Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time -- if not the greatest -- will come off the bench this season for a team that has not been to the playoffs since 1997, a team that has one NBA title to his six. He will play behind the only other person on the team who has been an all-star and will stay on the floor for just more than half the game.
The role, Jordan said, is not beneath him. In fact, it is one that he thinks those scratching their heads right now will come to admire him for. Not for humbling himself at age 39 to play second fiddle, but for devising a plan that he feels will improve the Washington Wizards today and for years to come.
"I'm not the future," Jordan said, as he prepares to embark on his 15th season. "I'm for the now. For us to be a better basketball team, our young guys are going to have to go out there and learn to get things going without me. Whenever they get tired or whatever, I can step out there and give them support.
"There's a transition going on here. We have a plan. Hopefully, that plan works. If so, then quietly, at the end of the season, I can step away and we've got a team that's been experienced as a starting five and as a second team."
Of course, if Jordan had not needed surgery on his right knee, which cost him 22 games last season, and if concern was not lingering about his durability, Jordan would not be coming off the bench for the first time since he began playing organized basketball.
Coach Doug Collins and Jordan decided over the summer that Jordan would not play more than 30 minutes per game, on average, so he can make it to the finish line, which the reconfigured Wizards think will last past the 82-game regular season. Jordan, who led Washington with 22.9 points per game last season, has paced himself leading up to the season opener tonight at Toronto, practicing just once in Washington's twice-daily workouts during the nine-day training camp and playing in just the last three of eight preseason games.
"We've got to keep Michael's minutes down," Collins said. "We let it get away from us last year. We got off to a horrible start and we played him too much. We can't break him down early. We've got to build him and we think we have enough guys on this team that we don't have to break him down."
Jordan figures to enter games around the four-minute mark of the first and third quarters at his natural position -- shooting guard -- and play out the majority of halves from there.
Part of the thinking is that when he comes in, opponents will have to decide whether to use a second-team player against him or play a starter longer minutes. If the team opts to keep the starter in the lineup, that player could be somewhat fatigued in the game's final minutes, when a rested Jordan usually would have an advantage.
"You're going to have to somehow focus on our second team, especially with me coming in," Jordan said. "If that means [the other team's] starters are going to have to play the first eight minutes and then the next eight minutes, something's going to have to take its toll."
Jordan is expected to be the Wizards' Mariano Rivera -- a closer, not the starting pitcher who tires after seven innings. However, the closer usually steps in with his team leading or in position to win. That is where the drastically-altered cast from last season's 37-45 team has to live up to expectations.
"If our young kids come to play, and play exceptionally well, it makes my job easier and we'll start to turn this thing around," Jordan said. "If not, I hope I'm there to take some of the weight off them and still put us in a winning situation."
Last season's team was so reliant on Jordan that it won 30 games with him, seven without him. Jordan said that can't happen again if Washington hopes to make the playoffs.
"I can't say that in certain situations my competitive drive or my rhythm or my skills won't put me in a situation where I take over the game," Jordan said. "Hopefully, it's not that option but it's always good to have that ace in the hole. My job is to win and maybe I can get into a certain rhythm where I can carry the flow of this team. But if you ask me to do it every night, then that's a difficult situation."
That is why the Wizards, who did not know if Jordan would play this season until about two weeks before training camp, were the most active team in the NBA during the offseason. As a result, their starting lineup is new.
Jerry Stackhouse, acquired from Detroit in a trade, will start ahead of Jordan and take on the responsibility of the team's main scoring threat. Larry Hughes will play point guard, although not in the traditional sense. He will defend the other team's point guard but will not always be the player to set Washington's offense.
Veteran Bryon Russell takes over at small forward, where Jordan played out of position last season. Brendan Haywood will be the starting center and Kwame Brown, who during the preseason looked like a different player than the overmatched rookie he was last season, will start at power forward.
"It's a good situation because I'm starting and I have an opportunity to come out and set the tone," said Stackhouse, who has averaged 21.2 points per game in his seven-year career. "When [Jordan] comes in, then I have to see when to defer and play off him."
Jordan will be the sixth man with guard Tyronn Lue, center-forward Etan Thomas and forwards Jared Jeffries, Christian Laettner and Charles Oakley used in a variety of combinations off the bench. The key, Collins said, will be how Jordan and Stackhouse play together and how their teammates incorporate themselves.
If things work as planned, teams will have to decide whether to double-team Jordan or Stackhouse or play everyone straight up, which Collins feels is a risk because Hughes, Jordan and Stackhouse are dangerous one-on-one players. Whether players recognize mismatches and capitalize on their opportunities are what could make or break this blueprint, Collins said.
"Our primary scorers are going to be Michael, Stack, Larry Hughes and Kwame," Collins said. "It's their job to make sure that everybody gets involved . . . so our other guys should be the beneficiaries."
Jordan figures that this taller, more athletic lineup, with him in a complementary role, should end up putting the Wizards deep into the playoffs, even challenging for the Eastern Conference title. However, the possibilities are there for significant changes, including him eventually starting if the team struggles early.
"Everything sounds good until it works," Jordan said.