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OT: Media Finally Starting To Understand Jordan Comeback


bulldog

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after 2 months of preaching to the choir it appears someone in the media, Boswell of the WP, has finally had the light go off: Michael Jordan's comeback to the Wizards is not about winning the scoring title in 2001 or beating the Lakers for teh championship, it is about setting the foundation for a winning program, something this city hasn't had since the late 1970's...................

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In just three weeks, the Wizards have gone from the end of the world to the top of the world. After a stretch of nine losses in 10 games, Michael Jordan said, "We stink." After six straight wins, all that has changed. Oh, how it has changed. "What I'm seeing now," he said yesterday, "is exactly what I wanted to see happen."

The joy is back in Jordan's smile. In November, his forced grin -- a grimace as shot after shot clanked off the rim -- gave everyone in basketball a shiver of revulsion. No, don't let this happen to Mike. Now, in a December of team-wide transformation, Jordan's face lights up again with that familiar wolfish beaming pride.

"I bring the attention. They bring the wins," said Jordan after yesterday's practice, delighting in his new Wizard role as Yoda. Come to see Jordan. But stay to watch Rip Hamilton, Brendan Haywood, Kwame Brown and the other Wizards of the future.

"I'm going to go back upstairs [as an executive]. These guys are going to have to know how to win amongst themselves. What I wanted to do by coming down here was kick-start the whole process," said Jordan, who has radically decreased his shooting but increased his passing and defense during an 8-2 turnaround.

Even the best athletes have days when they finally spill their guts. Yesterday, in an MCI Center hallway, Jordan's buried thoughts seemed to burst out. His frustration at his team's early embarrassments, as well as his own, wasn't hidden. Nor was his delight at discovering that, by reducing his role and accepting his own limits at 38, he could actually improve the play of the team he had built and allow it to find its potential.

Imagine, less can be more, even for the best athlete of the 20th century. Chalk up a victory for intelligence over ego.

"I didn't want to steal the spotlight. I didn't want to relive my career all over again. I can't. . . . I wanted to help them develop the proper attitude and dedication. Then [say], 'You take it from there,' " Jordan said. "The expectation was, 'Michael Jordan is going to carry this team.' That was my past life, in a sense. I'm more in the teaching mode. I'm more sidekick."

Sidekick? If you need proof, the Wizards' go-to guy is 23-year-old Richard Hamilton, the 6-foot-7 guard who gets off the floor with such sudden explosion that his shot is long gone before defenses can react. Right now, he's Option 1.

"The young guys want to move up the ladder, like Rip. I'm not going to stand in his way," said Jordan, who has created far more opportunities for teammates when taking 21 shots in the flow of the offense, than forcing 28 a game to save a foundering ship. "Five, six years down the road, I'm going to be upstairs watching [him] . . . pass down what I know."

That sigh you hear is the sound of millions of fans starting to let out their breath. Jordan's second comeback from retirement is not going to be some slow-motion chain-reaction train wreck of iced-knees, MRIs, missed jump shots and losing streaks. Instead, it's suddenly starting to work out quite well. And yet, in a wonderful refreshing way that's different than anyone expected.

"At first, guys were afraid to play with me," Jordan said yesterday. "But now it's working. . . . I'm trying to teach them how to understand the game because then they can play with anybody, not just Michael Jordan. I want them to be independent of me."

The key to the Wizards' rise has been 7-foot rookie Brendan Haywood. When his season began -- 12 games late after a thumb injury -- so did the Wizards' season.

One tall shot-blocking center with a nice low-post game has been the catalyst for all sorts of Wizard serendipity. Now Jahidi White doesn't have to worry about fouls and can tenderize foes until Haywood comes off the bench. Tyronn Lue, accustomed to Shaq behind him, can play his gambling defense at guard.

Haywood, a North Carolina product, now looks like one of the steals of the season. Picked 20th, he was traded to Orlando. Then, in a second trade, he was grabbed by the Wizards in exchange for Laron Profit and future considerations. Who pulled off this heist for a center Coach Doug Collins says "reminds me of a young Robert Parish"? Why, it was that ex-Wizards executive Michael Jordan.

