There's a new book out on Michael Jordan by Roland Lazenby, who has written about both Jordan and Phil Jackson. In it, there's a chapter on Jordan's Wizards tenure, which spanned one year as an executive and two years as a player.
The section on the Wizards is interesting, given that many find it a footnote in Jordan's life. Colin Wilheim of the Washington Post was equally curious, so he asked Lazenby what he made of Jordan's three-year tenure. An excerpt of Lazenby's answer (emphasis mine):
If you look, [Jordan] did amazing things for the Wizards. They cleared up all the cap space. The thing that amazed all of Jordan's close associates and observers - the great Johnny Bach being one of them, who was an assistant coach in Washington at the time - they all knew that when Jordan decided to play again, it was amazing to them, because it was very obvious the Wizards were not a team that could win. Jordan knew he could not win, and in his life he loathed any such situation.
But he was trying to find some way to relate.
Lazenby went on to note the frosty relationship between Jordan and Abe Pollin. Jordan felt Pollin's loyalty rewarded incompetence, while Pollin felt Jordan's group was aloof. That led to the messy breakup following the 2002-03 season.
But let's step aside for a second and focus on the first quote: the idea that Jordan did "amazing things" for this franchise. Doesn't that seem like an exaggeration?
Maybe, but consider the state of the franchise. When Jordan took over, the team was a mess. The promise of the Chris Webber/Juwan Howard union had long disintegrated, with former GM Wes Unseld making the horrific Webber-for-Mitch-Richmond deal, then compounding the problem by giving the 34-year-old Richmond a four-year, $40 million contract extension. (And you thought Ernie Grunfeld made some bad moves). The 1999-00 Wizards went 29-53 with an uninspiring core of Richmond, Rod Strickland, Juwan Howard and Isaac Austin.
Worse, all had big long-term salaries. You know about Richmond. Howard had three years remaining on the massive seven-year, $105 million deal he signed in 1996. Strickland agreed to an incentive-laded version of the same deal Richmond signed just before the 1999 lockout year (ugh!). Unseld traded Ben Wallace and a package of other players for Austin, who had two years and $10 million remaining on his deal. All that for ... a 29-win season.
Jordan had to clear those deals away and he did. First, he sent Austin's salary to the Grizzlies for four deadweight players (Dennis Scott, Cherokee Parks, Obinna Ekezie and Felipe Lopez). Later that summer, he dealt Tracy Murray for Popeye Jones. In the major move of his tenure, Jordan dealt the supposedly untradeable Howard for a gaggle of short-term contracts, including Courtney Alexander, Christian Laettner and Etan Thomas. He couldn't trade Strickland or Richmond, but bought each out for less than their remaining salaries.
These kinds of moves happen all the time in today's NBA and are widely praised, yet they aren't a major part of Jordan's Wizards legacy.
The reason, of course, is what happened next. A smart team today takes the money saved, invests in young talent and keeps the books clean until that young talent is really ready to compete, even if it means losing for a few years. It's what the Wizards did during this rebuild, though the execution of the draft picks could have been better.
But Jordan's itch for playing put Jordan the executive (if not by name, then in practice) in a difficult position. He returned to a young team in 2002 and help lead them to a surprising 37-45 finish, though there were cracks in the foundation. Top draft pick Kwame Brown was slow to develop, key prospect Rip Hamilton did not mesh perfectly with Jordan and Alexander, who showed promise after the 2001 trade, regressed badly. Instead of committing to those young players, Jordan traded Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse, signed veterans like Charles Oakley and Byron Russell and further diminished Brown's confidence. The end result was another 37-45 year, this one much less inspiring.
Had Jordan stopped his efforts in 2001, the Wizards would have been in a good position for a long rebuild done right. Instead, he tried to shortchange it. Even so, he didn't saddle the Wizards with as many horrible contracts as Unseld did, though that may not be saying much. The team had enough cap space to sign Gilbert Arenas in 2003-04, and Stackhouse, the one with the biggest deal, was traded for Antawn Jamison, though it cost the Wizards the No. 5 pick in the deep 2004 draft. Hughes provided good value in his third season, and the veterans weren't heavy salary commitments. The 2002-03 Wizards were in a better place than the 1999-00 Wizards.
The MJ era is more complicated, of course. Some say Jordan, even in departing, helped increase the urgency to succeed within the organization's culture. There's also an argument to be made that Jordan's presence indirectly revitalized the area by bringing sellouts to Verizon Center, thereby spurring development Chinatown. On the other hand, Jordan short-changed the rebuild, disrespected a beloved local figure and used the franchise for his goodbye tour instead of treating it like a real organization.
But while "amazing things" might be a stretch, the narrative sometimes swings too far in the other direction. There was some good that came from those three years.