument some have raised in response is that as great as Jordan was, his supporting cast was good enough that he didn’t really need to “call for help” — the Bulls actually won 55 games the year after he retired. Think about that: Chicago won 57 games in 1993, lost the greatest player ever (in the middle of his prime), and they declined by all of two wins the following season.

How was that possible?

First, here are the two rosters side-by-side (bold = played for both teams):

1993 Bulls 1994 Bulls
Player Age G MP Player Age G MP
Scottie Pippen 27 81 3123 B.J. Armstrong 26 82 2770
Michael Jordan 29 78 3067 Scottie Pippen 28 72 2759
Horace Grant 27 77 2745 Horace Grant 28 70 2570
B.J. Armstrong 25 82 2492 Steve Kerr 28 82 2036
Scott Williams 24 71 1369 Pete Myers 30 82 2030
Bill Cartwright 35 63 1253 Toni Kukoc 25 75 1808
Stacey King 26 76 1059 Bill Wennington 30 76 1371
John Paxson 32 59 1030 Bill Cartwright 36 42 780
Rodney McCray 31 64 1019 Corie Blount 25 67 690
Will Perdue 27 72 998 Scott Williams 25 38 638
Trent Tucker 33 69 909 Stacey King 27 31 537
Darrell Walker 31 28 367 Luc Longley 25 27 513
Corey Williams 22 35 242 Jo Jo English 23 36 419
Ed Nealy 32 11 79 Will Perdue 28 43 397
Joe Courtney 23 5 34 John Paxson 33 27 343
Jo Jo English 22 6 31 Dave Johnson 23 17 119
Ricky Blanton 26 2 13

56.7% of the 1994 Bulls’ minutes were filled by players who had been on their roster in ’93 (15.5% were lost when Jordan departed). Of the remaining playing time, 92.6% was filled by five new players — Steve Kerr, Pete Myers, Toni Kukoc, Bill Wennington, and Corie Blount. Losing MJ and adding those 5 to a 57-win team doesn’t exactly seem like a recipe for maintaining the status quo, but there are several explanations for the Bulls’ surprising success without Jordan:

  • One major reason for the Bulls’ apparent lack of decline was simply luck. In 1993, Chicago’s pythagorean record was 58-24 and they only won 57 games, but in 1994 their luck reversed and then some — they won 55 despite a pythagorean record of 50-32. Further reinforcing this point is the fact that their SRS fell from +6.19 (4th in the league) in 1993 to +2.87 (11th) in 1994. They may have won only 2 fewer games in ’94, but in reality the drop-off in performance was more like 8-9 wins. Still, remember this post about how much losing LeBron would hurt Cleveland? Using SPM, I estimated the loss of James would cost the Cavs 20-25 wins even if they replaced him with an average player… And Jordan’s SPM in 1993 was higher than James’ was in 2010!
  • The Chicago defense actually improved after Jordan retired. In 1993 the Bulls allowed 106.1 points per 100 possessions, 1.9 better than the league average and good for 7th in the NBA, but in ’94 they pushed that number down to 102.7 pts/100 (3.6 better than avg., 6th). Here are the relevant defensive stats for both teams:
    1993 Bulls 1994 Bulls
    Player Age G MP DRtg DPA Player Age G MP DRtg DPA
    Scottie Pippen 27 81 3123 103.7 1.22 B.J. Armstrong 26 82 2770 107.0 -1.20
    Michael Jordan 29 78 3067 102.4 0.33 Scottie Pippen 28 72 2759 96.9 2.90
    Horace Grant 27 77 2745 105.3 1.72 Horace Grant 28 70 2570 101.0 2.10
    B.J. Armstrong 25 82 2492 110.9 -1.54 Steve Kerr 28 82 2036 106.2 -0.81
    Scott Williams 24 71 1369 101.3 3.98 Pete Myers 30 82 2030 105.1 0.11
    Bill Cartwright 35 63 1253 109.1 -0.48 Toni Kukoc 25 75 1808 102.4 -0.19
    Stacey King 26 76 1059 108.5 -1.11 Bill Wennington 30 76 1371 101.2 1.50
    John Paxson 32 59 1030 110.1 -0.89 Bill Cartwright 36 42 780 105.3 -0.22
    Rodney McCray 31 64 1019 109.9 -0.81 Corie Blount 25 67 690 100.4 2.28
    Will Perdue 27 72 998 104.2 1.94 Scott Williams 25 38 638 101.1 1.87
    Trent Tucker 33 69 909 110.3 -2.11 Stacey King 27 31 537 101.7 0.95
    Darrell Walker 31 28 367 106.4 1.15 Luc Longley 25 27 513 101.0 2.13
    Corey Williams 22 35 242 111.6 -3.02 Jo Jo English 23 36 419 105.5 -0.58
    Ed Nealy 32 11 79 105.4 -0.06 Will Perdue 28 43 397 100.6 1.30
    Joe Courtney 23 5 34 107.4 0.99 John Paxson 33 27 343 107.8 -1.30
    Jo Jo English 22 6 31 97.3 4.06 Dave Johnson 23 17 119 106.3 -3.14
    Ricky Blanton 26 2 13 96.3 0.35

