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8 Upper

Everybody Beats the Wiz

By Tom Scocca | Posted 11/28/2001

The great mystery of the NBA seasons is a mystery no more. After three years of absence, after months of rumors, after weeks of cryptic training-camp updates, the Third Age of Michael Jordan is upon us. There's no more need for speculation. The great one has stepped onto the hardwood again, demonstrating beyond the shadow of the doubt that, at age 38, he is . . . Paul Pierce without the jump shot.

Thud. Or rather, clang. Through the end of Thanksgiving weekend, old No. 23 ranked sixth in the National Basketball Association in scoring at 26.0 points per game, a whisker behind the aforementioned Pierce, the young and slightly pear-shaped leader of the Boston Celtics. Not bad. Jordan was averaging 4.7 assists and 6.6 rebounds, which is more or less in line with the top half-dozen small forwards and swingmen in the league. Again, not bad. But Jordan stood out from his fellow players in two departments: He was hoisting a league-high 25.2 shots per game, and he was hitting an anemic 40.4 percent of them. Bad.

Of the league's top 25 scorers, only Allen Iverson, recuperating from elbow surgery, and Pierce's ball-hogging teammate Antoine Walker have been shooting worse than Jordan. In 12 games, Jordan has had more shots than points five times, including a Walker-esque 16 points on 5-for-26 shooting against Seattle. The official explanation is that he's still rebuilding his leg strength, but he hardly seems to be getting sharper as the season goes on: In two games over the holiday weekend, he went 15-for-50.

This should not be a crushing embarrassment for Jordan. There are scores of players in the NBA who can only wish they were good enough to be slightly worse than Paul Pierce. Take the Knicks' Allan Houston, the highest-paid shooting guard in the league, who won breathless notice in Sunday's New York Times for an "excellent all-around performance" against the Chicago Bulls: 24 points, seven boards, and three steals--"all season highs." As long as that passes for excellence, Jordan hardly needs to worry about being tagged a mediocrity.

Still, his performance has been a letdown for his faithful admirers. All the pre-comeback predictions seemed to fall into one of two camps: Affirmation or Disappointment. According to the first theory, the World's Greatest Basketball Player was going to come back as the World's Greatest Basketball Player--scoring around 30 points per game and leading the previously hapless Wizards to the playoffs, or at least to the .500 mark. According to the second, he would be a sad parody of himself, limping to 15 or 18 points per night for a miserable team.

Both guesses were based on the same assumption: that there was something singular and ineffable about Michael Jordan, that his greatness existed on some superhuman plane. Either he would still have that natural superiority, or he wouldn't.

Instead, what we have is a perfectly good Jordan, in a certified-pre-owned kind of way--operating at 80 or 85 percent of his peak ability, still the best player on the floor more nights than not. But there's no aura to be seen. The Wizards' pajamas, with their cartoon numbers, look as silly on him as they do any other player. And the Wizards themselves, even with Jordan in the lineup, still reek to the rafters. They lost nine of their first 12, including eight in a row.

And there's nothing Jordan can do about it. His achievements in the Wizards' front office, as director of basketball operations, are underappreciated--nobody thought Washington could dump its corps of overpaid underachievers off on other teams, but Jordan did it. Unfortunately, all he was able to replace them with was a bunch of lower-paid low achievers.

And for all the talk about the Jordanaires in Jordan's Chicago days, his supporting cast on the championship Bulls was nowhere near as hopelessly untalented as the rest of the Wizards. Washington has one young player, Richard Hamilton, who looks like he could be a future all-star. It has one veteran, Hubert Davis, who could be a standout sixth or seventh man anywhere. Trouble is, Hamilton is a swingman and Davis is a shooting guard; unless Jordan switches to the point, both will have to compete with their savior for minutes and shots.

Meanwhile, the rest of the floor is filled by Christian Laettner, Popeye Jones, Jahidi White, and Chris Whitney. And--infrequently--by Kwame Brown, the Wizards' 19-year-old No. 1 draft pick. Every high-schooler who's jumped to the NBA this side of Moses Malone has looked terrible when he started. Maybe Brown will grow up to be Kevin Garnett. Right now, though, he's a lost kid. He'd look out of his depth in a good NCAA game.

Maybe, in his prime, Jordan could have elevated this team. There are players who can lift their squads through sheer talent. When Iverson rejoined the Sixers this year, they were 0-5; they promptly won seven in a row. But he had Dikembe Mutombo to help him out.

And Jordan, circa 2001, is not Iverson. Nor is he Vince Carter or Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan. While he sat out, new stars took over the game and passed him. It's foolish to deny it. (Bryant is shooting .526.) But it's foolish to regret Jordan's return too. What player ever diminished his own legend by staying too long? Was anyone confused by Johnny Unitas' season with the Chargers, or Willie Mays' term with the Mets?

If anything, the final act helps. Rocky Marciano retired undefeated, and so his feats seem indistinct and unproven. Muhammad Ali lost his title, and won it, and lost, and won--and when it was over, everyone knew exactly what he could do. Till someone stops you, you haven't really seen how far you can go.

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