Michael Jordan used any slight, real or imagined, to fuel his ultracompetitive fire en route to being widely acclaimed as the greatest basketball player of all time.
That fire apparently still rages inside Jordan at 57. The fact that LeBron James has closed the gap in the NBA’s “greatest of all time” debate in recent years was reportedly one of the main reasons Jordan agreed to participate in “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary on his career and the 1998 Chicago Bulls.
With the final two episodes of the series airing Sunday on ESPN, we asked six Las Vegas oddsmakers and a professional sports bettor to rank the best players and teams in NBA history.
The consensus is that Jordan is still the G.O.A.T. — though the vote wasn’t unanimous — but the 1996 Bulls, who went 87-13, including the playoffs, are not the best team ever.
2017 Warriors tops
According to our panel, that distinction belongs to the 2017 Golden State Warriors, who went 83-16, including the playoffs, after adding Kevin Durant to a squad that went 73-9 the previous regular season.
“That Warriors team demolishes any other team in history,” longtime Las Vegas bookmaker Robert Walker said. “That’s just because it’s a whole different style of basketball from the way the Bulls had to play.
“I don’t think that Bulls team was equipped to score with the Warriors under any circumstance. I know they played better defense, but they’re not going to stop those Warriors from getting their shots off.”
On a game played on a neutral court, Walker made the 2017 Warriors 5-point favorites over the 1996 Bulls.
Walker realizes his pick would upset Jordan. “And we know, based on how his personality is, he’d probably go out there and score 70 points,” Walker said.
Westgate sportsbook vice president of risk Jeff Sherman made the 2017 Warriors 6½-point favorites over the 1996 Bulls. He also would make those Bulls underdogs to other 21st-century squads such as the 2013 Miami Heat, which featured James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“Good teams over the last 10 years now would probably be favored over the Bulls just because of the era they’re in and the evolution of the game,” Sherman said. “Players are bigger, faster and stronger now, and they have advanced analytics, which is why you see the 3-point shot taken into account.”
Using the same rationale, Westgate sportsbook director John Murray said he would make Golden State a double-digit favorite over Chicago.
In that case, pro sports bettor Erin Rynning (@ersports1) said he would be all over the Bulls, and Walker said books would take plenty of money-line action on Chicago.
“I don’t think there would be any doubt,” Rynning said. “One of the biggest takeaways from this documentary is you don’t want to slight Michael Jordan. And to make him an underdog, that would be fun to see.
“To me, Michael is the greatest competitor and the best winner that I’ve ever seen in any sport. To make him an underdog, that would be a no-brainer.”
South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said the rules would be the most important factor in the mythical matchup.
“Under the old rules, the Bulls would’ve won,” he said. “Under the current rules, the Warriors would’ve probably won. But I would never make them big favorites.”
Magic Johnson’s 1987 Lakers and Larry Bird’s 1986 Celtics made the consensus final four of greatest NBA teams.
“Those Lakers and Celtics teams had to be able to compete with the Bulls,” Walker said. “But I still don’t think any of them had the offense to compete with the Warriors.”
Get your goat
Andrews, Sherman and Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito consider Jordan the G.O.A.T.
“To me, it’s a slam dunk. It’s Michael Jordan,” said Andrews, who has James and Bill Russell tied for second. “LeBron’s a great player, and I don’t mean to take anything away from him. He just wasn’t Michael Jordan.
“One of the things we’re seeing in the documentary — and it’s definitely slanted, but it was true — is that when Jordan was at his peak, he was just not going to let his team lose.”
The 6-foot-6-inch Jordan averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals in his career. He went 6-0 in NBA Finals and won five NBA MVP awards.
The 6-9 James has averaged 27.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals. He’s 3-6 in NBA Finals and has won four NBA MVPs.
“It speaks volumes that Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals and was able to leave for two years and come back,” said Esposito, who has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at No. 2 and James at No. 3.
On the defensive
Jordan was named to nine all-defensive teams and won a Defensive Player of the Year award. James has made six all-defensive teams.
“I have Jordan (No.) 1 and LeBron (No.) 2. After those two, there’s some separation,” Sherman said. “One differentiator is Jordan’s ability to be a lockdown defender, where overall defense is one of LeBron’s weaker areas.”
Murray gives James a slight edge over Jordan. Rynning has Jordan and James tied for No. 1.
“Certainly those are the top two in my mind,” Rynning said. “I can’t really put one ahead of the other.”
Walker, a die-hard Lakers fan in the 1980s, has Magic at No. 1, followed by Jordan, James and Bird.
William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said the G.O.A.T. debate is too close to call.
“I’m probably in the minority saying it’s not clear-cut that Jordan’s No. 1,” he said. “It’s real close between a bunch of guys. Wilt (Chamberlain) and Russell, for sure. Bird and Magic and LeBron, for sure. Kobe. And once you’re in the conversation, that’s really all it’s about anyway, because there’s really no way to decide it.
“Just the mere fact that you’re in the conversation makes you pretty damn special.”