Without regular basketball to watch, the rest of the NBA world gets to the backwards looking that is usually reserved for sites like this one. A fascinating issue was dredged up recently by Jerry Stackhouse, who told Adrian Wojnarowski’s Woj Pod, that Stack resented his time playing with Michael Jordan on the 2002-03 Wizards. The money quote from Stackhouse, transcribed via Bleacher Report: “[h]onestly, I wish I never played in Washington and for a number of reasons. … Things were still being run through Michael Jordan. [Head coach] Doug Collins, I love Doug, but I think that was an opportunity for him to make up for some ill moments that they may have had back in Chicago. So, pretty much everything that Michael wanted to do [we did]. We got off to a pretty good start and he didn’t like the way the offense was running because it was running a little bit more through me. He wanted to get a little more isolations for him on the post, of course, so we had more isolations for him on the post. And it just kind of spiraled in a way that I didn’t enjoy that season at all. The kind of picture I had in my mind of Michael Jordan and the reverence I had for him, I lost a little bit of it during the course of that year.”
Let’s unpack Stack’s comments and see what was objectively true in his assertions. Before we can answer any of the issues/questions posed by Stack, it must be done in some context.
MJ as GM in 2000-01, Tanking By Accident
So, let’s begin with the MJ-Wizards Era and what led up to their trying to pair Stackhouse with Jordan. In January 2000, the Wiz named a then-retired Michael Jordan President of Basketball Operation. The Wizards were pretty terrible at the time and Jordan was 36 (he had been retired since age-34).
Hiring MJ as an executive was a questionable call because being an NBA star is a very different skillset than being a great exec (just ask Isiah Thomas or Magic Johnson). But the Wizards had been a bad and boring franchise for 20 years (remember, Don Maclean?). Washington needed excitement and MJ was obviously excitement. For Jordan’s first year as an exec, he named college coach Leonard Hamilton as the coach and hoped for a playoff run with vet holdovers (Juwan Howard, Mitch Richmond, and Rod Strickland) and second-year prospect Richard Hamilton. The same core was bad the year before (29-53) and Jordan had little reason to think it would get any better. Still, this seemed like the start of a rebuild and time for Hamilton to learn the ropes and develop Rip Hamilton.
The Wiz were actually worse in 2000-01, dropping from 29-53 to 19-63. Leonard Hamilton abruptly quit right after a game in early April 2001, without warning the players. Though it was a resignation, it was very clear that Jordan, who was quite frustrated with the losing, had a hand in the removal. Hamilton was cursed out on the bench by fringe player Tyrone Nesby in a game in January and was not apologetic about it. Hamilton had a three years and $6 million left on his deal guaranteed and he quit right after a long meeting with Jordan. It was pretty likely that Hamilton took some sort of buyout to get out of the misery (as a post-script, Hamilton was and is still a very good college coach. He was hired by Florida State in 2002, and has been the coach there ever since. FSU was first in the ACC this year before the tourney was cancelled).
Jordan, the competitor, was frustrated when his clearly terrible team ended up being terrible. This is understandable but not the proper mindset for an executive. The Wizards needed to tank to get a high pick and purge the dead roster spots. Jordan inadvertently executed the tanking part decently well in 2000-01 (they would win the 2001 NBA Lottery) but the decisions going forward got muddled.
MJ and 2001 Draft, Missing On Elton, Whiffing on Kwame
It would have been interesting to see if Leonard Hamilton, who has proven to be a bright and talented coach, would have done with patient management and a talented young roster in the NBA. Instead, MJ hired Doug Collins, a very good coach but not known for his patience with young teams. On top of that, Jordan unretired and was ready to guide the team through the next few years and transition it to whoever the next stars would be.
Once Jordan was in the fold, the team could no longer tank. A team with an old MJ was built to contend, or at least, be respectable. You don’t bring back the best player in the world to flounder. Alas, at 38, Jordan was in uncharted territory. There had been virtually no guards who were any good at that age. The Wiz would certainly be interesting but, good or even respectable? Who knew?
On top of it not being clear how good Jordan would be, his return changed the goals. Were they trying to compete or were they trying to amass young talent and hope to make a run at a free agent (i.e. Kobe Bryant/Vince Carter), when one might became available? If MJ was any good (or even just decent) there would be no high draft picks for the next few years.
