"Those guys were about preparation and teamwork, not individual play," Jordan said of some of the better sports strategists ever to have passed through West Point.
Perhaps some day, if and when and if he has enough championship-caliber talent at his disposal, Jordan can simply overwhelm opponents with full-frontal assaults. Until then, the first-year Sixers floor leader can only hope to surprise the occasional NBA foe with a series of rear actions (he is partial to Princeton-style backdoor cuts), flanking maneuvers, diversionary tactics and subterfuge.
"If we play as a team," Jordan declared, "we'll win."
The Sixers did in fact beat the winless New Jersey Nets last night, 82-79, but how effectively they played as a team again is open to speculation. Struggling Elton Brand never left the bench in the fourth quarter for the fourth time in five games as Jordan apparently has reached a command decision, at least for now, that outcomes that hang in the balance are best determined by someone other than their highest-priced veteran.
At 4-4, Jordan's Sixers have not settled on an orderly rotation for the remainder of what could prove to be a seasonlong attempt to determine who fits into what role. But one truth does appear to be emerging from all that mixing and matching: Second-year big man Marreese Speights will be an integral part of the team's ultimate makeover, however drastic or slowly evolving that might be.
Speights, a 6-10 power forward who can play center as the need arises, is gobbling large chunks of the significant, clutch-time minutes that figured to go to Brand. He scored 19 points, eight of which came in the final period, including the decisive three-point play when he rebounded a Thaddeus Young miss and scored on the putback with 1 minute, 10 seconds remaining. He added a free throw to put the Sixers ahead for the final time at 80-79. Two free throws - one apiece by Samuel Dalembert and Young - increased the Philly advantage that stood up when New Jersey's Rafer Alston had a brain cramp and accidentally inbounded the ball to Young with 4.8 seconds left.
"He's just got great swag," Jordan said of Speights. "His confidence is soaring."
Speights wasn't about to disagree. He apparently enjoys being a go-to guy.
"I just want to go out there and play as hard as I can," said Speights, who added a team-high nine rebounds. "But if the ball comes to me, yeah, I'm going to try to score."
Swingman Jason Kapono said it should come as no surprise that Speights has come to the fore.
"He's a big guy that can shoot," Kapono said.
If Speights has a drawback, it's that his defense has yet to catch up with his offense. Then again, that has been a teamwide trend as players get used to Jordan's system.
"Our chemistry on defense is pretty good," Kapono noted. "On offense, we're still pretty stagnant for the most part."
If Brand hasn't lived up to his billing, the team's presumed leader, Andre Iguodala, also has had his share of off nights. Brand and Iguodala shot a combined 4-for-20, which might have been an obstacle too big to clear were it not for Young's early hot hand - he scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the first half - and Speights' late heroics.
The Nets (0-8), who lost, 97-94, to the Sixers on Nov. 6 at the Wachovia Center, got another big game out of center Brook Lopez. He finished with game highs of 23 points and 14 rebounds, some of those coming against Speights, prompting Jordan to bring in Dalembert to guard him down the stretch.
Dalembert came up with the stop of the night when, immediately after Speights' three-point play, he crowded Lopez on a spin move to the basket. Lopez missed the in-close shot, Dalembert snagged the rebound and, as the West Point guys might have said, the battle was won.
"I always thought Sam was key for us," said Jordan of Dalembert's four blocked shots and eight rebounds in 24:39.
Meanwhile, the Nets - who were without the injured Devin Harris, Yi Jianlian and Courtney Lee - are wondering which key unlocks their door.
"It's tough, you're right there fighting tooth-and-nail to the finish and we haven't had the ability to pull one out," Alston said. "We're still looking for that victory to turn things around."
Thaddeus Young, whose perimeter jump shot has been absent of late, was encouraged that his stroke was returning after he drained two of four three-pointers. "I've been working hard the past couple of weeks just trying to figure things out," he said. "It's close to coming back" . . . Guard Willie Green hit back-to-back jumpers in the fourth quarter. He finished with five points, but they were important . . . Jason Smith was the only Sixer to dress who did not play.