I like Ike. He won't be an oversized, three-point shooting curiosity like Manute Bol, or a slow-footed movie star like Big Gheorghe Muresan. Ike won't be physically challenged down in the low post like skilled-but-slender Pervis Ellison. He's not an offensive liability like one-dimensional Terry Davis. There's no need to put an asterisk by the name Isaac Austin in the Washington Wizards' program. Well, okay, maybe a little asterisk.
Austin is a big fellow who sometimes gets too big. And for a team that was sabotaged by John "Hot Plate" Williams eating himself out of the league, extra pounds are a serious concern. But hey, whom did you think the Wizards were going to pick up this offseason, Tim Duncan? The two big men who were most attainable were Austin and Will Perdue, and Austin is not only a better and tougher player than Perdue but also four years younger.
The bad news is the Wizards had to give up power forward Ben Wallace to make the deal. Ouch. During the NBA playoffs, when locker room gossip touched on what's wrong with teams like the Wizards, veteran players would stop when they got to Wallace. From Portland to Miami there are players, coaches, scouts and club executives who believe Wallace is about to, as they say, "blow up" -- emerge as a force. Wallace doesn't have much in the way of career numbers, and he'll never be much of a scorer.
But toward the end of last season, Wallace looked as if he was just starting to get it. Rebounds, blocked shots, and defensive stops started coming in bunches. And he delivered with so much energy, which the Wizards need. I know several scouts and veteran players who think Wallace might be -- as far as basketball skills, at least -- a young Dennis Rodman.
Boy, if we look up in two years and Wallace is grabbing 18 rebounds and adding a new tattoo every week, there's going to be plenty of regret in these parts. A good, dirty-work power forward is hard to find, which is why Charles Oakley is still in such demand after all these years. So why then did the Wizards give up Wallace? Because it's even harder to find an authentic, load-bearing, rump-slamming, elbow-in-the-chops, low-post center like Ike Austin.
There are power forwards the Wizards can sign who can be productive in a lineup that presumably will have Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond at guard, Austin at center, Juwan Howard at the other forward. Actually, there are two who are available right this minute: Dickey Simpkins, the Washingtonian with all the rings from his days as a Chicago Bull, and Grant Long, an aging but highly skilled player who would actually complement Howard.
Listen, it's not like the Wizards don't have roster room. They've waved bye-bye to Calbert Cheaney, Otis Thorpe, Wallace, Davis, Jeff McInnis and Tim Legler. Getting rid of McInnis was overdue; he was more trouble than he was worth in the first place. Legler, I hate to see go. He fit in here, he was an appreciated and appreciative member of this community and another casualty of the underachieving that has plagued this franchise since its 1997 playoff appearance. New Orlando coach Doc Rivers has always liked Legler, so it's no surprise he would be included in any deal with the Magic. Not only that, but the Wizards figure there won't be many minutes left after shooters Richmond, Tracy Murray and rookie Richard Hamilton divvy them up.
Speaking of Richmond, presuming he will re-sign with the Wizards, his on-court life just got better with the acquisition of a heavyweight like Austin.
(Before we say hello to Austin, we should bid a fond farewell to retiring Redskins linebacker Ken Harvey. I hope it's a temporary goodbye. While some players bemoan not playing for a championship team, Harvey has never even been on a team that made the NFL playoffs. I know the years have taken a toll and Harvey isn't what he was. That he recognizes that and doesn't want to be pushed out is even more admirable and typical of his sense of self and selflessness. However, there's no way a veteran like Harvey can't help a rebuilding team like the Redskins, who have a bunch of young linebackers. Not only that, but given that the Redskins should be better, and that the NFC East is a piece of cake relatively speaking, this could be the year he gets to participate in the playoffs. Let's hope management can be creative while holding on to a valuable human resource.)
Anyway, Austin's value shot up in 1997 with Miami when he was named the league's most improved player. But it was the first two months of the 1997-98 season, when he was filling in for an injured Alonzo Mourning, when Austin became an impact player. He was an 18-points, nine-rebounds kind of guy while Mourning was hurt. Then he was traded to the Clippers in a ridiculously bad trade by Pat Riley (for Brent Barry!). Last year in Orlando, he started packing on the pounds again, and he was ineffective in Chuck Daly's high-post offense.
In Washington, where new coach Gar Heard figures to use Austin down low, opponents have to honor Austin's power moves inside. That will free up the necessary space for Richmond, Murray and Hamilton to get off jumpers. Last season, a veteran power forward told me to exempt Richmond and Strickland from heavy blame for the Wizards' misfortune. Why? "Because since they don't have a big man who's a threat, our whole game plan is to pound Rod and Mitch so they'll be too tired to raise their arms in the fourth quarter. Everybody in the league is playing them that way."
That's why the Wizards had to get a real power player. You have zero hope of competing in the Eastern Conference without one. Or two. That's why it's important to use those salary cap exceptions and pounce on a Simpkins or Long. Now, the issue is whether Austin is going to be the player he was in '98, or the disappointment he was in '99.
To that end, word out of Orlando is that Austin has lost 20 pounds or more. He has said he is embarrassed about the way he played last season, and can barely wait to start this season. Heard's obsession with fitness can only help.
It's not a dream deal. But for a team still struggling to put together a competitive team, it's a nice step in the right direction.