- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2001

To rework a line from Mark Twain, reports of Michael Jordan's potential ordinariness have been greatly exaggerated. Assuming he stays healthy, Jordan packs enough skill, moxie and competitive spirit to be one of the 10 best players in the NBA this season.
Jordan is not coming back after a three-season absence to be one of the many interchangeable parts around the NBA. He is not coming back to feed the ball to Richard Hamilton and Courtney Alexander. He is coming back to be an approximation of who he was, which still would be pretty darn good.
Jordan has played enough in the last few months to know where he is. No, he is not all the way there yet. He won't be there until he probably is 15-20 games into the season. I suspect he can make a run on the scoring title, if he is so inclined.
His age is not going to show too much on the offensive end of the floor. He has plenty of tricks at his disposal, along with an uncanny knack of creating space for himself when he is looking to shoot the ball, that scoring 20-25 points a game is a nonissue.
His age is liable to show most tellingly when he is on defense. At the peak of his physical powers, Jordan was the best defensive player in the NBA. His ability to move laterally, the most essential element of perimeter defense, was one of his underappreciated gifts.
Yet the advent of the zone defense in the NBA is certain to help Jordan mask his deficiencies in this area. He will have more freedom to roam and less reason to be matched up in one-on-one situations on defense that do not bode favorably for him.
"I think he'll still be one of the better players in the league," Magic coach Doc Rivers said last week.
I don't think Jordan has gone to all this trouble to be "one of the better players in the league." Besides, he probably was that last spring, when he was up to 240 pounds.
No doubt, he is returning with scaled-down aspirations. He has no illusions about leading the Wizards to the NBA Finals next June. But he is not returning to be some kind of glorified role player.
The list of who's who in the NBA is short: Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, Tim Duncan of the Spurs, Allen Iverson of the 76ers and Tracy McGrady of the Magic.
Could Jordan squeeze himself in there? Maybe. You wouldn't want to bet against him.
He certainly has it in him to be among the second group of leading players: Kevin Garnett of the Timberwolves, Vince Carter of the Raptors, Ray Allen of the Bucks, Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks, Jason Kidd of the Nets, Chris Webber of the Kings, Rasheed Wallace of the Trail Blazers and Karl Malone of the Jazz.
Malone, incidentally, is only five months younger than Jordan and is coming off a season in which he averaged 23.2 points and 8.3 rebounds.
As the years have accumulated, Malone has found a way to remain a highly productive player. Although Jordan's style of play is antithetical to Malone's, the beauty of one vs. the beast of the other, Jordan is no less adaptable than Malone. He demonstrated that during his second go-around with the Bulls.
Jordan was not as physically imposing at 33-35 years old as he was at 25-28, however imperceptible the erosion might have seemed at the time. His physical powers have eroded even further since 1998. In his case, however, he has a lot of power to spare.
He will have more ugly nights than in the past, a circumstance prompted as much by the modest parts around him as his 38 years. He also will have those nights when everything is going his way, when opponents and fans will be heard to say, "He's still Michael Jordan."
The best athletes and Jordan is one of the best ever in any sport just don't wake up one day and drop off the table. Signs of his decline, marked though they may be this time around, will be tempered by his guile and capacity to reinvent his game.
Jordan won't be the best player in the NBA. Shaq and Kobe share that distinction. It is doubtful Jordan, given his temperament, is willing to make even that concession to his age at this point in his comeback.
That's another reason not to dismiss his attempt to turn back the clock.

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