Michael Jordan came out of retirement toward the end of the 1994-95 season and led the Chicago Bulls into the conference semifinals. If he can work any semblance of that magic with his midseason arrival to the Washington Wizards as president of basketball operations, there might actually be hope for the Atlantic Division's last-place team.
Yet as things stand at about the halfway point of another disappointing season, the Wizards (13-29) are on pace to win 26 games and finish out of the playoffs for a third straight season. The Wizards have the fifth-worst record in the league and second-worst in the Eastern Conference.
They have not won consecutive games in more than a month. They have won just four times since Christmas, a span of 15 games, and have held just one of their last 10 opponents to fewer than 100 points. On Saturday night, they followed a 123-113 victory over the Central Division-leading Indiana Pacers with a 111-93 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
"We've got to find the right chemistry," Coach Gar Heard said. "We've got to fight through this thing."
Jordan and General Manager Wes Unseld are exploring personnel changes as one measure and those changes could include the coaching staff. At Wednesday's news conference announcing his hiring, Jordan did not give Heard an endorsement of job security.
Jordan has been talking to players and management about all facets of the team and no one is on firm ground, Jordan said during the news conference.
"We're contemplating a lot of things," General Manager Wes Unseld said yesterday. "We'll sit down and work those things out with Michael."
The hefty contracts of point guard Rod Strickland, Mitch Richmond and Juwan Howard, coupled with rules that restrict player movement, complicate the trading of all three players.
Several league sources said the Wizards are shopping backup center Ike Austin and some teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, are interested. Austin's agent, Dwight Manley, has said Austin would welcome a trade. However, what the Wizards want in return and what other teams are willing to part with complicates the equation.
Based on Jordan's comments about wanting to better the team's salary-cap situation, the Wizards apparently would like to acquire players with no more than one year left on their contracts, the same tactic being employed this season by the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls.
However, a roster overhaul--even if it were made--might not help to turn around the Wizards' fortunes. The team has eight new players this season; two were starters at one point. Yet the Wizards have failed to improve over last season, when they finished the lockout-shortened season 18-32.
And time is running out. Though the Eastern Conference standings remain jumbled, some teams are starting to solidify their positions for the postseason. Washington is 14 games behind division leader Miami and begins a stretch of the schedule in which just four of its next 13 opponents have losing records.
"We've just got to keep playing through this until we get it right," Heard said.
In the short term, the Wizards' problems continue to mount.
Starting shooting guard and leading scorer Mitch Richmond is out because of a broken rib, and power forward Michael Smith, the heart of the team, strained his right elbow against the Pacers on Friday night and played just eight minutes against Atlanta. His status for Tuesday's game against the visiting New York Knicks is uncertain.
"He's a guy that you don't miss until he's not on the floor," Heard said.
Things have been so frustrating for the Wizards that when they win, they become so euphoric, they have little left for the next game, Heard said.
"They were really happy that we beat Indiana," Heard said. "Unfortunately in this league, you've got to play the next night."