The Changing Meaning of Being ‘Like Mike’

The N.B.A. playoffs commenced over the weekend with eight games, four wins by road teams and the return of boisterous crowds. Atlanta’s Trae Young emerged as the new Reggie Miller-esque villain of Madison Square Garden. Utah rankled Donovan Mitchell by withholding him from a Game 1 home loss to Memphis because of a lingering ankle injury. The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James grappled with his close friend, Phoenix’s Chris Paul, on a postseason stage for the first time.

It was a lot.

The mayhem had me rewinding to where we all were last May, mired in the early months of a dispiriting pandemic and wondering, among a zillion things in life, when the next offering of televised N.B.A. drama would come. The final episode of “The Last Dance” docuseries on Michael Jordan aired on May 17, 2020. A weekend of playoff nirvana, like we just enjoyed, felt far out of reach.

My flashback to “The Last Dance” began last Tuesday, when Indiana drilled the Charlotte Hornets — Jordan’s Hornets — by 27 points in the opening Eastern Conference play-in game. It was the Hornets’ first venture beyond the regular season since 2016. After all the praise for LaMelo Ball’s fast and flashy transition to the N.B.A., and all those Miles Bridges highlight dunks, Charlotte gave up 144 points and slumped to a sixth consecutive defeat to cap a season derailed by injuries.

The lopsided nature of the game, and how quickly the Hornets faded in a win-or-go-home scenario, invariably had me curious: What was Mike’s reaction?

“We got beat a week ago today, and I chose not to call him until last night — and I’m glad I waited,” Mitch Kupchak, Charlotte’s president of basketball operations, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Of course I’m making a joke, but actually it is a joke and it isn’t. I did wait a week, and Michael was great. He admitted himself that it took a couple days to sort through it. We talked about a lot of the good stuff we have going, and he’s in a good place.”

Charlotte last won a playoff series in 2002. Jordan became the team’s majority owner in March 2010, when they were known as the Bobcats, and has presided over three playoff wins, all in a first-round series against Miami in 2016. The value of the franchise has skyrocketed: Jordan’s majority stake purchase valued the team at $275 million, and now Forbes puts the valuation at $1.5 billion — in line with those of the Utah Jazz and the Minnesota Timberwolves, which sold this season. So Jordan is still winning.

It’s just not the kind of winning we associate with the maniacally competitive Michael Jeffrey Jordan. He came across as more cutthroat than we ever knew in those 10 documentary episodes, which traced a career arc that encompassed six championships with the Chicago Bulls. How on earth does he stomach three measly playoff wins in 11-plus seasons in charge?

“He is very competitive and understandably impatient,” Kupchak said. “But he gets it.”

While Kupchak conceded that no franchise can “go through years and years of saying, ‘We’re building,’ ” he said he wrote off the Indiana rout “to fatigue and bright lights” for a team with limited playoff experience. He insisted that the defeat didn’t “take away anything from what the team showed during the regular season,” and that the Hornets “were a little bit ahead of schedule.”

Much of that stemmed from the instant impact made by Ball, who promptly emerged as a Rookie of the Year Award favorite (and, better yet, a foundational player) without the benefit of playing in the summer league or having much of a training camp. Gordon Hayward, at 31, played at an All-Star level until a foot injury ended his season on April 2. He came to Charlotte last off-season on a four-year, $120 million deal in free agency, which many second-guessed because of his age and injury history. Terry Rozier, relieved of the playmaking burden thanks to the arrivals of Ball and Hayward, completely changed the narrative regarding his three-year, $56.7 million contract by reaching new levels of efficiency as a scorer. Scary Terry, as Rozier is called, is regarded as a bargain now.

Beyond those mainstays, Kupchak is on a good drafting run since his April 2018 hiring. In addition to the selections of Ball and the fast-developing Bridges, Kupchak drafted P.J. Washington and acquired the draft rights to Devonte’ Graham through a 2018 trade.

Count Brendan Haywood, an NBA TV analyst after 14 seasons as a player, as a believer. Haywood said that Charlotte had capitalized on its good fortune from the 2020 lottery, moving up to the No. 3 pick from a No. 8 projection to nab Ball.

“They drafted their next superstar, and he’s big — he’s a tall point guard,” Haywood said, sounding like Jordan’s former Bulls coach Phil Jackson by repeatedly talking up the size Ball lends to the backcourt.

