Will magic disappear for post-MJ Wizards?
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
They ask a lot of me here at the Worldwide Leader. They want me to do SportsCenter, and ESPNEWS, and ESPN Classic, and ESPN Radio, and ESPN.com and, in the meantime, to stay on top of everything in the NBA. I do it. I get paid good money.
But now they want me to be Miss Cleo.
What am I around here, Kreskin?
How am I supposed to know what the Wizards are going to look like in two seasons? Do you want to predict what Doug Collins' mental state is going to be two minutes from now, much less 24 months? You want to bet a dollar which way Kwame Brown is going to fall, or if Rip Hamilton is ever going to put on weight, or if Jahidi White is going to keep it off? You want to hazard a guess on when, or if, Abe Pollin is going to finally sell the franchise to Ted Leonsis, the AOL executive who has the right of first refusal? You want to take a shot on whether free agents are going to want to play for Jordan the Executive in two seasons, after Jordan the Aging Star stole a lot of the media heat and light this season? For that matter, you want to predict whether Jordan will be in D.C. at all by then?
Hey, give me something hard next time. Like explaining curling to the Dawg Pound.
Here's all I know: The folks of D.C. -- not the political types, who come from everywhere else, but the actual citizens of the town -- love hoops. Love 'em. Know 'em. (This is different from the rich and powerful in town -- the professional pols, the media stars, the Chamber of Commerce types. The people that have their pictures taken in Washingtonian magazine. They love stars. They come to games to see stars, and to be seen. They don't know a pick-and-roll from roll call. But since these folks control a lot of the dollars and publicity in town, people around the country think that's the real Washington. Trust me. 'Taint.)
Do folks in town love the Redskins? Sure do. Do they love football? Not really. There isn't any real great high school football tradition in D.C., like there is in Texas, or Pennsylvania. No great college tailgating tradition. No great college teams. Folks were happy to see Maryland roll to the Orange Bowl this year, but that deal was really limited to Terp grads. There are about 30,000 hockey fans in the area, and they all go to the Caps games, but there's no groundswell of demand for pucks. Baseball, which had a strong tradition in the city, has died a slow death in town, first when the Nats left for Arlington, Texas, in '71, and then when high schools and colleges throughout the area slowly eliminated baseball from their programs.
No, D.C. is about hoops. And the District will give its heart to a team that busts its butt. That's why they loved Georgetown in the '80s, because the Hoyas played so hard. And why they fell in love with the Bullets in the '70s. It wasn't the most glamorous team. But it was a team, and one that maxed out just about every night behind the ultimate lunch-pail guy, Wes Unseld.
And that's why they hated the reincarnation of those Bullets, the '90s Wizards. They didn't see effort. They didn't see a team that gave a damn. They saw wasted talent and wasted opportunities. They may or may not have known that the organization was slow to join the modern game of wooing free agents, or adding amenities. Probably didn't matter. The guys on the floor acted like they didn't want to be there. Played like it, too.
And that's why, when Jordan came to the organization, so many folks got excited. They all hoped, in their heart of hearts, that he would come back and play. Even if he didn't, they wanted him to come to the games and just be around, so they could gaze on him like he was an alabaster carving or something. I found this ridiculous; Jordan was doing a very good job deconstructing the Wizards, and even so, he kept telling everybody that he had no interest in returning.
This is all I know: These non-Jordan Wizards are, to put it charitably, role players. Even Hamilton. He has a significant role, but it's not superstar. And Jordan's presence on the floor has given them all a big swagger. They really believe that they can win every night. I'm not sure if it's because he's on the floor, or because they believe in themselves because he believes in them. That's the stuff of chemistry, and like Bob Whitsitt, I wasn't a chemistry major. But they're more of a team than more-talented versions of the Wizards have been in 15 years.
Everyone keeps saying that the Wizards have no chance to make the playoffs now that Jordan's gotten his knee scoped. Maybe. Maybe probably. Although I'm not sure when the Eastern Conference became the Western Conference, all of a sudden. Are the Wizards without Jordan demonstrably worse than the Magic, or the Hornets, or the Heat? How can anyone predict anything in a conference where the Raptors, whom a lot of smart folks had going to the Finals this season, look like the Hawks?
This is what I think I believe: I believe that Hamilton always will need another scorer on the other side of the floor to be his most effective. Think of Reggie Miller playing next to Chuck Person, and then, Jalen Rose. Which is why the Wizards had better get a small forward to replace Jordan, and soon. Jordan has done a nice job pushing Hamilton out front, but he's more Tonto than Lone Ranger.
I think I believe that Brown is going to be fine. At least he now knows what he doesn't know. He will never be Kevin Garnett, but he isn't going to be LaRue Martin, either. If Collins can stay patient with him (big if), I see Brown developing into a Jermaine O'Neal clone -- a guy you probably wouldn't have taken in the first round of the '96 draft, but whom you might take first now, if he was just coming out of school.
I think I believe Courtney Alexander can average 16 a game. For the Grizzlies.
I think I believe that the Wizards' starting center in two years currently isn't on their roster. He may be playing abroad.
I think I believe Jordan will still be around, once again as president of basketball operations. And as I think you all already know, I think Jordan the Executive will be pretty damn good. By the way, I love reading all these guys who, for some reason, just couldn't wait for Jordan to stumble. First, he wasn't around enough as an exec. At the start of the season, they said Jordan would fall on his face. When Washington started 2-9, you could hear the tongues clucking. But when they went 24-12 afterward, there were excuses, then silence. Like it's a personal insult to them or something. Look, no one was more skeptical about his return than I was. No one. But to deny that what he's done this season is incredible, and has transformed one of the league's most dormant franchises, is to blithely ignore reality. He isn't the 24-year-old Jordan. But he hasn't exactly fallen on his face, either.
I think I believe Jordan will be around, because he'll be waiting for the big payday, the equity burst that will come when Leonsis and his checkbook take over the Wizards for good. The only thing I see him leaving town for is if Jerry Reinsdorf makes the call and says, "Come home. It's time." Otherwise, Jordan will stay in D.C., because the Wizards will double in value within five years of Leonsis taking over. It's not that Pollin hasn't spent money over the past few years; that repuation is still promulgated only by lazy sportswriters. It's that Leonsis has more money. When Leonsis takes charge, the Wizards will do Dallas-like things; Leonsis has that Cuban-like ability to write massive checks without pause, if he thinks it will help the team win.
I think I believe that Jordan will have limited success in luring free agents. I don't expect there to be a lot of movement over the next couple of seasons, so teams will have to be surgical in free agency. Can Jordan get Tim Duncan or Antonio McDyess to give up $12 million or $15 million to come to Washington? Don't think so. But would Jordan be the difference in luring, say, Rashard Lewis?
I think I believe that the Wizards will be a playoff team. A hard-working, but not dominant, playoff team. That will be because their young guys are getting better. (But they need more young guys. This is why it would be better for them long-term not to make the playoffs this season, get an earlier pick in the first round and be in position to take a guy like Dan Dickau to run the point for the next decade.) MCI Center will be sold out a lot of nights, but not every night. The Wizards will make the front page of the Post a lot of nights, but not every night. 'Cause Coach Steve might be bringin' in another Gator with the Redskins.
If that all happens, the city will be fine with the Wizards.
D.C. doesn't expect miracles. It only expects a full day's work.
David Aldridge is a reporter and NBA analyst for ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com