Now, a smart organization might’ve been able to develop the young players and try to contend but the Wiz weren’t smart. They couldn’t really straddle either path well. First, they blew the draft pick. Faced with a choice of few high schoolers (Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry) or Pau Gasol, Jordan whiffed. He took Brown, who never developed into anything but a role player. Chandler and Curry had more early moments of use but neither would have helped too much in making the Wizards competitive in 2001-02 or 2002-03. Gasol, obviously, became the star and was good right away but taking a Euro was too exotic a choice for Jordan at the time. According to Michael Leahy’s “Nothing Else Matters, Gasol “received no serious consideration from the Wizards” because of the reputation that young foreign players took longer to develop.
Putting aside the options at hand, Jordan had the perfect opportunity to get an impact player with the pick that could help immediately. The Bulls, for some odd reason, soured on Elton Brand and wanted to trade him for a high pick. Brand was only 21 and coming off of 20.1 ppg and 10.1 rpg with nice advanced stats (20.4 PER, 6.1 WS, 1.1 BPM, 2.2 VORP). According to Leahy, Jordan was not interested in the trade: “Jordan didn’t care. He wanted [Kwame] Brown, he said. The issue was closed.” The Bulls ended up trading Brand to the Clipps for the second pick in Chandler and Brand was a star right away in L.A. This would be fine for Jordan if Kwame was better than Brand. Alas, Brown was not good (he ended 45th in his draft class with -1.3 VORP, 27th with -2.4 BPM, and 17th in WS with 20.8).
There has been much written that Collins and MJ were too hard on Brown and that stifled Brown’s development. This may be somewhat true but it seems overblown, as Brown, himself, has stated. It is more likely that Jordan wildly overestimated Brown’s talent and potential. Brown was given many chances to play without Collins or Jordan and, while he was solid defensively, Brown just wasn’t good enough in the other facets to be more than a role player.
2001-02 Wizards: Stuck In .500 Limbo
The 2001-02 Wizards expected to be a playoff team with Rip Hamilton, 38-year old Michael Jordan, and replacement level players in their early 30s like Chris Whitney, Popeye Jones, and Laettner. MJ still could create shots but he couldn’t quite score the same. On raw stats, Jordan looked good: 22.9 PPG, .416 FG%, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg. But Jordan shot too much and not well. MJ’s usage was 36.0, his highest since 1986-87, and his TS% was a terrible .468%, not a great combo.
The Wizards were on the fringes of the playoffs all season but couldn’t quite get there. They finished 37-45 and Jordan had knee issues that kept him out of 20 games. He missed a month from late February to late March. The team went 4-7 without him. He attempted to return briefly before shutting it down for good in early April when it was clear they were not playing any more meaningful games.
How good was MJ that season? Depends which advanced stat you like. MJ led the team in PER at 20.7, VORP at 2.7, and BPM 3.1. WS did not like Jordan, giving him only 0.75 WS/48, near the bottom of the team and below Nesby and Courtney Alexander. WS has its merits but it’s hard to say that MJ had less value than Nesby or Alexander that season.
2002-03, Rip for Stack: MJ Wants Stack’s Swag
Jordan took one more chance to compete in 2002-03. The problem was the 37-45 record was draft poison, too good to get a top pick. The Wiz had the 11th pick, not good enough for a star. The 2002 NBA Draft didn’t really have more than two stars (Yao Ming and Amare Stoudemire) anyway. The Wizards, at 11, took Jared Jeffries, a college star, who couldn’t score (Amare and Caron Butler were taken with the two picks before him). Jeffries was viewed as a role player at best even as a younger player.
MJ needed help. He deemed Hamilton not tough enough and traded the 23-year old for the 27-year old Stackhouse. At the time, Hamilton summed up the Wizards tumult pretty much exactly: “[w]hen I first got there, we were a veteran team, and they cleared everybody out and said, ‘OK we are going to build a young team.’ And they made it seem like I was in the middle of that. It seemed like we had all the right ingredients. We were starting to build something. We were going forward. Now, it seems like they went right back to what they were before I got there. A lot of old guys, and I am not sure what their future is.”
