- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

In the timeless Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell debate, Russell almost always wins.
Chamberlain might have been the most powerful offensive force in the NBA. Russell is considered the best defensive player and rebounder ever, although Wilt could hit the boards a little, too. But the argument always comes down to championships. Russell's Boston Celtics won 11 of them. Wilt's teams won titles just twice.
The reason?
Well, maybe it's because Russell had fellow future Hall of Famers Tom Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Frank Ramsey on his team during that run. Even Russell's coach, Red Auerbach, was a Hall of Famer. Chamberlain also played with some outstanding players, but there is no doubt that Russell made others around him better.
"Not to diminish their skills, but if some of [the Celtics] played on other teams, they would not have been Hall of Fame players," former coach and Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay said. Still, they were pretty good in their own right.
Perhaps that's the point.
You can be a one-man team in the NBA, but chances are, it won't be a championship team. Sometimes, it won't even be a very good team.
Which brings us to Michael Jordan.
Despite four scoring titles, it took Jordan and the Chicago Bulls six years to win a championship.
In the last 30 years, only two players have won both a scoring title and an NBA championship. Shaquille O'Neal did it once, with the Lakers in 2000. Jordan did it three times for the Bulls before leaving in 1993 to play baseball, then came back and did it three more times before retiring in 1998.
Now Jordan is back yet again, suiting up at the age of 38 for the Wizards.
No one is expecting Washington to contend for a championship or even come close. This was a team that went 19-63 last season, changed coaches and revamped most of its roster. The Wizards will be better, we know that. The question is, how much better?
"If they can't take care of the defensive boards, forget it," Turner Sports analyst and former coach Hubie Brown said. "Forget everything. You must hold teams to one shot attempt. And right now, as they're presently constructed, that's the biggest question mark."
In 1962, Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game for the Philadelphia Warriors, leading the NBA in both categories. Statistically, it was probably the greatest season in history, before or since. That was the year Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. The leading scorer for the Celtics, Heinsohn, finished 11th in the league, averaging less than half of Chamberlain's output.
Chamberlain had a good supporting cast, but not like Russell's, and Boston finished 11 games ahead of Philadelphia in the East in '62. Then the Celtics beat the Warriors in the Eastern finals, 4-3, and went on to win their fourth straight title.
Only once when Chamberlain led the league in scoring did his team win a championship. That was the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers that, with Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham and Luke Jackson, was so good it temporarily knocked the Celtics off their perch. Wilt's other title came in 1971-72 with the Los Angeles Lakers, at the end of his career. He was just the No. 4 scorer on a team that included Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich.
"You've got to have three guys if you're gonna do anything, if you're gonna get into the playoffs and beyond," Brown said. "There are all kinds of guys who scored a ton of points, other guys who rebounded or blocked shots. But their teams didn't do a thing. It's a well-rounded game. One guy just can't do it all."
And history bears that out.
For three straight years in the 1970s, Buffalo's Bob McAdoo led the league in scoring. The Braves posted winning records each season, but never made it past the conference semifinals. Playing for the New Orleans Jazz, Pete Maravich won the scoring title in 1977, breaking McAdoo's streak. The Jazz finished 12 games under .500. In 1981, Adrian Dantley led the NBA with 30.7 points a game. He also led Utah to a 28-54 record, which matched the New York Knicks' mark in 1985 when Bernard King wore the scoring crown.
Yet NBA history is filled with examples of how one player joining a team can make a significant difference. The first time was even before the NBA was formed, when George Mikan, the game's first true big man, joined the Minneapolis Lakers of the then-National Basketball League in 1948.
Mikan was playing for St. Paul of the Professional Basketball League of America, which suddenly folded. So he went to the Lakers, who had the worst record the previous year while known as the Detroit Gems. With Mikan, the Lakers won the championship and continued to dominate after the NBL became the NBA.
Among teams that improved at least 20 games, the addition of a single veteran sometimes helped. Jordan's return to the Bulls for a full season (1995-96) resulted in a 25-game swing and another championship. The influx of ABA players in 1977 paid off for the Bulls (a 20-game improvement with Artis Gilmore), Trail Blazers (a championship with Maurice Lucas) and 76ers (who, with Julius Erving, lost in the Finals to Portland).
But in nearly every case, and others, the new player was joining a team that was already pretty good.
It also seems as if rookies, not veterans, have made a greater impact. Tim Duncan helped transform the 20-62 San Antonio Spurs into a 56-26 team in 1998, the greatest one-year improvement in league history. But it helped that David Robinson played a full season after missing all but six games the prior year.
Robinson himself was the catalyst of the second-biggest turnaround when the Spurs improved from 21-61 to 56-26 during his rookie 1990 season (he was drafted in 1987 but fulfilled his Navy obligation). But he didn't do it alone. The Spurs drafted Sean Elliott and added veterans Terry Cummings and Maurice Cheeks, and then a productive Rod Strickland to replace Cheeks at point guard.
The then-Baltimore Bullets muddled through the 1968 season at 36-46, then drafted an undersized center from Louisville named Wes Unseld. That's all they needed. With virtually the same team, plus Unseld, the Bullets in 1969 went from worst to first in the East with a 57-25 record.
After the Milwaukee Bucks won a coin flip with the Phoenix Suns for the No. 1 draft pick and took Lew Alcindor (who soon changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in 1969, Jerry Colangelo instantly knew the Bucks had become a championship-caliber club.
