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04-14-2003, 12:35 PM
Jordan says goodbye, but will teammates miss him?
by Chad Ford

Michael Jordan will play his last home game for the Wizards tonight.

Two years after Jordan's second comeback, the focus will be on MJ and his amazing ability to dominate the game, even at 40 years old. But what about the Wizards? Is the team any better off from Jordan's two-year fling? It's debatable. Two years of mediocre play have robbed the team of both playoff experience and high draft picks. Without Jordan, the Wizards surely would have drafted in the top five last year and this year. There's a big difference between Jared Jeffries and Amare Stoudemire, Caron Butler or Nene Hilario.

In effect, the rebuilding process was put on hold while Jordan made one last stab at the playoffs. If Jerry Stackhouse doesn't opt out of his contract this summer (and don't expect him to), the Wizards won't be far enough under the cap to make any major improvements. On paper, the Wizards without Jordan figure to be one of the worst teams in the East next season. Meanwhile most of the Wizards' young players have either been traded to give the Wizards a better shot at the playoffs or have languished on the bench watching Jordan do his thing. Much of the team ended up despising Jordan, not idolizing him.

When he goes back upstairs, guys will just kind of relax a little bit, and maybe that will be the difference. It will change a lot of things. Jerry Stackhouse, on the Wizards without Jordan
Stackhouse told the Newark Star Ledger of the rift between Jordan and the rest of the team, "It's deeper than what you see -- I'll leave it at that. The focus is not so much on the game, it's on the circumstances and situations around the game. You can't play basketball like that. When he goes back upstairs, guys will just kind of relax a little bit, and maybe that will be the difference. It will change a lot of things."

Fellow UNC alum Brendan Haywood agrees. "The pros were that you got to play with Michael Jordan; you got to learn from the best; you got to see how things were done," the second-year center said. "But the cons were maybe a little less patience, because the team was trying to make the playoffs right away. You didn't get a chance to play through some of your mistakes. You were getting taken out of the game and yelled at for it."

Jordan's second comeback probably will be remembered as much for what he didn't do as for what he did. His 20.1 ppg average is remarkable for a 40-year-old. And Jordan seemed to be getting better the longer the season went on. He averaged 21.9 ppg and 8.3 rpg on 46 percent shooting in April. "It's passed quickly," Jordan told the Washington Post. "It doesn't feel like two years, but I know it's coming to an end. ... It's been a great two years; it's been fun. I'm enjoying what's left of my career. ... It's going fast, and that's what good things do -- they leave fast, and you try to catch up with the memories another day."

Jordan continues to maintain he won't return as a player next season. Instead, he wants to get back to work in the front office. "So when I walk off the court, my dedication is to the game," he said. "I still have an obligation to take what I've learned and what I've seen over two years and try to build this franchise in a winning way and to help these fans enjoy the moment." If you want to put a positive spin on Jordan's exploits the last two seasons, consider his two years in uniform as one serious scouting trip.

"I've had a good look at the talent in this league and the talent on this team," Jordan said. "Hopefully, I'll understand what it takes to build a better program." He also insists that the franchise is better off now than it was two years ago. "It's disappointing [the Wizards did not make the playoffs], but people don't understand we made gains instead of taking a step backwards," Jordan said. "Hopefully, we can see that long-term. Right now everybody's going to look at the short term and say we didn't make the playoffs, and I think we're going to be a better team, a better organization just by this happening."

So, who gets the Lakers in West playoffs?

The race for the playoffs finally ended this weekend when the Suns and Bucks locked up the last spots in the West and East, respectively. Somewhere David Stern is banging his head against the wall as his two marketing darlings, Michael Jordan and Yao Ming, were relegated to watching the playoffs from the beach. So much for the conspiracy theorists convinced the NBA would find a way to get Washington and Houston into the postseason. Most teams in the league have two games left, and there are several interesting battles for playoff position. Here's Insider's latest projection.

We'll start in the West where the question on everyone's mind is: Who will play the Lakers? It's looking like Dallas.

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Phoenix Suns
If the Spurs can win at Utah tonight, they'll lock up the Midwest Division crown and the best record in the NBA. If they lose, and the Mavs win tonight at home against Seattle, the Spurs and Mavs will have to duel it out head-to-head Wednesday night in San Antonio for the top seed in the West. The Suns are locked into the eighth seed and plan on taking it easy the rest of the week in preparation for the playoffs. One quick note here. The Suns beat the Spurs three times this season, including a convincing win Sunday night at home. The Suns' athleticism could give San Antonio a scare or two in round one.

