It's high praise indeed if one coach says of a rival, "He can take his players and beat yours, or he can take your players and beat his." Only the great team builders in sports have that alchemic touch, turning leaden players into golden stars.
Can Michael Jordan take the woebegone Wizards--as they are--and make them a winner? If, as he claims, that transformation is possible, then Jordan will do what seems almost impossible: He'll move even higher in the rarefied Air of sports.
The great coaches, general managers and team presidents have a deeper vision. Where others see problems, they find solutions. Instead of focusing on a player's weaknesses, they highlight his strengths, while getting teammates to cover his flanks. The Don Shulas, Pat Rileys and Whitey Herzogs see tactics, combinations and personality traits that others miss. Who should lead and who follow? Who could blossom if given more support? Who would contribute more in a smaller role? What style of play, what tempo, what collective sense of personality, can make us greater than the sum of our apparently suspect parts?
We're going to find out, maybe in a hurry, whether Michael Jordan is one of basketball's men of vision. He could see the court. Can he see the Wizards' future? Because his hands appear tied by long-term contracts and salary cap constraints, Jordan might be stuck with the Wizards he's got--perhaps for two years. Yet he maintains he sees "a good team" right now that is simply "underachieving."
In other words, Jordan claims to see clearly what few others in the NBA even dare to glimpse--a Wizards team (so bad that it lost home-and-home to the Chicago Bulls, the worst team in the NBA, last month)--that can be transformed quickly into a winner. Not a champion, or even a contender, mind you, but a team to be proud of.
"We've got three solid players. All three guys have played effectively in the past. They are good players. They know how to play the game," said Jordan, referring to Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond after practicing with the team on Monday. At his initial news conference last week, Jordan referred to them as "two all-stars" and "a third player who should have been picked" to all-star teams.
"The obvious thing about this team is they get up for a challenge," added Jordan. For example, in December, the Wizards beat both of last year's NBA finalists on the road--the Spurs and Knicks. Last week, they spanked the Pacers, then leading the Eastern Conference, despite playing without leading scorer Richmond.
In the absence of a challenge, or a crisis, the Wizards have been one of the most poorly motivated and inconsistent teams ever to wear Washington jerseys in any sport. That's been the Wizard/Bullet Way for years. Big salaries. Big games. Bad seasons.
"You don't make a big win against Indiana, then come back with a lackluster game against Atlanta. That negates the win against Indiana," Jordan said after practicing with the team Monday and exchanging both playful and pointed barbs with the Wizards. "We're going to force them to do better in those circumstances."
Can rookie coach Gar Heard "force" the Wizards to do anything under any circumstances? He certainly hasn't so far. He has dignity and enormous experience, but, at times, he's seemed overmatched by his rich players. As games slip away, Heard shows no fire, as though he is still--halfway through the season--in some meditative period of profound evaluation. For weeks, it's seemed possible the "real" Gar would show up after he'd figured out what he was holding. However, if what we've seen so far is the final version of Heard--arms folded, detached, "not guilty" of the misdemeanors being enacted by his team--his job should be in jeopardy.
A stoic, expressionless coach with a great team is called a "guru." The same coach with an awful team is called "gone." The person who might fire Heard is also the person most likely to save him: Jordan. If Air provides sufficient inspiration, then maybe Heard can concentrate on X's and O's.
Jordan already might have solved Heard's biggest morale and discipline problem: Strickland. The $28 million point guard, always a perennial league leader in "tardies," has outdone himself this season establishing who's boss--i.e., not the coach. On Monday, Strickland came to practice early. Jordan informed him that he was late and added, jokingly, that he better be early the next time even if "I have to come by [his house] and pick him up."
Now, that's psychology. How can you be late if Michael Jordan has said that your presence is so essential that he'll be your personal chauffeur, if necessary?
Jordan's next project should be bolstering the charisma quotient of Juwan Howard and perhaps Tracy Murray. Richmond already knows how to take charge down the stretch. When he's healthy, he can still do it. But he's 34 years old. Which means he'll be healthy less and less. When he's hurt, as he is now, or in portions when he's not carrying the load, Howard needs to earn his $100 million paycheck.
Howard will never be worth the money he was paid. It's not his fault. He's a good, hard-working player, not a great one. But he owes it to the team to shoulder the full responsibilities of a star--even when he fails.
Against the Pacers, Howard scored 36 points and was 16 for 26 shooting, showing the moves of a true 20-plus-point scorer. Unfortunately, he is so team-oriented and unselfish that, when his shots aren't falling, he shuts down his offensive game. How can a 26-year-old in perfect health earn so much money to score 14 points?
Scorers, as opposed to pure jump shooters, can't do that. They have to keep putting it up or posting up, crashing the boards or getting fouled, running the break or picking up garbage baskets. But you can't just disappear offensively for entire games as Howard too often does. To some degree, he needs to be a shameless gunner--because so many other Wizards big men are role players who rebound or defend well but only score by accident.
Murray, a Glen Rice type when he has his long-range confidence, is in the same category. Two years ago, he averaged 15 points. Now, less than 10. Whatever he needs--picks, set plays, pats on the back--he's got to get 'em. Somebody's got to score besides the Big Three and Murray's the only bona fide candidate.
Finally, it's difficult to play .500 ball in the NBA without a presence at center. The Wizards might have one. But it's probably not Ike Austin. He's a solid backup center or spare big forward who can shoot the 16-footer. But, on a team with tough rebounders such as Mike Smith and Aaron Williams, the big man's got to do the heaviest lifting, not leave it to others.
That's why the Wizards need to find out what they have in Jahidi White, the team's brightest surprise. The 290-pound former Hoya is Wes Unseld's personal summer project. And it shows. Is there anybody anywhere, including John Thompson, who saw White at Georgetown and thought he could come this far?
In 16.7 minutes a game, White averages 6.4 points and 6.4 rebounds. And those numbers have improved each month. Perhaps White does not have the stamina to play 30 minutes a game. Maybe he'd be too foul prone. His hands might not improve even if he relaxes more in a full-fledged starting role. But you've got to find out. What if he's a real pick-setting lane-ruling 12-point, 12-rebound center?
Jordan might develop some entirely different set of concepts to try to awaken this franchise. More pressure defense, especially from quick youngsters off the bench? Already the Wizards seem to fast break more. Who knows? Not even Mike, yet.
Watching the Wizards evolve will be the fun of the next few months. Jordan thinks he sees something in this ridiculed team--something dormant, but already present. If he's right, he certainly has the motivational skills to help bring it alive.
In some sense, Jordan already has done what was thought impossible just a week ago. At odd hours, we catch ourselves thinking about the Wizards and wondering what they might become. Knock me over with a feather.