- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It started with “The Conversation” and ended with “The Decision,” as urban myth would have us believe. The conversation was apparently one that took place among NBA stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on how much fun it would be to play together. In July, the so-called “Super Friends” made it official.

Wade signed a six-year extension with the Miami Heat. Then Bosh came to Miami after spending seven seasons with the Raptors, and James came on board after seven seasons with the Cavaliers. A few days later, the new Big Three greeted fans in Miami with all the fanfare of a championship celebration, where James made a bold statement about how many championships the trio would win.

Like everyone else, Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis noticed the hype.

“The big news this summer was the Miami Heat. They are a great team,” Leonsis said. “But there were comments made, not by me but by one coach, who said ‘They celebrated their championship before they played a game.’

“But they are not the defending champions, the Lakers are,” Leonsis added.

The Heat got off to a much-publicized rough start, but currently sit in third place in the Eastern Conference at 51-22, behind the Bulls and Celtics. But Leonsis is quick to remind fans that while the free-agent formula chosen by the Heat may be a quick fix, it rarely works for long-term success.

“There are outliers all the time, but when you look at some of the best franchises, for the most part their core players have been with the organization a long time,” Leonsis said.

Outliers are what Leonsis calls winning teams built through free-agency as opposed to the draft.

“When you lurch from system to system, from voice to voice, it’s hard for an organization to believe,” Leonsis said.

Leonsis started formulating a plan to turn things around for the Wizards. As it turned out, his own Washington Capitals were the best place to start.

“When we were in the due diligence process to buy the team, it was apparent that the [Wizards], as constructed, resembled the Capitals [team] of the Jaromir Jagr era,” Leonsis said. “It had stars, it had high-paid players, but the chemistry wasn’t fantastic, and the results weren’t fantastic.”

During the 2008-09 season, the Wizards were 19-63. Last year, they finished 26-56. There were high hopes that the Big Three of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison would - when healthy - be contenders in the East. But Arenas’ three knee surgeries, legal troubles and subsequent suspension made it clear that this wasn’t going to work.

It was time to start to rebuild.

“I didn’t yet own the team, but to their credit, the Pollin family and advisers and [general manager] Ernie [Grunfeld] were willing to make some trades,” Leonsis said. “You had to be able to move some payroll.”

The team traded Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson to the Mavericks, and Jamison to the Cavaliers. The tear-down had begun. In the offseason, the Wizards won the lottery, and drafted Kentucky point guard John Wall. In December, the final purge was made when Arenas was traded to the Magic for Rashard Lewis.

But uncertainty is in the air, for the Wizards and every other team looking toward the future. The collective bargaining agreement ends in June, and it’s unclear what the new NBA will look like.

Leonsis plans to be prepared.

“We have to have optionality, and be prepared for the new world order. I learned that from going through the NHL’s labor issues,” Leonsis said. “We’re going to load up on young players and rebuild the culture. We’ll have assets that we can use in trade and then we’re going to manage the cap appropriately so we can keep our young players once they become really good.”

Leonsis also stressed the importance of using the summer months to provide coaches, trainers and proper infrastructure to begin rebuilding the team’s culture.

“I spent a lot of time in the due diligence period and said ‘Let’s go back 25, 30 years,” Leonsis said. “For the most part, teams that were really good for a long period of time were really bad [first]. They drafted well, they kept the team together and they added parts as needed.”