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Why Michael Jordan’s Wizards Years Were Wasted

“One day you might look up and see me playing the game at 50. [nervous laughter in crowd] Oh don’t laugh. [relaxed laughter] Never say never. Because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.” — Michael Jordan, September 2009, upon induction into the Hall of Fame

When, at the age of 46, Michael Jordan spoke at his Hall of Fame induction, the idea that he might unretire a third time and play in the NBA as a 50-year-old seemed so absurd that the mere mention made people jittery. How could this man, already puffy at 46, possibly believe that he could be effective on the court at 50?

But then this month, his fellow North Carolina alum Antawn Jamison said that Jordan “still believes he can (play in the NBA)” and estimated that in the right situation, 50-year-old MJ could play 15 to 20 minutes a night and score “10 or 11 points.”

Kooky talk, right? Well here’s the thing: 50-year-old MJ playing effective pro ball doesn’t seem so kooky if we remember just how good 40-year-old MJ was. The problem is that most basketball fans, especially Bulls fans (myself included), reacted to MJ’s Wizards years as if recoiling from a deformity.

My reasons for disliking the 38- to 40-year-old Jordan were probably the same as most people’s:

1. I didn’t like seeing him in an NBA jersey that wasn’t the Bulls.
2. Specifically, I didn’t like seeing him in some wack jersey for some re-branded team with a dubious franchise history like the Washington Wizards.
3. I didn’t like seeing him on the least-talented roster of his career.
4. I didn’t like seeing him miss the playoffs.
5. I didn’t like seeing this replace his Last Shot as the final Jordan memory.
6. I didn’t like seeing him risk his career lead in regular season points per game.
7. I didn’t like seeing him held to single digits in a game, something that had only happened once, in 1986 while still working back into shape after missing 64 games with a broken foot.

Yes, MJ in a Wizards jersey was an eyesore. But we made a mistake when we lumped him in with the Dead Man Walking stints of Olajuwon on the Raptors or Ewing on the Sonics/Magic. Bulls fans were disgusted, but Jordan’s time with Washington was actually quite brilliant.

Michael Jordan achievements while in Washington:

— oldest player to score 50 points in an NBA game (38)
— oldest player to score 40 points in an NBA game (40)
— only 40-year-old to average 20 points per game in a full season
— tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as oldest player voted as All-Star starter (38)
— oldest All-Star starter (39, when Vince Carter gave him his starting spot in 2003)

What made MJ’s Wizards career so strange was that half the time he looked like a 40-year-old basketball player, and the other half he looked like Michael Jordan. When he was MJ, though, he was a sight to see: he hit game-winners at ease, dropped 20 points in his final All-Star game, and made one of the most brilliant defensive plays of his career with his two-handed shot-block/ball-snatch maneuver against Ron Mercer in the final minutes of Jordan’s first game against his old team.

For me, that play sums up the experience of watching Jordan on the Wizards. Yes, it was a personal affront to everyone who loves the Bulls, but how can you argue with more great Michael memories? This was the tension of MJ’s career: the desire to control his legacy vs. the desire to simply hoop as long as he was physically able. And from 2001 to 2003, Michael Jordan was more than physically able: he was a legitimate All-Star, a man who, in the right situation, could have been the second best player on a championship team.

So it got me wondering: What if Michael Jordan had been an unrestricted free agent for his second comeback in 2001 instead of part owner of the Wizards? What would have been the best situation for him? What team would have given him the best chance to win a championship and further gild his image?

To find the answer, let’s take a stroll back to the summer of 2001 and rewrite the ending of MJ’s third act. Included are the records of Jordan’s prospective teams for the 2000-01 season to show what was influencing his decision, as well as records for the following year to show how the teams fared without him. Here are my top seven could-have-been situations:

#7: New Jersey Nets

nets_logo_20012000-2001: 26-56
2001-2002: 52-30, lost NBA Finals 4-0 vs. Lakers

LINEUP: Jason Kidd, Jordan, Keith Van Horn, Kenyon Martin, Todd MacCulloch

WHY IT WOULD’VE WORKED: Throughout Jordan’s career, the cities he played in or considered playing in were all east of the Mississippi: Chapel Hill, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C. So in the event that it turned out that winning with an Eastern Conference team was for some reason important to Jordan, the Nets would be a good candidate.

