It's that transactional time of year when small print and big trades can change a team. Thick documents with tiny letters go skidding back and forth across varnish-slick tabletops. Kwame Brown's name will finally be written on one of those documents, and pushed across a table, the Washington Wizards having concluded that it's worth it at almost any price to get rid of him.
A deal for Brown is not official yet. It's still a negotiation and the clause police haven't signed off on it, but it appears the Wizards are so eager to trade their former No.1 draft pick that they will swap him to the Los Angeles Lakers in a bargain deal. In return, they will get swingman Caron Butler (10th overall pick in 2002) and point guard Chucky Atkins, who will turn 31 next month. There are a lot of swingmen and playmakers in the league. There are not many 7-foot top draft picks.
But the truth is, it's the Wizards who have gotten the best of the deal. They have gotten something for absolutely nothing -- because that is all Brown has given the Wizards. That, and a lot of trouble.
No doubt, many will stare into the future and wonder what the long-term sum of this deal will be for the Wizards. Will the trade of Brown, their mercurial baby-man, be yet another of those moves they live to regret? Lord knows the Wizards were eager to get rid of Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace, only to look foolish later. But personally, I think it's worth the risk. The Wizards weren't ever going to get a significant contribution out of Brown, whose relationship with the team after four years was just too curdled. For the last day or so, as Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld appeared to be hesitating, concerned that they get enough in return from the Lakers, I wanted to scream at Grunfeld, "Do it! Do it now!"
I'm not one who enjoys pillorying Brown. I think he was buckled early, by the pressure of being the first high-schooler who was ever drafted No. 1. He's a nice kid and a physical marvel. But he's also a child in a man's body. Let Phil Jackson do his Father Flanagan number. Maybe he can grow the kid up. If he doesn't have his hands too full with Kobe Bryant, that is. And maybe Brown will finally quit griping and show some respect to a head coach. All that is possible -- it's also possible Ron Artest will become, overnight, a peaceable man.
It's hard to look at Brown, all chiseled 7 feet, 270 pounds of him, and not think, "What if?" What if he suddenly gets it? What if he makes that crucial attitude adjustment, and becomes everything he could be, power, explosion, mobility and size all rolled into one grinning, braided 23-year-old with a decade still ahead of him? The fear in trading Brown is that he will go elsewhere and suddenly have a change of heart and on-court personality. It's a nightmare scenario: The kid turns into a seven-time all-star, while Wizards management once again gets hammered for its lack of vision.
But then you think, "What about?" What about Brown's patently bad judgment? What about his habitually hyper-emotional responses? What about the chronically misplaced pride, and the seemingly incurable immaturity contained in that large body, which seems so deceptively grown?
Whatever the Wizards get in a trade, it's bound to be better than what they got from Brown the last few years. Any player at all would be better than one who quits on his team on the eve of facing the Miami Heat and Shaquille O'Neal in the playoffs. Any player would be better than one you can't play at home because you're worried he will be booed off the court by his own fans for lack of effort. And who was suspended for a game last December when he walked away from the huddle during a timeout, simply because Coach Eddie Jordan scolded him for missing a defensive assignment. And who was arrested in 2002 for driving 120 mph, and again in 2003 for driving drunk.
Shhhhh. Don't tell anyone, especially not Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, but a swap of Brown for Butler and Atkins is Christmas morning for the Wizards compared with what they've had in Brown.
Grunfeld wasn't responsible for drafting Brown, but he is responsible for what happens from now on. Grunfeld had a choice: He could hang on to Brown and try to rehabilitate him. Highly unlikely. Or he could send Brown elsewhere, in the interest of rehabilitating the whole franchise.
It can't have been an easy choice. The Wizards needed to add a shooting guard and a low-post player. They could only do that through free agency, or a trade involving Brown. Yes, they gave Los Angeles a potential impact 7-footer for, perhaps, a relative song.
But at least they're getting a proven commodity in the 6-7 Butler, who can play shooting guard or small forward and averaged 15.5 points and 5.8 rebounds last season. And it is interesting to note that he was one of the Lakers' most reliable players at the end of the season, averaging 21.9 points over his last 15 games, on a disheartened and injury-riddled team. Throw in Atkins, who averaged a career-best 13.6 points. At the very worst, the Wizards have acquired a couple of certified professionals who showed up and made significant contributions for the Lakers, all season long.
Brown played in just 42 games and averaged 7.0 points and 4.9 rebounds for the Wizards -- before they had to suspend him. He was about as reliable as heat lightning. Every once in awhile the sky would light up -- and then it would all go dark again.
In past years, the Wizards shipped off good players and got lesser ones in return. Maybe this is another one of those deals. But with Grunfeld in the house, the man who rehabilitated the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks, you have to give the Wizards the benefit of the doubt. Under Grunfeld, the trend seems to be slowly reversing itself: Good and even great players, such as Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, are shipping in. And a lesser one may finally be shipping out.
Frankly, whatever they get for Brown at this point will be better than what they got from him.