Everywhere you turn -- "SportsCenter," the morning newspaper, the Internet -- there's juicy NBA news. Teams are wheeling and dealing, making trades, signing people, frantically trying to get better. Even two playoff teams that advanced at least one round last spring -- Atlanta and Portland -- have largely remade themselves in recent days. It's noisy out there on the front lines of the NBA.
The Washington Wizards are trying to make a little noise themselves, hamstrung as they are by salary-cap problems and one oversized contract. It's hardly an easy time for the Wizards. A veteran who expected a bigger payday is increasingly ticked off, but that seems to be the norm, doesn't it? The team is so far over the cap it doesn't even fantasize about chasing a free agent of any impact. The only way the club will get a viable big man is if one of the already-signed players has a pituitary attack. The franchise seems likely to open the season with pretty much the same team that was a huge disappointment last season, unless it can pull a rabbit out of a hat and engineer a sign-and-trade deal.
What happens over the next couple of weeks will go a long way toward determining whether the Wizards can be a reasonably competitive team this season. The front office hasn't been known for great creativity in acquiring personnel over the last dozen or so years. But it seems General Manager Wes Unseld is open to a couple of sign-and-trade possibilities that might help the team immediately. If Otis Thorpe and Calbert Cheaney, two free agents who simply no longer figure in the Wizards' plans anyway, can be packaged in a deal, we might see some action around here.
Okay, a more likely scenario is that the Wizards will have most of the pieces that didn't fit particularly well together last year. But if the Wizards re-sign free agent Mitch Richmond, the team could field a starting four of Rod Strickland and Richmond at guard, Juwan Howard and an emerging Ben Wallace at forward, which isn't a bad start. What makes this different from last season is that new coach Gar Heard plans on using Wallace at power forward, which is where he ought to be, and not center. I'm in that camp of people that believes Wallace is about to have a break-out season and become a player of significant value. If that happens, the Wizards will have a pretty good starting four, while bringing rookie Richard Hamilton, Chris Whitney, Tracy Murray and Tim Legler off the bench.
But I think it's a lack of that fifth starter that is going to cause the problem, which brings us back to the one issue that could throw a damper on everything. Having no serviceable big man in the Eastern Conference spells disaster; you simply don't have a chance to contend for a playoff spot, especially with Charlotte, Philly and Toronto having vaulted past the Wizards in the playoff picture. With no room under the salary cap, with the new collective bargaining agreement stifling player movement, and with no trade bait, the Wizards have few means to acquire a big man. It would be nice if the Spurs come around to the Wizards' offer of Cheaney for 7-foot Wil Perdue, but some teams think they can simply sign Cheaney for the $1.1 million exception, and therefore don't feel the need to give Washington anything.
To pry Perdue loose from San Antonio, the Wizards need some luck and perhaps a deal sweetener, such as Murray. You can laugh at Perdue if you want, but pass on him and here are your options: Greg Foster, 71-year-old Mark West, Mark Bryant, Andrew Lang, 76-year-old Rick Mahorn, 79-year-old Danny Schayes or 73-year-old Olden Polynice. Perdue is Hakeem compared to these guys.
And, yes, it can get worse than just not adding a big man. If Richmond decides he would rather take $2 million to play for Miami or $8 million from desperately-seeking-cap-room Seattle, rather than $10 million to stay here for a non-contender, the Wizards will have traded Tom Gugliotta, Chris Webber and three first-round draft picks for --
Absolutely nothing. It would be, arguably, the worst NBA deal of the last 20 years. Since the Bucks shipped Kareem to the Lakers.
Actually, Unseld is between a rock and a hard place as it pertains to Richmond. If he deals Richmond for a couple of marginal players (as Miami and Toronto would like him to do), Unseld would at least have something to show for Googs and C. Web -- but it would probably make the team less competitive this year and next.
This is the predicament you find yourself in when one deal after another over 10 years has gone sour, from GMs Bob Ferry to John Nash to Unseld. One mistake begets another. Abe Pollin and Nash's hardball refusal in 1994 to pay Howard the $24 million he asked for, then having to turn around two years later and fork over $100 million, is the kind of mistake that still haunts this club, even five years later.
Money isn't the issue with Richard Hamilton. But there was concern a week or so ago when the powers that be with the U.S. Olympic qualifying team wondered aloud if Hamilton was too soft because he wouldn't play through a sprained ankle. Another problem for the Wizards? But in this case, I'm siding with the rookie. He's unsigned and therefore totally unprotected financially. If he had seriously injured himself in Puerto Rico, while not yet under contract, he would have sabotaged his future before ever suiting up in the NBA. The kid's never been a slacker before; he has earned the benefit of the doubt.
If the Wizards weren't paying the whole farm to Howard they would be able to pursue a mid-priced free agent such as Utah's Shandon Anderson, or Minnesota's Joe Smith, who this year will make about 20 percent of Howard's $15 million.
As is, the Wizards can do almost nothing to substantially improve the team, short of Wallace turning into Dennis Rodman, or Hamilton taking his championship college performance right into the pros, all of which is unlikely. It's not the most encouraging news a team can offer before the offseason reaches its midpoint.