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The Last Dance

The Last Dance: Ranking every Michael Jordan playoff opponent

Michael Jordan famously waged war in the playoffs against many of the biggest names from the 1980s and 1990s.

Bird's Celtics.

Magic's Lakers.

Isiah's Pistons.

Malone's Jazz.

Shaq's Magic.

Ewing's Knicks.

Barkley's Sixers and Barkley's Suns.

And so many others. While there are a few big names he never squared off against - most notably Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson - Jordan's postseason trials and tribulations routinely featured duels against the best of the best.

But which actually was the best?

To help sort through all 37 of Jordan's playoff opponents, we consulted with FiveThirtyEight.com's trusty and overwhelmingly thorough Complete History of the NBA . What exactly do I mean by overwhelmingly thorough? They have power ratings for every team following every single game in NBA (and ABA) history. I'm not going to bore you with the details, but if you want to know how exactly they did it, you can read up about it here .

I combed through each year and pulled out each team's ELO rating (that's the name of their metric) entering the series against the Bulls. Hover over each opponent to see basic information on opponent, year, round and ELO rating. You can also toggle between rounds in the upper left hand corner to filter out any other opponent.

Here's what I found...

Jordan's toughest opponents

By this measure, the hardest team Jordan ever faced off against was the 1985-86 Celtics, considered by many one of the greatest - and perhaps THE greatest - team of all-time. They went 40-1 at home, featured five Hall-of-Famers and romped through the postseason, going 15-3 en route to the title. Despite pouring in 49 in Game 1 and 63 in Game 2, Jordan's Bulls got swept.

MORE: Ranking Michael Jordan's best games

The second-best team he ever faced? The 1988-89 Pistons who won the first of back-to-back titles which included two straight wins over the Bulls in the Conference Finals. Chicago managed to take two games off the Pistons in 1989, no small feat considering they went 11-0 against everyone else including a 4-0 sweep of the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

The best team that Jordan actually beat? The 1997-98 Jazz who ranked just below the aforementioned Celtics and Pistons

Jordan's easiest opponent

Did you know that Jordan never lost a single playoff series to a team seeded lower?

That's called taking care of business.

Going strictly by ELO rating, the worst team that Jordan ever saw in the playoffs was the 1991-92 Heat led by Glen Rice who went just 38-44 in the regular season and were unceremoniously swept by the Bulls.

Fun random fact: Sherman Douglas started the year on that Miami team and played in the first five games of the season which included a loss to Chicago. Douglas went 0-30 head-to-head in his career against Jordan, the worst record of any player against His Airness.

The Finals opponents

How would you subjectively rank the teams that Jordan faced off against in the Finals?

My gut feeling would have been to say No. 1 was the 1996 SuperSonics with Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf among others.

MORE: The most forgotten great play of Michael Jordan's career

My gut feeling would have been incorrect, at least according to FiveThirtyEight.

Both of the Jazz teams from 1997 and 1998 rank ahead of the Sonics as do both the Blazers and Lakers. Yikes! Here's how they stack up along with the overall rank among Jordan's 37 total opponents:

Finals Opponents
Year Team ELO Rating Overall Rank
1998 Jazz 1,762 3rd
1997 Jazz 1,751 4th
1992 Blazers 1,702 5th
1991 Lakers 1,697 7th
1996 Sonics 1,695 9th
1993 Suns 1,634 19th

There is umm... not much love here for the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns who finished with the best record in the NBA, featured the league MVP in Charles Barkley AND nearly forced a Game 7 before John Paxson's three clinched the title in the waning moments of Game 6.

The guess here is that FiveThirtyEight "punished" the Suns for close calls leading up to the Finals as they were pushed to the distance in two of three rounds and taken to a Game 6 in another. Regardless, it's still shocking to me that this method places the Suns in the bottom half of MJ's opponents.

Which three-peat was harder?

Does it matter? Not even the slightest.

But I'm still curious.

MORE: Nobody won on MJ's watch

We mentioned the Finals opponents earlier and how the two Jazz teams take the cake for hardest opponents. Well... that's a theme when looking at Chicago's opponents round by round.

On average, Chicago's overall paths to the Finals proved more difficult in the second three-peat as well. Here is the average ELO rating of each opponent during the two three-peats:

Avg Opponent ELO Ratings
Round 1991-93 1996-98
1st Round 1,489 1,540
Conf Semis 1,589 1,599
Conf Finals 1,634 1,666
NBA Finals 1,677 1,736
Overall 1,597 1,635

Next order of business?

Shedding light on the fact that Jordan played against way easier competition than LeBron James.

via GIPHY

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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