By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, February 18, 2010; D01
It set in during the introduction of the Wizards' starting lineup, when there was an intimate smattering of patrons in the arena. The lights were turned down and the music blared, but there was nothing dramatic about the game tipping off. It was as if a D-League game had come to Washington. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost by 23 points the night before, started the game with the two most desirable players on the floor. The Wizards had just altered their starting lineup to remove Antawn Jamison from it because he had been traded to Cleveland, to join LeBron James for what ought to be a trip to the NBA Finals.
There were two prevailing emotions inside Verizon Center on Wednesday night as word got out about the Jamison trade.
"We're so incredibly happy for Antawn, pro that he is, to have a chance to be part of a championship push the rest of this season, at least."
"Oh my God! THIS is what we're going to be watching for the next two years!"
When Jamison drove away from Verizon Center in his Bentley he was leaving basketball purgatory in his rearview mirror.
The Wizards, for the foreseeable future, are the minor leagues of pro basketball, right there with the Nets, Clippers, Warriors and Timberwolves . . . in other words the bottom feeders of the NBA. The Wizards, for the foreseeable future, will stink. The Wizards are ground zero. They're irrelevant outside of Washington. It's quite possible that over the final 30 games of the season the Wizards will be the worst team in the NBA, worse than the five-win Nets. You think I'm exaggerating? I'll take the Nets when they play the Wizards on Feb. 28 up there and April 4 here.
Don't get me wrong; I understand this is what had to happen. I wrote as much back in December, that the Gilbert Arenas/Caron Butler/Brendan Haywood/Antawn Jamison team had reached its expiration date. Just because you have nice pieces doesn't mean they fit the puzzle. Not a single basketball executive of the five I talked to Wednesday thought the Wizards should do anything but start over, which meant trading Jamison just as they had traded Butler and Haywood in the previous days.
Let's give President Ernie Grunfeld this: He made a pretty good deal. In fact, it's a better deal than expected because the Wizards got four things a team needs when starting over: 1) They got a big, expiring contract and salary cap room by dealing for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who makes $11.5 million in this, the last season of his contract. 2) The Wizards got Cleveland's first-round draft pick. 3) They got a young player of note in Al Thornton, from the Clippers. 4) They'll get immediate luxury-tax relief from the buyout they will negotiate with Ilgauskas.
Don't show up at Verizon Center looking to see Big Z firing up three-pointers from the right corner. He'll be here about as long as Drew Gooden, who was in the passenger seat Wednesday night when Jamison drove away. Gooden clearly needed a ride to Dulles to catch a flight to Los Angeles, where he'll presumably join the Clippers who were the third party to the Washington-Cleveland deal. Actually, Big Z probably won't show up in Washington at all. The Wizards can buy him out and he can sit out 30 days, then rejoin the Cavaliers for the playoffs. You think the Cavaliers are crazy enough to not have a veteran big man backing up Shaq?
Getting back to the Wizards, the question now is how long they'll be this bad. They'll need, just like every other team in the league, some luck with the draft lottery and they'll need the kind of scouting/good fortune that yielded players such as Toni Kukoc, Tony Parker and Josh Howard (once an all-star) at the end of the first round. They'll also need to identify a player or two (like Arenas six years ago) who goes from afterthought to all-star, like, say, Chauncey Billups when he got to Detroit. It can be done. But it's going to take some organizational know-how. The roster is very likely to turn over completely before the Wizards are ready to even say the word "playoffs." I can't imagine Andray Blatche or Nick Young or Mike Miller will still be here when the Wizards become viable again.
Like any team starting from nothing, this will be a mess for awhile.
This, sadly, is probably going to be Arenas's legacy in Washington. It was so promising for a while, the playoff series victory over Chicago after trailing 0-2 in that best-of-seven series, winning Game 2 in Cleveland and Game 4 in Washington to twice even that second-round series. But a one-point loss in Game 5 (in OT) and a one-point loss in Game 6 (again in OT) sent it all rolling south. The team was never as good again, never healthy. There was always something. Four years later it was downright sour, even before the Arenas guns episode. And now it's a wrap.
Jamison left the floor, walked toward his car and told reporters to tell the fans he loved them more than they loved him. It clearly was a bittersweet moment for Jamison, who loved playing in Washington, loved living here, loved the late owner, Abe Pollin. In a fairly recent conversation, I told Jamison he'd get over it if he could join James in Cleveland and play for a championship. Jamison, never improper, managed a smile because if he was leaving he didn't want to leave under these circumstances.
Nevertheless, that feeling will wane and Jamison will walk into full houses at The Q in Cleveland. He'll play in games of consequence, playoff games of great theater. Likely he'll play into June alongside LeBron and Shaq, against Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. He'll play games that mean something on nights where his downtown arena vibrates and the entire city buzzes. And we'll be the jealous ones, again, watching the party from afar, the season over long before the good stuff even begins, so much closer, as usual, to last place than to first.