Sunday, June 25, 2006
Updated: June 26, 10:34 AM ET
Did MJ learn from first GM stint?
By Tom Friend
Special to Page 2
To: Bob Johnson, owner, Charlotte Bobcats
Subject: Your hire
From: The District of Columbia
Saw MJ go to work the other day in his new role as part-owner and de facto GM, and frankly, we're amazed you didn't ask all six of us Wizards fans for input. You'd better hope he's changed, Bob. We know he's charismatic, and we know he instantly makes your Bobcats relevant, but did you watch the 2001 draft?
We wish we hadn't. MJ had just arrived as our team president and owner-in-waiting, and we got bilked into thinking he had a plan. His moves to buy out Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland made relative sense, and he cleared money off the books by dumping Juwan Howard to Dallas. From a basketball standpoint, we initially thought the Howard trade was questionable -- who'd be our low-post threat? -- but when MJ rolled a "7" at the draft lottery in the spring of 2001, we figured he'd fix it. That, with the No. 1 overall pick, he'd find a baby Garnett.
We liked that he could go where no GM had gone before: on the court with the prospects. Seriously, he put on our uniform that spring and literally played them one-on-one. It seemed to be a smart idea at the time, but trust me, Bob, you've got to be careful about this. MJ thinks he can get a kid on the floor, talk some #$%$#, and look straight into a kid's soul. He figures if the kid stands up to him -- the great and powerful MJ -- that the kid will have no problem elbowing Paul Pierce in the chops. Tyson Chandler. Kwame Brown. Eddie Curry. He brought 'em all in that spring, and Kwame was the only one to tell MJ he was going to school him. Fool's gold, man. Fool's gold.
As we began to analyze those players, we realized it was a God-awful year to have the No. 1 overall pick. Yao Ming wanted to declare for the draft, but was a year away from extricating himself out of China. Shane Battier was the college player of the year, but was looking more like a role player. A guard from Arizona, Gilbert Arenas, wasn't even on the radar. MJ reportedly told people he liked a lanky power forward from Spain, Pau Gasol, but he didn't think a potentially soft Euro big man would generate any buzz in D.C. That he couldn't justify taking him Numero Uno. Oh yeah? Then he should've traded down and taken him second. Or third.
And that's what we're talking about, Bob. The man was stubborn back then, full of preconceived ideas and ego, and this is what prevented him from becoming a premier NBA executive. In the days before that draft, it became clear that the Bulls -- Michael's Bulls -- were shopping their big man, Elton Brand. Jerry Krause, the bane of MJ's existence, had his heart set on drafting Chandler and/or Brown or Curry, and was willing to trade Brand for the first or third overall pick. But MJ wanted to embarrass Krause, who once said organizations win championships, not players. The same Krause who ran out Phil Jackson, who broke up MJ's Bulls. Michael wanted to fleece Krause so badly that he reportedly demanded Brand and guard Jamal Crawford for the No. 1 pick. Brand alone wasn't enough. See what I mean, Bob? He chose vendetta over the best young power forward in the game, a former rookie of the year with long arms and humongous hands. Instead, MJ drafted a fraud with no hands.
That's right, he chose Kwame Brown, who talked a good game before the draft but broke out in acne the minute Michael got in his face a year later. And that one pick, or should I say, that one nontrade, is the reason Michael Jordan was out on the street when you hired him, Bob.
Let's just say, for posterity's sake, that he'd swallowed his pride and taken Brand straight up for the No. 1 pick. In that 2001-02 season, the first year of his comeback, he'd have had Elton, Rip Hamilton and himself. He'd have had a playoff team, and he'd have had a long, long tenure in D.C. There's no way owner Abe Pollin blows him out with that nucleus. They'd have played deep into May, and he wouldn't have had the impetus to trade Hamilton for a supposedly tougher Jerry Stackhouse. If he makes that Brand trade, Michael's still in D.C. in 2003 to sign Arenas as a free agent, and now his core is Brand, Hamilton, Arenas and Larry Hughes, whom MJ had signed earlier (good move). Add a few defensive role players, and they'd have been in this year's Eastern finals at least. Or maybe the Finals. Or maybe even sipping champagne.
All we're saying, Bob, is that Michael's legacy as an executive would've been 180 degrees different if he'd only checked his testosterone at the door. Or if he didn't hate Crumbs so much. Or if he trusted the Euro ballplayer. Or if Kwame didn't have a two-cent head. We're not saying MJ's that far away as a GM. We're not saying he wasn't a little unlucky. You might get an older, wiser, humbler No. 23 this time, but our best advice is to keep a close watch, and to not let him play one-on-one with Rudy Gay.
Seriously, Bob, we've seen this year's draft board, and it's got a chance to be disastrous. You're picking third overall, which means there are multiple scenarios, some of which are your worst nightmare.
(1) Most likely, you guys are going to have to choose between Connecticut's Gay (probably the smoothest player in the draft) and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison (maybe the toughest mentally). If you let Michael play one-on-one with Rudy, and Rudy talks a little mess, what are you going to do? Draft him? He's a smaller Kwame. Trust us. We know. He's from right down the road in Baltimore.
(2) There's (gulp) another quality Euro big man out there: Andrea Bargnani of Italy. Michael's probably going to want to pass on him if he's there. Don't let him.
(3) The Bulls (gulp) draft right ahead of you at No. 2. No, Krause isn't there anymore, but Jerry Reinsdorf is. So if the phone rings, and the Bulls ask to speak to MJ, and he starts frothing at the mouth
Well, good luck with it all, Bob. Oh, and one more thing: How about Jamison for Okafor?
Run it by Michael for us.
All six Wizards fans
Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.