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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Wizards' Losing Ways Hard on Jordan, Collins

November 18, 2001|THOMAS BOSWELL | THE WASHINGTON POST

The Wizards and Michael Jordan are having a hard time coming to terms with the facts of life this season. Their problem isn't the birds and bees. It's all those Bucks, Timberwolves and other animals that stand so much higher in the NBA food chain. For Jordan and coach Doug Collins, there are at least four early-season problems that already need to be digested.

First, the Wizards were a 19-win team last season and don't appear to be a great deal better now. The delighted crowds at the MCI love the electricity that Jordan creates. They're downright grateful, just for his presence and his 25 points a night. However, the team itself, which has lost its last five games to reach 2-6, often seems overmatched, undermanned and confused in its roles.

On Sunday, after losing by 15 points at home against Seattle, Collins said, "We practice with more energy than we play. . . . I'm begging. 'Just compete.' " After Wednesday's home loss by nine to Milwaukee, Collins ripped his bench players. "I can't continue to put guys on the floor (who) collapse on us in the second quarter. . . . I'm afraid we'll be down 10 before I can blink."

The Wizards are so bereft of talent that Collins says he'll now play only eight men, if necessary. And some of them, like Popeye Jones and rookie Bobby Simmons, are hardly stars. "It's like lard," he said of the number of players he trusts. "It's shortening."

The second problem is rookie Kwame Brown. Jordan gambled, using the No. 1 overall pick in the entire NBA draft to select a high school player, which had never been done. Talk about putting your ability to judge talent on the line. So far, Brown has disappointed the Wizards with both his skills and his work ethic. He came to camp overweight. Though he may be a fine player in three years, no facet of his game is at an NBA level right now.

On Wednesday, Collins was shockingly blunt when asked if Brown would start a third straight game. "No," he said. "I've rewarded him when he didn't deserve it."

"He's not responding well," said Jordan on Wednesday. "He's gotten an opportunity he may not be ready for. . . . It's an overwhelming situation (for him)."

"I always tell Kwame, 'Don't worry. It'll be OK.' And it will," said veteran Christian Laettner. "We've all been nice to him. But at times you have to get mean and say, 'Work harder.'

"I was still doing 'stations' when I was 25 years old--12 years of stations," added Laettner, referring to boring, traditional drills that teach the game's fundamentals. "He needs to be in the gym working on 'stations' for a half-hour before practice and a half-hour afterwards."

Is Brown being used as a scapegoat just a bit? Who expected him to contribute much this year? Jordan and Collins may need to fight the tendency to blame every loss on something or somebody.

Jordan and Collins can seem a bit quick to change their views on players. Collins has already benched Rip Hamilton, who averaged 18.1 points last season. They had a private air-things-out meeting on Wednesday. Jordan loved center Jahidi White when he first arrived as team president. So, White got a five-year contract. Now, White appears to be in the doghouse and on the trading block. On Wednesday, Collins said he desperately needed "a third big man." Then rattled off his options. Except White. Who'd just played zero minutes.

The third problem is that Jordan's decisions as president haven't worked out very well. Rod Strickland, Juwan Howard and Mitch Richmond (signed by the Los Angeles Lakers) are gone. Aside from Jordan himself, the Wizards have no stars.

High-scoring young swing men--Hamilton and Courtney Alexander--were supposed to be the future. Jordan liked them. Does he still? Neither plays defense or passes very well. Alexander, who averaged 17 points a game after Jordan traded for him last season, is now averaging 5.0 points.

With Jordan himself taking 24.5 shots a night, what's the point of giving lots of minutes to Hamilton and Alexander if they can't play a structured mature game yet? You could say, "Be patient. They'll learn." But, with the whole world watching, Jordan and Collins are already having trouble with patience.

Jordan, who probably has a two-year window as a Wizard, is torn between wanting to win and developing young players. The whole NBA has tied its public-relations star to him once again with constant national TV attention. Every Wizard game draws more attention than any Wizard game of the last 20 years. The sold-out MCI Center now attracts an ultra-upscale crowd that looks like a Washington imitation of L.A.

It's a tough spot, especially for hyper-competitive people like Jordan and Collins who are accustomed to the "habits of successful people." It's a big step up to Jordan Rules. And Collins Standards. That culture shock is hitting the Wizards now.

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