View Full Version : What could have been for the wizards with Rasheed, Ben and Webber. Is another young big on the way out.

04-06-2003, 12:42 PM
Don't blame Kwame for Wizards' failures

By Tom Friend
ESPN the Magazine

Same obit, different year.

The Washington Wizards won't play in May again, and please stop blaming this mess on Kwame Brown. The Wizards are the most impatient franchise in the NBA, have been for 15 years and even Michael Jordan could not overcome their culture of losing.

Kwame Brown, right, has been the whipping boy of Michael Jordan.
It's clear now that the Jordan era in D.C. will end the same way the Mitch Richmond era ended, the same way the Rod Strickland era ended, the same way every Wizard era ends -- in the lottery with their fingers crossed. One playoff appearance since the late '80s is even more pathetic than the Clippers, and it won't get better until they fire Doug Collins and make an intelligent trade for once. Or non-trade.

The irony of it all is that Sacramento's Chris Webber ended the competitive portion of their season Wednesday night with a 28-point payback game at MCI Center. The Wizards never should've traded Webber to begin with -- especially for a used-up Richmond -- and that's the same trade they're still trying to dig out from.

That and three other deals:

Rasheed Wallace for Strickland. Rasheed was immature, and still is, but, from a basketball standpoint, it was idiotic to trade big for small and young for old. Plus, Strickland has proven to be even more immature than Rasheed. It was just another case of the Wizards being impatient with a young player. If you draft a kid after his sophomore year of college (trust me, back then a sophomore was young), you have to bite your tongue for a while. But just because Rasheed couldn't bite his own (dozens of technical fouls), they gave up. And don't tell me Strickland was too good to pass up. He's a flake, always has been a flake.

Ben Wallace for Ike Austin. Another panic move from Wizard executive Wes Unseld. They'd gotten lucky in discovering Wallace to begin with -- off the street -- and then they trade him for a guy who had one good half-season in Miami. Ben had been Washington's best rebounder and shot-blocker, and Unseld knew it, but teams get so seduced by offense sometimes. Austin had had some killer games against the Bullets/Wizards, and because Ben's shooting range was a dunk, Unseld got suckered. Just like Orlando would get suckered later and give Ben away to Detroit. The same Ben Wallace who's now up for league MVP.

Jordan, right, would've been better off keeping Richard Hamilton, left.

Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse. Another rushed, win-now move that happens to be Jordan's fault. Last season, before Hamilton tore his groin, he helped the Wizards win nine straight games as he morphed into their primary scorer. He was the perfect complement to Jordan, someone who didn't NEED the ball to score, someone who could run all day, get to the foul line and shoot accurately off of screens. If he hadn't injured his groin, there's no telling what he or the Wizards would've done last season, because he was never 100 percent healthy the rest of the year. And because of that, Jordan's minutes escalated and his knees gave out.

For some reason, Jordan and the team's other executives never fully understood Hamilton's upside and didn't want to pay him when he hit free agency. Michael felt Stackhouse was an upgrade, and on paper he was, but, once again, they rushed judgment on Hamilton. Stackhouse hordes the ball like Jordan does and had already proved he couldn't be a second option when he clashed with Grant Hill in Detroit. Stackhouse foolishly believed that Jordan was going to come off the bench this year, and that it would be his team for the most part. But as soon as Michael hit the starting lineup, Jerry faltered, and, in typical Wizards fashion, Stackhouse then hurt his groin (same injury as Hamilton's the year before). He probably hasn't been completely healthy since, but, nevertheless, there was never any chemistry between he and Michael. Stackhouse is a mediocre perimeter shooter, he holds the ball too long, he's turnover prone and, after his injury, he stopped attacking the basket. Hamilton is the better ball-handler, the better guy, the better fit, the better teammate.

So this is why Michael Jordan will never play a playoff game for the Wizards. Bad trades before he got there, bad trades after he got there. And with every loss this season, the panic escalated. And no one panicked more obviously and publicly than the coach, Doug Collins.

Last year, in Collins' first season, the expectations were low, and the mix was pleasant. They overachieved to win 37 games because they had solid perimeter shooters in Chris Whitney, Hubert Davis and Ty Lue, and a dependable energy guy in Popeye Jones. If Michael and Hamilton had stayed healthy, they would've coasted into the playoffs.