"I thought it would happen to us," said Colangelo, then the Suns' general manager, now their owner. "We had a team he would fit right in with. All we had to do was slide him in."
Sure enough, the Bucks improved from 27-55 to 56-26 in 1970, and won the title the following year. But they didn't do that until they added Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson to a solid core that included Jabbar, Bobby Dandridge, Jon McGlocklin and Greg Smith.
In 1980, Larry Bird's Celtics went from 29-53 to 61-21, and Magic Johnson turned the Lakers from a 47-35 club into a 60-game winner and league champion. Bird and Magic were hugely talented rookies who helped launch the league into a new era, and both were totally responsible for their teams' rise.
Weren't they?
Sure, if you ignore the fact that Bird's teammates included Dave Cowens, Tiny Archibald and Cedric Maxwell, and that Magic was teamed in the backcourt with Norm Nixon, who actually had more assists and scored nearly 18 points a game, with Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes in the frontcourt and Michael Cooper and Spencer Haywood coming off the bench.
"You still need other people," Colangelo said. "But when you have a player who is so dominant, not only through physical ability but the ability to bring people to another level, you have to be careful [about the players] you use to build around."
Which brings us back to the Wizards.
How will Jordan's comeback affect the club in terms of wins and losses? Let's compare apples with apples, or in this case, terrible teams with terrible teams. Last year, the Wizards and the Bulls were the 36th and 37th teams to win fewer than 20 games since the 82-game schedule began in 1968.
Of the 35 teams in the under-20 club before last season, 30 improved the following year, by an average of nearly 10 games (records for the lockout-shortened 1999 season were projected). The biggest jump was 23 games by the 1970 Suns and the 1995 Dallas Mavericks, followed by the 1969 San Diego Rockets (22 games) and the 1999 Toronto Raptors (a projected 21 games).
Each team added a key player. For the Suns, it was ABA star Connie Hawkins, a playground legend who was banned from college and the NBA during his prime for alleged links to a point-shaving scandal. The Mavericks' Jason Kidd, the Rockets' Elvin Hayes and the Raptors' Vince Carter all were first-round picks.
Hawkins, a 6-8 forward, made a huge splash in the desert. An acrobatic leaper who helped define today's style (for better or worse), Hawkins averaged nearly 25 points and more than 10 rebounds a game as the Suns made the playoffs after going 16-66 the year before.
"He was the first guy to play above the rim," Colangelo said. "He had a flair, and he brought attention whenever he was on the floor, in terms of how defenses keyed on him."
But, Colangelo adds, "We still needed good scoring from outside and Paul Silas' tremendous rebounding, and Dick Van Arsdale's hard-nosed play."
When Jason Kidd made the sorry Mavs respectable in 1995, "He gave them a new tempo, a new style of play," Brown said. "When Jason Kidd comes to your club, every missed shot, steal and blocked shot becomes a transition game. There's no one better getting from the top of the circle to the top of the other circle than Jason Kidd."
But the Mavericks had youngsters Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn waiting to blossom. Both thrived playing with Kidd, combining for nearly 50 points a game. Meanwhile, Carter's transition in Toronto was aided by the addition of veterans Kevin Willis and Charles Oakley.
The Wizards' new coach, Doug Collins, had instant success with Chicago (and Jordan) and then Detroit, which has to be added to the equation. But the X-factor is Jordan himself. He was the game's best player who, despite all his scoring titles, was the game's best teammate. Even though Jordan had the ideal coach (Phil Jackson) and the ideal supporting cast (Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, etc.), the Bulls were by, for and about Michael Jordan.
"When you look at Chicago and analyze those championship teams, none of those players had as much success before or after they joined up with Michael," Ramsay said. "The fact hits you right in the face, when they broke up that team. All of those other players went to different teams, and none had as much success."
Jordan's Bulls went 38-44 in 1985, his rookie year, an 11-game improvement. Jordan was third in the league in scoring (28.2), leading Chicago in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
His teammates, most of whom returned from the previous season, included veterans Orlando Woolridge, Quintin Dailey, Steve Johnson, Dave Corzine, David Greenwood, Wes Matthews, Ennis Whatley and Rod Higgins.
Jordan turned 22 that year and was quicker and more athletic than now but not as smart or savvy. Many things he can't do as well, others he can do better. But it would seem that Jordan needs more help now than he did with the Bulls, and he needs it from younger players. Can Rip Hamilton, Chris Whitney, Christian Laettner, Kwame Brown, Jahidi White, Courtney Alexander, Etan Thomas, Brendan Haywood, Tyronn Lue and Tyrone Nesby provide it? Then add the Collins effect. Is this even as good as Jordan's first Bulls team?
"You can debate on that," said Higgins, now the Wizards' assistant GM. "It's something you go to the barbershop and throw up for discussion…. Maybe on paper, that team back then was supposed to have better talent. But that's something you can argue. Although these [current Wizards] are young, they can play."
Ramsay, who works as an analyst for ESPN, said the Wizards can reach .500 "and that Michael will be the reason for that." This would mean a 22-game hike, equal to that of the best improvements by teams that won fewer than 20 games.
"He probably won't be the same player he was, but he will have some great games that look like vintage Jordan," Ramsay said. "And in all the games, he will make the other players better."
Jordan "willed his teams to win," said Colangelo, whose Suns fell to Jordan's Bulls in the 1993 Finals.
But can Michael Jordan will this team to win?
"That," Colangelo said, "remains to be seen."


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