There was a full house Saturday night at the Verizon Center, a clear sign that someone of high interest – in this instance, Blake “Poster Child” Griffin – was in town. There will be another sellout when the Miami Heat visit at month’s end, and perhaps one more healthy gate in the home finale, though the Boston Celtics are likely to rest their aging stars.
Such is reality for Wizards fans, again.
Aside from the few seasons when Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler impersonated a Big Three, and the short-lived, commercially-successful Michael Jordan Era, Washington’s opponents have drawn more interest than the home team. That has been a fact of life seemingly since the Wizards were the Bullets and the Big Three were named Unseld, Hayes and Dandridge.
Now, the Wizards have just one bona fide star, John Wall, who probably will finish second to Griffin as Rookie of the Year. But Wall’s most valuable contribution to the franchise won’t take place on the court these next few years. He’ll do the most good by taking a page from his college coach, John Calipari, and becoming a master recruiter.
If D.C. is to become a choice destination for talented free agents with options, the credit will go to Wall.
As a premier point guard, he should attract players who would love to be on the receiving end of his passes. Prospects got a primetime peek during the All-Star Weekend, when he dished out a record 22 assists in the Rookie Challenge. Griffin was the beneficiary on a highlight for the ages, a bounce-pass alley-oop that resulted in a two-handed reverse slam. Wall has the potential to draw All-Star caliber players to share the court with him on a regular basis, and he looks forward to it.
“I want to do a real good job of (recruiting),” Wall said after the Clippers’ 122-101 victory. “We have to start by getting better. I know it’s a rebuilding process for us and we’re trying to learn. It’s tough for us, but in time it’s going to get better. I’m enjoying my time in Washington and I wish to spend my whole career here.”
Some NBA observers are worried that more and more star players will steer themselves to converge in a fistful of big cities, leaving the smaller markets uncompetitive. But that fear shouldn’t be a concern in D.C. Instead, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and team president Ernie Grunfeld should plot to make their franchise as enticing as possible, and leave some other city crying like Cleveland. “Every organization is going to do whatever it can to keep players and get players,” said Clippers guard Mo Williams, part of the Cavaliers’ post-LeBron meltdown until being traded last month.
Leonsis has said he wants to build through the draft, and that’s a terrific strategy when teams pick wisely. However, if Washington is barely an afterthought amongst established players who would make a difference, the Wizards could be stuck in perennial rebuilding mode. Like the Clippers.
Griffin, who scored all of his 26 points in the first half, is surrounded by several nice young players, including guards Eric Gordon and Eric Bledsoe, and center DeAndre Jordan. But acquiring fresh talent has rarely been a problem for the Clippers, whereas keeping it is virtually unheard of. That just proves that major markets aren’t guaranteed success, despite the current fretting.
“Take the Knicks until this year,” Griffin said. “Just because you’re a big city doesn’t mean you’re elite. You have to have the guys. Obviously some guys are going to want to play in some of the bigger cities because that’s their personality. But not all guys want to.
One who apparently doesn’t is hometown product Kevin Durant, who will be in town Monday with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Like Orlando and San Antonio, Oklahoma City is a small-market team that can run with the big dogs, thanks to shrewd drafting, free-agent signings and trades. Of course, San Antonio had the tremendous fortune of landing David Robinson and, later, Tim Duncan via the draft, propelling the franchise to 20 years of sustained relevance and championship contention.
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said small markets are concerned about the recent trend but have the means to remain competitive. “You have to get top draft choices, sign the right free agents and stay healthy,” said Del Negro, who played five seasons with Robinson and Duncan. “You have to have core values and know the direction you want your team to go and who you’re trying to build around. There are a lot of ways to go about it.”
The Thunder have done it as well as possible, drafting Durant, Russell Westbrook and former Georgetown star Jeff Green, the latter recently traded for Kendrick Perkins. Having signed Durant to an extension last summer, OKC is primed to remain a contender throughout this decade.
But the fact is, a franchise needs something to make it appealing. Los Angeles and Boston have long tradition. San Antonio has modern success. Miami has sudden prominence. Oklahoma City has two All-Stars not yet in their prime.
Washington? Well, the Wizards have John Wall.
And his best assist will be persuading another star (or two) to come join him.