For Washington Fans, One Good Reason To Love Dallas
By Mike Wise
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page D01
Ladies, gentlemen, Washington basketball junkies everywhere: Put your hands together and give it up for Mark Cuban, the man who makes more Wizards problems go away than the merciful end to each regular season.
Cuban, the benevolent owner of the Dallas Mavericks, decided last night that taking Juwan Howard's monstrous contract and meager talent off Abe Pollin's hands a few years ago was not enough. No, the man about to bring you "The Benefactor," the guy who set up a Fallen Patriot Fund for families of war casualties, has outdone himself.
He traded for Jerry Stackhouse, his depressing locker room aura, his three years and $22.5 million remaining on his deal, his balky knee. Cuban took it all off Washington's hands. Not to mention the moody and mercurial Christian Laettner, plus the fifth pick in today's NBA draft. That player may be Josh Childress or Luol Deng, who both could turn out to be decent NBA players -- in maybe three years.
In return, the Wizards get -- Antawn Jamison.
All right, so we lose the heraldic trumpets. Still, this is a three-for-one swap that may be remembered as a key moment in this franchise's resuscitation.
To grasp the magnitude, you have to know how far off course the Wizards were at the end of another playoff-less season in April.
See, the Wizards exposed both Stackhouse and Laettner in the expansion draft. But their contracts and reputations bothered the Charlotte Bobcats enough that they wanted no part of either player. They both may have a few good years left. Yet walking around that locker room was just uncomfortable when Stackhouse was in there. His teammates had little or no respect for the injured player who was supposed to lead after Michael Jordan was jettisoned.
Gilbert Arenas just felt Stackhouse did not have enough passion for the game or he would have been playing through his leg injury. And Laettner? He was getting into the younger players' ears way too much, teaching them all the things a jaded journeyman should know about the league, not the advice impressionable youngsters should be getting.
Eddie Jordan, the coach, saw it happening. So did President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld, the architect who sometimes disagreed with the coach. Together, they knew they needed real leadership in the Wizards' locker room to mount any kind of challenge in the Eastern Conference.
Does Jamison put the Wizards there? Not yet, but here is an athletic, scoring forward who at 28 is a year younger than Stackhouse. Jamison ditched his career-long reputation as a ball hog last season in Dallas. He was secure enough to come off the bench for the Mavericks, who ultimately realized they had too many scoring forwards and not enough defenders.
Now, be forewarned, Jamison does not do defense. The last time he stripped somebody clean at midcourt or held his counterpart under 20, well, his alarm rang and he had to get up.
But that's okay. He is young enough to learn how to play East Coast "D" while having Golden State and the wild West expunged from his conscious.
And while we're gently poking fun at Cuban's show of magnanimity, we should also point out that this is part of a grander scheme for the Dallas owner to acquire the biggest offseason prize of them all -- Shaquille "Pay Me or Trade Me" O'Neal -- from the Los Angeles Lakers.
By acquiring Stackhouse, Laettner and the No. 5 pick, Cuban has more bodies and salary to go after Shaq, who is almost past the point of not returning to the Lakers. Shaq commands nearly $28 million, making it almost impossible for the Lakers to deal him unless a team is willing to part with several players, as many as four or five, including at least one bona fide all-star.
In Dallas's case, this deal could prevent the Mavericks from losing Dirk Nowitzki in a trade for O'Neal. Cuban sends the Lakers Steve Nash, one of the game's elite point guards; Antoine Walker, a nice forward complement to Kobe Bryant, who's contract is about to expire; Josh Howard, a solid young player; and the No. 5 pick. Not that the Lakers would go for that, but it's worth Cuban trying.
He also indirectly helps his instant-message buddy, Ted Leonsis, who should really just cut Cuban a deal for one of those AOL giveaways. Because if Washington gets competitive again and Abe Pollin finally wants to sell, then Leonsis finally gets to buy. And one more civic-minded, longtime owner is out of the picture, and the NBA is that much closer to being taken over by the Internet Billionaire Boys Club, whose next purchase will be mankind's soul.
But that's okay; Stackhouse is still gone.
Anyhow, Grunfeld may have just pulled off his best three-for-one offseason trade since he was with New York in 1999. Back then, he sent a rundown John Starks, Chris Mills and Terry Cummings to Golden State for Latrell Sprewell. The trade was viewed as a major gamble and a public relations fiasco at the time, given Starks's popularity in New York and Sprewell's reputation as an anti-authority figure who choked his coach the year before. But it became a boon for the Knicks and resurrected Sprewell's career.
Grunfeld is now responsible for Arenas and his remaining teammates smiling broadly the whole summer, knowing two of the players weighing the team down last season are bound for somewhere else. Don't discount the relationship between Arenas and Jamison, either. They played together briefly at Golden State, losing many more games than they won but also growing up together in the league.
Maybe Cuban will have the last laugh in all of this, pooling together enough bodies to entice the once-mighty Lakers to part with the game's most dominating presence. Ultimately, losing Jamison and almost anyone except Nowitzki would be a nice swap for Shaq.
But at this moment, on the day of a very uncertain draft in which baby-faced teenagers do not figure to get many all-star votes for another five years, the Dallas owner looks like a franchise savior, a guy who has really been emotionally hurt by all those poor Wizards performances of the past decade.
First, Juwan Howard. Now, Stackhouse and Laettner. You've got to love the Benefactor, no?
© 2004 The Washington Post Company