- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Patrick Ewing goes there, and Popeye Jones comes here.

Patrick. Popeye.

Popeye. Patrick.

The other NBA cities are having all the fun this offseason. Washington is sticking with the 29-53 blueprint.

It seems the Wizards are stuck between a Popeye and a prayer.

The prayer is for Rod Strickland, the team's conscientious objector at point guard who takes it one misunderstanding at a time.

Michael Jordan is in charge of the offseason inertia. He walked on water in Chicago. He merely is treading water in Tony Cheng's neighborhood.

His hands are said to be tied. That is no small disadvantage, although as a player, he could beat you with his hands tied behind his back.

Jordan has spent the offseason trying to get inside Strickland's head. That is a time-consuming process, considering the head.

Perhaps that explains the relative quiet enveloping a franchise that is mired among the also-rans.

Jordan has embraced Strickland, if only because he has no other choice. A 34-year-old point guard is perceived to be a limited measure at best around the NBA. A 34-year-old point guard with Strickland's baggage and contract is a synonym for you're stuck with him.

The thrill prospect is narrow unless Strickland decides to put his shorts on backward again.

To recap the summer, Jordan has hired a coach from the Big East, drafted Michael Smith, unloaded Ike Austin's contract and acquired Popeye.

That is Popeye Jones and not Popeye the Sailor Man.

A cartoon character wouldn't feel out of place with the Wizards.

Jordan announced last week that the fire-the-coach option probably has been exhausted with this group. Jordan reached this conclusion only after the Wizards reached out to their fifth coach in two seasons.

That doesn't mean Leonard Hamilton should get too comfortable in his new role. The first time Strickland is late to practice, Hamilton will need to remind himself that he can't threaten to revoke the player's scholarship.

This is almost the big time. At least you can get a sense of it from your ball and chain on the Wizards' bench.

Here's where the Wizards are: Tracy Murray, a 3-point specialist who is allergic to defense, wanted out. Players in Murray's tenuous position usually keep quiet and find contentment in the NBA's pay scale.

But Murray issued a trade edict, even if it meant playing for the Clippers, the NBA's version of a graveyard. It could be argued the Wizards are the last stop before the Clippers.

Going to the Nuggets will have to suffice. Denver is close enough to Murray's home or far enough removed from his old sparring partner on Fun Street. Either way, he voiced no objections.

Jordan, meanwhile, is reduced to making cosmetic changes.

He sees a broken arm and applies a touch of rouge to the victim's face.

That is an improvement only if he insists.

Jordan is presiding over the franchise's most anemic offseason since 1991, when LaBradford Smith and Michael Adams qualified as substantial moves following a 30-52 season.

His tweaking of the roster, Austin in particular, is done with next summer's free agents in mind.

Until then, he wants to believe that this team the core of which is Strickland, Mitch Richmond and Juwan Howard is mostly guilty of underachieving and a fresh 82 games could result in a playoff berth.

That is not a bad theory, just one that ignores the evidence the last two seasons.

Strickland and Richmond are nearing the end of their athletic shelf life, and Howard struggles with the performance clause that goes with his $105 million contract.

The three are competent enough. They just aren't equipped to be a team's heaviest lifters over an 82-game schedule.

Jordan knows how this works only too well, and nothing against Popeye.

Like it or not, Jordan's first real day on the job begins when he is able to address the team's core. That also will coincide with the franchise's new beginning.

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