Every time the Sacramento Kings win a game, it causes much hand-wringing in the nation's capital. We all seem to asking the same anxious question, born of acute frustration:
If Chris Webber was going to become the centerpiece of a fabulously entertaining team that could contend for an NBA championship, why wasn't it here? Why Sacramento? If the Wizards had been more patient with Webber, would all this have played out just as beautifully here?
Who knew we would be this obsessed with Webber after he left Washington? MCI Center hasn't been full for a Wizards game yet this season, but it could be Saturday night. Okay, it's not just because Webber is returning to D.C. for the second time since being traded to the Kings for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe.
The Kings are as close as the NBA can come to the Harlem Globetrotters for sheer basketball entertainment. And now all of a sudden there's substance to go with the style. Sacramento is 10-3, which is only the best record in the league. Jason Williams, a k a White Chocolate, is worth the price of admission by himself. There are competent professionals up and down the roster, from Vlade Divac to Nick Anderson to Corliss Williamson to Jon Barry. But the guy who makes all this complete, the man who is the best player on the team and ties a ribbon around the whole package is Webber.
I purchased a satellite dish five years ago, primarily to watch Michael Jordan play every night. With MJ retired, I watch Webber. Almost every game, even though most of the Kings' games begin at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. I've seen Webber become a more efficient passer since he left. I've seen Webber develop a more accurate jump hook since he left. I've seen Webber get tougher around the basket since he left. I've seen Webber hit critical foul shots since he left. I've seen Webber improve his rebounding since he left. I've seen Webber lead his team to playoff victories since he left. I've seen Webber grow up since he left.
My friend Neville, another NBA junkie and longtime Bullets/Wizards season ticket holder, is like a lot of D.C. masochists. He watches the Kings play brilliantly, then gets angry. He summed up this angst over Webber this way: "I loved him before he came here. I love him now. The only time I didn't like him was when he was here."
We have to agree to agree that it wasn't going to work in Washington. It just wasn't. Some of it has to do with Webber; he had too many episodes, too many mini-dramas. In January 1998, he was charged with resisting arrest and marijuana possession stemming from a traffic stop, although he later was acquitted of both misdemeanor charges. Later that year, a grand jury declined to bring charges against Webber and Wizards forward Juwan Howard after a Connecticut woman filed a police complaint alleging she was sexually assaulted by them.
Some of Webber's failure to reach his potential here has to do with Wizards management; we're seeing now in Sacramento the kinds of players Webber needs to play with. And some has to do with the late development of the new generation's superstars.
The latter may be the most important. The previous generation of franchise players didn't change teams (whether by trade or free agency) in their first three or four seasons. Of the veteran players on the original Dream Team, only Charles Barkley changed teams in his prime, but he still spent his first eight seasons in Philadelphia. Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler moved toward the end of their careers.
Webber, 26, had been on three teams by his sixth year in the NBA. But he's hardly alone. Christian Laettner, a No. 3 overall pick, and Joe Smith, a No. 1 overall pick, have played for three teams. Stephon Marbury, a No. 4 pick overall, has been on two teams and could be with a third before long. Shaquille O'Neal is on his second team. So is Penny Hardaway. These players--and other high draft picks--have needed at least one change of scenery. Some will need yet another change.
I've criticized Wes Unseld and Abe Pollin for a lot of decisions, but not for trading Webber, considering all that happened. Now, it's fair to suggest they might have gotten a younger player (than Richmond, 34, and Thorpe, 37) in return. But one playoff series in four years is a lot of patience in today's sporting culture. I seriously doubt staying with the 1998 Wizards team, as it was constructed, would have resulted in any big-time winning. That group of players had plenty of chances.
What Sacramento has is an older, more mature Webber and players who are a better fit for the jigsaw puzzle that is an NBA team.
Webber needs a give-it-up-first point guard, and has one in Williams. I never bought into the notion that Webber and Howard play pretty much the same position, but it appears I was wrong. They do to a great extent. Webber needs a real swingman at the other forward, a player who works and has some of the perimeter skills of a guard. Williamson, despite being a power player in college, has made himself a real small forward. And Webber also fits better with a center who is versatile. Big Gheorghe Muresan was a lot of things; versatile wasn't one of them. Divac can back it down and play post-up basketball to complement Webber's 15-foot jump shooting, or go outside and face the basket when Webber wants to post up a smaller defender. And Sacramento's trade for Anderson, a veteran guard who has been to the NBA Finals, helps spread the responsibility of leadership. We wanted Webber, at 23, to be The Man. He wasn't ready.
The pieces in Sacramento fit so well, the Kings are off to one of the best starts in franchise history. Webber had the league's first triple-double of the season. He's been as effective as any player in the league, including Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. People have taken to calling the Webber's Kings "America's Team." Who could have known?
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