Not even Michael Jordan can immediately elevate the Wizards
At each game in Washington's MCI Center, the fans make a point of
glancing at the owner's private box. Only eight times this season
have they glimpsed Michael Jordan, and that has caused concern
that the greatest player in league history is not wholly
dedicated to becoming a great team president. "Anybody who would
question Michael Jordan's work ethic and commitment would have to
have had his head in the sand," says the Wizards' rookie coach,
Leonard Hamilton. "He is the ultimate competitor, and when you
have that kind of motor, you don't have any first, second, third
or fourth gear. His is running full blast all the time."
So far that hasn't lifted the Wizards, who at week's end had the
league's second-worst record (12-36) to show for the
fifth-highest payroll ($59.1 million). Sources say that since
Jordan's arrival as team president 13 months ago, the front
office has split into two camps: one headed by Jordan and
assistant G.M. Rod Higgins, who want to improve the team
quickly; the other by the old guard, owner Abe Pollin and G.M.
Wes Unseld. So determined is the 77-year-old Pollin to cut costs
that he has reportedly vetoed several trades put together by
Jordan, whom he hired.
It was Pollin and Unseld who traded future superstars Chris
Webber and Rasheed Wallace and left Washington with
over-the-hill guards Rod Strickland, 34, and Mitch Richmond, 35.
Their $10 million salaries devour a huge chunk of Washington's
salary-cap room, which otherwise is largely consumed by the $105
million due forward Juwan Howard through 2002-03.
Barring a trade by the Feb. 22 deadline, Jordan will have to sit
tight until after the season, when he can buy out the last year
of Strickland's contract for $5 million and hope to make wise
use of the Wizards' likely lottery pick, which will be only
their second first-round choice in six years. To that end,
Jordan has upgraded the team's computerized video systems,
crucial to analyzing talent, and more than doubled the scouting
staff, sending nine scouts to study domestic and overseas
prospects. Because the top choices are expected to be early
entrants from college, high school players and possibly Chinese
center Yao Ming, they will all need time to develop. "Michael
will be successful," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh, "but
it's going to take four or five years."
In fairness, Pollin--the league's longest-tenured owner, in his
36th year--is no cheapskate. In addition to paying outrageous
salaries, he spent $200 million to build the MCI Center in 1997
without public funds, a rarity these days. Those investments have
left him unwilling to expose himself to the luxury tax the
Wizards must pay unless he can trim $2 million to $4 million from
his current payroll by next season. Here's another incentive:
It's likely that next season every NBA player will have to return
up to 10% of his salary to the owners as part of a new formula
designed to keep payrolls down. It's also expected that those
teams paying the luxury tax will be precluded from receiving
their share of the players' refund.
The Wizards' financial pinch recalls the famous debate during the
1998-99 lockout, in which Jordan, on behalf of the union, told
Pollin it was time for him to sell if he wasn't willing to pay
what it took to compete for a championship. The two have had no
public arguments since they started working together. Though
Jordan has taken a lot of the heat for the worst first half in
Wizards history (7-34), he has remained silent, declining almost
all interview requests (including one from SI for this story) and
refusing to blame Pollin or Unseld.
The differing management styles of Jordan and his old-school
predecessor, Unseld, became obvious when the ever troublesome
Strickland missed a practice last month. After Unseld ripped
Strickland publicly, Jordan, hoping to maintain his point guard's
trade value, was more temperate. Strickland has missed another
practice and a team flight and has been arrested for driving
under the influence for the third time in three years. The only
positive development for Jordan regarding Strickland is that the
player's base-year standing expired last Saturday, making him
easier to unload.
Jordan has made his share of mistakes, too. He hasn't addressed
the players as a group since his tirade on Dec. 6, after
Washington blew a 21-point lead to the visiting Clippers. That
prompted Howard and others to respond that they might play better
with Jordan's support rather than his criticism. Higgins says
Jordan has gotten better at managing his temper, understanding
that TV cameras catch his reaction to every bad play.
"He's learning on the job, like me," says Grizzlies president
Dick Versace, who participated in Jordan's first trade, a
five-player deal last August that allowed the Wizards to shed
center Ike Austin's $5.3 million salary. "I get lots of calls
from him. He's working harder than people suspect."
If Jordan spent more time in Washington, he might have dealt more
effectively with Strickland and forward Tyrone Nesby, who was
escorted by security guards to the locker room when he refused to
leave the bench after yelling at Hamilton during a game last
month. But the Wizards point to their recent five-game winning
streak as proof that those incidents were defused efficiently
with Jordan's input from afar.
