- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

When Michael Jordan was at the height of his athletic prowess with the Chicago Bulls, making the playoffs was a given. The only goal was winning a championship. Anything less was abject failure.
The expectations will be significantly lower for the Washington Wizards, the team Jordan will suit up for this season.
During his career with the Bulls, Jordan played alongside seasoned veterans like Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman and Horace Grant. The result was six NBA titles between 1991 and 1998. In 13 seasons with the Bulls, Jordan never missed the playoffs.
That is the past. Jordan's new team won just 19 games last season, setting a franchise record for futility. Before Jordan's arrival, a trip to the playoffs this season which would be just the team's second postseason appearance since 1987 seemed far-fetched at best.
And now?
At 38, Jordan will no doubt experience a physical slippage. Gone forever is the player who once shot 48 percent from the field and led the league in scoring with a 37.1 average. Instead, Jordan will have to rely more on his craftiness, perhaps an underestimated aspect of his game while he was in his prime.
However, Jordan still is likely to be among the top 20 players in the league. One thing Jordan has going for him is that he is probably a young 38. He didn't miss a game because of injury in his last three seasons and has always been considered a sturdy player, even though he did suffer broken ribs this summer and is battling tendinitis.
Still, it won't be easy for Jordan to lift the young Wizards to a 40-win season, which would be a dramatic improvement for a team that has seen its winning percentage slip in each of the last four seasons and has gone through five coaches in that span.
Minus Jordan, who will spend most of his time at small forward, at least half of the Wizards are NBA babies. Still, it is the team's youngest players who are also its best.
The Wizards' shooting guard rotation with Richard Hamilton and Courtney Alexander is one of the best and youngest in the league. Hamilton, 23, had a breakout season, averaging 18.1 points. He was even better when he moved into the starting lineup, averaging 21.1 points in 42 starts.
Courtney Alexander, 24, acquired from Dallas in the Juwan Howard trade, averaged 17 points a game with the Wizards and almost certainly would have captured Rookie of the Year honors had he spent the entire season in Washington.
The Wizards also added 19-year-old Kwame Brown with the top pick in the draft. Brown, seemingly mature beyond his years, was at times the best player on the court during NBA-sanctioned summer league games. And as an added bonus, the Wizards believe the 6-foot-11 Brown, projected to play all three frontcourt positions, eventually will grow to 7 feet.
The only drawback surrounding the team's young nucleus is that Hamilton and Alexander play the same position. Although each is capable of switching between shooting guard and point guard, both prefer the former. As a result, the Wizards might be forced to trade one of the two in the future.
However, there are those who believe Jordan's return will accelerate the development of the team's young nucleus.
"If Michael plays now, it might show the young kids how to get to the next level faster," former Washington general manager John Nash told the Philadelphia Daily News.
There are reasons to be optimistic about some of the Wizards' parts, but they are still flawed in other areas.
The Wizards likely will start undersized Jahidi White at center. White is in the second year of a five-year, $24.5 million deal, a package he was awarded after averaging 7.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in 1999-2000. In his first year under the new deal, White continued to be plagued by foul trouble, which was the primary reason his scoring and rebounding statistics improved only marginally to 8.6 and 7.7, respectively.
There is equal uncertainty behind White. He likely will be backed up by rookie Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, who was acquired from Dallas in his rookie season but has yet to play a minute in the league because of a toe injury.
"I think that as great as Michael is, and there's no questioning what he once was, he just doesn't have the pieces to go along with him in that frontcourt," said one Eastern Conference general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There are a lot of shortcomings they still have to address."
Forward Christian Laettner is the X-factor. A journeyman during a nine-year career that has seen him named to one All-Star team and more recently fight with a Detroit Pistons teammate on a charter flight, Laettner is still in his athletic prime. The Wizards are hoping the presence of Jordan and disciplinarian coach Doug Collins will bring out the best in Laettner, who also will be responsible for schooling Brown on playing power forward.
The Wizards are decent at point guard, where veteran Chris Whitney and ex-Laker Tyronn Lue will split time. The starter will be determined during training camp.
While there are questions regarding the quality of the starters, the Wizards' bench simply does not provide much depth or any hope it might help the team make substantial improvements this year. Power forward Popeye Jones has seen his best days and was signed this summer to a one-year deal as an additional Brown mentor, while Loy Vaught's bad back has limited his contributions.
Hubert Davis is a decent backup at both guard spots. But little is expected out of forward Michael Smith, whom Jordan drafted last year, and rookie Bobby Simmons, whom the Wizards acquired in a draft-day deal.

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