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Winning NBA lottery infuses Wizards with optimism

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; D01

It's been nine years since the Washington Wizards last won the NBA draft lottery, but it's a little harder to pinpoint a time when the franchise had so many options and so much opportunity and optimism. That's what a few favorable Ping-Pong balls will do for an organization that has been downtrodden more often than not in the 32 years since last winning an NBA championship.

The morning after landing the No. 1 overall pick, there were no worries about drafting the next Kwame Brown, nor were there grand expectations that the Wizards were going to be immediate playoff contenders next season with likely choice John Wall.

But there finally was hope for a team that endured a season that included the death of longtime owner Abe Pollin, dissension, guns in the locker room, season-ending suspensions, season-ending injuries, a 16-game losing streak, a player-coach dustup and a felony gun conviction for the most-recognizable player. As Peter Biche, the Wizards' president of business operations and chief financial officer, said afterward, "The bottom is behind us and we're on the upswing now."

In a few weeks, Ted Leonsis will replace the NBA's longest-tenured owners, the Pollin family, and take the Wizards down a path that he hopes will resemble the success that he has encountered -- at least in the regular season -- with the NHL's Washington Capitals.

Leonsis's takeover has been anticipated for some time, unlike the prospect of winning the draft lottery, which was so shocking that Irene Pollin -- who has likely seen just about everything in her 46 years owning the franchise -- couldn't contain her stunned surprise when it was announced on Tuesday.

In the first 12 hours after the lottery, the Wizards sold nearly 400 season-ticket packages, according to a team spokesman. Leonsis said landing the No. 1 overall pick is just the first step toward building a contender. "We got [Alex] Ovechkin and we were able to build around him," Leonsis said of the Capitals. "The lesson is, one player can really, really help. But you still have work to do. I'm excited, but I'm also responsibly sanguine about it because I know how much work we have to do to make a great team."

Coach Flip Saunders watched the lottery on television with his coaching staff, and their response "looked like a bunch of kids playing Little League that were getting ready to go to Dairy Queen that had just won a game. Everyone is jumping around like little kids."

Saunders tried to remain impartial about where the team is leaning, with Ohio State junior Evan Turner also in consideration, but he couldn't stop gushing over Wall, the 19-year-old point guard out of Kentucky whom many predict could expedite the rebuilding process for the Wizards. During a news conference at Verizon Center on Wednesday, Saunders raved about Wall's instincts as a point guard and his character. He also shot down any speculation about the Wizards moving the choice.

"No," Saunders said, "ain't going to happen."

Team President Ernie Grunfeld refuses to declare his choice for the top pick but said Wall shouldn't have a problem sharing the back court with Gilbert Arenas, the three-time all-star guard who will return from his 50-game suspension for bringing guns into the Verizon Center locker room. Arenas is owed more than $80 million over the next four years, but he has played just 47 games the past three seasons.

"We've said all along, we expect Gilbert to be back with us and he'll be back with us. You can never have enough good players," Grunfeld said. "We're going to go with the best player available to us in our situation. Good players can play together."

Leonsis said he has yet to sit down with Arenas but hopes to meet with him soon.

"I know him to be a great player and a really sweet kid," Leonsis said of Arenas. "Certainly, last year there was a lot of turmoil, not only in his personal life, but what it brought the team and the franchise. My style is to not have any opinions. I'm predisposed to really liking him. Hopefully, he'll like and respect me."

Grunfeld didn't have much time to celebrate his good fortune, as he caught a flight on Wednesday to Chicago, where he plans to interview potential prospects at the NBA draft combine. In addition to the top choice, the Wizards also have picks No. 30 -- which they acquired from Cleveland in the Antawn Jamison deal -- and No. 35.

Leonsis said he plans to retain Grunfeld, who created nearly $20 million in salary cap space in dealing away Jamison, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson near the trade deadline. The Wizards have the financial flexibility to acquire a maximum-level free agent such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh in this offseason's heralded free agent class, but Leonsis didn't sound as if he wanted to become a major player in free agency.

"I'm not an owner yet. I can't even talk about that. I don't think there's any quick fixes. I don't have a magic wand. You can make a lot of noise. Sometimes it's with empty calories," said Leonsis, who was burned by the failed signing of Jaromir Jagr early in his tenure with the Capitals. "I think that the team, right now, really needs to rebuild its core. I'd rather do it on the fundamentals of drafting and developing and retaining good young players. I'm committed to building the team the right way and we'll make the necessary investments everywhere within the organization, so that we're prepared for life in the new NBA and we can build a team that makes the playoffs and competes for a championship over a long horizon of time."

After a tumultuous first year in Washington, Saunders is thrilled about the possibilities in his second season, with a new team, a new owner and a No. 1 overall draft pick. "When you're going through games and you're losing games, and you're in a rebuilding process, even though your guys are getting a little bit better, sometimes you need something to give you a little shot in the arm, and this was definitely something that gave us excitement, and I think it should give the whole city, the D.C. area, a lot of excitement."

Staff writer Gene Wang contributed to this report.

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