Michael Jordan spoke of meeting the challenge at hand and of dedicating himself to the task in the same way he dedicated himself to becoming the NBA's greatest player and leading the Chicago Bulls to six championships. Around the league, the players who've competed against him and the various officials who've admired him don't question that he will succeed because, to them, Michael Jordan remains a magical figure.
Yet the hurdles he faces as the Washington Wizards' new president of basketball operations appear to be as daunting as anything he dealt with in his playing career.
Jordan didn't simply inherit the team with the fifth-worst record (12-28). He inherited one that has one of the NBA's oldest starting lineups and highest payrolls. He inherited an organization that might not have a first-round draft choice this summer and one that can't afford to add a prominent free agent next summer because it's $16 million over next season's estimated salary cap.
If Jordan can transform the Wizards by his sheer presence or by making changes in the coaching staff, he will have proven his magic once more. But if he becomes convinced the Wizards need a new mix of players, he will have a sizable challenge.
Several NBA officials said the Wizards must trade one of their three highest-paid players to be substantially different by next season. But that would be difficult because high salaries make point guard Rod Strickland and forward Juwan Howard virtually untradedable, according to several officials. The combination of age (34) and salary ($10 million) makes shooting guard Mitch Richmond equally unattractive to many teams, those officials said.
Jordan also will be playing by the rules of the NBA's one-year-old collective bargaining agreement that was designed to limit salaries and restrict player movement. Jordan was one of the league's most vocal players in opposing the deal, and now he is about to find out how restrictive the system is. Essentially, a team can surpass the league's salary cap to keep a player. Teams that want to sign a player from another team must clear salary cap room. Few teams have any cap room, and while the previous deal had several loopholes that allowed teams to lure free agents away, the new agreement has almost none.
"I think Michael's going to get frustrated," said Keith Glass, one of the NBA's best-known agents. "Michael will face the same challenge anybody else would. This collective bargaining agreement is so oppressive and inflexible that any team, including the Wizards, is going to struggle. I don't think Michael will face any more pitfalls than anybody else, but he has some substantial obstacles."
Among those obstacles are the deals negotiated before Jordan joined the Wizards. Howard has not developed into the star-caliber player the Wizards hoped he would be. But over the next three seasons he'll be making superstar salaries: $16.8 million, $18.7 million and $20 million.
Strickland and Richmond will each make $10 million the next three seasons, and neither has played as well as the Wizards have hoped, either. So as Jordan plans for next season, Strickland, Richmond and Howard are scheduled to make around $36.8 million. The NBA's salary cap is expected to be around $36 million, giving Jordan no flexibility.
"He's got three guys on his payroll that occupy a large part of his payroll," Indiana Pacers General Manager Donnie Walsh said. "They must perform well, or it straitjackets the whole franchise. That's when you're really in trouble. And if they're not playing well, it's difficult to trade them. Every one of those guys is at the beginning of a long-term deal. It's going to be hard to move guys like that."
An Eastern Conference general manager who asked not to be identified said: "They have to get lucky. The way you do that is by winning the lottery in a year when there's a Grant Hill or a Shaquille O'Neal coming out. Or you get lucky by finding a way to move those older guys and stockpiling young players and draft choices. If you get a Grant Hill, you start to look pretty smart."
Jordan could start to look pretty smart if the Wizards end up with one of the top three picks in next summer's draft. Their 2000 choice was traded to Golden State in the 1994 Chris Webber deal, but as part of the deal, the Wizards will get the pick back (in exchange for a 2001 choice) if it's one of the top three picks in the draft.
Perhaps Jordan's best alternative is simply to start over. That's what the Orlando Magic decided to do last summer. It had lost O'Neal in free agency to the Lakers in 1997 and its remaining superstar, guard Penny Hardaway, said he no longer wanted to play in Orlando. Thus, General Manager John Gabriel decided to tear the team apart.
Gabriel dumped players and stockpiled draft choices and salary cap room. The Magic has struggled to a 16-23 start, but its fans know better days are ahead. The franchise has $10 million in cap room this summer and nine first-round draft choices over the next four drafts.
"We had to recognize where we were," Gabriel said. "What we wanted to know is if we could still be competitive without embarrassing the franchise. We felt we could, and we are. We have something to build on. After all we've been through, there's something special and healing about what we're doing. The fans deserve a plan, and for all of us involved, it's the challenge of relaunching a franchise."
As for Jordan, he said he's simply going to spend some time evaluating what the Wizards have. He'll watch Coach Gar Heard work and discuss the roster with General Manager Wes Unseld before making any firm decisions. Meantime, his players say they're as eager as anyone to improve and they're happy to have Jordan involved.
"It's going to take time for things to change," Wizards swingman Tracy Murray said. "Everyone thinks everything ought to happen yesterday. People are going to have to be patient. This isn't a patient town, but Michael is just getting started."
CAPTION: NBA observers say Michael Jordan, Abe Pollin may have little to smile about as they try to rebuild the Wizards.