Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information on Kwame Brown. He was the first high school player taken No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.
As Michael Jordan knows better than anyone from his legendary playing days, one good season does not a reputation make.
Respect and credibility are built over time, with one’s career a compilation of the good, the bad and — as had been the case in Jordan’s post-playing life as an owner and executive — the ugly.
But nearly 15 years after his management-ownership career began with the Washington Wizards, has Jordan finally become an effective boss? It’s certainly starting to seem that way.
This goes beyond his then-Charlotte Bobcats’ April playoff appearance and their emergence as one of the best defensive teams, ranked fourth in the league in average points allowed, though those achievements surpassed anything that unfolded in Jordan’s ill-fated Wizards tenure. Recall his ill-fated decision to make Kwame Brown the first high school player to be taken first overall in the NBA when he was drafted by the Wizards in 2001.
This is about the subtleties of the last two summers, when the combination of Jordan’s eternal gravitas and the plan employed by those he hired have proved quite powerful. Just as the signing of center Al Jefferson in July 2013 was a big boon for this team, the signing of former Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson in July showed again that the perception of the team is changing for the better.
Jordan is less controlling, those who know will tell you, and more selective about when and where to make the most of the one-of-a-kind influence that comes with being MJ. And because he remains such a powerful part of today’s basketball culture, it’s enough to make you wonder where he can take it from here.
“He still has the No. 1 Q score (a rating that quantifies a celebrity’s level of fame). Brand Jordan is selling over $2 billion (annually),” his former longtime agent, David Falk, tells USA TODAY Sports. “So my point is, he’s still No. 1.”
Yet that doesn’t help when it comes to the high-wire act that is NBA team management. From picking the right front office folks and coaching staff to deciding how to maximize one’s voice within that group, there’s a delicacy to it that Jordan has been mastering of late.
“He was a great player from Day One, but he had to learn how to win championships,” Falk says. “So maybe you become a GM, or an owner, and it takes a while to understand the nuances of putting a team together. And having experienced it now, I think he’s better.”
POWER IN THE NAME
The decision to hire general manager Rich Cho in June 2011 has proved prudent. And Cho’s sphere of influence grew over the summer when longtime Jordan friend Rod Higgins left the organization after Jordan had redefined his role, giving Cho more personnel power. The May 2013 hiring of coach Steve Clifford has paid big dividends, too, including his effective partnership with former New York Knicks great Patrick Ewing. Both previously were assistants with the Orlando Magic.
Clifford, who signed a three-year, $6 million deal with a team option for 2015-16, raves about his experience with Jordan.
“From the time I’ve been here, I think he’s been motivated and aggressive to make our team better,” Clifford tells USA TODAY Sports. “And then aside from that … he’s valuable to me because he watches every game. … He gives me good feedback on what he sees, and he’s not afraid to tell me when there are things that he thinks we could be doing better or I could be doing better. But he’s also extremely supportive.”
Ewing, Jordan’s longtime friend and associate head coach of the Hornets, comes with a clout all his own and a name that still resonates with today’s generation of players. Jordan and Ewing represent the best of the old school bunch when it comes to trying to sway prospective free agents. It certainly helped them with Stephenson.
After Stephenson and his agent, Alberto Ebanks, had failed to reach a deal with the Pacers, they met in Las Vegas with Jordan, Cho, Hornets vice chairman Curtis Polk, Clifford, Ewing and assistant general manager Chad Buchanan. Jordan wasn’t the only member of his family at the meeting, either, as his brother and Hornets director of player personnel Larry Jordan was there, as was Hornets executive vice president of operations Ronnie Jordan. As Clifford remembers it, MJ and Ewing — the face of the Knicks during Stephenson’s childhood — had everything to do with the three-year, $27million deal getting done a day later.
“The biggest part about the meeting was our owner,” Clifford says. “He’s a fan of Lance. He loves his competitiveness, and he talked to him candidly about why we think he’s such a good fit for our franchise and about things … that (Stephenson) could control to get better. I thought that set the tone for the whole meeting.”