(2) Sacramento Kings vs. (7) Utah Jazz
The Kings are already a lock for the second seed in the West. The Jazz could theoretically beat out the Lakers for the sixth seed, but with upcoming games against the Spurs (at home) and the Kings on the road, it appears unlikely Utah will be able to make up the ground. This could turn into yet another interesting match-up. The Jazz have given the Kings fits in the playoffs the last few years. However, this season the Kings already have beaten the Jazz twice in Utah. If the Jazz lose on Monday to San Antonio, Wednesday's head-to-head match-up will be meaningless to both teams, almost guaranteeing we'll see a lot of DeShawn Stevenson and Gerald Wallace!

(3) Dallas Mavericks vs. (6) Los Angeles Lakers
At the start of the weekend, it was looking like the Lakers would end up with the fourth seed. But a surprising loss at Portland on Sunday night put a kink in those plans. While the Lakers own tie-breakers against both the T-Wolves and Blazers, it's more likely that both will finish the season with wins and retain the Nos. 4 and 5 spots. The Lakers have relatively easy games against the Nuggets and Warriors. The Blazers have a tough but winnable game against the Suns at home Tuesday and end the season on the road against the Clippers. The T-Wolves have one game left at the Grizzlies. That leaves the worst possible scenario for the Mavs, who kept crossing their fingers the Lakers would move into a fifth or fourth seed, pairing Minnesota with the Blazers instead. The Lakers have won three straight against the Mavs.

(4) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers
The T-Wolves still aren't a lock to earn home-court advantage for the first time, needing a win on Wednesday at Memphis or a Blazers and Lakers loss to guarantee them the fourth seed. The Blazers, as noted above, are on shakier ground. Two wins by the Lakers and a loss by the Blazers and Portland will slide out of the fifth seed. Two wins by the Lakers and a loss by the Wolves, and the Lakers will leap-frog both Minnesota and Portland into the fourth seed. Got all that?

Pistons, Nets duel for No. 1 in the East

If you think the Western Conference playoff picture is still muddy, welcome to the Eastern Conference race, where virtually every team in the playoffs is within a game of someone else. Here's how we think it will wind up:

(1) Detroit Pistons vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks
The Pistons weren't supposed to finish here after losing Ben Wallace for the season with six games to play, but the team has shown great resiliency without its best player. Rookie Mehmet Okur and veteran Zeljko Rebraca have filled in admirably. A win against the Cavs tonight and a loss by the Nets against either the Hornets or Pacers locks the Pistons into first place. Given the up-and-down nature of the rest of the East, that certainly seems doable. The Bucks can't catch the Magic for the No. 7 seed, so they're locked in at No. 8. The Pistons aren't going to be thrilled to play the Bucks in Round 1. The Bucks have beaten Detroit three times this season, and if their backcourt (with Gary Payton and Desmond Mason) locks down Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, the Pistons will struggle to put enough points on the board.

(2) New Jersey Nets vs. (7) Orlando Magic
The Nets need just one more win against either the Hornets or Pacers to lock up the Atlantic Division crown and No. 2 seed. However, they need two wins and one Detroit loss to slip ahead of the Pistons for the No. 1 seed. That will be a tough task, considering the competition the Nets face. The Magic can move into the sixth spot if they beat the Hawks and Bucks and the Celtics lose to the Pistons at home on Wednesday. That's unlikely, however, because Magic coach Doc Rivers plans on resting his starters for the playoffs. "To me, it really doesn't matter at all what seed we are," Rivers told Florida Today. "And rest for guys this week isn't really important. It's health that matters most. You ask any team in the NBA, and they'd say they would take good health over anything going into the playoffs." The Magic and Nets split their season series 2-2, but the Magic won the most recent two games, including a big win Feb. 23 in New Jersey.

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Boston Celtics
The Sixers need to win their final two games -- against the Bulls and Wizards -- and have the Nets lose both of their remaining games to move into the second seed. The Sixers also have an outside shot at the No. 1 seed if they win both remaining games and the Pistons lose both of their games. The Celtics have no shot at a fifth seed but could slip all the way to seventh if they lose to the Pistons on Wednesday and the Magic win both of their remaining games. However, right now it appears the Celtics are headed into another first-round showdown with Philly. The difference is that last season, the Celtics had home-court advantage. This season Philly owns home court, but it isn't that big of an advantage. The Sixers are just 24-16 at home this season.

(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) New Orleans Hornets
The Pacers appeared poised to pounce on the Pistons, but they hit yet another dead spot this weekend. Three straight losses -- to the Bulls, Magic and Bucks -- knocked them out of contention for the Central crown. The Pacers still have a shot at the third seed if they win their last two games (against the Knicks and Nets) and the Sixers lose their last two games (against the Wizards and Bulls), but that is a very slim possibility. It's also pretty unlikely the Hornets catch the Pacers for fourth. New Orleans would have to win its last two (against the Nets and Hawks) and the Pacers would have to lose twice. The Pacers, a miserable 15-25 on the road this season, desperately need to keep home-court advantage against the Hornets.

