- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

They tried to hide the disappointment on Fun Street last night.

The Wizards acknowledged those in the stands, a record 41st full house of the season, after defeating the Knicks 116-112 to finish with a 37-45 record.

That's 18 more victories than last season, just enough to consider whether the improvement is a genuine measure of progress or merely a reprieve of sorts.

The progress is as questionable as Michael Jordan's 39-year-old body.

It was mostly the product of Jordan's work, and his work is mostly done, officially or not. In that regard, another sequel is planned this summer, and Ahmad Rashad is panting in anticipation of Jordan's next decision, Part Deux in Washington.

NBC is bound to interrupt the playoffs to bring one last tete-a-tete between Rashad and Jordan, as if a 37-45 record is somehow indecipherable.

The evidence already has been gathered, the tea leaves already read, and next season is only as intriguing as Richard Hamilton, Courtney Alexander, Brendan Haywood and Kwame Brown allow it to be.

You don't have to be an out-of-work Kremlinologist from the old Soviet Union to interpret the diminishing signs in Jordan. He might not want to leave the game on a two-point vapor. It might not matter. His impressive stubbornness was vanquished by a pair of uncooperative knees.

Check out the real Wizards.

Jordan missed 22 games. He played at least another 13 games as a shell of his December self.

The Wizards were 7-15 in Jordan's absence and 4-9 in his injured form. That comes out to about a 25-win season, hardly encouraging. If healthy all 82 games, Jordan probably was worth about 20 wins, a playoff berth and a puncher's chance in the postseason against any of the so-called quality teams in the Eastern Conference.

If he elects to return next season, he must adjust to 25 to 30 minutes a game and consider sitting out the second of back-to-back games. No second thoughts about it. The second thought is what contributed to his descent.

There are at least four parties in the process: Jordan's competitive streak, Jordan's ego, Jordan's body and coach Doug Collins.

Jordan outnumbered Collins this season, plus held the final word as the de-facto player/boss of the franchise.

Jordan felt compelled to donate his body to the cause after the Wizards started the season with a 2-9 record. In November, the team's season appeared to be over before it really was under way, and Jordan's comeback was on the verge of being irrelevant.

As Collins noted for the longest time, the Wizards started to right themselves in late November, in an overtime victory at home against the Celtics after squandering a 15-point lead in the last six-plus minutes of regulation.

Jordan played 45 minutes in that game, far too many minutes, but even as he struggled against fatigue, he steadied the team. The implication was clear. He had to be on the floor 35-40 minutes a game if the team was going to salvage its season. The team started to win, and Jordan started to lose.

The team was not eliminated from playoff contention until the 80th game of the season, and everyone's dignity, Jordan's included, was preserved.

Jordan's teammates claimed to have learned something under him, though what is unclear.

The team's lack of professionalism departed with first Rod Strickland and then Leonard Hamilton. The season was bound to be better, regardless of Jordan's on-court contributions.

The next step for the Wizards, as usual, is the luck of the lottery, followed by the temptation to move bodies around the NBA Draft in June and a modest free-agent market. No significant help appears likely to land in Tony Cheng's neighborhood, barring an improbable development with Duke's Jason Williams and the unknown aspect of the foreigners.

To make another step next season, the Wizards need a genuine point guard, a legitimate threat on offense in the low post and a Jordan who limits himself to lighter duty in about 70 games.

That is a lot to expect from one offseason.

Plan B is the free-agent season in the summer of 2003.

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