12 Washington Wizards Lots of very expensive talent just doesn't add up to a very talented team

November 01, 1999

Stop us if you've heard this one before: Washington player
becomes a free agent, demands outrageous sums of money and makes
it clear he's intent on leaving town if he doesn't get what he
wants. Then, when his multijillion-dollar deal elsewhere falls
through, he professes he never really wanted to leave and
re-signs with the team for a gaudy sum.

Four years ago it was forward Juwan Howard, who signed a
seven-year, $98 million contract with the Heat. When the league
voided the deal because Miami had exceeded the salary cap,
Howard returned to Washington for $105 million over seven years,
saying his heart was never in the Heat. Last summer it was
shooting guard Mitch Richmond, whose agent, Mike Sharpe, let it
be known that the Wizards should work out a sign-and-trade deal
because Mitch's days in D.C. were as good as done. There was
interest from a half-dozen teams--Miami first among them--but
salary-cap restrictions once again made a deal unworkable. All
of a sudden, Richmond decided that Washington's four-year, $40
million offer to re-sign wasn't such an affront to his
sensibilities after all.

"We wanted to see what was out there," says Richmond. "That's
all a part of negotiations. But we didn't burn our bridges."
Still, squeezing the team for $10 million a year places some
expectations on his shoulders. If he thinks living up to them is
going to be easy, he should ask Howard.

In the four years since becoming basketball's second
$100-million man, Howard's numbers have mostly dipped. He
averaged 22.1 points and 8.1 rebounds in the 1995-96 season, his
last before signing the big deal. He hasn't topped either of
those levels since. What's more, in the last 32 games of the
'98-99 season, he led the team in scoring only three times and
in rebounding just six times. "I'm not the go-to guy, and that's
fine with me," says Howard. "I just want to provide leadership
on the floor and win."

The Wizards haven't won, though. They've been to the playoffs
just once in 11 seasons, in '96-97, and then they were swept in
three by the Bulls. Blaming the team's highest-paid player is
logical, if not entirely fair. Howard plays hard every night and
has kept his mouth shut while being yo-yoed between small forward
and his natural power-forward spot. "Not winning is
disappointing," he says. "I've seen so many guys come and go
through here. You know how good teams win? By staying together."

Alas, if the flow of players were to stop immediately, the
Wizards would be a pretty mediocre team for a long time, because
Howard and Richmond don't have a whole lot of talent surrounding
them. The exception is point guard Rod Strickland, who was second
in the league in assists last season despite having to play
himself into shape after missing all but one day of training camp
in a contract dispute.

New coach Gar Heard, who was an assistant with the Pistons last
year, noticed one thing the Wizards were lacking when they faced
Detroit: confidence. "Every time they got put in a bad spot and
something could go wrong, it did," he says. "I thought the talent
was there. But when teams locked in on Rod, Mitch and Juwan,
everyone else just kind of shut down." In fact, only one other
player--Otis Thorpe, who has since signed with Miami--scored more
than 7.7 points per game, making Washington easily the most
top-heavy crew this side of Baywatch.

Help may not be on the way. None of Washington's off-season
pickups averaged double figures last year. That includes erratic
center Ike Austin, for whom G.M. Wes Unseld gave the Magic four
players, including his leading rebounder, Ben Wallace. The best
scorer Unseld added was Richard Hamilton, the team's first
first-round draft pick in four years. At 6'6", 185 pounds,
Hamilton is too small to play forward, so most of his minutes
will come backing up Richmond. "That's a big plus, having Mitch
and Rod to learn under," says Howard. "They've got 22 years of
experience. He's in a great situation. I wish I was in his
shoes."

Last year Howard thought he would be trying to fill the shoes of
departed fellow Fab Fiver Chris Webber, a power forward who was
traded to the Kings for Richmond before last season. But when
Calbert Cheaney--who was such a bad shooter that he couldn't
even make half his free throws, let alone a respectable
percentage of his field goals--flopped at small forward, the
6'9", 250-pound Howard found himself back on the perimeter. "I
will use Juwan at power forward some, but I'm going to start him
at the three," says Heard. "I want him to be able to take
advantage of the matchups that creates. I think he's solid
defensively at the three spot, and he'd get worn down playing
the bigger forwards. I don't want that to happen to him."

As for the Wizards' newest $10 million man, he finds himself
looking to regain his scoring touch. After averaging better than
21 points in each of his first 10 seasons, Richmond slipped to
19.7 last year, and his field goal percentage was a career-low
41.2. "No excuses," says Richmond. "It was a down year. A lot of
things didn't go the right way. Rod and I didn't flow like we
wanted to, because we didn't have the time on the practice court
to gel. But my numbers can be the same this year, and if we get
the wins, then everyone will say they were fine."

As Howard has discovered, though, without quality help, getting
those wins is easier said than done.

--Mark Bechtel

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS CAPITAL CRIME An All-Star in '96, Howard isn't even Washington's go-to guy anymore.

FAST BREAKDOWN

STARTING FIVE [4 Stars]
BENCH [1 1/2 star]
COACH [2 1/2 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [2 1/2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [2 stars]

By the Numbers
1998-99 record: 18-32 (13th in Eastern Conference)
Coach: Gar Heard (first season with Wizards)

1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG% REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

WIZARDS 91.2 (17) 44.5 (11) 40.0 (24) 14.7 (6)
OPPONENTS 93.4 (20) 44.6 (20) 42.7 (21) 15.8 (9)

In Fact

Washington hasn't won a postseason game since May 4, 1988, the
longest current such streak in the league. The Clippers hold the
alltime record: 15 seasons without a playoff victory from
1976-77 through 1990-91.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

SF Juwan Howard 44 18.9 ppg 8.1 rpg 3.0 apg 47.4 FG%
First in salary on Wizards, but second in scoring, rebounds and
assists

PF Michael Smith [#] 169 4.8 ppg 7.3 rpg 1.0 apg 53.5 FG%
Vancouver's best offensive rebounder last year, with 135 (2.8
per game)

C Ike Austin [#] 143 9.7 ppg 4.8 rpg 1.8 apg 40.8 FG%
Worst shooting and rebounding numbers since his 1996-97 comeback

SG Mitch Richmond 50 19.7 ppg 3.4 rpg 2.4 apg 41.2 FG%
Has yet to play in game that he didn't start in his 11-year NBA
career

PG Rod Strickland 25 15.7 ppg 4.8 rpg 9.9 apg 41.6 FG%
Second in league in assists, plus a team-high 21 double doubles

BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

G Richard Hamilton (R)[#] 131 21.5 ppg 4.8 rpg 2.7 apg 44.3 FG%
Led UConn to NCAA title and was tournament's Most Outstanding
Player

F Tracy Murray 196 6.5 ppg 2.3 rpg 35.0 FG% 32.0 3FG%
Passed Michael Adams to become team's alltime leader in threes
(297)

G Chris Whitney 267 4.8 ppg 1.2 rpg 1.8 apg 41.0 FG%
Lowest selection in 1993 draft (47th) to still be playing in NBA

G Laron Profit (R)[#] 282 14.5 ppg 4.8 rpg 2.1 apg 50.3 FG%
Wooden Award finalist was acquired from Magic for second-round
pick

C Jahidi White 302 2.5 ppg 2.9 rpg 53.1 FG% 1 assist
First Washington draft pick from Georgetown since 1979 (Steve
Martin)

[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)