    Although mediocre defender B.J. Armstrong led the team in minutes, Chicago’s D improved in large part because they received outstanding performances from Pippen & Grant, each of whom earned Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Pippen had been known as a tremendous defender for years, but in 1994 he was the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and his 96.9 DRtg was one of the best ever by a player 6’8″ or shorter. Also, not to be forgotten was Pete Myers’ ability to vaguely approximate Jordan’s defense at SG, Scott Williams’ strong post D, better play from Stacey King, and solid interior performances from Wennington, Blount, and Longley (a major improvement over what Cartwright & King delivered in ’93).

    Despite the plaudits Jordan received for his D, defense remains largely a team activity, so it makes sense that this was the area in which Chicago did the best job of surviving MJ’s retirement. With one of the greatest coaches ever, one of the greatest perimeter defenders ever, and a supporting cast of mostly solid defensive players (especially on the defensive glass), it should not have come as a surprise that the Bulls cobbled together a defense that was largely unfazed by the loss of Jordan. This is also good news for Cleveland, who had the NBA’s 7th-best D in 2010 and might expect to retain most of that in 2011 despite losing James, a 1st-Team All-Defender.

  • The Bulls’ offense weakened, but didn’t totally collapse. There’s no question that Chicago’s offense suffered a major setback with Jordan’s departure — they fell from 112.9 pts/100 (4.9 better than average, 2nd in the league) in 1993 to 106.1 (0.2 worse than avg., 14th) in 1994 — but Pippen proved himself a capable high-usage #1 option, and Armstrong/Grant/Kerr were very efficient complimentary players. You can’t deny that the Bulls’ offense without Jordan was pretty ordinary in ’94, but the loss was not catastrophic like it would be in ’99, the second time MJ retired.

So there you have it — thanks to some strong coaching, defensive cohesion, a passable offense, and a fair amount of luck, the 1994 Bulls finished their first Jordan-less season with only two fewer wins than they had in 1993 with His Airness. But does this mean Jordan was blind to the difference between his situation and LeBron’s when he made his statement? Maybe. The Jordan ethos was always “going it alone” (remember “Michael and the Jordanaires”?), so it’s certainly in the best interest of his continued mystique to maintain the perception of neither asking for nor needing “help”.

Next season could alter the mainstream view of LeBron’s legacy relative to MJ’s, however, depending on how the Cavaliers weather James’ departure. If, like the 1994 Bulls, they rise to the occasion on defense and post 50+ wins, it’s going to look very bad for James, since a major rationale for his “decision” was the lack of a supporting cast in Cleveland. But if they completely fall apart without LeBron, the question could be raised about why Jordan criticized James’ need for help when his own (supposedly equally inferior) teammates were able to survive far better without him.

As is the case with almost all of the debates surrounding James’ move to Miami, only time will tell for sure.

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About Neil Paine

I work for Sports-Reference.com. I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on July 20, 2010, in Analysis, History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 164 Comments.

  1. That’s not what my debate is about.

  2. He really doesn’t seem to grasp it, at all. We all know about the game of basketball. We know everything you’re saying. You don’t seem to understand anything WE’RE saying, instead going around in circles with your own little rant.

    Thanks for killing what could’ve been a good discussion with your holier-than-thou approach. You are the greatest analyst of all time.

  3. “P.S. Laker fans understand that the object is to win championships, not to have a single player on that team generate a ridiculous PER or pile up other advanced stats.”