WHY IT WOULDN’T HAVE: First of all, he’d never select them coming out of retirement, because nobody knew they’d be in the Finals, even with the Kidd-Marbury trade. Second, New Jersey + Jordan still can’t beat the Lakers, and so legacy-wise, seeing MJ in a Nets jersey is not that much better than seeing him in a Wizards jersey.

#6: Boston Celtics

celtics_logo_20012000-2001: 36-46
2001-2002: 49-33, lost Eastern Conference Finals

LINEUP: Kenny Anderson, Jordan, Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Tony Battie.

WHY IT WOULD’VE WORKED: Same reasoning used for the Nets, but add to that the possibility of winning a title for a team with a rich tradition like the Celtics. Boston + Jordan beats New Jersey, I think, and then he gets to be the centerpiece of a Celtics-Lakers Finals, with a chance to beat his old coach and Kobe, his heir apparent.

WHY IT WOULDN’T HAVE: Can Jordan’s Celtics beat L.A.? I think they do better than Jordan’s Nets, but still might not do it. Also, he couldn’t wear #23 without permission from former Celtics guard Frank Ramsey.

#5: Los Angeles Lakers

lakers_logo_20012000-2001: 56-26, won NBA Championship
2001-2002:58-24, won NBA Championship

LINEUP: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Jordan, Robert Horry, Shaquille O’Neal.

WHY IT WOULD’VE WORKED: Swap Rick Fox for MJ and roll from there. Obviously, if this worked, it comes with the highest likelihood of bagging ring #7.

WHY IT WOULDN’T HAVE: Ye gods… where to start? First of all, what would be the effect of teaming 39-year-old Jordan with 23-year-old Kobe? Every practice would grind to a halt as MJ & Kobe play out the real life version of Jordan’s “39 vs. 23” commercial. How would the shot distribution work between Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe? And even if everything clicked and they won the title, his legacy would suffer because he…

A. once again won with Phil Jackson.
B. shared the stage with Kobe/Shaq.
C. was a front-runner by joining the back-to-back champs.

What’s the point?

#4: San Antonio Spurs

spurs_logo_20012000-2001: 58-24, lost Western Conference Finals
2001-2002: 58-24, lost second round 4-1 vs. Lakers

LINEUP: Tony Parker, Jordan/Steve Smith, Bruce Bowen/Jordan, Tim Duncan, David Robinson.

WHY IT WOULD’VE WORKED: This is a great spot to get a ring. Spurs + Jordan nab home court against Lakers, and possibly play their way into home-court in the Finals.

WHY IT WOULDN’T HAVE: The ’02 Spurs were a team with one superstar and zero All-Stars, so while they could compete with the Lakers, victory is by no means guaranteed. Also, Jordan would be joining a team that won a championship without him three years prior, and would be playing second banana to Tim Duncan, possibly even in the fourth quarter.

#3: Portland Trail Blazers

blazers_logo_20012000-2001: 50-32, lost in first round 3-0 vs. Lakers
2001-2002: 49-33, lost in first round 3-0 vs. Lakers

LINEUP: Damon Stoudamire, Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis

WHY IT WOULD’VE WORKED: Soooooo much good stuff here. Imagine, if you will, Pippen & Jordan hanging out during the summer of 2001. They play HORSE. They play cards. They talk about the old days. Maybe there’s some pent-up frustration with Phil Jackson over little things from the Bulls days they’ve never expressed, and now they just start cutting loose because it’s MJ & Scottie and why the hell not? Pip has been eliminated three straight years by Kobe, Shaq, and the Lakers, and two straight years by Phil, and now the Blazers have just traded Steve Smith to San Antonio, leaving the 2-guard spot in the hands of Bonzi Wells. Also, they’re getting Steve Kerr in the Spurs trade! Scottie’s pitch is simple: “So Mike, want to help me beat the Lakers?”