PIT Wrap: Who'll get an invite to Chicago?

The Portsmouth Invitational ended Saturday along with the NBA dreams of many college seniors. While the tournament had more talent than in years past, scouts and league executives identified only a handful of players who have a shot of getting drafted in the second round.

Only a few of the top players at the PIT will actually get an invite to the NBA Pre-Draft Camp in Chicago. Most of the top seniors who skipped the PIT will play in Chicago. So will many of the bubble underclassmen and foreign players. That leaves anywhere from 10-12 Chicago slots for PIT players. In the next few weeks, each team will send the NBA a list of the 60 players it would like to see at the camp. The NBA tabulates the results, and players with the most votes get invitations.

After talking with numerous NBA scouts and league executives, here's a look at the PIT players with a chance to get the coveted invitation to the Chicago Pre-Draft Camp starting June 4th:

Topping the list was North Dakota power forward Jerome Beasley, who took home PIT MVP honors. Beasley played in the championship game and scored 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting. He also grabbed 10 rebounds. He ended the tournament averaging 14 ppg and 8.3 rpg on 54 percent shooting from the field. Beasley's size (6-foot-10, 240 pounds) combined with his perimeter game will, at the very least, land him a spot in Chicago. It could do more. Beasley was the only player at the PIT who scouts said had a realistic chance of sneaking into the first round.

Arizona State's Tommy Smith also drew rave reviews with three solid performances. For the tournament, Smith averaged 17 ppg, six rpg, three spg and 2.3 bpg on 54 percent shooting. While scouts are a little concerned with his body (6-10, 205), they're in love with his versatility, athleticism and a newfound confidence in his shooting. Smith, who will have to make the transition to small forward in the pros, appears to be one of those players whose game is more suited for the NBA. If he can add some meat to his frame and continue to prove that he can consistently hit his jumper, Smith has a good shot at getting drafted early in the second round.

BYU's Travis Hansen helped himself at the PIT
The biggest surprise of the tournament was BYU's Travis Hansen. Hansen turned out to be a much better athlete than original scouting reports indicated. He also turned out to be a much better perimeter shooter, averaging 15.7 ppg on 57 percent shooting. He shot 63 percent from behind the arc during the tournament. Teams were also impressed with his toughness. Hansen can bench press more than 300 pounds and repeatedly ended up guarding and stopping bigger opponents. Several scouts claimed he reminded them of a more-athletic Jeff Hornacek. Another went even further, comparing him to Danny Ainge. Hansen was flooded with interest from NBA teams after the tournament. With a potent combo of athleticism, shooting and tough defense, scouts are now projecting Hansen as the fifth- or sixth-best shooting guard in the draft behind LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Mickael Pietrus, Jarvis Hays and possibly Dahntay Jones.

Rounding out the top five, Penn's Ugonna Onyekwe and LSU's Ronald Dupree impressed scouts with their NBA-caliber athleticism. Onyekwe (6-8, 230) struggled a bit toward the end of the tournament, but proved to scouts that he has the quickness to get by his defender and create his own shot. His rebounding is also well above average for a small forward. He still needs to prove, however, that he can hit his outside jumper with regularity. The same goes for Dupree (6-6, 207), who averaged 15.3 ppg and gave scouts plenty of highlight-reel dunks but couldn't bury an outside jumper to save his life. He shot several airballs on 15-foot jumpers during the tournament, but scouts love his explosiveness around the basket. If he starts nailing jumpers in workouts, watch out.

Other players who will likely get an invite to Chicago include South Florida's Will McDonald (the PIT's second-leading scorer with 19.3 ppg and 11.7 rpg). The biggest challenge for McDonald (6-10, 255) will be making the transition from center to power forward in the pros. He doesn't have the greatest face-up game.

Weber State's Jermaine Boyette lead the PIT in scoring with 20 ppg on 72 percent shooting. But at just 6-foot-2, he's a 2 guard in a point guard's body. Or is he? His 5.3 apg had several scouts wondering aloud whether he could make the transition to the point in the pros. If they believe he can, his stock will rise rapidly.

