Recently Michael Jordan claimed he could score 100 points in a game under today’s rules, and this was followed by ESPN’s John Hollinger claiming he’d be quite a bit short. While I try to think nicely of Hollinger for trying to use numbers to look at sports, I don’t like him because he very often does it wrong. This is another occasion. He uses a variety of per-game averages to eventually decide that Jordan would top out at around 39.6 points per game. But that isn’t what he was trying to figure out; he was trying to figure out if Jordan could get to 100 in a single game. So let’s try to do this right.
The main factor in determining how many points a player will score is how many shots they take. To get to 100, you obviously need to take a lot. But on top of that we need to know what kind of shots they are (two pointers, three pointers, free throws) and the probability of making those shots. I’ll look at two versions of these numbers for Jordan: his career averages and his best season average. For example, in his career, Jordan took 8,772 free throw attempts against 24,537 field goal attempts, which is 35.8%. His best individual season was actually his rookie season, when he took 746 free throws against 1,625 field goal attempts for 45.9%. Similarly, his career three point attempt percentage is only 7.2%, but his highest season was 15.7% in 1996. Two point attempts will obviously be what’s left over from the three point attempts. In terms of converting the attempts, his career/best free throw percentage is 83.5%/85.7% (1986), three point percentage is 32.7%/42.7% (1995; I’m ignoring 1994 when he only played 17 games), and two point percentage is 51%/55.3% (1998). Here is a chart with a range of field goal attempts from 1 to 50 and free throw attempts/makes and points scored (same as makes for free throws) based on his career and best season attempt rate and conversion rate:
At 23 shots (his actual career average is 22.9), his career points scored is 30.26, which matches pretty well with his actual career average of 30.1. Looking at the best case scenario, surprisingly to me, Jordan tops out at 76 points on 50 attempts. So he likely would never average 100 points per season, even taking a lot of shots, but he could break Wilt’s single-season record (50.4 points per game) had he taken 39 shots a game at his career average, or 33 at his career bests.
Why can’t Jordan get to 100 points in a game? These numbers are still based on season-long averages. To have a transcendent game, you have to have the kind of crazy performance that doesn’t happen on average. For example, when Kobe scored 81 he shot 90% from the line on 20 attempts, 53.8% from three on 13 attempts, and 63.6% on 33 two-point attempts. Jordan’s best game from the line was 26 for 27 (96.3%) in 1987; his best game from three was 6 for 8 (75%) in 1992 (he hit 7 in a different game, but on 12 attempts); and his best two point performance was probably 24 for 28 (85.7%) in 1998. Just adding those together, Jordan’s line would be 92 points on only 36 shots and 27 free throws; the free throws aren’t outrageous because he actually only took 25 shots in the game where he had 27 free throw attempts. With Kobe’s shot selection and his best-game percentages, Jordan would have had 105 points.
Conclusions! It’s really unlikely that Michael Jordan would ever average 100 points per game, but that doesn’t seem to be what he claimed. If you use career averages, or even best season averages, it’s unlikely Jordan would get to 100 points in a single game because no one puts up the kind of numbers required over the course of a whole season. But, if everything went right for one game, like it did for Kobe but on a Jordan-esque scale, I think Jordan could definitely get to 100 points.