Haywood had a front-row vantage point for Jordan’s struggles in both of his post-Bulls stops. Before Haywood was claimed off waivers by the Bobcats in July 2012, he was Jordan’s teammate for both of His Airness’s two seasons with the Washington Wizards. He delights in telling stories about a young Amar’e Stoudemire, then just starting out with Phoenix, getting scolded by Jordan for asking for life advice during live action.

“At the jump ball, I would see guys start to stare at his shoes,” Haywood said. “They were mesmerized.”

Still a Charlotte resident, Haywood said: “People are really excited about this team for the first time in a long time. Just because Charlotte hasn’t won, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t drive him crazy. Mike definitely wants to win. And I think he’s put himself in a great position to win in the future.”

Jordan is criticized in league circles for his detached ownership style, and for filling his front office and executive leadership team with people from his personal network — although he is not unique on either point. He’s also taken flack for his faith in underperforming draftees like Adam Morrison, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Frank Kaminsky, and for backing the Hornets’ decision in 2017 to draft Malik Monk at No. 11 over Utah’s Mitchell, who went 13th to Denver and ended up with the Jazz after a trade.

Jordan spends the bulk of his time in Florida and, until the November addition of Hayward, had not been very visible or effective as a free-agent recruiter, despite his obvious star power. Keeping a distance was certainly understandable this season, since the league’s extensive health and safety protocols would not allow him to interact with players and coaches unless he was testing daily for the coronavirus, but the Jordan glow can only be so tangible when he is not present.

I chided Jordan for his low profile at the 2019 All-Star weekend in Charlotte, and at the 2020 All-Star weekend in Chicago, because he was so closely connected to both host franchises. He did not consent to an interview request for this story, but Jordan defenders will forever counter that mere mortals like you and me will never be able to fully grasp what it’s like for him to operate in public, given the hoopla he still generates. Perhaps they are right.

Also: Perhaps Jordan’s public persona, at 58, is still evolving. In a February interview with our Jonathan Abrams, he spoke at length about his move into NASCAR ownership — as well his competitive nature — after forming a racing team with Bubba Wallace and Denny Hamlin to support Wallace, the only Black full-time driver at NASCAR’s top level.

The eulogy he gave at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service in February 2020, letting the world in on how close he and Bryant had become, instantly ranked as one of the most moving chapters of Jordan’s life in the spotlight. Earlier this month, at the Basketball Hall of Fame inductions, Jordan cut an elegant figure on the podium standing in support alongside Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s widow, and Kim Mulkey, the women’s college basketball coaching titan. Jordan was chosen by both as an induction presenter.

Tuesday also marked the painful one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. In June 2020, after actively distancing himself from political and social issues throughout his playing career, Jordan announced that he and his Jordan Brand would donate $100 million to social justice causes and the pursuit of racial equality.

This shift in Jordan as a cultural figure has positioned him for a reinvention as an owner — provided that Kupchak and Ball, who doesn’t turn 20 until August, can keep the Hornets on their current trajectory.

“There’s been some years when people questioned what he was doing,” Haywood said of Jordan’s Charlotte reign. “I don’t think they’re questioning that this year.”

The Scoop @TheSteinLine

Corner Three

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be condensed or lightly edited for clarity.)

Q: So I know that statistics for play-in games are not part of the regular season or the playoffs, but I was wondering what happens to those numbers? With Jayson Tatum, some were reporting that his performance in Boston’s victory over Washington was his third career 50-point game. But if the play-in games count separately, is it really his third career 50-point game? I know certain players have statistical incentives in their contracts, so could players push for these games to count? I am really curious about all the ramifications here. — Kyle Cheung (Dallas)

Stein: The N.B.A., as you noted, has said that statistics from play-in games fall into their own category. In a span of about 40 days, Tatum had two 50-point games in the regular season and then a 50-point game in play-in competition. But when we talk about his career total, it remains two 50-point games.

On Tatum’s NBA.com profile page, there is a play-in tab with stats from his 50-point game. Perhaps it isn’t as easy to find as it should be, but a deeper discussion about how to more prominently memorialize statistics from play-in games is sure to follow if N.B.A. teams, as expected, vote for the concept to stick around. The play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth seeds, remember, was added this season on a trial basis after a modified play-in for only the eighth seed was used during last season’s restart in the Walt Disney World bubble.

