Bullets Fever

A blog and community website for the Washington Wizards and their fans.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The MJ Era Revisited

With all the great strides that have been made in the Ernie Grunfeld era, it's easy to forget the era that preceeded it. Many Wizards fans want to forget the Michael Jordan era. After all, he did draft and screw up Kwame Brown, trade young Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse, and made the atmosphere and the morale of the team infinently worse. Upon his departure, Grunfeld stepped in, signed Gilbert Arenas, traded for Antwan Jamison, traded Kwame for Caron Butler, and cleared away much of what Jordan did.

At the time, however, Wizards fans were really excited for Jordan to be playing. To understand this, let's take a quick Bullets/Wizards history lesson.

1995: After falling on hard times in the mid-90s, the Bullets embrace a full rebuilding effort. Coach Wes Unseld is fired and Jim Lynam replaces him. With the 5th pick in the 1994 draft, the Bullets select Michigan forward Juwan Howard to anchor the frontcourt. Early in the 1994-95 season, the Bullets make a great trade, acquiring a young Chris Webber from the Golden State Warriors for Tom Gugliotta and a series of draft picks. Excitement builds as Webber and Howard are re-united. Unfortunately, Webber plays in only 53 games after hurting his knee and the Bullets sink to a 21-61 record. Calbert Cheaney is the lone bright spot, as he had the best season of his career. In the draft, the Bullets pick Rasheed Wallace with the fourth pick after losing out on Jerry Stackhouse.

1996: The Bullets make a significant improvement to 39 wins. Shockingly, this occurs again without Webber, who plays in only 15 games. Howard becomes a rock down low and Wallace joins him in the starting lineup. Center Gheorghe Muresan has the best season of his career, giving the Bullets a strong frontcourt. The team misses the playoffs, but optimism is there for the first time. It is also around this time that Howard signs that ridiculous 100 million dollar contract.

1997-98: In the offseason, the Bullets trade Wallace to the Portland Trailblazers for Rod Strickland, an old point guard. Wallace's career takes off, while Strickland provides a couple good seasons before going downhill. Still, the Bullets make the playoffs in 1997 with 44 wins and come very close the next year with 42. Bernie Bickerstaff replaces Lynam as head coach and all seems well. Then, Webber gets into trouble with the law, the team changes it's name to the Wizards, and everything goes downhill.

1999-2001: Fearing their image, the Wizards do the unthinkable and trade Webber to the Sacramento Kings for over the hill shooting guard Mitch Richmond. Not only does this defy the conventional wisdom of trading big for small, but it also defies the conventional wisdom of trading young for old. Richmond immediately struggles and the Wizards sink back to the bottom of the league for the next two years, going 19-63 in 2001. The bright side of this is that the Wizards won the #1 pick. With Jordan now in charge, they selected Kwame Brown, making him the first high-schooler to go #1 in NBA history.

All this is the backdrop for Jordan's return. The Wizards had essentially become Clippers East and needed a way to become relevant again. In 2002, the Wizards were expected once again to be at the bottom of the league, but Jordan came back and willed 37 wins out of the Wizards. Despite starting Chris Whitney, Christian Laettner, and Brendan Haywood, the Wizards were in the thick of the playoff picture until a late-season swoon. None of the problems between Jordan and Brown were visible yet. DC was excited about hoops again.

Coming into the 2003 season, the Wizards were supposed to be a playoff team in the poor Eastern Conference. They traded Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse, a top shooting guard who was only 27 and only a year removed from averaging 30 points a game. They signed Larry Hughes away to rotate as the starting combo guard. With Kwame expected to make big improvements, fans had to be excited. Jordan was expected to take a 6th man role and be a model teammate while Stackhouse, Hughes, and Tyronn Lue were supposed to start.

Unfortunately, 2003 was a disaster. Hughes got hurt, Jordan ended up starting and messing with Kwame, and the Wizards ended up with the same amount of wins. Abe Pollin abruptly fired MJ and the Grunfeld era began.

With all the problems that the Jordan regime brought, there was some good in it. For the first time in over a decade, the Wizards were relevant. You can blame Jordan for messing with Kwame Brown, but his reputation as the sole ruiner of the Wizards is slightly overstated. The Hamilton for Stackhouse trade did not work out well, but how could anyone predict Stackhouse falling off at age 27? He was a top star in this league at the time and anytime you can acquire a star in his prime, you should do it.

Ultimately, Jordan's presence on the court was much more damaging than his presence in the front office. He helped make the Wizards relevant and squeezed as much as he can from a very bad team, but he also turned the Wizards into his own personal sideshow. The offense essentially was 4 players watching Jordan go 1-on-1 against his opponent. That stunted the development of Kwame, Brendan Haywood, and Larry Hughes. The Wizards made the right move in clearing house and starting over, and now DC has a team that is the complete opposite of the 2002-03 clubs.

I guess the point of this post is that I'm somewhat conficted on the Jordan era. Looking back on it, its easy to see it's failure, but at the time, basketball in DC was back again. As much as Gilbert Arenas likes to say the decision to sign with the Wizards was based on a coin flip, would he have even considered DC if Jordan didn't make the team relevant again? Maybe, maybe not. Ultimately, I hope that Wizards fans remember the excitment that was present in the 2002-03 Jordan era, even if it ultimately could be considered a failure.

What is your take on the Jordan era? Horrendous? Somewhat bad? Somewhat good? How should we look back on it?

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