WASHINGTON - To mix a sporting metaphor, in Doug Collins' mind, Michael Jordan should be the Mariano Rivera of the NBA, the guy who can come in off the bench and slam the door on opponents late in games.
If the Washington Wizards are to reach the playoffs, Collins, the team's coach, will have to hope that Jordan has given up his desire to be the starter that opens and closes the deal.
The early indications, if pronouncements from yesterday's Media Day sessions leading into the opening of training camp in Wilmington, N.C., are to be believed, are that Jordan might, ever so slowly, be coming around to Collins' perspective.
"I do have an open mind, in terms of making adjustments," Jordan said yesterday. "For the most part, I go in with the idea to play important minutes. If Doug feels like, after seeing me play and seeing how the development of our team is [that] possibly I could be better suited coming off the bench, I will entertain that thought."
Whatever questions there were about Jordan's ability to play at a high level after a three-year retirement were answered early last season when he scored 51 points in a Dec. 29 win over Charlotte, then followed it with a 45-point game two nights later against New Jersey.
For the season, Jordan averaged a team-high 22.9 points and 5.2 assists, as well as 5.7 rebounds, but he began experiencing problems with his knee in mid-February. He eventually missed 12 games in March after arthroscopic knee surgery, making a brief return, before sitting out the final eight games.
Jordan, who signed a two-year contract before last season, said he briefly pondered retirement, as his knee was slower to heal that he anticipated.
Ultimately, however, after a summer-long workout and conditioning program, which included wearing lifts in his right shoe to ease the pressure on his knee and his hip, Jordan decided to return.
"Once I went through that process and started wearing orthotics, my knee started to respond and I could see it in the way I played, the way I ran, my recovery from day-to-day, on back-to-back days. That was the basis of my decision," Jordan said.
Collins, who was coaxed out of broadcasting to coach, attempted to impress upon Jordan the wisdom of playing fewer minutes to stay fresher last year, but to no avail.
Though Jordan's 34.9 minutes a game last season were the second fewest of his career over a full season, they were still more than Collins had planned.
Collins said Jordan, who suffered broken ribs in the summer of 2001 during his comeback workouts, returns this season at a healthier baseline, so he won't need as much conditioning or preseason work to get ready for the season.
Both Jordan and Collins said he will not play much in the preseason, though he would likely play in two exhibition games in North Carolina, his home state.
And to make selling Jordan on the notion that less playing time is more, the Washington front office, with Jordan's urging, added veteran help over the summer.
The Wizards, who finished 37-45 - an 18-game improvement from the previous season - traded for former Detroit guard Jerry Stackhouse, as well as signing former Utah forward Byron Russell and former Golden State guard Larry Hughes.
Add that to drafting former Maryland star Juan Dixon and Indiana forward Jared Jeffries, and the result should be to give Jordan, who will be 40 in February, a more reliable supporting cast.
"In our discussions, he [Jordan] felt like he left a lot on the court last summer," Collins said. "So, our whole goal coming into this year is that he would rest and get healthy and we would take it much slower. The big thing is to get his minutes down. We hope we have added enough help for him that he can play when the game counts and we have guys that will make his job easier."