In 1993, the basketball landscape was dramatically changed when Michael Jordan retired from the game. Compounding the shock of his departure was the fact the he eventually got sucked through a golf hole and transported to an animated alternate dimension where he inspired a squad of Warner Bros. cartoon characters to victory over a team of aliens (the Nerdlucks) who had stolen the talents of five earthbound basketball stars. By beating the Monstars 78-77, Michael Jordan and the Tune Squad won their freedom, as they were playing for the right to not be held prisoner in an intergalactic theme park. These events are shown in the critically acclaimed 1996 documentary Space Jam.
With a Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James coming to theaters in July, the Monstars would be well served to approach this second opportunity with smarter planning. Naturally, they should look at that original defeat, as history tends to repeat itself.
Considering they were leading 66-18 at halftime, one can’t help but think the Monstars let this crucial game slip away. What could they have done to prevent such a meltdown? The most effective fix would have to have been implemented before the game even started: they should’ve stolen the talent of better NBA players.
Of all the basketball players in the universe, the Nerdlucks stole the talents of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, and Shawn Bradley. Beyond not establishing a bench, the aliens eschewed a standard lineup for one with two slow, plodding centers and no wings. Even more inexplicable was that, of the two centers chosen, one was Shawn Bradley, “The Stormin’ Mormon,” who averaged a paltry 8.1 points per game during his less than stellar NBA career. Considering this was the most important game of the Monstars's lives, their preparation and scouting were unbelievably lackadaisical. In a one-point game, this was the difference.
Were they to start over, they likely wouldn’t have chosen any of those players, and here’s why.
Monstars Were Statistically Unimpressive
According to the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective, who compiled stats for the Space Jam game, two Monstars combined to score 71 of their 77 points: Pound (the alien with Charles Barkley’s talent) and Bupkus (the alien with Patrick Ewing’s). In case you were wondering, the Nerdluck who had stolen Shawn Bradley’s talent tallied 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 steals, and 0 blocks (despite being nearly 10 feet tall).
Assuming the events took place after 1993 but before 1995, the ’94-’95 NBA season is our best indicator of player performance at the time of the Tune Squad-Monstars game. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s advance stats, the Nerdlucks didn’t steal the talent of a single player in the top five when it came to VORP ("Value Over Replacement Player"), PER (“Player Efficiency Rating”), or Win Shares Per 48 Minutes.
Factoring all those advanced metrics, the best starting five the Monstars could have chosen would likely have been:
C: David Robinson (8.1 VORP, .273 WS/48, 29.1 PER)
PF: Karl Malone (6.1 VORP, .212 WS/48, 25.1 PER)
SF: Scottie Pippen (7.4 VORP, .188 WS/48, 22.6 PER)
SG: Clyde Drexler (5.9 VORP, .206 WS/48, 22.4 PER)
PG: John Stockton (5.4 VORP, .233 WS/48, 23.3 PER)
(You can argue for Hakeem Olajuwon over Robinson—it's hard not to.)
By using those Win Shares per 48 minutes (the "average number of wins produced by a player per 48 minutes"—check this out for a more in-depth analysis), we can extrapolate that team's performance if they played all 82 games of an NBA regular season without missing a single minute and figure out total wins produced.
What about fatigue, you ask? These are alien monsters, so that argument is absurd. You are being absurd.
By taking their WS/48 and multiplying it by 3936 (the total number of minutes an NBA team will play in a season), the above team would have won 90 games out of a possible 82. Pretty good.
The actual Monstars line-up of Ewing (.157 WS/48), Barkley (.214 WS/48), Johnson (.126 WS/48), Bogues (.157 WS/48), and Bradley (.071 WS/48) would have won 60 games in that same NBA season. They wouldn't have even had the best record in the league in '94-'95, as the San Antonio Spurs (who had no alien monsters) won 62 games. Why wouldn't the Monstars go with a team that would win eight more games than was even possible?
Given that this was the mid-‘90s, advanced metrics were little-used or understood, even for a species of aliens like the Nerdlucks who had mastered inter-dimensional and inter-planetary travel. Even so, the superior team I selected more than passes the eye test, so they have no excuse.
The Jordan Problem
As the best player in history, Michael Jordan was always going to pose a problem for the Monstars. In Space Jam, he went 22-22, scoring 44 points (including the game-winning three-point dunk at the buzzer). No one is stopping Jordan, but you could definitely do a better job slowing him down. Here are some options.
Pippen is making the Monstars based on overall stats alone, but as one of the best wing defenders of all time, he is a no-brainer when it comes to guarding Jordan. Even more importantly, however, is his intimate knowledge of Jordan's game. It's always said that no one guarded MJ better than Pippen did during Bulls practices, and beside his innate athleticism and skill set, Scottie knew all his teammate's tendencies. The only issue is falling into the trope of a brainwashed friend being reminded of his true allegiances at the most inopportune moment. Scottie, it's me, Michael. You remember, don't you? We won all those championships together, buddy. I know you're in there. I just know it!
Stockton is the statistical choice for the Monstars point guard, but if they wanted to muck Jordan's game up, they should have considered Seattle Supersonics PG Gary Payton. Although his famous finals matchup with Jordan didn't happen until after the events of Space Jam, The Glove had already shown himself to be a ferocious defender. (In that finals against the Bulls, Payton helped hold Jordan to under 30 points in five of the six games the teams played, the best-ever defense of Jordan in any finals series. Unlike against the Monstars, Michael Jordan did not post a perfect field goal percentage.)
If you can't stop Jordan from scoring, you might as well make him work on the defensive end. Michael Jordan surprisingly listed Richmond as the most difficult shooting guard he had to defend during his career. Whether this was just a case of the notoriously prickly Jordan refusing to give more heralded opponents credit is up in the air, but either way, Richmond surely would've been a better selection for the Monstars than Shawn Bradley.
A Stronger Players' Union
Besides choosing better players, the Monstars could have benefited from a CBA that took into account and prevented the types of shenanigans the Tune Squad would try to pull. As the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective points out, the only missed field goal came from the Monstar with Patrick Ewing's talent (naturally), and it occurred after Wile E. Coyote (up until that point, an ineffective bench player) rigged the hoop with explosives. Banning or regulating such ACME devices should have been a non-negotiable part of the union's collective bargaining strategy, and they messed up big time by letting it slide. Without it, the Tune Squad would have lost 79-78. That's all, folks.
This story has been updated for 2021.