The Washington Wizards traded forward Ben Wallace and three other reserves to the Orlando Magic last night for starting center Isaac Austin, the NBA's most improved player in 1997. The Wizards' first offseason move brought them the legitimate center the team has desperately needed for years.
The Wizards had to part with the up-and-coming Wallace, who also plays center, as well as center-forward Terry Davis, reserve shooting guard Tim Legler and backup point guard Jeff McInnis, a free agent who had to sign a contract with the Wizards before being dealt. Sources indicated other trades are possible.
A team source also indicated that negotiations with free agent guard Mitch Richmond are moving toward an agreement that could keep the six-time all-star with Washington for the next three to four seasons.
"I'm looking for an opportunity to win and I think that's what I'll have in Washington," Austin said last night from Los Angeles. "They already have some good players there. The one spot that needed to be filled is the center position. I think I can provide the help that they need there."
Austin is an offensive-minded player with solid ballhandling skills. However, he is not a dominant rebounder and has battled weight problems throughout his career. After signing a three-year, $15 million contract with Orlando last season, Austin was deemed a disappointment.
Still, Wizards General Manager Wes Unseld said: "I think [getting Austin] addresses a need that we all recognize we've had at the position. It complements some of our other people, especially Rod [Strickland] and Mitch and Tracy [Murray] and Juwan [Howard]."
The acquisition of Austin, who is 6 feet 10 and 270 pounds, gives the team a solid inside presence it has lacked since the departure of 7-7 Gheorghe Muresan, although it came with a price.
The loss of Davis and Wallace, the developing player Coach Gar Heard planned on starting at power forward -- coupled with the loss of free agent forward Otis Thorpe -- depletes much of the Wizards' front-court size, muscle and athletic ability.
"We realize we gave up a very promising young player in Ben, but we had to give up something to get something," Unseld said.
To fill the front-court void, Washington plans on using its $3.1 million in free agent exceptions to sign low post players. The Wizards have expressed interest in free agent forwards J.R. Reid, Dickey Simpkins, Charles Shackleford and Aaron Williams, according to several sources. Atlanta's Grant Long also is a free agent.
If an adequate power forward cannot be obtained, Howard might move over from small forward.
As far as Richmond is concerned, it is believed that Washington has offered him a three-year, $30 million contract that might include a hefty buyout or incentives that could increase Richmond's overall deal. Richmond originally sought a four-year, $48 million contract. Unseld would not comment on the specifics of those negotiations.
"I think it will get done eventually," Unseld said. "We have been talking all along and discussions have been cordial. I think we'll get something worked out."
With Richmond in the fold, the Wizards' would boast a seasoned starting lineup that would include Austin, Richmond, Strickland and Howard. The reserve strength was depleted with the trade, but Unseld said rookie guard Richard Hamilton and rookie center Calvin Booth -- both still unsigned -- and the development of second-year center Jahidi White are reason for optimism.
Austin said he is eager to get going.
"I can't wait to have the chance to play with those guys," said Austin, 29. "Rod will get to the hole and he'll have an inside option to pass it to. Juwan gets to do his thing and Mitch is going to get a lot easier shots because teams are going to have to worry about somebody inside."
Austin averaged 9.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 26 minutes in 49 starts last season. He had conditioning problems all season and his weight hovered near 290. He often was lifted early in the second half of games and never reentered, prompting occasional clashes with since-departed coach Chuck Daly.
Sources close to Austin said he has shed almost 15 pounds this summer.
"I was kind of upset with my season last year," Austin said. "I'm out to prove myself and be the player that I know I am."
Austin is the latest member of the Magic to be dealt. Orlando plans to rebuild with young players and through free agency after next season. The Magic, which has traded guards Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson and forward Horace Grant so far this offseason, hoped to be more than $15 million under the salary cap heading into the 2000-2001 season, according to sources.
All four players the Magic acquired from Washington have contracts that expire after this season, which will clear nearly $5 million in cap room.
"They're in a rebuilding stage and I had no problem with that, but at this stage in my career I didn't need that," Austin said. "I need to be on a team that needs to win now. It's obvious they're trying to do that in Washington. Otherwise they wouldn't try to keep the veterans they have now."
Austin said he plans to arrive in Washington next week and will stay here until the season is over. He will be reunited with Wizards assistant coach Tree Rollins and strength coach Andrew Cleary, who both were in Orlando last season.
Arriving in Washington
Isaac Austin 1998-99
Departing for Orlando
Ben Wallace 1998-99
Terry Davis 1998-99
Tim Legler 1998-99
Jeff McInnis 1998-99