Wizards' net result: another big brick

Despite efforts of Jordan, season's aims go astray

April 16, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Doug Collins sat behind a microphone Monday night on the practice court at MCI Center and spoke of the "insidious" atmosphere that had permeated the locker room, he blew the lid off what had, to that point, been a well-kept secret:

The Washington Wizards have been a dysfunctional team.

Longtime fans of the Wizards and their predecessor, the Bullets, have come to expect problems. After all, this franchise has not qualified for the postseason since the 1996-97 season and has just six winning seasons in the 25 years since it won its only NBA championship.

But for many fans, the on-court presence of Michael Jordan, along with Collins and some new talent, augured the promise of at least an above-.500 record, with a deep run into the Eastern Conference playoffs a distinct possibility.

Instead, as Jordan ends his two-year stint in Washington as well as his 15-year career tonight in Philadelphia, the Wizards head into the summer with as much turmoil and disillusionment as ever.

By financial standards, Jordan's stay in Washington was fruitful, with the Wizards selling out every home game as well as all but a handful of road games.

But with Jordan, perhaps the greatest winner the NBA has ever seen, the standard of success was more than dollars and cents.

"For him, if we didn't win the championship, him coming back is a failure," Collins said. "I find that very interesting. He's judged at a standard that nobody else comes close to, because they would have said, `Well, they made the playoffs, but next year they're going to suffer for it because he's not going to be around next year.' There's always going to be a `but' to it. From his standpoint, what is it that is deemed a success?"

Collins' comments Monday, in which he accused unnamed players of disrespecting him this season, not only exposed the team's lack of harmony but also identified Jordan, the once and presumably future Wizards' president of basketball operations, as the policeman of the locker room.

"These are things you have to deal with," Jordan said. "I'd rather for them not to be out for everyone's opinion. Those are things I'd like to field internally, but I think Doug felt very disrespected."

Though Jordan attempted in his two seasons with Washington to be a part of the team, his status as a superstar, as well as his dual role as player and de facto general manager, made it difficult for players to relate to him.

"If I was a young player, I would try to play around his game, because this is his last year and he wants to go out with a bang, and I want him to go out with a bang for what he has done for the game and all that he has done for this organization," said reserve forward Bryon Russell.

"These days, youngsters don't think like that. ... They come in with the feeling that I wouldn't be here in the league if I couldn't score. Some of them don't know how to make good decisions yet, because they've never played at this level before. Assuming that it was me, I would play around him and make it his best year."

Instead, Jordan and Collins butted heads with some of the younger Wizards, most notably, forward Kwame Brown, whom the pair chose with the first overall pick of the 2001 draft. Collins and Jordan repeatedly criticized Brown for a lack of work ethic and inconsistency.

Brown fired back last month in The Washington Post, saying he expected not to be back next season. He also cursed Collins during a game in Phoenix. In some locker-room circles, however, Brown is thought of as a victim of over-inflated expectations.

"He's young and they threw him in there, and when something went wrong, they blamed him," said a player who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "If you're going to play him, let him play. As an example, you got Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix. They let him play. To me, he's become 10 times better than when they first brought him up. Let him [Brown] make mistakes. Of course he's going to make mistakes. He's only 21 years old."

Brown, who has one season left on his contract, plus an option year, is considered a prime candidate to be dealt in the offseason, but he is hardly the only member of the Wizards' cast who had problems with the way the team was run.

Jerry Stackhouse was traded in the offseason from Detroit for Richard Hamilton, and he emerged as Washington's leading scorer. But Stackhouse never seemed comfortable in the offense alongside Jordan. Other veterans acquired in the offseason at Jordan's behest, Russell and Charles Oakley, chafed at their lack of playing time.

Stackhouse, who voiced his dissatisfaction after a loss in New York in March, can opt out of the final two seasons of his contract after this season. He said Monday that he would like to stay in Washington, provided the team is moving in the right direction.

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