Stackhouse had a much tougher reputation (he had quite a few dust ups, including punching Jeff Hornacek during a game in 1996, punching out Laettner in a 1999 card game, and, later, flagrantly fouling Shaq in the 2006 NBA Finals). Putting aside the fighting, Stack, who was a power dunker (he had 64 dunks in 2001-02, while Hamilton had 13), definitely exuded a swagger and confidence that the younger, quieter Hamilton (whose best move was shooting mid-range jumpers) did not. MJ wanted that quality. But was Stackhouse any better than Hamilton at that point? Let’s look at their 2001-02 stats side-by-side:
-Hamilton: 35.0 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .511 TS%, 3.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, 16.9 PER, 4.0 WS (.087 WS/48), -0.9 BPM, 0.6 VORP
-Stackhouse: 35.3 mpg, 21.4 ppg, .518 TS%, 4.1 rpg, 5.3 apg, 19.0 PER, 5.8 WS (.104 WS/48), 1.5 BPM, 2.4 VORP
Stack was definitely a better player but the difference was not large and may have been offset by a few factors. First, Stack was older and had likely peaked, while Hamilton was getting better and was cheaper. Also, Stackhouse was not a great shooter. Here’s how each player shot by distance according to Basketball-Reference.com:
|Player||0-3 Feet||3-10 feet||10-16 feet||16-3pt||3-pt|
Stackhouse had serious problems in the mid-range game. It would seem that, if the offense were to run through MJ, Stackhouse would not be a very good fit. MJ would be dishing for jumpers and Stackhouse did not excel in that role. This is exactly what happened. The Wiz had an identical 37-45 record in 2002-03 but the offense fell from 13th to 21st. Stackhouse was ostensibly the same player that he was in Detroit, while Hamilton continued to improve and was a better fit for the Pistons’ offensive spacing.
Having said all this, let’s go through Stack’s complaints about his time with the Wiz…
“Honestly I wish I had never played with him in Washington for a number of reasons. I felt like we were on our way in Detroit”
Yup, that checks out. Going from a title contending team to a very mediocre Wizards situation would not be ideal. On the other hand, the Pistons were probably better off with Hamilton, who was better than Stackhouse within a year. Stackhouse started having nagging injuries and Hamilton’s shooting, frankly, allowed for better offensive spacing.
Could the Pistons have won in 2002-03 with Stackhouse instead of Hamilton? No. The Pistons were swept by the Nets in the playoffs and I doubt Stackhouse would’ve made a difference (Chauncey Billups was hobbled that series). In 2003-04, when the Pistons did win, Stackhouse had knee issues and missed most of the season. Assuming the same knee issues in Detroit, the Pistons would’ve been cooked had they been relying on Stackhouse at that point.
“[I]t was really challenging to be able to be in a situation with an idol who, at this particular point, I felt like I was a better player. Things were still being run through Michael Jordan, and I love Doug Collins, but that was an opportunity for him to make up for some ill moments that they may have had back in Chicago.”
No doubt it was a challenging situation. MJ wasn’t just Stack’s idol, he was his boss and he was Collins’ boss. There was no way the offense was not going to run through Jordan, even if Stackhouse was better. The key question, and the one that has the internet slightly buzzing, was Stack’s assertion that he, at age-28, was better than Jordan, at age-39. We already looked at the 2001-02 stats of both players but let’s put them side-by-side for easier reference:
-Stackhouse: 35.3 mpg, 21.4 ppg, .518 TS%, 4.1 rpg, 5.3 apg, 19.0 PER, 5.8 WS (.104 WS/48), 1.5 BPM, 2.4 VORP
-Jordan: 34.9 mpg, 22.9 ppg, .468 TS%, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 20.7 PER, 3.3 WS (.075 WS/48), 3.1 BPM, 2.7 VORP
It’s pretty close but Jordan looked like the better player in 2001-02. It’s not crazy for Stackhouse to consider himself better than Jordan at that time but it was also not totally irrational for Collins to consider Jordan the focal point of the offense (even if MJ was not the boss).
“I mean we got off to a pretty good start, but I don’t think he liked the way the offense was running because it was running a little bit more through me. He wanted to get more isolations on the post, so we had more isolations for him on the post”
I don’t see the pretty good start. The Wiz started out 1-3, pushed up to 6-4 before losing five straight. They struggled around .500 for most of the year thereafter (exceeding .500 for one day before sliding back). They were 29-29 and then limped to an 8-16 finish.
If you assume Stack is referring to the 6-4 start, the Wiz’s offensive rating was 103.97, versus 103.0 for the season, which ranks as marginally better. Stackhouse played well over that time (23.4 ppg) but he actually shot fewer shots per game (16.7) than he did the rest of the season (17). But the sample size was small. Over the next five games, the Wiz went 0-5. During this run, Stack took a ton of shots (19 per game) and they stank. In truth, the Wiz were just not that good and, when they played better teams, they lost more. This part of Stack’s statement doesn’t quite pass muster.
