The Washington Wizards enter Wednesday's NBA draft lottery in an eerily similar situation to 2001, when the team finished with the third-worst record in the league, came away with the top draft pick and selected Kwame Brown from a rookie class that was loaded with unproven high school players.
In May of that year, with just a 15.7 percent chance of winning the lottery, smiles, high-fives and designer cigars were shared by a Wizards front office then run by Michael Jordan after gaining the top prize for suffering through a non-playoff season. The Wizards had a great bargaining chip for a potential blockbuster trade but rebuffed a deal with the Chicago Bulls that would have brought them all-star forward Elton Brand for the top choice. Instead, they kept the pick so they could choose what they thought would be their franchise player, a prep-prodigy from Brunswick, Ga., with the Atlas body and an incomplete game.
Three years later, having finished an injury-marred season with a 25-57 record, the Wizards find themselves in the same situation, this time with Orlando and Chicago the only teams with a better chance of securing the top pick for the June 24 draft. Is there a savior for Washington's young and leaderless team in this draft -- perhaps another high schooler -- or will General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Eddie Jordan decide to parlay the pick in a trade for immediate gain?
"We're not going to exclude anyone and explore all our options," Grunfeld said. "We'll look to see what that pick can bring us, whether through a trade or through the draft."
The lottery will determine the draft order for the first 13 picks (the expansion Charlotte Bobcats have been awarded the fourth pick). Washington will pick no lower than seventh. A top-three selection would give the Wizards more options, Grunfeld said, because the talent appears to be better near the top of the draft and teams are more willing to make deals to get a high selection. The Boston Celtics, who have picks 15, 24 and 25, are trying to trade up, a team source said.
The Wizards are going to explore trades that do and do not include their first-round pick and already have sent out feelers gauging interest in some of their players, including veterans Christian Laettner and Jerry Stackhouse, according to an Eastern Conference official, who requested anonymity to avoid any conflict in potential future transactions. Interest in Stackhouse, who missed most of last season after right knee surgery, is minimal, the source said, because of the injury and the three years, $25 million remaining on his contract.
Guard Larry Hughes is an attractive commodity because of his versatility and because his contract ($5.5 million) expires after the season, league sources said. The Wizards' abundance of big men also could be bargaining chips. With that, Washington's draft pick would likely factor into any trade. The Wizards explored several deals before last season's trade deadline and interest in their players was marginal, at best.
Among this year's projected lottery picks are Connecticut power forward Emeka Okafor and high school phenoms Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, Josh Smith and Sebastian Telfair. There are short-careered collegians Luol Deng of Duke, Ben Gordon of U-Conn., and Devin Harris of Wisconsin and foreigners Andris Biedrins of Latvia and Pavel Podkolzin of Russia. None is considered certain to be selected number one.
"Last year's draft turned out to be an outstanding draft because you got a few franchise-type players with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and it turned out that Kirk Hinrich and Jarvis [Hayes] played well, as did T.J. Ford," Grunfeld said. "This year the draft is younger and it probably won't have the franchise, impact type of player that last year's draft had."
Grunfeld said the Wizards have no gaping holes to fill and are two-deep at nearly every position, so Jordan believes that leaves the Wizards searching for specific characteristics for their selection.
"Talent, toughness and maturity are the most important things to look at," Jordan said. "Even a high school kid could be mature. Look at Amare Stoudemire. He's mature. Maturity doesn't eliminate a young player by age. Don't look at maturity in his body. You try to judge his mental maturity."
Jordan and several players said last season's team badly needed veteran leadership. The Wizards will have the league-allotted exceptions of $5.1 million and $1.5 million to use in free agency, where it might be able to lure those types of players (Brent Barry, Antonio McDyess, Eric Williams, Damon Jones, Adonal Foyle, among many). So the draft may be the route it takes to add to its young talent base.
"The number one thing for us is to continue to develop our young players," Grunfeld said. "That's something that's in our hands, it's the one thing we can control, but we also have to see what's out there for us."