NBA

Michael Jordan and the Last Dance Bulls: Stats Perform AI finds modern comparisons

By Sports Desk June 14, 2020

Michael Jordan raced back on defense after a drive to the basket saw him bring the Chicago Bulls back to within a point of the Utah Jazz with 37 seconds remaining.

It was June 14, 1998, Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals and victory would see the Bulls clinch a historic second three-peat and Jordan get his sixth championship ring in what would be their 'Last Dance'.

Jordan's next pivotal play saw him steal the ball from Karl Malone in the post with 18 seconds left. He then carried the ball forward, crossed up Bryon Russell and made an iconic mid-range jumper to put Phil Jackson's team in front.

When John Stockton failed to make a three-pointer at the buzzer, history was made.

But how do Jordan's performances, and those of his team-mates, in the 1997-98 season compare to players in the modern era?

That is what Stats Perform's AI analysts attempted to find out.

By looking at player statistics compared to the league averages rather than raw values, they developed a similarity score metric.

It uses a host of era-adjusted per-30-minute stats and more advanced rate metrics, and calculates the Euclidean distances between the seasons of each of the 1997-98 Bulls and every other player since the start of 2010-11.

From those results, a relative similarity percentage can be calculated i.e. the player since 2010-11 with the greatest similarity to one of the 1997-98 Bulls would score closest to 100 per cent.

By looking at player seasons since the start of 2017-18, we can see who in the NBA's modern era is the nearest equivalent to Jordan and the rest of the Bulls in that historic season.

Michael Jordan

Jordan's closest contemporary is Kawhi Leonard, with the Los Angeles Clippers star's 2019-20 season registering a relative similarity percentage of 28.7.

Leonard's NBA championship-winning campaign with the Toronto Raptors in 2018-19 is a close second (26.7 per cent), while Bradley Beal this season ranks third at 24 per cent.

DeMar DeRozan rounds out the top five, though his 2018-19 output had just 16.5 per cent relative similarity. His efforts the year prior produced a score of 23.7 per cent, close to Beal.

When looking at all players since 2010, though, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant in 2010-11 is the top comparison at 46.8 per cent.

Bryant played all 82 games that year but was unable to emulate Jordan and lead the Lakers to a second three-peat under Jackson, with the Dallas Mavericks sweeping them in the Western Conference semi-finals.

 

Dennis Rodman

It is tough to find a modern comparison for what Rodman did with the Bulls in 1997-98.

Marcin Gortat's 2018-19 season with the Clippers is the nearest but has a relative similarity percentage of just 9.7, with Noah Vonleh in 2017-18 a close second at 9.3. Vonleh's past two seasons rank fifth and fourth, behind Ed Davis this term at 7.4 per cent.

When looking beyond the past three seasons, a player who made his name in Chicago comes in as Rodman's closest contemporary: Joakim Noah.

Noah was a two-time All-Star and the 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year during his time with the Bulls, but it is his production in the 2016-17 season – his first with the New York Knicks – that compares best, though his relative similarity percentage is still just 16.3.

 

Scottie Pippen

After electing to delay having surgery on his foot so he could enjoy the offseason as his contract dispute with the Bulls continued, Pippen missed almost half of the 1997-98 regular season.

Tyreke Evans in 2018-19, a season that ended with him being kicked out of the league for two years for violating the NBA's anti-drug programme, provides the nearest resemblance of Pippen's performances during the Last Dance with a relative similarity score of 64.7 per cent.

Evans (52.4 per cent) also ranks second thanks to his 2017-18 season, ahead of Caris LeVert of the Brooklyn Nets. LeVert has a score of 50.3 per cent for this season and 48 per cent for 2018-19.

When looking at all players since 2010, J.R. Smith features highly. His 2012-13 campaign has a relative similarity score of 53.7 per cent, which is one of three entries for him in the top six.

 

Luc Longley

Domantas Sabonis helped the Indiana Pacers reach the playoffs in 2017-18, and with a relative similarity mark of 45.4 per cent he has the nearest modern comparison to Longley.

There is little to separate Jordan Mickey (2017-18) and Zach Collins (2018-19) in second and third, with the former's 43.8 just beating the latter's 43.

When widening the scope to include all player seasons since 2010-11, however, two players dominate the top 10: Spencer Hawes and Jason Smith.

Hawes' second year with the Philadelphia 76ers (2011-12) takes first place with a relative similarity percentage of 63.6, while his last season with the Charlotte Hornets (2016-17) is second at 59.1.

Smith takes up the next four places (2015-16, 2012-13, 2014-15 and 2011-12 respectively) and also eighth, which is sandwiched by Hawes in 2010-11 and 2012-13.

The top eight seasons all have a relative similarity score in excess of 50 per cent.

 

Ron Harper

Over the past three seasons, Garrett Temple is the closest you can get to Harper.

Temple's output with the Nets this year most closely corresponds to Harper at 60.1 per cent relative similarity.

His two prior seasons also scored within 0.5 per cent of that mark, with Trevor Ariza rounding out the top five on 56.1 per cent for both this season and 2018-19.

Since the start of the last decade, though, Damien Wilkins in 2010-11 is the nearest comparison at 68.3 per cent.

 

Toni Kukoc

Gordon Hayward with the Boston Celtics this season comes in as the top modern comparison for Kukoc at 65.2 per cent.

MarShon Brooks in 2018-19 has a relative similarity of 62 per cent, while Bogdan Bogdanovic this year is at 59.8 per cent.

Chandler Parsons in 2017-18 is fourth on the list, and he certainly has a lot in common with the Croatian when you look back further.

Parsons provides the top four comparisons to Kukoc since 2010-11 and his efforts in the 2014-15 season have a relative similarity percentage of 99.9, which is the nearest equivalent of all data analysed.

 

Steve Kerr

Kerr may have moulded Stephen Curry into a two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion, but the Golden State Warriors star's brother Seth Curry is his closest comparison.

Seth Curry's performances for the Mavericks this season registered a 50.1 per cent relative similarity score, while his 2018-19 campaign with the Portland Trail Blazers was second at 44.4.

Reggie Bullock (2017-18), Langston Galloway (2019-20) and Courtney Lee (2017-18) also feature in the top five from the past three years.

 

What about the others?

Bill Wennington

Since 2017: Jon Leuer in 2018-19 (37.9 per cent)
Since 2010: Jon Leuer in 2018-19 (37.9 per cent)

David Vaughan

Since 2017: Domantas Sabonis in 2017-18 (70.8 per cent)
Since 2010: Thomas Robinson in 2013-14 (88.4 per cent)

Dickey Simpkins

Since 2017: Caleb Swanigan in 2019-20 (31.8 per cent)
Since 2010: Samardo Samuels in 2011-12 (45.4 per cent)

Jason Caffey

Since 2017: Domantas Sabonis in 2017-18 (62.9 per cent)
Since 2010: Samardo Samuels in 2011-12 (78.6 per cent)

Joe Kleine

Since 2017: Wilson Chandler in 2019-20 (40.9 per cent)
Since 2010: Juwan Howard in 2010-11 (40.9 per cent)

Jud Buechler

Since 2017: Danny Green in 2019-20 (59.1 per cent)
Since 2010: Wesley Johnson in 2013-14 (56.9 per cent)

Randy Brown

Since 2017: Shaquille Harrison in 2018-19 (51.1 per cent)
Since 2010: Ronnie Price in 2010-11 (52.8 per cent)

Scott Burrell

Since 2017: Sterling Brown in 2017-18 (68 per cent)
Since 2010: Wesley Johnson in 2015-16 (82.8 per cent)

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