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The Last Dance

One Play: The simplicity and effectiveness of Michael Jordan's iconic fadeaway

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Michael Jordan (NBA Getty Images)

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, Michael Jordan takes centre stage.


Context: With "The Last Dance" going on, I've been breaking down certain plays from the 1997-98 season to shine a spotlight on what made the best players on that Chicago Bulls team all-time greats in their own regard.

I've already done one on what might be the greatest forgotten play of Michael Jordan's career, but let's be real, it's impossible for just one play to summarize the career of someone many consider to be the greatest player of all-time. So with that in mind, I wanted to take a closer look at another part of Jordan's game, his go-to move that helped him become the most feared scorer in NBA history.

This time, however, we're going back to the 1994-95 season, not the 1997-98 season, because we recently got a chance to relive an iconic game from that season through the "NBA Together" campaign, which means you can watch it on YouTube in all it's HD glory.

It was in this comeback season that Jordan sowed the seeds for what would become the defining move in his offensive repertoire over the second three-peat.

The play: From his famous "Double-Nickel" game, in which he scored 55 points in only his sixth game back from his first retirement, Jordan hits a fadeaway over New York Knicks guard John Starks.

Breakdown: With 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock on a broken possession, Jordan receives the ball at the top of the 3-point line while being guarded by Starks, a one-time member of the All-Defensive Second Team.

Bulls forward Toni Kukoč isn't far away from Jordan when he receives the ball from B.J. Armstrong, but he immediately clears out to give Jordan the space he needs to attack Starks in isolation, going from being several feet behind the 3-point line to just outside of the post on the right side of the court.

Scottie Pippen does something similar. He makes a cut from the weakside to the strongside, likely with setting up the triangle in mind, but he stops when he gets to the post and retraces his steps to give Jordan even more room to work with.

With Armstrong, Pippen, Kukoc and Bill Wennington on the opposite side of the court, Jordan sizes up Starks with five seconds remaining on the shot clock.

Just look at this island. There's nobody within 10 feet!

Jordan tries to take Starks off the dribble, but Starks is able to get his body in front of Jordan to prevent him from getting all the way to the basket.

Unphased, Jordan stops, fakes as though he's either going to spin over his left shoulder and rises up for a fadeaway over Starks, giving him his 28th point of the first half.

Why it matters: Quite simply, Jordan's fadeaway is one of the most unstoppable moves in NBA history.

There are a few reasons why.

First and foremost, Jordan had size. At 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he could shoot over the top of most perimeter defenders, especially when he faded away. That doesn't mean they were easy shots for him - fadeaways are usually heavily contested by nature - but Jordan didn't need much room to get off his shot. His defender's only hope of stopping him was blocking his shot, which, again, wasn't easy given his size.

The NBA's tracking data isn't available for all but four seasons of Jordan's career, but for some perspective, only 1.8 percent of his midrange shot attempts from the 1996-97 and 1997-98 season were blocked. That's jaw-droppingly low considering the volume with which he shot from midrange (more on that in a minute).

Secondly, Jordan had counters on counters on counters.

If Jordan was only comfortable fading over his right shoulder, it would've made him much easier to game plan against. But it was his ability to fadeaway in every which way that made him so unpredictable.

Let's go back to his shot over Starks for a second. All things considered, Starks defended Jordan rather well, but it was at this point where it all fell apart for him:

Again, Starks was a one-time member of the All-Defensive Second Team. He might not have been one of the best defenders of the 1990s, but he was a good defender. The fact that he bit as hard as he did on Jordan's fake should tell you everything you need to know about how devastating Jordan's fadeaway was regardless of which direction he was fading.

If it doesn't, just look at what happened on the very next possession of the same "Double-Nickel" game. Once again, Jordan is being guarded by Starks late in a possession, only this time he fades over his left shoulder, not right.

"You have to be able to go both ways," Jordan once said when breaking down the art of his fadeaway. "That's a key component in terms of as an offensive player, you want to be able to use all aspects of the shot, not just one side, not just turning over your right shoulder, but also turning over your left.

"That's another instance of trying to keep the defence off balance so they can not limit your options."

Jordan wouldn't just alternate fading over his right and left shoulder either. He would read the defence based on the pressure they were putting on him and go the opposite way. His first shot over Starks was an example of what he calls the "Windshield Wiper," in which he fakes one way and comes back the other way. He had an answer to everything.

To be able to do all of that as seamlessly as Jordan did required perfect footwork, which is why he's widely regarded to be one of the most fundamentally sound players of all-time. He would even do things like fake going over one shoulder, get his defender up in the air with a fake over the other shoulder and lean in for a layup or jump shot, even as a 39-year-old.

Guarding Jordan in isolation was basically a game within a game.

Ultimately, none of this would've meant anything were fadeaways not an efficient source of offence for Jordan, but they were. Again, the tracking data is limited, but you get a sense of how dominant of a midrange scorer Jordan was by looking at what he did in his second-to-last season with the Bulls. Not only did he lead the league by making 588 shots from midrange in 1996-97, only 11 qualified players in the entire league shot a higher percentage than Jordan (48.9 percent) from that distance.

In other words, Jordan was the most prolific midrange shooter in the league while still being one of the most efficient.

It's crazy to think just how much Jordan's game evolved over time. The version of MJ that won three straight titles from 1991-93 looked entirely different than the one that won three straight titles from 1996-98. If you asked someone who had never seen him play, showed them highlights from the first three-peat and asked them to write a paragraph explaining what they saw offensively, there's a decent chance it features zero mention of the same move that later came to define his last dance.

The same player who hung in the air and switched hands flying through the lane was the same player who turned over either shoulder and buried fadeaway jumper after fadeaway jumper even when everyone in the building knew what was coming.

Six years.

Six rings.

Six scoring titles.

A patently ridiculous, unstoppable move that allowed Jordan to defeat even Father Time himself.

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