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  • Writer's pictureJ O'Quinn

Did Jordan’s DPOY Affect More Than Just the 1988 Season?

By: Isaac Onuoha

We all regard Michael Jordan as one of, if not the greatest players of all time. An absolute killer that performed at a level higher than arguably every other icon of our game. However, with the recent rise of replaying and stat tracking old game film fans have come to call into question the validity of his 1988 Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) award. 

1988 DPOY

In the years leading up to the 1987-88 season, Michael Jordan became restless with the media about his underappreciation of his defense. He clambered to the media that awards were, “based on reputation” and doesn’t take enough time to actually watch the games, specifically targeting Michael Cooper on numerous occasions. Jordan told Sports Illustrated in 1987, “Michael Cooper is great at ball denial, but check his other stats. This league gives defensive awards on reputation. It just tees me off.” 

In Tom Haberstroh’s “A Closer Look at Michael Jordan's 1988 DPOY Award raises questions about its validity. Has LeBron James been chasing a ghost?” He writes on how stat keepers could’ve been encouraged or incentivized to boost star players' stats to create a bigger draw to their team. An incentive to inflate a star’s stats along with the league’s young megastar complaining that he hasn’t gotten the love he deserves. (I feel like you know where this is going)

 In a complete coincidence, in 1988 Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year averaging a staggering 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks a game. Decades later after reanalyzing the numbers, there are sizeable statistical anomalies. 

Michael averaged a little more than 4 steals and 2 blocks per game at home. This makes his 2.3 steals and a block a game on the road look like he was playing on one leg. While some players play better at home because of the lesser travel, family, and familiar circumstances, these numbers in a 41-game sample size for home and away are too much to ignore.

Jordan won the award in a landslide. Winning 37 out of the 80 first-place votes, with the second most votes being Mark Eaton at only 9. It is no doubt that the numbers helped propel him above Bird in the MVP race. 35-5-5 on a 50-win team and 29-9-6 on a 57-win team is a lot closer without the defensive numbers.

A Small Blip or a Bad Habit?

With stat keepers knowingly aiding Jordan’s numbers in ‘87-’88, other teams were not far behind them. The following year, Mark Eaton won DPOY after coming in second the season before, averaging 3.8 blocks a game. There is no doubt that the Utah stat keepers took an interest to getting their Giant some nice hardware after feeling robbed by Jordan the year before.

In ‘87, I believe Jordan could’ve won the award without the boost. His stats we’re great on the road anyways and he was doing it for a team that won 51 games. Eaton, however, was NOT the best defender in ‘88-’89. That title belonged to Hakeem Olajuwon, and it isn’t even close.

  • They Cheated for him: If the World can see that Jordan’s numbers don’t make sense, just take a glance at Eaton's to see if there are any surface-level anomalies. Eaton had 122 called blocks on the road and 193 blocks at home. That's 2.93 blocks a game compared to 4.7. Hakeem averaged slightly more blocks on the road compared to at home (3.5 vs 3.3). Point Dream.

  • The Utah Avengers: I am going to get ahead of this by saying Eaton’s rim protection was elite and some of the best of his generation. However, I believe his defense wasn’t as important as Hakeem's. Eaton simply had one of the best coaches of all time in Jerry Sloan. That Utah squad boasted some elite on and off-ball defenders in Thurl Bailey, John Stockton, and Bob Hansen. Add that to the Dream having a better defensive rating, and it's clear that Hakeem had the edge.

  • Ran out of the Gym: A topic that has gained relevancy especially with the Rudy Gobert saga of DPOY awards: THIS IS A REGULAR SEASON AWARD AND THE PLAYOFFS SHOULD NOT AFFECT VOTING. But allow me to completely disregard my statement. Eaton had 2 blocks in a 3-game sweep by a 7th-seeded Warriors team. Hakeem had 2 blocks, in game 1. While the Rockets did lose in an unimpressive 4 games, Hakeem looked like the same player and more specifically, the same defender. When John Stockton has more than double the blocks of your defensive player of the year, it's a point for Hakeem.

Final Score is 3-0 Dream. Swept twice in ‘89. Not your year Mark. 

I really cannot find a reason to vote for Eaton this season. Did the voters take the lazy way out and vote for the best defender on the best defense? Did the Jazz encourage their stat trackers to lean heavier on Eaton’s stocks to make him look better? Did Thurl Bailey sing in the locker room to hype the team up pregame? All things are entirely possible. There is no doubt that Jordan’s boosting had an effect on stat tracking in the late 80s, more specifically the ‘89 awards. But if we cannot watch the games and find out for ourselves, a deep dive into Basketball Reference can be a great plan B.

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