In his last eight games, Haywood has averaged 10.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks and shot 61.7 percent in just 27 minutes a game. That's a ton, per minute.

"Haywood looks like a vet. He's created a niche for himself," said Jordan. "There's something about that Carolina."

Actually, Jordan's Tar Heels connection was a back-channel for the trade. "Brendan was [available] because a lot of people said he didn't play [hard] every game. That his work ethic was really bad," said Jordan. "But I talked to Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge. We heard [differently]. . . . Here, he's had a strong, strong work ethic."

Haywood loves the NBA. The dainty touch fouls that drove him crazy in college are gone. And he can even horde his meal money. "The guy loves money. That's wonderful. He'll stay motivated," laughs Collins. "But I tell him, 'Don't just eat Gatorade bars. Eat real food. Don't be that cheap.' "

"I'm driven by the desire to get better and the desire for the dollars," says Haywood, who asked for No. 3 when he arrived -- the number of his basketball idol.

And that would be? John Starks!

"Starks had such passion and fire. On a bad night shooting, he was always diving on the floor, getting in people's faces on defense," said Haywood. "That's what I like to think I'm about."

Did NBA scouts have this guy ranked about 15 spots too low?

"Look at Kwame, who's 19, Brendan, 22, Etan Thomas, 23 and Jahidi, 25. Four young guys like that can be the cornerstones of your front court for 10 years. Then you look at what Rip's done. As a coach, you start to get excited," said Collins. "If we get a good draft pick and a free agent this offseason. . . . That's how quickly things can change."

Are the Wizards in danger of going from despair to delirium? As the schedule toughens and the month-long loss of injured Christian Laettner forces Brown into more minutes, will the 11-12 Wizards stay solid as December or dismal as November?

"We're not good enough to have any slippage. . . . In this league, the losses come faster than the wins," said Collins as the Wizards prepare for Atlanta at home tonight. "My big concern is, 'Don't bask in a few wins. Don't take another U-turn.' "

You can believe Collins's cautious words. Or Jordan's optimistic smile. These days, the latter is quite large.

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Both the Redskins and Wizards seem to be hanging around that mediocre stage, just waiting to get over the hump. Just who'll bust the 500 mark first is the question. My guess is the Wizards, only because it takes fewer athletes to rebuild a basketball team than a football team.

It has been a long drought for DC area teams. Will this be the year that Duke finally FEARS THE TURTTLE or will Florida fear them New Years Day?

I have to say I am a Redskin fan #1 followed by the Terps basketball and then Wizards. The Skins and Wizards (Bullets) have satisfied me in the past with championships seasons but I am still waiting for the Terps to satisfy. By the way, as a kid, I lived and died by the Senators, mostly died. I still have dreams of them in the world series, it's the seventh game, ninth inning two outs, down by 3 runs with the bases loaded and Frank Howard is at bat. I wake up so I'll never know if he is going to blast it out of the stadium or strike out.

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"mediocre" certainly describes the Redskins more than the Wizards. The Bullets/Wizards haven't won a playoff series since 1982. They have only been in the playoffs 3 times since 1988. Michael Jordan is starting over with a 19 win team that sent its three leading scorers packing in the last year in Howard, Richmond and Strickland.

The Redskins are and have been mediocre, not good, not really bad, just another 7-9, 8-8, 8-7-1 type team that fails to impress you either way.

Just consider: 1995 (6-10), 1996 (9-7), 1997 (8-7-1), 1998 (6-10), 1999 (10-6), 2000 (8-8), 2001 (8-8 or 9-7 maybe 7-9)

In the past 10 years the Capitals have been the area's best team by far in terms of consistency of performance and ability to use the draft successfully. Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig, two cornerstones for the past 4 years, were both drafted by the team, as are the two best blueline players Brendan Witt and Sergei Gonchar.

Jagr is really a departure for this team. This is their first foray into acquiring a high profile, high maintenance player. So far he has been hurt for much of the first quarter of the season, although I have seen him have a couple of dominating games against the Rangers and Atlanta in recent play.

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The Caps have been consistent, but they still haven't become a Stanley Cup caliber team. They're another one of those teams that "can't get over the hump."

