Bullets' Fab Day Nets Howard, Webber
By Richard Justice
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., NOV. 17 In what may have been the franchise's most dramatic day since winning a National Basketball Association Championship 16 long years ago, the Washington Bullets finalized a pair of blockbuster moves this afternoon by acquiring 1993-94 rookie of the year Chris Webber from the Golden State Warriors and coming to terms with unsigned first-round draft choice Juwan Howard.
It was a pair of stunning moves for a franchise that, after suffering through seven consecutive losing seasons, seems finally on the verge of being a serious contender after adding a pair of former University of Michigan teammates who should be the cornerstone of the team's front court.
Howard's package could be worth $41.6 million over 12 years, but he has the option to become a restricted free agent after two years. Webber's new contract is a one-year deal worth $2.08 million; this summer he will become a restricted free agent and the team will have the right to match any offer Webber might receive.
But the excitement of the day was tempered by the fact that the Bullets were forced to part with the franchise's most popular and respected player -- forward Tom Gugliotta, who was sent to the Warriors along with three future first-round draft choices for Webber.
"I'm drained," Bullets General Manager John Nash said after a long but happy day at USAir Arena. "And because of the involvement of Tom, to have to part with a player and a person like that, it's tough. ... Yet I didn't think Golden State would settle for anybody less. When you're talking Chris Webber, you're talking top of the line."
Still, Nash's exhaustion couldn't hide his excitement. In the 6-foot-10 Webber, a player he calls "an awesome physical talent and a very good basketball player who we think can get better," he now has the superstar the Bullets haven't had since Wes Unseld retired in 1981. Howard gives them a prototype power forward and someone who brings great defensive and rebounding skills and had a 79-21 in three years at Michigan.
In four years, Nash has overhauled the Bullets from top to bottom, drafting Gugliotta, Calbert Cheaney and Howard and trading for Don MacLean, Rex Chapman, Kevin Duckworth, Scott Skiles and now Webber.
"The rebuilding is over," said Nash last night. "It's time for winning."
Neither Webber nor Howard played in tonight's loss to New Jersey, but both could be in uniform for Saturday night's game against the Boston Celtics at USAir Arena.
Both deals came together quickly today, but Howard's was completed after months of often acrimonious negotiations with Howard's agent, David Falk. The Bullets phoned Falk around midday and offered Howard an escape clause after the second year of the deal. Previously, the escape clause, which allows Howard to test the free agent market and increase his salary, had been after the third year. Falk, ready to get his client in action, phoned Howard, who accepted.
Howard's first 11 years are guaranteed at $35.9 million, but the Bullets have a $750,000 buyout option for the 12th year, making the guaranteed portion of the deal $36.6 million. If Howard exercises the escape clause in 1996, he'd be a restricted free agent, meaning the Bullets would have the right to match any offer.
"More than anything, I'm relieved that Juwan will now be doing what he should be doing," said Falk. "Now, Juwan can concentrate on what he does best, which is play basketball and create a niche for himself in the community."
Webber had signed a one-year deal with an one-year escape clause for $2.08 million with Golden State late Wednesday, and shortly after it was announced, Golden State General Manager/Coach Don Nelson telephoned Nash to begin negotiations.
Nash said he was determined to put his best offer on the table. He knew that Nelson wanted to get back the draft picks he'd given up when he acquired Webber from Orlando for Anfernee Hardaway after the 1993 draft, and that's what Nash offered.
"I wanted to put our best deal on the table," Nash said. "I didn't wanted to be trumped by somebody else's best deal."
After a day of discussing other possibilities, Nelson phoned late this afternoon to accept. The Warriors will get:
* A 1996 first-round pick. Nelson will get back either the first-rounder that he traded to get Hardaway or Orlando's first-rounder, which the Bullets could receive as part of the Skiles trade.
* In 1998, the Warriors will get their own pick, Orlando's pick or Washington's pick -- whichever is highest. Again, Golden State's pick could pass to Orlando, Washington and Golden State as a result of the Skiles and Hardaway trades.
* In 2000, the Warriors will receive the Bullets' first-round pick unless it's the first, second or third pick of the draft. If it is, the Warriors will receive the Bullets' 2001 first-rounder unconditionally.
By signing a one-year deal, Webber will be playing for below-market value this season, but have a chance to improve his salary dramatically.
The Bullets and Warriors had been negotiating through Webber's Washington-based agent, Bill Strickland, for several days, but because Webber was a free agent, they were restricted from discussing a trade until Webber had signed a contract with the Warriors.
What do the Bullets now have? Webber and Howard were part of perhaps the greatest recruiting class in NCAA history -- the Fab Five -- and in their two years together, they led the Wolverines to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA finals.
Howard, 21, is 6-10 and around 246 pounds, and is considered a power forward.
In Webber, the Bullets have a 6-10, 250-pounder with the speed to play forward and the strength to play center. He's 21 and coming off a season when he averaged 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds to win rookie of the year honors. He was the first rookie in NBA history to total more than 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 250 assists, 150 blocks and 75 steals.
He's better suited to play power forward, which is also Howard's best position, but is talented and quick enough to play almost anywhere, including point guard.
Last year, Webber signed a 15-year, $74-million contract that included a one-year escape clause. He exercised that clause because he was forced to accept a lower salary slot, but also because he clashed with Nelson. The Warriors had offered around $50 million over seven years, but declined to give him another early escape clause.
"It's been very tough for Chris," Strickland said. "Having gotten to know Chris better during this time of crisis, I think Bullets fans are going to see a fine young man. I know he's been maligned as pampered and spoiled, but you'll see the character of this guy very shortly.