I've been writing about Michael Jordan since the winter of 1982, when I was a kid reporter covering college basketball and he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina. Nearly 20 years into chronicling him, I didn't think there was any basketball-related topic pertaining to Jordan I hadn't already written at least a dozen times before. Regrettably, there is a new one: prolonged shooting woes.
He's never had a stretch like this, not in 11 full NBA seasons or two partial seasons (1986, 1995). Oh, he's had a clunker here and there and short slumps, but nothing that lasted seven games like this one. Sunday's 5-for-26 shooting left him at 37.8 percent for the season, a startling 13 percent below his career average. Finally making one also left him laughing because what else was he supposed to do after missing 14 straight to start Sunday's game? Jordan hasn't hit 50 percent of his shots in a single game this season. He is missing shots he used to hit in practice with his eyes shut. Medium-range shots, open three-pointers, pull-up jumpers, turnarounds on the baseline -- he has missed them all with alarming regularity. Here's how bad it is: Jordan's shooting percentage is worse than that of the Memphis Grizzlies and -- are you ready? -- the Chicago Bulls. The "other" Wizards are shooting a higher percentage than Jordan, but this isn't what folks meant when they said Jordan would make his teammates better.
Of course, the even bigger issue is that the Wizards can't win with Jordan shooting 37.5 percent. After the Wizards started 2-3 with a victory in Atlanta and a closely played game against the Knicks in New York, it was reasonable to presume the Wizards could start this five-game homestand by beating Golden State and Seattle, two non-playoff teams. Instead, the Wizards have lost four straight games, something Jordan hasn't done for 11 1/2 years. And on deck is potential NBA finalist Milwaukee, followed by struggling Utah.
Everything prompts extreme speculation when you sit three seasons and come back at 38 1/2. Instead of wondering when he'll come out of the slump, the question becomes will he come out of it. It isn't realistic to think he'll shoot 53, 54 percent as he did in his prime, a number only he and John Stockton can relate to among guards.
Of the big-time players who are their teams' primary scorers, only Jordan (24.1 points per game) and Vince Carter (26.7 points, 38.8 percent) are hitting less than 40 percent of their shots. And I'll bet right now that Carter, after a dreadful start, rises above 40 percent by the end of this week. Kobe Bryant (28.5 points) is hitting 52.3 percent. The Bucks' Ray Allen (26.6) is hitting 50 percent. Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic (26 points) is hitting 51.6 percent even though he has yet to play with injured teammate Chris Webber. Michael Finley (22 points) is hitting 42.9 percent. Tracy McGrady (24.1 points) is struggling -- and still hitting 41.8 percent.
There are a couple of nights Jordan did face tight defense, like the night in Boston when he had to go up against Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, and on opening night, when the Knicks ran two and occasionally three defenders his way. Even so, it isn't as if Jordan were seeing stacked defenses for the first time. It's still rather jolting to see him shoot 7 for 21 as he has twice already. His best shooting night so far has been 12 for 26, and he has had two 13-for-30s.
Will he bust out of this any time soon? The bet here is that he will. All the summer scrimmages in the world don't get you into game shape, which should come over the next few games.
Jordan has been one of the best problem-solvers in sports, largely because he practices so fanatically and with such purpose. And remember, he has played seven games in three years. It's too early to draw any conclusions about anything in an NBA season. Jordan tinkers too well, too successfully. And perhaps that's in order this time. In Los Angeles last June, during the NBA playoffs, the conversation with Magic Johnson turned toward Jordan, whose comeback even then was the talk of the NBA. The concern Magic had for his friend, right from the start was obvious. "His legs," Magic said. "Some nights after you get older, the legs won't let you do what your head tells you to do, and what your arms and hands and the rest of your body want to do."
I suspect Jordan has thought of all this, and in the coming days will incorporate it all into a shot that starts falling more regularly. After Sunday's loss, he said he is "more or less pressing. . . . I wouldn't say I had bad shots. I had great shots. When you miss a few, it starts to work on you mentally. Then you start trying to fix the mechanics and it gets more technical and especially during the course of a game that's the worst way to go about coming out of a shooting slump."
The thing that compounds a prolonged shooting slump is playing poorly in other areas. Jordan hasn't done that. He has averaged 6.9 rebounds over his career and is averaging 6.3 per game now. His 4.6 assists per game aren't far from his 5.4 assists per game for his career. And assists don't reflect the passes out of double-teams he has made that lead to another pass and a shot for an open teammate.
Still, so much of Jordan's value is tied up in scoring, and pouring in points at such a rate that it demoralizes other teams and breaks down a defense to the point that Jordan's teammates get easy shots. Will defenses continue to double-team Jordan if he keeps shooting under 40 percent? It's the kind of question the Wizards don't want to ponder so early in the season.