Not About Luck: Wizards Created Their Own Problems

By Mike Wise
Thursday, May 21, 2009

I am playing Powerball tonight. And because I have a better chance of perishing in a plane crash or being struck by lightning, I will not win. I know this.

Yet, because the seductive lure of making a very good life even better seems worth a few dollars, I still play.

And lose.

It's not exactly wagering 63 losses on the NBA draft lottery, hoping beyond hope that one special young player will alter a franchise's future. But, really, the Wizards have to feel almost as hopeless as if they had just penciled in a bonus number at a convenience store, no?

They played David Stern's multi-state game Tuesday night, gambling like the rest of those NBA degenerates -- the Kings, the Clippers, the Grizzlies, the Thunder. And, news flash, they lost, finishing with the worst pick they could have at No. 5, four spots from Blake Griffin and Lotto nirvana.

No. 5 once brought Kevin Garnett to Minnesota. Today, it brings hand-wringing and headaches to Washington, whose pro basketball team again learned a hard lesson when they don't get to play in May: This is what happens when you leave your fate to chance. This is what happens to all the fools at the gaming tables who get this far down. They chase money with luck, and when luck betrays them, they're left with an unproven, young kid who might or might not be as good as their bevy of other young kids.

It says here Ernie Grunfeld moves that pick and neither Arizona State's James Harden nor Arizona's Jordan Hill makes it to Washington. Grunfeld has too much at stake to wait for the organization to develop another kid who's not yet ready for prime time, much less the playoffs.

Why even toy with the future at this point when the present is all that matters?

The era of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison will end without so much as a trip to the Eastern Conference finals if the Wizards don't trade for a capable big man or a savvy scorer off the bench this offseason, not next.

LeBron James and Dwight Howard are not getting worse. Atlanta is not getting slower. With Garnett, the Celtics have probably two years before they fall off the contender map . . . again. For this Wizards group, the time is now.

Falling to fifth is going to make Grunfeld work harder than he has ever worked before to bring in a bona fide veteran presence to add to a roster missing at least two solid pieces.

Griffin represented that piece. Poor soul, he's now going to Donald Sterling's NBA outpost in Los Angeles to play in the shadow of Kobe's home court.

If the lottery proved anything, it's that it often doesn't represent salvation the way it once did when Tim Duncan went to San Antonio or LeBron to his hometown Cavaliers.

According to research by The Post's Michael Lee, teams with either the fifth or sixth projected position ended up winning the No. 1 pick as many times as the team that was supposed to win it the past 10 years.

Conspiring minds love to paint the picture of Stern plucking the Knicks' envelope from the bin -- it was the freezing-cold envelope, these people allege -- that gave New York Patrick Ewing in 1985. But nowadays, it's almost as if Stern and Adam Silver, his apt deputy commissioner, are in the back, deciding to send a clear message to the teams who seemed to lose so willingly at the end of the season: Don't even think about tanking games, because you're not getting the first pick.

Rick Pitino told me once he would have never taken the Celtics coaching job had he known Duncan would have gone somewhere other than Boston, which had the highest probability of winning in 1997.

When the Wizards did win the lottery, Michael Jordan selected Kwame Brown. From the now-it-can-be-told file: Jordan badly wanted Pau Gasol, but thought he would be eviscerated for taking a soft, European player against a hard-scrabble, high school kid from Georgia.

Picking No. 1 or falling to No. 5, they just can't win. Better to be playing in May than praying for ping-pong balls.

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