But the stakes were raised this year because of the Stackhouse deal -- coupled with the fact that it was Michael's final season -- and you could tell from the beginning Collins couldn't deal. He felt it HAD to be a playoff year, and he himself caved under the pressure. He had promised he wouldn't micromanage this season, and, in particular, that he wouldn't abuse Brown, the former high school No. 1 pick. But all it took was an inconsistent start to set him off. He may not have yelled at Kwame as much this year, but instead he'd bench Kwame, wink and say in press conferences, "I played the guys I trusted." That's micromanaging, buddy. When the team was playing its best, freest basketball -- winning six of seven in January -- Collins called a four-game homestand against Toronto, Orlando , Philly and Denver the most important stretch of the season. In January? In one fell swoop, he'd turned a loose team into a tight team, and it lost two of those four games. He'd also pledged to reduce Michael's minutes, but he frantically began playing the 40-year-old man 37 a game.

Doug Collins, left, got caught up in his own sense of urgency.
Collins just never figured out how to get through to the team, and, for some reason, everybody (Michael, Charles Oakley, etc). kept pointing at Kwame and kept lambasting Kwame. The kid's 21! Stop being impatient for once. Collins always talks about a lack of defense and lack of energy on the Wizards. That's on him! He's the coach, and they're clearly tuning him out. I'm sick of Mike Fratello and every other announcer kissing his rear. Let me be the first to lambaste Collins, not Kwame.

Collins shouldn't be invited back next year, when it's a much younger post-Jordan team. It won't be a good fit. He's buried Kwame now; don't let him do it to Jared Jeffries. Collins is a super announcer; that's what he should go back and do.

I grew up in D.C., I see every Wizards game live or on tape, and that being said, I'm not going to sit here and say the last 24 months were a waste. Getting Michael in the loop was the team's only way of taking a mulligan on the Webber trade. This is a franchise that should have a frontcourt of Webber, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, a franchise that should be in the NBA Finals representing the East. Instead, they've spent the last 24 months as the best draw in the league. Having Michael meant you never saw an empty seat.; being a Bullets fan was relevant again.

But it was also a curse from a competitive standpoint. This season, the Wizards never snuck up on anyone, and every team sneaks up on somebody. Every player in this league circled the Wizards game on the calendar, everyone wanted to try and school Michael one more time. Or get a pair of his autographed sneakers. Denver can't give tickets away -- except for the night last week that a sellout crowd saw the Nuggets ruin Michael's season. The Wizards were the toughest ticket every place they played this year, and, while the '98 Bulls could've handled that, the '03 Wizards caved. That made it even more difficult on a flawed team that had gotten rid of its best 3-point shooters and never acquired a post player.

Michael just never got the personnel side right; never got lucky, either. The year the Wizards got the No. 1 overall pick in the lottery, before the 2001-2002 season, there was no obvious choice, no LeBron James. Yao Ming had intended to come to the NBA that year, but that fell through. What Michael should've done was trade the pick to Chicago for Elton Brand, and he almost did. But, depending on whom you believe, Michael wanted point guard Jamal Crawford, too, and pulled out when Jerry Krause wouldn't budge and when it was obvious he couldn't fleece Krause. There's also talk that Collins talked Michael out of the trade, too. Either way, you put Brand on the Wizards and they're a top-four seed in the East.

Michael also could've done a better job evaluating that draft. He could've traded down and taken Pau Gasol, or even taken him No. 1. Gasol would've had the Wizards in the playoffs, too. But that being said, Kwame Brown, the guy they took, is not a lost cause. I've seen him stand next to 7-footer Brendan Haywood, and he's taller than Haywood! And he can run the floor, he can pass and he can finish. He's no worse than Jermaine O'Neal was after two seasons.

But the Wizards way is to ... panic, to be too reactionary. The Wizards way is to trade young Kwame now, and I and the other five true Bullet fans won't stand for it! A non-trade, please! They've basically lost for two consecutive decades, so what's three-to-five more years? They should promote Larry Drew to head coach, and start over for the millionth time. They should let Stackhouse leave via free agency and build around Brown, Jeffries, Haywood, Lue, Juan Dixon, Bobby Simmons and Larry Hughes. It's going to be ugly for a while, but it's ugly now -- and it's on national TV every other friggin' night.

Yes, we'll lose 55 to 60 games next year, and yes, we'll be back under the radar screen again.

But that's exactly where we belong.

Third year highschoolers hit it big in their third season just with some minutes.