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Wednesday, April 16
Get back to work, MJ: Rebuild Wizards

By Marc Stein

He turned 40 in February, scored 43 points a few days later and became the first 40-year-old to average 20 points a game. Of course, he also failed to reach 40 wins. Again.

Doesn't sound like Leaving On His Own Terms, does it?

Michael Jordan insists otherwise, and I'm not going to debate it, much as I'm fairly sure the retirement terms he imagined never included two straight trips to the lottery. Mike only missed the playoffs twice in his career, this season and last, but it was his undeniable right to make a third comeback. Same as it clearly is his choice to walk away now, when he's clearly still good enough to keep playing.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan should finish what he started as the Wizards' team president.
All we can say as a farewell, then, is what we said from the start back in September 2001: The adventures of Front Office Mike, compared to another humdrum unretirement, hold much more intrigue, so let's get to it. A couple of MJ's chief playing rivals, Joe Dumars and Kevin McHale, are team executives. Isiah Thomas is a coach. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson badly want to get back in at a hands-on ownership/GM level. Seeing whether No. 23 will ever be Jordanesque as a club president, and how he fares in the adult world along with all those other greats, will be better theatre than the Wiz wheezing in the race for No. 8 in the East.

So as long as Jordan goes back to that gig by re-upping with the Wiz, I can pardon these two empty-at-the-end seasons and the turmoil presently bubbling over in MJ's locker room. And from upstairs or courtside, hopefully, he will more clearly recognize the two objectives anyone in his position running a franchise must have -- either winning a lot of games, or developing the youngsters.

The Wizards didn't accomplish either objective these past two seasons, which is why they so badly need a dynamic GM right away. Fun as it must have been for Wiz fans to call Jordan their own for a while, that can't camouflage the reality that this is the franchise that traded away Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace -- essentially for Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland and Ike Austin -- before MJ got there. It's also the franchise that, with Jordan in charge, drafted Kwame Brown instead of trading for Elton Brand or drafting Pau Gasol.

Yet it says here that Jordan's short time as a Washington president wasn't as fruitless as widely advertised. He traded Juwan Howard when no one said he could, wiped the expensive Richmond and Strickland contracts off the books and made a bold draft selection in Brown, who might still be something special. Jordan and Doug Collins appear to have scarred the kid with their constant and unfair carping -- which has been the most unsavory aspect of MJ's comeback -- but it's way too soon to dismiss Kwame's future. Look at Eddy Curry now. As recently as midseason, Curry was still being called a bust. After a strong second half, capped by 31 points in Chicago's season finale Tuesday night, Curry is Exhibit A to remind us that the teens, especially the 7-foot teens, need time.

Unfinished business
Michael Jordan, should he decide to resume rebuilding the Wizards, will have plenty to ponder this offseason with the following players on Washington's roster.
Player Contract status
Kwame Brown Signed through 2003-04 with team option
Juan Dixon Signed through 2004-05 with team option
Brendan Haywood Signed through 2003-04 with team option
Larry Hughes Signed through 2004-05
Jared Jeffries Signed through 2004-05 with team option
Christian Laettner Signed through 2004-05
Tyronn Lue Free agent
Charles Oakley Free agent
Bryon Russell Team option this year
Bobby Simmons Free agent
Jerry Stackhouse Player option this year
Etan Thomas Signed through 2003-04 with team option
Jahidi White Signed through 2004-05

Question is, does Jordan have the patience and demeanor to do all the heavy-lifting and fence-mending it'll take to produce some developing and/or winning? One theory is that he felt compelled to scratch the itch of making a third comeback because GM work didn't excite him enough. If that's true, and if that sentiment holds, the Wiz will be in real trouble.

Because Kwame is unhappy. Doug is unhappy. Jerry Stackhouse is unhappy, but might not be able to opt-out of his contract because the free-agent market only promises riches these days to Tim Duncans and Jason Kidds. Working through all those issues will be the hardest thing Jordan has ever tried in basketball.

Wiz owner Abe Pollin has to come up with a fair package for Jordan to return to the front office, and the promise that Jordan will have total say over basketball matters, but Jordan is going to have commit himself to spending much more time in Washington than he used to if he intends to sort out the mess. If Brown isn't traded, relationships must be repaired. Collins might be ready to return to TV, which would mean a coaching search, or he'll have to stay and be a huge participant in the repairs. Stack could leave or stay, too, and the Wiz will only have about $5 million in cap room if he stays. Again, Jordan has never seen more complicated circumstances in his hoop life.

But we hear he likes challenges, so we're betting that he accepts. We're rooting for it, too. It's great to hear MJ tell The Washington Post: "To a competitor, sometimes, not being as successful is also a great sendoff. To know that you have to move on to do other things and do it in other ways, that's how I'm looking at this."

None of the ugly stuff is going to tarnish the legacy, because his legacy is tarnish-proof, like Muhammad Ali's. History will undoubtedly focus on the amazing things MJ did at 40 and the two years of full houses everywhere he went. Or maybe history will dwell on the sight of a curvy Mariah Carey sporting the only Wiz gear you'd rather see than those retro Bullets jerseys loved by LeBron James and fans everywhere.

Trouble is, if Jordan leaves the Wiz now, the verdict will inevitably be that he put a franchise on hold for two years to chase his own fortysomething fantasies. If he stays, Jordan disciples won't have to hear it.

What's clear, for certain: What happens next won't be boring.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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