    But guess what? What those same Laker fans fail to understand when they decide to harp on LeBron is that you’re not winning SQUAT when you don’t play well as a team. Oh wait…at least that’s when Kobe wins. When Kobe DOESN’T win (which he did for a good 7 seasons between ’02-’09) watch those same fools cry about Kobe “not having a good team” while the media talking heads proclaim players like Steve Nash the MORE valuable player.

    Let’s hear it for double-standards!

  4. “Take ‘win shares’. The definition of ‘win share’ as I understand it is: ‘an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player’. Sounds nifty…. but is it REALLY that? REALLY?”

    Yes Sean, that’s what it REALLY is. Based on sound research and analysis of the game (found in Basketball on Paper).

  5. #154

    Anon, thanks for the book referral. I may have to order ‘Basketball on Paper’. I checked it out and was amused mildly that the author had rated his own book quite highly. (Is it REALLY an author’s place to rate his own book? REALLY? LOL.)

    The title of the book, ironically, is one of the problems inherent with the belief (JMO) that wins con be derived simply by looking at a player’s personal statistics in a vacuum…. ‘Basketball on Paper’. I had to smile. All to often, ‘things on paper’ don’t add up to what actually occurs.

    I don’t feel qualified to really comment more on these advanced stats in specifics, though, without a more thorough understanding of them—so I have to admit that I have to temper my disdain for them at the present. Let’s say I’m extremely skeptical in a general sense (I feel that the numbers are being misused to indicate something that is beyond the grasp of many of these formulas, thus producing questionable validity and / or reliability).

    I do not know of there exists more than one ‘Win Share Formula’, so maybe there’s a better one than the one I posted in #144? I hope so, because that one looks dreadful.

    Obviously, it’s useful in indicating productivity and efficiency (to a degree) of a single player (and so the results of the mathemtical computation DO give us SOME base for comparison between players)—–but it really is nothing more than: (Points – (missed FG) – (missed FT)/2 + Reb + Ast + St + Blocks/2 – turnovers). That this formula determines ‘wins contributed’, literally, takes a fair amount of artistic license. It’s just not something I’m buying at the present.

  6. Raimundo Araujo

    Great post!

    Now comparing Lebron’s departure to Jordan’s or making a comparission is not posible.

    Jordan walked away from the best team in the league and current champions while Lebron got away from a team that clearly had no chance to even make the conference finals. This is why the departure of Lebron James will have a bigger negative impact on the Cavs compared to the Chicago Bull’s 1994 season, which by the way, was a slightly improved well coached highly motived team with Pippen leading them. Of course this is not a negative thing on Jordan’s legacy as the greatest ever even if he was only the fuel to push the Bulls 5 more wins into the postseason.

    Jordan, Pippen, Bird, Magic, Malone, Barkley, etc. they all agree in their comments that back in their prime they thought differently regarding Lebron’s desition.

    Now lets look at the bigger picture, 5 years from now Lebron is aiming to win at least 3 rings, go back to the cavs and win there too!

  7. “I checked it out and was amused mildly that the author had rated his own book quite highly. (Is it REALLY an author’s place to rate his own book? REALLY? LOL.)”

    What does it it matter? Regardless what the author thinks of his own work, it is widely praised as an informative read in the APBRmetrics community.

    “The title of the book, ironically, is one of the problems inherent with the belief (JMO) that wins con be derived simply by looking at a player’s personal statistics in a vacuum…. ‘Basketball on Paper’. I had to smile. All to often, ‘things on paper’ don’t add up to what actually occurs.”

    Win shares (which by the way, doesn’t use the formula you posted; it is alot more rigorous in its construction and employs reason) is simply an estimate; nothing more, nothing less. It uses empirical data and statistical methods to estimate how many wins a player contributes to his teams. And unlike people who are skeptical about the use of stats, WS and other metrics such as SPM aim for objectivity, not ridiculous and personal subjective standards of how ranks should be ranked. The authors behind the formulas don’t claim they are perfect, nor do they tout them as the one “holy grail” formula that captures the game of basketball in a single number. But they are valid sources of evidence to use when evaluating player contribution.

    Dismissing them because they don’t fit your personal views of “who should be where” is entirely up to you, but to argue your own views based on subjective criteria that cannot be verified is irrational.

  8. #157

    Well, I don’t want to dismiss them. I want to know more about them. I AM skeptical od advanced stats… but I need to examine them more in depth on an individual basis to be fair to each one. Is the ‘win shares’ formula in that ‘Basketball on Paper’ book you referred me to? I’m glad the one I found ISN’T ‘the one.