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m a big fan of the concept because it makes the regular season more meaningful, increases the value of finishing in the top six in each conference and lessens the incentive for teams to tank if they start the season slowly. Some league and television network officials are sure to rue the elimination of the popular Golden State Warriors and the even more popular Stephen Curry in this season’s play-in round, when Golden State had a record that would have secured the West’s eighth seed in a normal season. Yet it would be a huge mistake to focus on how the concept affected one team or one superstar when it gave the regular season a needed boost.

The N.B.A. play-in will probably never work as well as it does in the college arena, where the U.C.L.A. men’s basketball team used a play-in victory over Michigan State as the springboard for a run to the Final Four of the N.C.A.A. tournament. In the pros, play-in winners proceed to a best-of-seven series in the first round. The No. 8 Washington Wizards in the East have much work to do to upset top-seeded Philadelphia, as do the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the West against top-seeded Utah. But the pluses of the play-in far outweigh the minuses after several years in which the regular-season schedule, in part through the rising emphasis on preventive rest, has been steadily devalued.

Q: I understand that the Most Valuable Player Award is based on the regular season, but it seems silly not to account for the playoffs. Why don’t any of the individual awards factor into the postseason? Wouldn’t doing so help bring even more clarity to each race and reduce the emphasis on statistical hairsplitting? — Aaron Slosberg (Santa Cruz, Calif.)

Stein: Basing award voting on what happens in the regular season opens the field to players from all 30 teams. If playoff results were factored in, we would almost certainly see M.V.P.s only from championship teams, and it would sharply narrow the other races.

Along with incorporating the play-in tournament, tying awards to regular-season performance adds meaning and value to the 82-game schedule, which is a constant worry for the league office. The N.B.A.’s long season and the rise in recent years of “load management” rest for stars have league officials brainstorming for ways to increase fan engagement.

Tweaking the awards system to include the playoffs would do the opposite.

Q: How is Jimmy Butler the N.B.A. steals leader over T.J. McConnell, but Myles Turner isn’t the blocks leader over Rudy Gobert? — Dave Birnell (Peru, Ind.)

Stein: I was among those who initially (and mistakenly) thought that Turner was not eligible to lead the league in blocked shots per game because injury prevented him from appearing in 70 percent of Indiana’s games.

Turns out he did qualify through an exception: Turner’s total of 159 blocked shots still would have led the league on a per-game basis (3.1 per game) had he played in 70 percent of the Pacers’ games. So he was crowned as the league’s blocked shots champion for the second time. Gobert, with 190 total blocks, averaged 2.7 per game for Utah.

Butler, with 2.1 steals per game, had a higher per-game average than McConnell (1.9) and played in 52 games for Miami. The requirement to hit the 70 percent threshold was 51 games out of 72, so Butler’s qualification as the league’s steals leader required no extra math.

Numbers Game

3

The Los Angeles Lakers have lost Game 1 in three of LeBron James’s five playoff series since he joined them — two years in a row in the first round. James has yet to lose a first-round series in his career, going 15 for 15.

16.7

Utah fell short of becoming the first team to average 17 3-pointers per game for a season, but the Jazz led the league this season with 16.7 per game. Then, without the injured Donovan Mitchell, they shot 12-for-47 from long range in a Game 1 loss to Memphis. The leaguewide average for teams this season, which established a new single-season high, was 12.7 made 3s per game. Mitchell missed Utah’s final 16 regular-season games with a sprained right ankle.

5

Five players this season averaged at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists per game: Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Denver’s Nikola Jokic, the Knicks’ Julius Randle, Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Washington’s Russell Westbrook. The league’s previous single-season high, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was three players in 2018-19: Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Westbrook.

32

Stephen Curry’s scoring average of 32 points per game, in 63 games for Golden State, is the highest in league history for a player who was 32 (or older) at the start of the season. Curry topped the 30.4 points averaged by Michael Jordan for Chicago in 1995-96, according to Stathead.

2.8

How exclusive is the Basketball Hall of Fame? Nearly 5,000 players have played at least one regular-season game in the N.B.A. or the American Basketball Association, according to research from the statistician Justin Kubatko. Of those 4,897 players, only 141 (2.8 percent) have been selected for induction — including Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Ben Wallace, Chris Webber, Toni Kukoc and Bob Dandridge from the recently announced 2021 class.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].

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