M.J. Leaves Empty-Handed

At 29-years-old, which in the grand scheme of things is relatively young, there are a few things in sports that will be true for the rest of my, hopefully, long life. Despite the fact he is kind of a jerk, which is like saying Saddam Hussein is kind of a dictator, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds is probably the greatest baseball player in my time. And even though he did not win his third Masters over the weekend, does anyone really doubt that Tiger Woods is going to be the greatest golfer of our generation? Football is wide open. Let's throw Joe Montana out there, but amongst friends, New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor rates very high. And this brings us to basketball. Although Magic Johnson and Larry Bird make very strong arguments, and Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady are tremendously talented, it is usually understood that Michael Jordan is the greatest. When you consider the on-court greatness, the clutch shots, the championships, the commercials ("It's gotta be the shoes, Money!"), Michael Jordan stands just not as the greatest basketball player, but possibly the greatest athlete. That is why, even though many thought he should have stayed retired, he was welcomed with open arms M.J.'s return to the NBA these past two seasons with the Washington Wizards. If he wants to play, why shouldn't he? Unfortunately, as the NBA season comes to a close, it is becoming painfully obvious that the Jordan/Wizards experiment, for lack of a better word, failed.

It is almost sacrilege to say the word "failed" with anything associated with Jordan, but when you take a step back and look at what the goals were for him and the team, it fits. When Jordan came down from the Executive Box to put on the short pants and hoop it up one last time, the idea that he could not lead the Wizards to at the very least the eighth and final, playoff seed in the weak Eastern Conference was laughable. Jordan the Executive had gotten rid of some bad contracts, such as Juwan Howard's, and had selected high schooler Kwame Brown with the overall number-one pick. Who better to help develop Brown than the greatest player in the game? He also fired his first selection as head coach, Leonard Hamilton, and hired old Chicago Bulls buddy Doug Collins. The team was ready, but during the first year of the newest comeback, the 2001-2002 season, Jordan played way too many minutes for a 39-year-old man, dealt with a myriad of injuries, the Wizards limped to a 37-45 record, and did not make the playoffs. To be honest, Jordan did average 23 points, almost 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. Those are very good numbers, but not classic Jordan numbers. No one expected him to average 30 points like he did during the 1990s, but they probably did expect him to shoot better than 41% from the field.

The 2002-2003 season came with some new changes. The Wizards traded Rip Hamilton, the second leading scorer at 20 ppg, for All-Star Jerry Stackhouse. Larry Hughes, Byron Russell, Charles Oakley came over for some veteran leadership, and the draft produced first round selections Juan Dixon and Jared Jeffries. Jordan himself had decided to come off the bench and play more of a secondary role. Now, when you consider the competitive fire of Michael Jordan, the idea of him coming off the bench does not fit. Therefore, it was not surprising when this situation lasted about two weeks. Even with all of these changes, the Wizards sit at 37-43 with two games left. They will not make the playoffs, again. So, Jordan plans to retire, again. As he returns to his executive office, he is leaving a team not much better off than when he arrived.

For a team to rebuild in the NBA, it has to do it by developing their young players. The presence of Jordan, and the drive to secure a playoff spot, came at the expense of developing their younger players. Next year will be the third and final year in the rookie contract of Kwame Brown, and no one knows how good he is or if he has developed at all. The reliance by Collins on veterans such as Russell, Oakley, and Christian Laettner stunted the growth of the team. They traded Hamilton, a 20 ppg scorer that does not have to shoot a lot to get his points, for Stackhouse, a 20 ppg scorer that needs to shoot the ball a lot, and has proven in Philadelphia with Allen Iverson, and in Detroit with Grant Hill, that he is not suited to be a secondary or complementary player, the role he was required to play in Washington. Now, if the Wizards want to resign Stackhouse, he is going to cost them far more money than Hamilton. It is kind of funny that Jerry Krause, the Bulls general manager Jordan hated so much, retired this past week having assembled a group of young talent that has a much brighter future than the group in D.C.

The Jordan comeback was not a total disaster. The Wizards are now a nationally known team, with Jordan jerseys still a good seller. Their attendance and revenues have gone up due to having Jordan on the team, as have those of the teams they go on the road to play. Off the court, Michael Jordan has helped the Wizards become very successful. On the court however, he failed. But, there is a first time for everything, and it will be Jordan's competitive spirit that will keep him in Washington in an executive role. He will have to finish from the office what he could not do on the court