Revisiting 1992-93’s Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley MVP Race

During the 1992-93 season, Michael Jordan pushed his Chicago Bulls to their third straight NBA title.

As mentioned in episode five of The Last Dance, the team was slogging coming off two back-to-back championships and finished with 10 fewer wins than the previous season. The media scrutiny was getting out of control, and there were rumors that the end was nigh.

But that wasn’t stopping Air Jordan. He averaged 32.6 points per game that year, more than he managed in any other championship season with the Bulls. And with the likes of John Paxson missing extended time that season, the team had to rely on Jordan for more shots than any year since 1986-87, before Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant arrived.

On episode five of The Last Dance, Jordan said: “I was a little bit upset that I didn’t get the MVP that year and they gave it to Charles [Barkley]. But I thought, OK, you can have that, I’m going to have this.”

If you look at the raw stats, you can see why Jordan was upset.

Michael Jordan
Points: 32.6
Rebounds: 6.7
Assists: 5.5
Steals: 2.8
Blocks: 0.8
FG%: .495
+/-: 11.2
Charles Barkley
Points: 25.6 
Rebounds: 12.2
Assists: 5.1
Steals: 1.6
Blocks: 1.0
FG%: .520
+/-: 7.8

Jordan was scoring more for the Bulls. He was helping his teammates score more. He stole the ball more than anyone else in the league. And when he was on the floor, his team was 11 points better.

Of course, Barkley was no slouch either.

His 25.6 ppg was good for fifth-highest in the league that year and amounted for 22.5 percent of the Phoenix Suns’ points. The 12.2 rebounds he grabbed was an incredible achievement for a dude who stood somewhere around 6-5. And he recorded six triple-doubles on the season.

Most importantly, he led the Suns to the best record in the NBA.

You see, while Chicago had the experience, the best player in the game and a superior coach, Barkley led the league in one unrecordable stat that seems to trump almost anything when it comes to MVP races: narrative.

Since the media started determining the recipient of the MVP in 1980-81, narrative has played a big role in how it is awarded.

It’s the reason LeBron James hasn’t won three more MVP awards; It’s the reason Tim Duncan didn’t win two more; It’s the reason why James Harden only has one. It’s the same reason the likes of Steve Nash and Stephen Curry both went back-to-back.

In 1992-93? Barkley was the most compelling story.

That season was Barkley’s first in a new uniform. For the first eight years, he had built a career from being the young buck on an aging Philadelphia 76ers team to the whole franchise being rebuilt in his image. That all peaked in 1989-90.

Some missteps from the Sixers franchise and an injury here and there, (including a few retirements along the way), saw the team’s record get worse and worse. By 1991-92, everybody was looking for a way out.

Barkley was traded to Phoenix as the franchise hit the reset button.

The Suns were a good team prior to his arrival and had four straight seasons of at least 53 wins. So the question was whether or not Barkley could take them any further.

Unfair or not, many had begun to brand him as a player who could only take a team so far, so the move to Phoenix would make or break his legacy.

In 1992-93, Phoenix broke the 60-win barrier for the first time in the Suns’ history. They wouldn’t reach the mark again until the team produced another MVP (Nash) more than 20 years later.

This was an increase of nine wins on the previous season as Barkley cemented his legacy as an all-time great, even if he failed to become a champion.

Meanwhile, the narrative surrounding Jordan was becoming tiring.

The Last Dance did a great job of showing how the media not only watched his every move but had also begun digging for any little scrap of negativity they could find. He was also coming off the back of an Olympic campaign that saw his star reach international heights even he could not have previously fathomed. He had won back-to-back MVP awards, to add to the one he’d secured earlier in his career.

But even His Airness told Jackie MacMullan that he thought the league was bored of his skills.

While Jordan was still proving unstoppable individually, his team won 10 fewer games than the previous season and only managed to finish with the third-best record in the league.

With such a strong narrative driving Barkley’s race, you can understand why the media leaned in favor of Sir Charles. There was an aura around the team that Barkley felt right up until the Finals.

Even when his Suns were down 3-1, the championship still felt in his grasp:

But on The Last Dance, Barkley admitted feeling different after the encounter with Jordan’s Bulls, saying, “That was the first time in my life where I felt that there could be a better basketball player in the world than me.”

All the hoopla, hype and hyperbole about the Phoenix Suns in 1992-93 was enough to earn Barkley the regular season MVP. There were other candidates, including Hakeem Olajuwon (who finished second in voting) and Patrick Ewing (who finished fourth).

But with 2020 vision and a cold comparative statistical analysis, the man who should have won the MVP award that year was Michael Jordan. There is no retroactive presentation, and Jordan knows that.

But that’s OK, he has the championship to show it.