- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

I'm trying to come to grips with the NBA's two Stories of the Month Michael Jordan's possible comeback and all the rule changes the league plans to implement next season. Does the latter impact on the former? You'd certainly think so, and yet no one's talking about it.

Everybody's comparing Jordan's coming out of retirement to Mario Lemieux's second act with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but there's a big difference between the two. The difference is this: When Lemieux left hockey in '98, he did it at least in part because the game wasn't very superstar-friendly anymore. There was too much grabbing and holding, too much emphasis on defense and physical play. But when he returned to the NHL in February, after 3 1/2 years away, he remarked that the league had done "a great job of opening up the game" during his absence. There was tighter officiating and more room to maneuver on the ice. That, as much as anything, is why his comeback has gone so fabulously. The NHL created the conditions for him to succeed.

Jordan's situation is the exact opposite. During his retirement, scoring has edged upward in pro basketball, but many of the games are still ugly and, to these eyes, unwatchable. And now the NBA is going to make zone defense legal and allow "brief contact by a defensive player" as long as it doesn't "impede the progress of the player with the ball." How do rule changes like that help Michael? Seems to me he's going to have a harder time getting to the basket and opponents are going to bump him more, with impunity, if he tries.

If I were MJ, I wouldn't be practicing my crossover dribble and my repertoire of exotic dunks the next few months, I'd be practicing my jump shot. Because that's what he's going to spend most of his time doing with these new rules shooting jumpers. And frankly, Michael Jordan didn't get to be Michael Jordan by pulling up and shooting the J. He got to be Michael Jordan by taking the ball to the hoop and defying gravity.

Will fans really want to see him play that kind of basketball, the kind where he turns into Allan Houston? Or will it get old for them in a hurry especially at $60 or $70 a pop? I just don't know.

I don't know about these new rules, either. I'm all for experimentation, but how is the legalization of zone defense supposed to bring the excitement back to the NBA? It's just going to mean more congestion around the basket (and probably make Wally Szczerbiak the league's MVP).

Here's something else I don't understand: The NBA reducing from 10 seconds to eight the amount of time a team has to advance the ball past midcourt but not reducing the 24-second clock, too. If you took two seconds off the shot clock , you would have 11 more possessions per game (hypothetically). If you took four seconds off the shot clock, you would have 24 more possessions per game (again, hypothetically). Wouldn't that do more for offense and ball movement and the game's "flow" problem not to mention Michael Jordan than these other changes the league is making?

I have no doubt His Airness can come back and play at a high level, even as he closes in on the Big Four-Oh. The question is: How high a level are we talking about? In his last four full seasons, Jordan's scoring average declined from 32.6 points a game to 30.4 to 29.6 to 28.7 about a point a season. Following that formula, he would have averaged in the 25s this season and would figure to score somewhere in the 24s next.

Which would make him similar to … who? Paul Pierce? Ray Allen? Michael Finley? Hey, that doesn't sound too bad, does it? (It depends, I suppose, on your expectations).

The thing I don't like about Jordan's potential comeback is that it might lull the NBA into a false sense of security and keep the league from addressing some of its other problems (e.g. too many teams and too many players coming straight out of high school). The product just isn't very good these days and frankly, it wasn't all that great in Michael's last couple of years. We tend to forget that neither the Bulls nor the Jazz broke 100 points in his last championship series in '98.

Mario was smart. He came back in an expansion year two new teams joined the NHL this season and at a time when the hockey, having seen the error of its ways, was becoming more offensive again. Jordan, if he returns, will have to deal with 2-3 matchup zones and Lord knows what else. By next January, he might wish he was off filming "Space Jam II."

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