"People seem to think we'll play harder if he's here," says Chris
Whitney, who has taken over for Strickland at the point and is
largely responsible for the team's improved play of late. "It's
like he's going to wave a magic wand and make everything right,
like his attendance is going to guarantee us a victory. If he is
what it takes for us to play hard, then we shouldn't be here."
New York's Defense
So Good It's Offensive
No matter who comes or goes on their roster, the Knicks can be
counted on to stymie all opponents. Though New York traded a shot
blocker (Patrick Ewing) for a shot taker (Glen Rice) in the
off-season, it was still allowing a league-low 84.1 points per
game as it prepared last Thursday for a visit by the 76ers, the
top team in the NBA.
"Our best players buy into it," coach Jeff Van Gundy said of his
emphasis on defense. "Everybody in this league can be better
defensively, and no one needs to be a liability. Glen Rice has
turned out to be a much better defender than people thought. I
notice that the Lakers' offensive numbers have all improved this
year, and their defensive numbers have gone the other way." With
a straight face he added, "Maybe that's because Glen left."
Some might call it a magical transformation when a player who has
been accused of selfishness becomes a reliable team defender.
Others might question whether that kind of magic is good for the
league. Before Ewing was traded, the thinking seemed to be that
his lumbering, elderly presence prevented New York from achieving
its potential as an up-tempo unit led by Latrell Sprewell and
Allan Houston. It turns out that without a traditional center,
the Knicks are a low-scoring half-court team. Last season they
scored 92.1 points per game; through Sunday they were down to
Van Gundy would like his players to run more, especially at the
end of games, when their lack of post-up scoring becomes more
apparent. But the coach would prefer that they conserve their
energy for defense to keep the ball out of the paint and to
prevent opponents from scoring easy points on fast breaks, second
shots and free throws. He notes that, of the top six teams in
fast-break points scored last year, four were lottery teams, and
the other two didn't make it past the second round of the
playoffs. Of the top six teams in field goal percentage defense,
however, three reached the second round, two lost in the
conference finals and one won the championship. "Those people who
appreciate defense will like watching the NBA right now;" he
says. "Those who like offense probably shouldn't watch."
Entering their Thursday showdown, the second-place Knicks
trailed the Sixers by 6 1/2 games in the Atlantic Division. "I'm
not as interested in catching them in the standings as I am in
chasing them in the standards they've set," Van Gundy said.
"They're much more consistent than we are in their defensive
intensity, their willingness to battle."
In that regard Philadelphia has seized New York's turf, and Van
Gundy was challenging his players to reclaim it. Just before the
Sixers-Knicks game, Philly coach Larry Brown was asked about New
York's defensive-mindedness. "I don't always buy those defensive
stats," said Brown, noting that some teams with impressive
defensive stats (he declined to name them) enhance their numbers
by playing at a slow offensive pace. He went on to express
admiration for the Knicks' selflessness and toughness.
The Sixers proceeded to pick apart undersized New York, with
Allen Iverson finding his teammates cutting backdoor for layups
and alley-oops. The Knicks recovered from an early 15-point
deficit to make a game of it in the final period, when they held
the 76ers to five field goals and 18 points in 21 possessions--an
admirable effort, considering that power forward Kurt Thomas was
out with a sprained right ankle; his backup, Othella Harrington,
was making his New York debut; Rice was playing with a sore left
foot; and center Marcus Camby was rusty after serving a five-game
However, committing to defense means no excuses are permitted.
Van Gundy seemed humiliated after the 87-80 loss. "It's
unthinkable how we played in the first half," he said. "Our guys
paid no attention to the game plan." A day that had begun so
promisingly ended with the coach looking as if he were ill.
The Magic's John Amaechi
Principled--and On the Pine
John Amaechi says he rarely thinks of what might have been:
financial security, the house with a view of the Pacific, a
starting position with the defending-champion Lakers. "I owe the
Magic a great debt of gratitude, and I am repaying that debt,"
says the 6'10" forward, who turned down a six-year, $16.8 million
offer from Los Angeles last summer to accept a two-year, $1.3
million deal from Orlando. "To leave the team stranded would have
been poor on my part. You can't be a man of principle just some
of the time."
