Michael Jordan will never be a greater or more exciting basketball player than he is right at this moment. Enjoy him, because this is his creative peak, the era when he will do things in ways that have never been seen before.

Michael Jordan will never be a more incomplete, frustrated and vulnerable player than he is these days. Pity him, because he is not playing the sport he loves but, rather, some warped and esthetically flawed version of basketball he can only half love.

Both these statements are true. Both were perfectly illustrated at Capital Centre on Wednesday night as Jordan, who is in the process of leading the NBA in scoring for a second straight season, sank a dozen points in the final eight minutes of a dramatic game, yet couldn't save his team from losing, 106-103, when his last-gasp shot missed at the buzzer.

Some great basketball players never find the team of their dreams, the one where they can be completely themselves and fully express all their skills. For example, in their primes Oscar Robertson and Jerry West never had enough great front-court players to complement them. Adrian Dantley has never found a contender who needed a point-a-minute sixth man.

To a casual NBA observer, it might seem that Jordan should be in heaven these days. His Chicago Bulls are good enough to win most of their games (36-27), yet they desperately need to ask him to perform every wonder in his arsenal. He's got the league's leading rebounder in Charles Oakley, plus 7-foot Dave Corzine, to get him the ball. Yet the rest of the Bulls are such bricklayers that any ridiculous backward, blind, over-the-shoulder junk that Jordan spins up on the glass in traffic is as likely to drop as a Scottie Pippen jumper. All indulgences are instantly forgiven.

Here's the ball, Michael. Save us.

What a showcase for a high-wire hot dog who can outleap any guard who ever lived, except perhaps David Thompson, and who has the athletic nimbleness to execute more dipsy-doodle midair magic than Julius Erving.

The problem, you see, is that Jordan isn't a high-wire hot dog by choice, only by necessity. He'd rather be a winning ballplayer -- like Magic Johnson or Larry Bird -- than a circus act, which, basically, is what he has become.

That, at least, is what Jordan says, and, since he's exemplary in almost every measurable way on and off the court, it would be callous to doubt him.

"I don't want to lead the team in scoring. I'm not greedy. I want to see the others step up," said Jordan. "Bird and Magic make their teammates look better. I can play that way. All four of Bird's teammates have made the all-star team -- a lot of that's because of him. And all the Lakers {starters} except Byron Scott have made it. I want that to happen here someday."

These days, Jordan has to play like Wilt Chamberlain in the early '60s, or Rick Barry a few years later. Make sure you get your 30 or 40 or 50, then let everybody else worry about themselves.

Think of the top scoring seasons of players like Bob McAdoo, Tiny Archibald and Elvin Hayes and that's not too far from the game Jordan is forced to play now. In the sport that's quintessentially a team game, an ensemble effort, a testament to human chemistry and pretty improvisation, Jordan is a clear-the-side, shake-and-bake, sneak-away-on- defense, do-something-crazy-and-see-what-happens type of guy.

Jordan was a fine team player, a student of the game, at North Carolina. What we have here is an unselfish person forced to play in an utterly selfish style. And it's an uncomfortable fit.

"We lose a lot of one-, two-, three-point games," he said Wednesday.

Part of the reason is that while Jordan is certainly a stylist, he's not an egotist. That extra and indefinable ability to control an entire game in the closing minutes -- Walt Frazier and John Havlicek had it, just as Bird and Magic now do -- often escapes Jordan.

Air Jordan is so gifted and so smart that it should not be possible for a player of mortal gifts to neutralize him. Yet, because of the constraints of his Chicago role, there are players who fare far better against Jordan than logic would suggest. Jeff Malone of the Washington Bullets, for instance.

In 16 head-to-head meetings over the last four years, Malone and Jordan have guarded each other most of the time (just as they did Wednesday); Malone has consistently elevated his statistics while bringing Jordan's down to earth. Well, down from the ionosphere anyway.

In those four years, Jordan has averaged 32.4 points per game on .502 shooting. But against Malone, his average is 28.7 ppg and his percentage .449. Malone has raised his scoring mark from 21.1 to 24.1 and his percentage from .478 to .487 against Jordan. In lay lingo, Malone has found a way to be 90 percent as good as Jordan when they go head to head.

"I do secret things I wouldn't tell anybody," says Malone, grinning -- then gives away his secrets. "I make Michael play defense. If he scores, I try to put it right back on him at the other end. Don't let him get excited."

These days, Jordan can be measured by his numbers. When he scores 25 on 10-for-23 and Malone gets 28 on 12-for-23, the Bulls probably will lose. When Sir Michael gets 38 on 17-for-29, as he did the night before against Cleveland, Chicago usually will win.

Basketball should be more subtle and pleasing than that. And Michael Jordan knows it. Someday, if both he and we are lucky, No. 23 will have the playmates he deserves.

Until then, a Gucci bag slung over the shoulder of his glamorous leather jump suit, he's a coast-to-coast circus, a one-man NBA franchise desperately in search of a team.