As for the offense, MJ actually deferred more to Stackhouse than it would seem. Jordan’s usage went from 36% the year before to 28.7% with Stack (whose 27.9% usage was nearly even with MJ). Yes, MJ was the primary ball handler but he definitely was giving Stackhouse more shots (Stack’s usage fell from 32.3% the prior season). So, if they got nearly identical touches on offense, the stat comparison should be interesting. Let’s look at their 2002-03 and see who was better:
-Stackhouse: 39.2 mpg, 21.5 ppg, .528 TS%, 3.7 rpg, 4.5 apg, 18.7 PER, 6.5 WS (.114 WS/48), 1.3 BPM, 2.3 VORP
-Jordan: 37.0 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .491 TS%, 6.1 rpg, 3.8 apg, 19.3 PER, 6.2 WS (.099 WS/48), 1.7 BPM, 2.8 VORP
Again, it is damn close. A 39-year old Jordan is basically a push with 28-year old Stackhouse. Stackhouse’s complaints, then, need even more context. Jordan always looked at other two guards as rivals to be vanquished/bested. A young Stackhouse was no different. Stackhouse also came from UNC, was a big dunker, and was another “next Jordan” as a rookie with the Sixers. Leahy wrote that: “[t]hey had competed fiercely against each other since those days in the mid-‘90s when Stackhouse had bested him in their private summertime one-on-one game, and Jordan had answered by scoring 46 against him in their opening NBA matchup the following season. Jordan’s first season as a Wizard had only heightened their competitiveness, with Stackhouse generally getting the best of Jordan in their brief one-on-one encounters, something that neither man had forgotten. ‘I felt I had some good moments against Michael last year,’ Stackhouse permitted himself to say.”
The rivalry has burned for 25 years, and Stackhouse is still as competitive as Jordan. On top of the rivalry, Leahy noted that: “[Stack and MJ] made the same respectable effort to make their coupling work, but each man carried expectation and a style that hopelessly conflicted with the other’s, dooming any chance of success.” That sums it up. Stackhouse and Jordan should never have been paired for a variety of reasons. Stackhouse was his equal but neither was going to lead this blah team anywhere. Stackhouse might not be totally right about being better than Jordan but he wasn’t worse and this trade made little sense.
So Were The MJ Wizards: A Total Failure?
Well, not a total failure but mostly a failure. First, the bad:
-MJ did a crappy job of sticking to a plan. He couldn’t decide whether to rebuild or contend. Basically, place in bold Hamilton’s quote upon being traded. It summed up the problem perfectly.
-When MJ decided he wanted to contend, he didn’t pick the right pieces. He could’ve been much better with Brand. If Hamilton were to be traded, it should’ve been for a more synergistic piece than Stackhouse (Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn were available that summer and Ray Allen was traded during the season).
-The net effect was to get a .500ish team with no real future because he missed badly on the Kwame Brown pick.
There were a few good things though:
-Excitement. Check the Wiz attendance by year:
2000-01: 638,653 (18th)(no MJ)
2001-02: 847,634 (2nd)(38-year old MJ)
2002-03: 827,093 (2nd)(39-year old MJ)
2003-04: 645,363 (21st)(no MJ again)
That attendance bump had value. It’s disappointing that Jordan and his crew did not properly identify the players needed to really go for it while people were paying attention.
-We saw how good old MJ was. Compared to young MJ, the old guy wasn’t great but compared to the rest of the world, MJ was still All-Star caliber. For frame of reference, here’s how his team rivals did when they approached Jordan’s age. Rip Hamilton did not play in the NBA after age-35. Stackhouse was a bench player for the Nets at age-38 with the following stats: 14.7 mpg, 4.9 ppg, .500 TS%, 0.9 rpg, 0.2 apg, 8.5 PER, 0.4 WS (.037 WS/48), -3.3 BPM, -0.2 VORP.
The number of guards who played regularly in NBA at age-38 or older is miniscule. Only 12 guards have exceeded 1,500 minutes played in a season in that age group. MJ is the only one of this group to exceed 3,000 minutes and only one of two players to exceed a PER of 20 at that age. Basically, Jordan is the only player to be a primary scoring guard at that age in NBA history. Reggie Miller was still solid at age-39 but he was never a primary ball handler. Ray Allen and Vince Carter were the other two and they were solid role players at that point.
Jordan is not the best old guard. That title goes to the amazing John Stockton, who was still playing really well at the same time that Jordan was. Stockton has the three best old guard seasons by BPM, VORP, WS and PER for his seasons at ages 38, 39, and 40. The Jazz lightened Stockton’s minutes but, on a per-minute basis, he was basically the same player at 40 that he was at 34. This guy looked like he could’ve played three more years if he had wanted to.
That Jordan could score 20 ppg and 3,000 minutes at his age as a guard is, in some ways, as impressive as his earlier feats. Alas, it’s a small victory when weighed against the general chaos of those Wizard teams. It could’ve been different if had had a better GM or gone to a better situation. It should be appreciated for some of its good aspects but, instead, Jordan’s time in Washington left mostly annoyances to all.