Wizards build team on patience

The Wizards open their season tonight in Orlando, back in their familiar position of looking up at the rest of the NBA world. After a period of hope produced by the emergence of Gilbert Arenas into a star, with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison doing a lot of the heavy lifting as well in four playoff seasons, Washington's pro basketball team is back among the rebuilding, the non-contending and the gout-inflicted of the league's cellar dwellars, as it has been for most of the last two decades.

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Long story short

The Wizards are green-banana young, but there's real hope in this franchise.

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At first glance, this season most resembles the desultory period of the late 1990s, after the late Abe Pollin insisted Chris Webber had to go after a series of off-court incidents, and gave him away for a sack of potatoes. Remember like it was yesterday, when I got the word in May of '98 that Webber was on his way to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe. "What else?," I asked, figuring one or two juicy first-rounders from the perennially awful Kings was coming Washington's way, a reasonable salve for Webber. Maybe the aging Richmond had a year left in the tank.

"That's it," I was told.

I thought my phone mate had been drinking. But my phone friend was stone cold sober.

As it turned out, Richmond was gassed, no picks of consequence were forthcoming to D.C., and the Wizards were left with a sulking Rod Strickland and a soon-to-be reviled Juwan Howard as their new core. That went well. Webber went to Sacramento, teamed with Vlade Divac and became the lynchpin of the team that helped bring passing and ball movement back into the NBA, and provided the Kobe-Shaq Lakers with their stiffest competition in the Western Conference.

On the other hand, the Wiz did have a young Ben Wallace on the roster. But Wallace was soon dispatched to Orlando in a multi-team deal that began the never-dull Ike Austin Era. (It is forgotten now, because it doesn't fit the conventional meme that he failed as an executive because he drafted Kwame Brown, but it was Michael Jordan who came in as team president and cleaned up that mess, creating enough salary cap room for Washington to be able to sign Arenas as a free agent in 2003.)

Fast forward a decade or so, and it certainly looks bleak again. But that's not the case. These contemporary Wizards are green-banana young, but there is some real promise here, starting with top pick John Wall. And with Ted Leonsis now in charge, the Wiz have a blueprint just as the Capitals did when the core of the Stanley Cup Finals team in 1997 began falling apart. And after a decade as an owner of the Caps, he now believes that quick fixes like Jaromir Jagr don't usually work.

At Leonsis's urging, the Wizards are committed to building through the draft, and that's good, because they're likely to be picking high again next season. No problem, if you know what you're doing.

The obvious template here is Oklahoma City--which, like Washington, dismantled a previous playoff team that had gone about as far as it could go. The then-Seattle SuperSonics had very similar parts to Washington's--a star shooting guard in Ray Allen (Arenas/Butler), a skilled small forward in Rashard Lewis who was more effective playing power forward at the offensive end, though a defensive liability (Jamison), and an unpolished power forward who occasionally sparked in Chris Wilcox (Andray Blatche).

After a 31-51 season in 2006-07, the Sonics blew it up, drafting Kevin Durant second overall, trading Allen to Boston for a bunch of marginal players and the fifth pick overall, which became forward Jeff Green. New general manager Sam Presti then really started wheeling and dealing. He worked a sign-and-trade deal with Orlando for Lewis, with Lewis getting a $118 million contract from the Magic, while the Sonics got a second-round pick, cash and a $9 million trade exception.

But the exception, rather than the money or draft choice, was the most important part of the transaction.

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