Detroit's Willie Green (6-3, 200) will also get a second look. Like Boyette, he's undersized, but he's killer at getting to the basket. Marquette's Robert Jackson (6-9, 253) showed enough consistency (he had a double double in all three games) to likely earn him a second look. Miami's James Jones (6-8, 212) kept teams interested by shooting 58 percent from beyond the arc. Mississippi State point guard Derrick Zimmerman (6-2, 193) was probably the best point guard at Portsmouth. He averaged 10 ppg and six apg. DePaul's Sam Hoskin (6-8, 258) and San Diego's Jason Keep (6-10, 276) should also get another chance because of their size and strength.

Peep Show

Houston Rockets: Steve Francis made a veiled threat at management after rumors surfaced that coach Rudy Tomjanovich could be let go at the end of the season. "I hope nothing happens to the staff, because I don't want to be in a situation where I'm adjusting to a new coach," Francis, whose six-year, $85 million contract extension kick in next season, told the Houston Chronicle. "I don't think I could play for another coach. So, like Shaq said he's sticking with his coach, that's what I'm doing. I'm sticking with my coach." Francis said the players, not the coaching staff, are to blame for the Rockets' demise this season. "It's not their fault," he said. "It's ours. It's my fault and (the fault of) the guys on this team. It has nothing to do with the coaching staff. So if somebody believes that, they are just trying to make up something."

Seattle SuperSonics: Ray Allen has made it clear he wants to be involved in the Sonics' personnel decisions this summer. "I told (GM Rick Sund) the other day, I want to know who they are considering, because we need to know their personalities," Allen told the Tacoma News Tribune. "I went through that situation (in Milwaukee) where I went to bat for a couple guys who did not work out and they ended up destroying our chemistry that we had. We don't want to do that. This is who everybody has to be around. You can't just put talent on a team anymore. You have to know how guys affect locker rooms."

Atlanta Hawks: Shareef Abdur-Rahim is fighting hard to shake the "loser" label. "That's probably the thing that haunts me the most," Abdur-Rahim told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "I don't see myself as a loser. That's how people want to perceive me. That's the rap people want to give me because I haven't won in my NBA career." Hawks director of basketball operations Billy Knight said the blame shouldn't fall on Reef. "The teams he's been on haven't been winning, but it's through no fault of his own," said Knight. "He's done everything he can, everything his coaches and teammates have asked of him, and he'll continue to do that. He doesn't waver from the way he approaches the game. [Losing] just makes his competitive fire burn brighter, because he wants to win."

Chicago Bulls: Coach Bill Cartwright is falling in love with point guard Jamal Crawford. After a shaky start to the season, Crawford is averaging 21.6 ppg, 6.3 apg and 4.9 rpg on 45 percent shooting in April. "He's improving in all areas, and that's big," Cartwright told the Chicago Sun Times. "I don't think he's reached any kind of peak, but we're seeing the player we thought we were going to have. We're looking for much more from him next year." But can Crawford co-exist with rookie Jay Williams next season? "We can play together," Crawford said."I'm not looking to take any steps backward."

Cleveland Cavaliers: Coach Keith Smart was blunt in his assessment of Darius Miles this season. "Overall, he's had a bad season," Smart told the News-Herald. "He's had an up-and-down year. He has to work on his jump shot. Teams are going to play off him. When he's under control, he's a pretty good basketball player. He definitely has to work on his jump shooting."

Denver Nuggets: Juwan Howard thinks rookie Nene Hilario could be the next Chris Webber. "If Nene can continue to progress, he can be like Chris," Howard told the Rocky Mountain News. "When he came into the NBA, Chris didn't have the jump shot he has now. He was known as a more athletic player, a dunker-type and a strong presence inside. Nene has all that. Now, he needs to be able to knock down a 15-footer consistently. I see so much of Chris Webber in him, it's amazing." Howard also said that Nene is lobbying for him to return to Denver next season. "He will be part of my decision as far as coming back. Nene came up to me the other day and told me he wanted me to stick around, and that meant a lot to me." So what was Howard's response? "He said he was going to try to stay for me," Hilario said. "He's a tough guy to turn down," Howard said.

Miami Heat: Pat Riley believes his team will turn it around this summer. "We're poised, I think, for the first time in three years, and positioned, to do something this summer," he told the Sun Sentinel. "Obviously we'll get a high draft choice. And we're going to have [salary-cap] room and we're going to have tax space. And I think we can really start moving back into that mind-set where we're going to get very good players and get back into playoff contention. I think it's right around the corner. It's been a horrible year for us, been hard for all of us, but we're also very optimistic about the future."

Memphis Grizzlies: Coach Hubie Brown is looking to add a tough big man to the roster this summer. "Consequently, it comes down to: Can you take care of your defensive boards?" Brown said. "Game in and game out, [opponents] hurt you with second-shot attempts. That's talent. If you look at all of the top centers and forwards, they're in the West. So it becomes a problem. We need one more major body."