His stature as the sport's forever transcendent star – never mind his flawed history as a basketball executive – easily transformed Michael Jordan into the sport's most crudely judged executive. Around the league, people get a perverse pleasure when his decisions go awry, when he's humbled in a suit the way he never was in shorts.
Now, Jordan, the Charlotte Bobcats' part-owner and full emperor, has his executive legacy on the line. As it turned out, he was afforded the ability to trade the Bobcats' lottery pick for Golden State's Jason Richardson on draft day and, on Wednesday, re-sign burgeoning star Gerald Wallace.
As much as anything, this had hinged on owner Robert Johnson's willingness to stop treating Charlotte like a D-League franchise. He has had the league's lowest payroll and gutted the administrative staff and, ultimately, this summer promised to be an acid test for tenure.
Whatever minimal interest there's been in the NBA's return to Charlotte, staying on the cheap would've been a doomsday scenario for the franchise's future. Still, Jordan made a terrific draft-day deal for Richardson, because keeping North Carolina's Brandan Wright, or taking another teeny bopper, would've been crippling to the organization's credibility.
"In 10 years, maybe that's the wrong move," one Eastern Conference executive said, "but that's absolutely the right thing for Charlotte now. They couldn't add another young piece there, especially with a young coach (Sam Vincent) coming in."
Together, Wallace ($57 million) and Richardson ($51 million) give the Bobcats reason to believe that they're now playoff contenders in the East. They had to keep Matt Carroll, a shooter they developed, and did so for six years at $27 million. Bernie Bickerstaff did an underrated job constructing a formidable core through the expansion years, and now, Jordan gets the chance to make pro basketball relevant again in Charlotte.
"I thought we could've been a playoff team last year," Emeka Okafor told me recently from the NBA Players Association high school basketball camp. Now, management wants to talk to Okafor about a contract extension and the prospects of a trio with Wallace and Richardson has staying power. They're all in their mid-20's, all developing players.
They'd better hope that Jordan is still a developing executive, too. Drafting Kwame Brown with Washington's No. 1 pick six years ago, one of the worst picks ever, deserves to stain him forever. For Jordan, it was a window into how little preparation, how little research, went into his work. Drafting Adam Morrison was a lousy start to his ownership tenure a year ago (How in the world is he still on the Team USA trials roster?), but it's too early to declare him a bust.
Nevertheless, it appears Jordan's presence has, if nothing else, pressured Johnson into spending on his team. Jordan didn't want the embarrassment. Vincent could turn out to be the next Red Auerbach, but it was lost on no one that the Bobcats made him the lowest-paid coach in the league this summer. To be fair, Vincent has paid his dues what with several seasons in South Africa and Nigeria before returning to the States in the D-League and on Avery Johnson's Mavericks staff. Still, he was the kind of hire the Charlotte budget demanded the team make, a faceless assistant so thrilled to get the offer that he wouldn't haggle over his salary.
Jordan has surrounded himself with his usual cast of cronies, including Rod Higgins and Buzz Peterson. As much as competency, Jordan values loyalty around him. That's true with most league executives, but it wouldn't hurt him to have some original thinkers surrounding him. Nevertheless, Jordan was smart enough to keep Bickerstaff in the front office, even if he didn't want him as coach anymore.
For now, Michael Jordan has survived the scrutiny of the summer with something the Bobcats didn't have prior to his arrival: a playoff team. For Jordan's tattered front office legacy, it's a start.
THE NEXT ODEN?
Ignore the college recruiters – NBA executives and scouts are fascinated with 7-foot-2 John Riek, a Sudanese immigrant who surfaced last season at Our Savior New American on New York's Long Island. With his dominant performance at the LeBron James camp in Akron last week, Riek solidified himself as perhaps the most desired commodity in amateur basketball.
He's a junior in high school, so he won't be eligible for the NBA until 2010. Nevertheless, this didn't stop comparisons to Greg Oden from pro and college personnel. Maybe most intriguing about Riek have been the private debates about his age. School officials are listing him at 17, but even Riek says he isn't sure about his true birth date. Said one Western Conference scout, "I think he could be as old as 26."
Of course, one Big East assistant coach insisted, "It would not surprise me if he was 30 years old."
Our Savior New American is a one-room school house where the coach happens to be the teacher, and several college sources believe Riek is eventually destined for the Winchendon Prep School in Massachusetts. Foxsports.com's Jeff Goodman reported that Riek has been accepted (surprise, surprise) and will soon enroll.
SHOOT FOR THE MOON
Lost in the flurry of free agent signings on Wednesday, including Jason Kapono to the Toronto Raptors, could've been a reminder why Toronto's Bryan Colangelo is perhaps the best general manager in the league now.
Remember this name: Jamario Moon.
If you happened to stop into the Armory in Albany, New York, last year to witness coach Micheal Ray Richardson's act, you couldn't help but notice Moon, the rarest of sightings left in the decaying Continental Basketball Association – a true-to-life prospect.
Moon, who's 6-8, was the CBA's defensive player of the year and a first-team all-league choice. He went undrafted out of a Mississippi junior college in 2001, bounced around several leagues and finally found a believer in Colangelo. The Raptors held a mini-camp two weeks ago and signed him to a non-guaranteed two-year contract.
"The kid really impressed," Colangelo wrote in an email Wednesday. "Now we will see if he can pick up the NBA game."
A heartbroken scout for another Eastern Conference team who watched Moon play in the CBA said, "Don't be shocked if that kid turns out to be a contributor for the Raptors."
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Despite reports that former Los Angeles Lakers guard Smush Parker was destined for Greece, his agent, Billy Ceisler, said Wednesday that he was negotiating with an Eastern and Western Conference team for Parker. … New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn is wise to resist overpaying for Mikki Moore, the one-year wonder threatening to leave the team as a free agent. The Chicago Bulls are interested, but Thorn doesn't seem willing to offer more than $10 million for three years. Some executives wonder if Moore, a journeyman, won't just revert back to his non-descript self after a career year with the injury-decimated Nets. The Bulls are a possible destination for the forward/center, especially now that the Memphis Grizzlies have signed Darko Milicic. Thorn and Nets coach Lawrence Frank met with Jamaal Magloire on Wednesday in Orlando and could decide to stop pursuing the rail-thin Moore for the bigger, stronger Portland Trail Blazers free agent.