- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Before a season in which 35 wins for the Washington Wizards would be perceived as a monumental overachievement, Michael Jordan drips with unbridled optimism that a team he has described as "underachieving" will contend for the playoffs.

On this, Jordan pretty much stands alone, and it isn't hard to see why. To begin with, there is no legacy of success for the Wizards 29-53 last year, good for last place in the Atlantic Division to draw from. The Wizards/Bullets franchise has not won a playoff game since May 4, 1988, and it has reached the playoffs just once in the past 12 seasons.

The recent history is equally discouraging. The nucleus of Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard is 47-82 over the past two seasons, and none of them is coming off a good year. Strickland had his worst statistical season in a decade, averaging 12.6 points and 7.5 assists. In his sixth season, Howard hit career lows in scoring (14.9) and rebounding (5.7), and Richmond's 17.4 average was the worst of his 12-year career.

Last year, Washington wasn't even close in many of its games. Of the team's 53 losses, 36 were by seven or more points. And because they are over the NBA's $35 million salary cap, the Wizards were unable to pursue any free agents of consequence.

And yet Jordan remains optimistic.

"I think that motivation and drive will be the difference," said Jordan, part owner and president of basketball operations.

Before making the decision to buy into the Wizards as a member of minority partner Lincoln Holdings Inc., Jordan watched the Wizards closely. He remembered playing against many of the team's players, particularly Strickland and Howard, members of the 1997 team that led Jordan's Bulls in the fourth quarter of all three playoff games in a Chicago sweep.

But last season Jordan saw none of the fire and effort from a team he anointed after that series as one of the league's up-and-coming teams.

"Last year it was more or less helter-skelter," Jordan said. "I didn't think they were connected as a unit. On top of that, I don't think they really tried. When they didn't bond together as a unit they resorted to passing the ball off to a guy. It was kind of like, 'Here, you try to do something.'

"This year I don't expect for those things to be a problem," said Jordan, who attended almost every practice in training camp. "I won't tolerate any less than 110 percent effort. I see more of a desire to change and to achieve. I feel that they want to prove to everyone that we are better than people think we are. If they do that and give the effort, let the chips fall where they may."

Jordan has entrusted the job of returning the long-moribund team to respectability to longtime college coach Leonard Hamilton. In the past 14 seasons, Hamilton has resurrected programs at both Oklahoma State and Miami. Even though this is his first chance to coach at the NBA level, Hamilton, 52, believes there is no room for excuses.

"I feel that I have one obligation, and that is to give my heart and my soul to what we are doing so that we can be the best possible basketball team this year," Hamilton said. "As far as I'm concerned, nothing else really matters. We have to find a way.

"For me, being a first-year coach in the NBA, I can look for all kinds of reasons to come up with excuses. 'Got the same, bad team. I'm a new coach.' The list could go on and on and on. But none of that matters."

What matters most in today's NBA is salary cap space. That and good draft picks is the best way to improve a bad team. The Orlando Magic, against whom the Wizards open the season tonight on the road, are the perfect example of what can be accomplished when a team jettisons salaries to clear cap space. Last season they didn't reach the playoffs. This season, with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, they are favored by some to win the Eastern Conference.

Although it was on a somewhat smaller scale, the Wizards began this expurgation process this summer when they traded center Ike Austin (two years, $11 million left on his contract) and Tracy Murray (three years, $10 million) for players whose contracts either will expire or can be terminated at the end of this season.

However, unless they can trade away Howard, Strickland or Richmond players for whom there was virtually no market over the summer the Wizards won't be able to make a move for any top-level free agents until the 2001-2002 season.

In the meantime, Hamilton understands the goal must be winning with an eye on the future. The talent of young players like Richard Hamilton and Jahidi White must be cultivated concurrently with the end of the careers of players like Richmond, 35, and Strickland, 34.

"We have an obligation on our part to make sure that they have good seasons," Leonard Hamilton said. "We need to make sure that because they paid their dues, we're going to be part of helping them help themselves so that they'll look back and be able to be proud of what we were able to accomplish while they're a part of this system."

So now the Jordan/Hamilton era begins in earnest. Last season only rebuilding Chicago and Atlanta were worse than the Wizards in the Eastern Conference. Washington has added no significant personnel Felipe Lopez will start at small forward by default and the bench is shallow.

The good news? This season the Wizards will have their first-round pick, something they have had just twice in the last six seasons.

"It's not like I'm an eternal optimist. I fully understand our situation. I think I'm a realist," Hamilton said. "But all I know is this. At the end of the day we've got to get it done."

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