    I’m not dismissing anything because of who I THINK should be there.

    Why would you say such a thing?

    I just don’t think (at the present) that you can validly estimate the # of wins contributed to a team’s total by a player with a formula that plugs in personal statistics. To think you CAN…… might be irrational, frankly.

  9. “Is the ‘win shares’ formula in that ‘Basketball on Paper’ book you referred me to? I’m glad the one I found ISN’T ‘the one.”

    The formula is actually found on this site under the Glossary. It is based on the information that is found in “Basketball on Paper”.

    “I’m not dismissing anything because of who I THINK should be there.

    Why would you say such a thing?”

    Not you per se, but alot of tend to do that in this sport – even if they’re not aware of it.

    “I just don’t think (at the present) that you can validly estimate the # of wins contributed to a team’s total by a player with a formula that plugs in personal statistics. To think you CAN…… might be irrational, frankly.”

    Not really. Obviously when you sit and watch your favorite team over the course of a season, you see that some players contribute more to their team’s success than others. You can certainly show this empirically as well – players like LeBron, Wade, Dwight, Kobe, etc. are more important to their team winning games than players like Derek Fisher and Anderson Varejao. Certainly they put up their own numbers, but they’re not producing in a vacuum – their numbers are directly correlated to what their teams do in a game. It’s simply trying to figure out the average value that a point, offensive/defensive rebound, assist, etc. contributes to a win. In the case of adjusted +/-, it doesn’t even use ANY box score stats; just point differential.

    The key is capturing all the contributions in a game and attributing the to the player accordingly. You can’t do ALL of it with box score stats; and you can with APM but you have to sift through alot of the statistical “noise” associated with your team’s performance. So yes, people are still working on them. But they are valuable pieces of information to have, and they’re great to use together.

    And it certainly beats the childish, “ZOMG Kobe Bryant is the BEST because his scowl face just MAKES the Lakers win” line of reasoning.

  10. Anon says:

    The key is capturing all the contributions in a game and attributing the to the player accordingly. You can’t do ALL of it with box score stats; and you can with APM but you have to sift through alot of the statistical “noise” associated with your team’s performance. So yes, people are still working on them. But they are valuable pieces of information to have, and they’re great to use together.>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    This is well stated. I guess I just am focusing on the limitations of the box score, which seems to be the staple resource for this endevour. Because of these limitations—I PERSONALLY am reticent to stamp ‘win shares’ as valid…. NOT because the information used to create the ‘scores’ isn’t valuable—-but because it ALONE doesn’t really cannot truly determine ‘wins contributed’ (not literally). It’s like a misnomer to me and instead of me seeing it as valuable, objective data—-I frown at the attempt to then push the results to mean more than they do (actual number of team wins contributed to). I guess I just wish we weren’t overreaching with what is otherwise VERY telling data.

    I think I have seen the glossary here… but I recall there being some intimation that the ‘WHOLE’ formula was in the book you directed me to (Basketball on Paper) and NOT fully displayed in the glossary here (which disapppinted me).

    What I’m looking for is the formula in black and white that can be used to transfer raw data from a box score to one’s ‘win share’ figure.

  11. And BTW, Anon… Thank you for your help you’ve already provided in this instance.

  12. ^^^No problem at all Sean.

    Regarding win shares, it certainly has the same limitations as all box score stats do (PER, SPM, etc.) But what it does is give you the most important aspects that go towards winning games, and over a large sample size (like the course of the season) those aspects dominate the “little things” that don’t take place as often. Most of what is essential on offense is tracked by the box sore anyway – and even on defense, which obviously is hard to track in the box score (and also even by watching the games; assigning proper credit for defensive stops to players isn’t clear-cut and can certainly differ depending on whom you talk to), finding defensive win shares over a large sample gives you a good idea of “who’s who” defensively. It’s not perfect (it misses on some guys like Joe Dumars), but then again that’s not what the metric IS, anyway. That’s why it’s an estimate.

    And once again, I’ll take imperfect numbers over subjective criteria that can’t be measured at all.

  13. #162

    I hear ya. Though, using the ‘win shares’ formula as a measure of actual wins contributed (literally) invites subjectivity of it’s own.

  14. It looks like Lebron made the right decision. Look at Cavs now.. They’re pathetic. Gone from the best team in the league to the worst in just less than half season.

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