Other perks: playing in Nike’s hometown… playing with the team that passed him up… finding another way to embarrass Clyde Drexler. Trail Blazers + Jordan can beat the Lakers. It would be tough, but it could be done.

WHY IT WOULDN’T HAVE: It’s not quite the best championship option. There’s a little bit too much potential for crazy when you’re talking about the soon-to-be Jail Blazers. Why risk it? Plus, if he had the opportunity to beat both Scottie AND Phil on his path to a title, I imagine he would prefer that.

#2: Utah Jazz

utah_jazz_logo_20012000-2001: 53-29, lost in first round
2001-2002: 44-38, lost in first round

LINEUP: John Stockton, Jordan, Bryon Russell, Karl Malone, Donyell Marshall

WHY IT WOULD’VE WORKED: Jazz fell off some in 2002, but in 2001 they were a 53-win team that blew a 2-0 series lead on the Mavericks. MJ + ’01 Jazz = at least 53 wins, and before you say I’m crazy for suggesting MJ team with Malone/Stockton, ask yourself if it’s any more crazy than Garnett-Pierce-Allen, Olajuwon-Drexler-Barkley, or James-Wade-Bosh. That would be the question with this scenario: would Jordan’s Jazz be more ’08 Celtics or ’97 Rockets?

Regardless, this is a good look for MJ. There are no potential distractions like in Portland, no recent titles detracting from the achievement like in San Antonio, and while some Bulls fans might take offense to MJ playing in Utah, I think Jordan would get off on it for the same reason that Beyonce seemed to enjoy performing with Destiny’s Child during the Super Bowl. It’s a subtle way of asserting himself again over Malone, Stockton, Sloan, Russell, and Utah while simultaneously looking like their savior.

WHY IT WOULDN’T HAVE: This was a 44-win team in 2002, so even with Jordan in the mix, do they have the firepower to beat Sacramento, let alone the Lakers? Not sure.

#1: Sacramento Kings

kings_logo_20012000-2001: 55-27, swept in second round
2001-2002: 61-21, lost Western Conference Finals

LINEUP: Mike Bibby, Jordan, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac

WHY IT WOULD’VE WORKED: The Kings have it all. This was a team on the ascent, and Jordan could take them to the mountaintop. He would empathize with them, since their trajectory from 1999 to 2002 was similar to the one taken by Jordan’s Bulls between 1988 and 1991, complete with their own Detroit Pistons (the Lakers). They had already improved their starting lineup by trading Jason Williams for Mike Bibby. And even without Jordan, the 2002 Kings captured the league’s best record and came within one fixed game (Game 6) and one overtime game (Game 7) of the Finals, where they would have met an underwhelming Nets team.

Jordan perfectly fills Sacramento’s holes. He replaces Doug Christie in the starting lineup to give them a 10-point scoring boost, and he reverses the root cause of their losses in Game 6 (not getting to the foul line enough due to fixed officiating due to the League wanting the Lakers in the Finals, a desire that goes out the window with MJ on the other side… not to mention that, even if Stern still wanted L.A. in the Finals, MJ would find a way to get to the line, even in a rigged game, because he’s Michael Friggin’ Jordan and that’s what he does) and Game 7 (not having a clutch 4th quarter performer to win the game for the Kings in regulation, and needing a career night from Bibby to even end up in overtime).

With C-Webb at his peak and Stojakovic/Bibby each having marvelous seasons, Jordan would not have to carry the scoring load all season, yet would still be needed to close out tight games.

WHY IT WOULDN’T HAVE: The “Isn’t it weird to see MJ in a Wizards jersey?” problem would still exist. But that’s it, and goodness, if we could get used to him on a terrible Wizards team, we could accept him on a championship Kings team.

MJ in Sacramento means Jordan finally gets to hold up seven fingers, and probably wins another Finals MVP award. His career scoring average would dip to second place, but he would add to his postseason legacy and become the first non-Boston Celtic to win more than six titles, with the possibility for more in 2003 & 2004.

If only someone would have told him: Go West, old man.

STORY ART: Photo by Beth A. Keiser/AP

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