If you think about it, there really are no truly excellent sports towns. What would be the best? New York? ummm....New York?

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The Wizards certainly arent hanging around, being a mediocre team. They have been flat out awful, and they are suddenly a major contender in the East. Their record is 12-12, but that's after a 2-9 start. They just won their 7th game in a row, and won it by nearly 30 points in a game that was over halfway through the third quarter. The improvement of this team (let me emphasize team) has been nothing short of spectacular.

As much as it pains me to say it, the Wizards look far more likely to make the playoffs than the Redskins.... sigh....

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WHat's cool is that even if the Wizards go into some slump again, they have a good young corp of players for the A.J. years (After Jordan...my guess is 2003 and on) Rip Hamilton is just awsome, Haywood might be rookie of the year (sez Sir Charles) and Kwame is doing pretty good for a 19 year old. Add in Whitney, Tyrone, a guy named Popeye....they could get a playoff spot in a weak east, make it to the 2nd round and consider this is a stepping off point. When I turned on the game at halftime I thought the Hawks would make it a bit closer....nope, D.C. just came back attacking and jordan only played like 27 minutes. Sweet.

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Jordan's presence has been invaluable in allowing Hamilton to find his own game and work to improve without the pressure of having to carry the entire load offensively.

Jordan's trade for fellow Carolina alum Brendan Haywood may end up being the steal of the first round of the draft. No doubt he got some inside dope from the Carolina coaches that Brendan would in fact be a good pro and work hard to improve. Chalk one up for the ole boy network smile.gif

Brown as well is being allowed to come along slowly. That is a wise decision by Collins and Jordan.

Don't get me wrong. Jordan DOES play a much larger role on his team than any other player in the league does, but Collins is a coach that is very good at teaching the fundamentals of defense and is especially good with younger players because he has patience to let them grow.

Jordan and Collins together make a very effective team to help propel this team into the future.

The Wizards still need a small forward to take over for Jordan in the future, they need to settle the point guard position (Lue is effective but is better suited to coming off the bench) and they need to decide on who they are going to invest in long-term at center. Haywood it appears is the future at the position, so at some point Jahidi White might be dealt.

But White has been very effective in the latest winning streak, I think platooning with Haywood has made White a better player. So, that trade may be somewhere down the line, perhaps next season.

The thing I like most about the Wizards is what Richard Hamilton said after the game last night:

"This is a team where the players all like each other, support each other....and there are no guys in the locker room that are divisive or guys with their own agendas."

It has taken the Wizards 10 years to put together a squad that can say that.

The formula for the Wizards success:

Hamilton 20+ points

Jordan 20+ points

White/Haywood 17-18 points/12 rebounds

Popeye Jones 7-10 rebounds

Whitney/Hamilton/Lue 10-14 assists from the backcourt

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Now he can focus on swinging a deal with acquiring Jason Williams out of Duke, maybe??? However the finish won't lend itself to that, as they are on pace for the 45-48 win season (ok maybe, as it get's closer to playoff time, these young guys would have to "immediately" elevate their game to that next level). Jordan can lead them to the water, but at that point, he can't make them drink. It would be like the first few games. Unfortunately, in the playoffs, you only have a series to get together, so they would easily be playoff fodder.

Nevertheless that would be some valuble experience. That would also attract a "Jason Williams" type of player.

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I think rating 45-48 wins may be too generous despite the early record. Remember the NBA season is a marathon and 82 games means you have to have some depth to withstand injuries.

There are no scorers right now to support the team if Hamilton or Jordan misses significant time.

The team does have some depth in the front court but it is young and except for Haywood limited in terms of physical skills.

Lue and Whitney are decent players but will be overwhelmed at times guarding the better backcourt leaders in the NBA down the stretch.

This team needs Alexander and Brown to come on in the second half of the season to make this team more varied in its attack. And that is possible.

I expect the team to improve itself in the offseason of 2002 whether by trade or move in free agency.

The greatest assest the team has right now is the hope with Leonsis and Jordan on board, that the franchise will now invest the time and resources necessary to be a serious contender.

No one has been able to say that about the Wizards/Bullets since Dick Motta was here in the early 1980's. smile.gif

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