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Scrambling for solutions
by Gary Starikoff / December 2, 2002

No sooner did Michael Jordan announce that this season will be his last on the court than he stepped into the starting lineup in an attempt to stem Washington Wizards losing slide.

“Right now, I’m fulfilling my contract. I want to finish this year out and hopefully fulfill my obligations and let this team take its own course,” Jordan said. Then two nights later, he started in place of Bryon Russell and scored 16 points in a 95-94 home loss to Philadelphia.

Of course, we’ve heard all this retirement talk before. After winning six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan abruptly walked away, stating he was “99.9 percent” sure he’d never return. Two years later, he relinquished his role as Wizards president of basketball operations and signed a two-year, $2.1 million deal to play for the team. In his announcement last week, however, he stated emphatically that this season would be it for him -- “It would be 100 percent. I’m sure,” he said -- and added that he intended to return to his front office job.

So let the Michael Jordan Farewell Tour commence. For one, Wizards Coach Doug Collins said he wouldn’t mind seeing MJ honored around the league, since it didn’t happen the previous two times he said good-bye.

“It would be great if the last time [Michael] went into these cities they would honor him for what he’s done for this league and all the things that he brought,” Collins said. “Nobody deserves it more than he does.” Wizards’ assistant coach and former Jordan on-court rival Patrick Ewing agreed. “Michael’s done a lot for the league. He was definitely the best player in my era.”

Right now, Jordan is also the best player on the Wizards, which is why he’s been thrust into a starting role after beginning the season on the bench.

In the Philly loss, Jordan‘s impact was immediate as the Wizards started quickly and showed their best overall effort in weeks. Jerry Stackhouse reaped the biggest reward from MJ’s presence, scoring a season-high 38 points, including a free throw and a three-pointer to pull the Wizards within one with 29 seconds left.

The decision to start Jordan came about an hour before the game and wasn’t much of a surprise as he had been
publicly asking for more minutes. “I thought maybe [Jordan] could give us an emotional lift,” Collins said of the lineup change. “I thought he and Jerry played very well together".

“I felt good,” said Jordan, whose 37-minute stint was his longest of the season and most since February of
last year. “I felt like I could control what the team was doing at the time in terms of playing the point and helping out on defense.”

Jordan’s starting role signals a shift in the defensive-oriented look Collins would like for the team. With Michael, Stackhouse and Larry Hughes, the Wizards came out with a more offensive-minded unit, leaving Russell, Jared Jeffries, Tyronn Lue, and Etan Thomas to bring defense and energy off the bench.

“[Michael will] continue to play 32, 34, 37 minutes,” Collins said. “I just try to not wear him down.”

Lately, Jordan isn’t the only player seeing more minutes. Rookie guard Juan Dixon has come off the bench past three games and exhibited the same skills and courage he showed last season in leading the University of Maryland to the NCAA title.

In last Tuesday’s home loss to Indiana, Dixon was the catalyst that brought the Wizards back from a 12-point
deficit. Pressed into action because of an injury to Hughes and poor shooting by Lue, Dixon grabbed a team
record six steals in the fourth quarter and scored 12 of his season-high 15 points. Against Philadelphia, he scored 18 points and played tough defense on Allen Iverson.

“We all knew Juan could play. That’s no secret,” Collins acknowledged. “And he’s gonna be a player. He’s gonna come off screens, and he’s gonna score, and he’s gonna make plays for other people, and he’s gonna do the things that a great player can do.”

Jordan concurs: “[Dixon] is a smart player. He knows how to play, and he’s gonna continue to grow and get
better. When we drafted him, we felt like maybe he’s not a true point guard and he’s small for a two guard but he’s got heart, and that to me means a lot. He’s gonna find his niche in the course of a game.”

With Hughes back in the rotation and Lue regaining form, don’t expect Dixon to return to end of the bench. His scoring ability, and relentless defense are exactly what the Wizards need right now. The same goes for Jordan, who should continue to start until more of his teammates begin to show some consistency.

Gary Starikoff is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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