Jordan aims for another scoring title

Many around NBA believe he has shot

Pro Basketball

September 27, 2001|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Michael Jordan has always dreamed up challenges for himself. How about leading the NBA in scoring at age 39?

"He'll flat-out be able to score," Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh said. "My question will be, `Does he have enough energy to do all the other things?' I wouldn't bet against him. But I'm sure he'll be in the top five in scoring."

On a weak team with only Richard Hamilton as an additional scoring option, it's conceivable that if Jordan isn't injured - and that's a big if - he could challenge Allen Iverson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and Jerry Stackhouse for the NBA scoring title.

Jordan played 12 full seasons in the NBA between 1984-85 and 1997-98. He won 10 scoring championships, seven straight from 1986-87 through 1992-93, the point of his first retirement, and then three straight from 1995-96 through 1997-98, his second retirement. Only in the last two did he average fewer than 30 points a game. Iverson led the league at 31.1 last season.

Jordan, who will be 39 in February, was 35 when he won his last scoring title. Jerry West had been the oldest player to win a scoring title, at 32 in 1970. "Defenses are going to load up on him," Milwaukee general manager Ernie Grunfeld predicted. "But he'll score his points."

No one doubts Jordan will rank among the top 10 in scoring, though with new rules allowing zone defenses, Jordan is expected to see substantial double-teaming. The conventional wisdom will be: "Let's see if Courtney Alexander can beat us."

But few doubt Jordan will have a major impact.

"The great players always find a way," Grunfeld said. "Occasionally they might slow him down, but great players find a way to get theirs."

Jordan should. Coach Doug Collins has talked about playing Jordan more at small forward than at his familiar shooting guard position. He'll probably be more of a post-up player, using the baseline fadeaway jumper that was his most potent weapon his last NBA season.

But Jordan never was the classic shooting guard coming off screens and shooting jumpers. He could advance the ball, and during one 10-game stretch in 1989 he moved to point guard and recorded nine triple doubles. He was a perennial all-defensive team player, and he learned to share the ball, averaging more than five assists for his career and setting up Steve Kerr for the shot that won the Bulls' fifth title in 1997.

"His skill level was so good when he left that I have to assume it's pretty darn good now, if not as good," Seattle Supersonics general manager Rick Sund said. "The question will be how much he can sustain on a consistency basis, game in and game out. There are so many things that separated Michael Jordan from the best ever. The thing is he had so much energy for a superstar. You wonder whether that will be there."

The energy to be not only the best player in the league, but to take on and stop the opponent's best player. And make his teammates better.

"He'll still be elite," Nets general manager Rod Thorn said. "Whether he's still the best, I doubt that."

Jordan certainly will be challenged by the young stars of the game - Iverson, Carter, Bryant and Tracy McGrady. But where the new defensive rules are expected to expose Jordan to more double-teaming, he'll also be able to play free safety on defense. It was always his favorite defensive tactic with the Bulls.

In the first championship run from 1991 to 1993, Jordan often guarded the other team's best scorer or was the designated double-teamer. By the end of the run from 1996 to 1998, Scottie Pippen filled that role.

Jordan was no longer the quickest defender, nor was he the best leaper. He no longer played "above the rim," the term for the air game he popularized. But his basketball intelligence and increased strength, along with his competitiveness and the respect he commanded, enabled him to remain the dominant player.

Jordan also had the luxury, especially during his first comeback, of playing with experienced players. He didn't have to practice much, and to preserve his body, he rarely practiced in his last three seasons with the Bulls as he approached 35. With a young team, practice is essential for improvement and development. But it's hard to imagine Jordan practicing much while trying to get through an NBA season at 38.

A bigger issue is injuries. Save for a broken foot in his second year, Jordan was essentially injury-free during his career, playing at least 80 games in 10 seasons. This season, approaching 39, he could face nagging groin, knee, back and Achilles' ailments, as well as the tendinitis that affects many NBA players. Jordan is not expected to be the 40-minute player he was, but many believe Collins, with his similarly competitive personality, will want him to be.

"The question is whether his competitive nature will overtake everything," one veteran coach said. "Will he lose sight of what he's trying to accomplish with the game on the line?"

That, perhaps, is what everyone will be hoping for.

Sam Smith is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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