Wizards take a much-needed first step

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, February 15, 2010; D01

It's officially over now. The team that began to take shape six seasons ago as a contender Saturday became a footnote in Washington basketball history. The trade of Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson to the Dallas Mavericks dropped the curtain on the whole run. The team featuring Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes/Stevenson, Antawn Jamison, Haywood and Butler has essentially been dismantled. If you figure Arenas will never play here again, Jamison is the only one of the principals remaining, and if he's lucky President Ernie Grunfeld will free him, too, before Thursday's trading deadline.

Jamison certainly doesn't deserve to be a part of what's coming. You think the Wizards have been a mess so far this season? Wait until you get a load of what they become these final seven weeks. Having said that, the Wizards did exactly what they should have done, trading Haywood, Butler and Stevenson for, well, nothing. As noncompetitive as they'll likely be on the court for a while, the Wizards have to start over. The club needs salary cap room to chase free agents and high draft picks over the next two to three years that might yield a kid such as, say, Kentucky's talented playmaker John Wall.

The Wizards weren't going to win anything by keeping that group together any longer. Every night they took the court together recently was a waste of the franchise's time. The team had simply reached its expiration date, probably more than a year ago. Keeping Stevenson (over Roger Mason Jr.) was a huge mistake; paying Arenas $111 million turned out to be one of the league's biggest mistakes in years.

There's no easy fix. Nothing quick is going to spin the Wizards 180 degrees. Waving goodbye to Butler and perhaps Jamison is swallowing the medicine. It's going to take the Wizards, if they're incredibly lucky, two or three years to get back where they were in 2004-05 when they won 45 games and a playoff series.

Don't spend a moment assessing the trade from the standpoint of what kind of talent the Wizards received in return. Drew Gooden's contract is up at the end of the season. And Josh Howard's might as well be because the club holds the option on next season, and Howard is a shell of the player he was in 2006 when he was an all-star, Robin to Dirk Nowitzki's Batman and a big reason why the Mavericks were able to get within two victories of an NBA championship.

But some very strange behavior, featuring revelations about marijuana use, moodiness and a couple of injuries completely sabotaged Howard's career to the point where he simply isn't a front-line player anymore. But again, he's not part of the big plan. Neither are Quinton Ross and James Singleton. It's all for cap room, which is absolutely the way to go.

The tough part around here, once the season reaches mid-May and the Wizards are praying for lottery position, will be watching the Mavericks enter the playoffs with Butler and Haywood (it's hard to imagine the Mavs keeping Stevenson) forming a formidable front line with Nowitzki.

Kobe Bryant went as far as to pronounce the Mavericks a serious threat to his Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference. I wouldn't second that, but the Mavericks do look to be even with Utah and closer to Denver. Haywood is a big defensive upgrade (from Gooden) and ought to help Dallas considerably if the Mavs have to go against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in a best-of-seven series. The Mavericks, remember, went after Orlando center Marcin Gortat last summer but the Magic matched Dallas's free agent offer. And it shouldn't surprise anybody if Butler returns to his 20-points-per-night form, freed from the current Wizards offense, which marginalized him.

As Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said of Butler, "fresh scenery will just energize him" and Butler's ability to score "will take a lot of pressure off Dirk."

The Mavericks should be trying to fortify the roster for one last playoff run, before Nowitzki (31 years old) and Jason Kidd (soon to be 37) are simply too old. The Wizards should be trying to make wholesale changes. And if they can clear more cap room by dealing Jamison to a contender in return for an expiring contract or a good, young player, they should. Jamison told me a few weeks ago he would not ask for a trade, not with the franchise dealing with the death of owner Abe Pollin and the Arenas drama. But Jamison shouldn't have to ask for a trade; the Wizards should reward him for changing the culture of the place when he arrived back in 2004-05. One would understand if Jamison was jealous of Haywood and Butler now.

The biggest losers will be the people who pay full NBA ticket prices but now have to watch a team entering full-fledged rebuilding mode. Of course, the most hopeful folks in town look at what Ted Leonsis and his management team have done with the Capitals and hope for a similar basketball renaissance. It would be easier to do if the Wizards get lucky enough in the lottery to draft the kind of player the Capitals got when they selected Alex Ovechkin. That takes a level of good fortune the franchise hasn't known since Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were in Bullets uniforms.

But the first steps, like dealing off all the known assets to try to acquire new ones, have to be the boldest. The big trade with Dallas amounts to a nice first step, little more.

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