Why did Michael Jordan, in spite being a prolific scorer, not win NBA championships in his early years in the NBA?


Winning a championship is hard.

I would say it’s dependent on several factors: health/injuries, strength of supporting cast, coach, strength of opposing teams, and refereeing.

That’s why the people who use Finals records as an argument are casual NBA fans who don’t really understand the context of winning a championship. If one team is injured, or if the strength of the opposing team is weak, or you just have a more stacked team etc you have a much better chance of winning. In fact I would say the easiest way to have a good Finals record is wait until you have the strongest team possible i.e the Curry/KD Warriors and then make sure your opponent is in the weaker conference, that way it’s almost certain you will win when you get to the Finals (in fact the only reason why they didn’t go 3–0 in 3 years is because KD got injured the last year).

So for Jordan, he didn’t have the supporting cast or the coach. This was the same case for Lebron when he was with the Cavs the first time. Just scoring a lot of points doesn’t mean much and in fact it’s very negatively co-related to winning historically.

Players who won a scoring title + championship in the same season (there’s only a handful):
George Mikan 1949–1951
Neil Johnston 1955
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1971
Michael Jordan 1991–1993, 1996–1998
Shaq 2000

That’s it. That’s the list. And Jordan was the only guard out of those players to win championships while also leading in scoring. Very interesting indeed. So in general scoring a lot of points means your usage rate is too high and you have to carry the team on offense which generally means that you don’t really have a good supporting cast and thus not a good chance of winning.

In his first two seasons, Jordan’s best supporting teammate was Orlando Woolridge who was a player who could average 20 PPG, but didn’t have a very high basketball IQ and didn’t care about much besides getting his own stats. He would get his 20 PPG, made sure he did well enough to get paid, and didn’t care much about winning or contributing to the team other than that. This is very similar to Larry Hughes on Lebron’s Cavs who was another guy who just cared about taking bad shots to get his points and wouldn’t care about much else. Woolridge was better than Hughes, but not by much.
So yeah, with Woolridge as your best teammate, you’re not going to beat a very good Sidney Moncrief / Terry Cummings Bucks team or a loaded Celtics team many consider to be one of the greatest all time.

In 1987, Charles Oakley and John Paxson became his next best supporting teammates. This is definitely an upgrade over Woolridge, but still not good enough. Oakley was a very tough defender and scrappy hard nosed player in general, and would become very valuable to the Knicks later on in his career. Paxson was a solid role player and somebody that you can rely on to make his shots, but he didn’t have the talent to be a solid star. And of course, they were facing a loaded Celtics team.

In 1988, in addition to Oakley and Paxson, some key Bulls role players stepped up – Sam Vincent, Dave Corzine, Brad Sellers. Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen were also on the team, but they were not starters yet and were developing as they were very raw when they came into the league. This was still not championship caliber, however good enough for Jordan to help carry them to a win versus the Cavs and of course losing against the Bad Boy Pistons who would later take the Showtime Lakers to 7 games.

In 1989, the core championship roster was now there – In addition to Jordan, Grant and Pippen were promoted to starters, they lost Charles Oakley but added Bill Cartwright (wasn’t as good as Oakley but provided veteran leadership), and had sharpshooters Craig Hodges and Paxson coming off the bench. However Doug Collins was a solid coach but he wasn’t Phil Jackson – this team still made it to the ECF where they would lose in 6 once again to the Bad Boy Pistons who were an absolutely stacked team.

In 1990, they have the same core roster except Collins is out and in comes the Zen Master, Phil Jackson. This roster was very very close to championship level and nearly identical to their next season championship roster. They took the eventual champion Pistons to 7 games in the ECF. I think had this team beaten the Pistons they could have also beaten the Trail Blazers in the Finals.

From 1991 Jordan goes on his first 3 peat and I don’t need to explain further.

That shows how Jordan’s Bulls got gradually better every single year. It wasn’t an immediate championship contender, it was a gradual process. He went from having Orlando Woolridge then to Oakley/Paxson then to developing Grant/Pippen then to polished Grant/Pippen then to Phil Jackson then to championship status.

Many fans enjoy this gradual process because it’s the ‘right way’ to win a championship. No building of super teams, no immediate gratification. You see Jordan as a player evolving and his teammates evolving and the management getting him the right pieces. It’s just a shame that Lebron wasn’t able to go through this gradual process because his management downright sucked and couldn’t get him the help he needed or a really great coach and as a result he had to jump teams and people hate him for the ‘superteam’ trend. But yes, this is why Jordan didn’t win in his early years. It takes a lot of factors to win.