Michael Jordan is back and he's better than you thought he would be. But is he good enough to go all the way?
11:01 PM, Feb 7, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
ON SUNDAY evening, NBC is going to pull itself away from first round coverage of men's singles' luge and broadcast a real sport: the NBA All-Star game. Starting at shooting guard for the East will be a 6' 6" journeyman from North Carolina, Michael Jordan.
Before the season started, lots of people questioned whether Jordan would be any good. Jon Barry, the Detroit Pistons guard, boasted, "Nobody is going to have mercy on him, I don't care if he's 38 or 58. He's had his feast on us. Maybe if things don't work out, we can feast on him a little." Shaquille O'Neal said laconically, "Hey, 39 ain't 29, bro." And Utah's Bryon Russell--the guy who Jordan faked out of his sneakers for the winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals--told Sports Illustrated that if Jordan tries to uncork another game-winner on him, "I'll block it." (Not to brag, but I thought he was going to be pretty much his old self.)
So now that we're halfway through the season, how is Jordan doing? Astoundingly well.
His physical skills have diminished some. He's only (only!) averaging 25.1 points per game, seventh best in the league. He's also not the dominating defensive presence he once was. But he's craftier than he used to be and his basketball IQ is up in the Larry Bird zone. And clearly, he's picking his spots: Five times already he's scored over 40 points. The young bucks who were out to show him up have been put in their place: Against Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter, he's 5-2. (A side note: When the Wizards played Utah, Jordan dropped 44 points on Russell. Woe and fell tidings to those who tug on Superman's cape.)
The best measure of Jordan's success is the state of his team. Already the revisionists have begun to cast last year's Wizards as a bunch of promising youngsters who are now growing up under Jordan's tutelage. Don't believe it. These are the voices people who tried talking us into believing that Scottie Pippen was the second best player in basketball in 1998.
Let's be clear: Last year the Washington Wizards won 19 games all season and they weren't even that good. This year they are essentially the same team, but with the additions of Jordan, rookie Brendan Haywood, and a lottery pick who doesn't play. They're 25-21.
But they're actually better than that. The Wizards struggled in the first month of the season as Jordan played himself into game shape. At the end of the first week of December, they were 5-12. Since then they've gone 20-9. They'll probably finish the season with 47 or 48 wins. Which puts them in the playoffs.
The most amazing statistic about Jordan's Wizards is that they're playing well above .500, yet they're being outscored by their opponents. In fact, they're the only winning team in the league who scores fewer points per game than the opposition. Which means that they win the close games. That's what they mean when they talk about the intangibles Jordan brings to the court.
The other intangibles are worth noting, too. The Wizards don't argue in the locker room the way they once did. And they play defense. But perhaps most strikingly, they're beginning to resemble the old Chicago Bulls, with Richard Hamilton as Pippen, Chris Whitney as B.J. Armstrong, Hubert Davis as John Paxson, and Popeye Jones as Horace Grant.
So how will the Wizards do in the playoffs? Consider that they've beaten every team in the East who's likely to make the postseason except for Milwaukee. They look more crisp with every outing. And Jordan probably still doesn't have his legs fully under him.
No one knows how deep into the playoffs Jordan can take the Wizards. But my guess is that he's going to the Finals.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.
Correction Appended: John Barry was originally identified as a guard for the Sacramento Kings. He was traded from Sacramento and now plays for the Detroit Pistons.