It was a hard decision nonetheless. Amaechi was courted by
executive vice president Jerry West, who wanted him to accept the
mid-level exception to become the Lakers' power forward,
permitting them to trade Glen Rice to fill another need. Instead,
L.A. dealt Rice for Horace Grant and signed Isaiah Rider as a
free agent. Neither move has worked out as well as the team
Amaechi, meanwhile, has lost his starting center job to Andrew
DeClercq. Amaechi has struggled to equal last season's surprise
success when, grateful to be salvaged from the British League, he
averaged 10.5 points for the heart-and-hustle Magic. With the
team now isolating for Tracy McGrady, Amaechi has been unable to
score in transition, averaging 9.2 points on 39.2% shooting at
Amaechi, 30, admits he's over-extended. He is building a
three-court gym in his childhood home of Manchester, England,
for young players. He also bought a house in Orlando while
maintaining a permanent home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He insists
there is no wink-wink agreement to keep him with the Magic when
he exercises an option to become a free agent this summer, but
the organization takes pride in being known as a players' team,
and it will probably reward him for his loyalty. He could be
packaged in a sign-and-trade with the Raptors for Antonio Davis,
who has bought a house in Orlando and can be a free agent this
Outside the Box Score
Cloak and Dagger in Big D
Acting Mavericks coach Donnie Nelson had a feeling that the
visiting Heat was stealing his hand signals last Thursday, so he
flashed signs to his guards from behind his sport coat, the way
his father, Don, used to in his days with the Bucks. If this
saved Dallas a basket, then it made all the difference in a 95-91
overtime victory, the Mavericks' first win over Miami in nine
For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
Around The Rim
Hoping to persuade the Chinese government and Chinese basketball
officials to let 7'6" Yao Ming and 7-foot Wang Zhizhi play in
the NBA, agent Bill Duffy has invited the acting Chinese
ambassador to the U.S., Liu Xiaoming, to the All-Star Game. He's
expected to attend....
Scottie Pippen plans to return from arthroscopic surgery on his
right elbow in early March. "He was playing the best I've seen
him play," Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy said last week of Pippen,
35, who averaged 14.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists in
the nine games before he was sidelined....
The Knicks weren't the only ones pleased that Latrell Sprewell
was named an All-Star despite his 43.1% shooting at week's end.
"It's nice that more guys are being selected from winning teams,
which is how it used to be," says 76ers coach Larry Brown....
When NBA executives meet in Washington this weekend to discuss
the problems of the game, many will blame the immaturity of the
players. But only 20 current players--less than 5% of the
league--turned pro straight out of high school or after one year
By the end of this season Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas,
who is out of action this season after undergoing his fifth foot
operation, will have earned $19.7 million for appearing in 29 of
a possible 214 games in the last three years. That averages out
to about $679,300 per game, which, based on a full 82-game
schedule, would come to an annual salary of $55.7 million....
Pacers coach Isiah Thomas agreed to cancel a shootaround last
week if second-year forwards Jonathan Bender and Jeff Foster
could dunk after taking off from the foul line. Both did, and
the righthanded Bender even jammed lefty. Said Thomas of Foster,
"White men can jump."
When 34-year-old Heat forward Anthony Mason (above) suits up for
the Eastern Conference in Sunday's All-Star Game, he will become
the second-oldest player in NBA history to make his All-Star
debut. Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton was older than Mason by two
months when he was first selected, in 1957, but because the
league's color barrier hadn't been broken until 1950, he was in
only his seventh NBA season. No first-time All Star had been in
the league as long as Mason, who is in his 12th season. --David
PLAYER, TEAM DEBUT AGE NBA SEASON
Anthony Mason, Heat 2001 34 years, 2 months 12th
Ricky Pierce, Bucks 1991 31 years, 6 months 9th
Dale Davis, Pacers 2000 30 years, 11 months 9th
Calvin Murphy, Rockets 1979 30 years, 9 months 9th
Charles Oakley, Knicks 1994 30 years, 2 months 9th
On the Magic, which last week won four games in five nights,
including a double-overtime victory at Philadelphia:
"I'd heard that point guard Darrell Armstrong was a little
overworked a few weeks ago, but that's not the case now. He's
playing unbelievably well. He competes so hard and wants to win
so badly that it rubs off on everyone else. The Magic may have
found how to mix in the talents of Tracy McGrady with the
hardworking, no-name style the team played so well last year.
Nobody is going to want to face the Magic in the first round of
the playoffs, because everybody can score, and you know the
players are going to be mentally tough."
Bucks forward Glenn Robinson
"When I was in junior high school in Gary, Ind., I stole some
India ink from my art class and tattooed the inside of my left
forearm with GLENN THE ROCKSTER. I wrapped white thread around
the needle and dabbed it in the ink and poked myself. I tried to
keep it secret from my mother, but when she saw it, she gave me a
three-week punishment. After all that, the tattoo came out
crooked because I did it myself, so a few years ago I had it
covered up with the NBA logo."