- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

As far as measuring sticks go, the Wizards should shoot for playoff contention before comparing themselves to the Heat. But winning titles is the ultimate goal for Washington, and one day that might include beating out Miami for the Southeast division crown.

Envisioning the journey from here to there was difficult entering Wednesday night’s game at the Verizon Center, with the Wizards at just 18 wins and the Heat at just 23 losses. The visitors boasted a two-time MVP in LeBron James, a NBA Finals MVP in Dwyane Wade, and a six-time All-Star in Chris Bosh.

The Wizards? They countered with the 2011 Rookie Challenge MVP in John Wall, who was ejected in the second quarter for a flagrant foul on Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But even without their leader, the Wizards fought gamely against the Heat before losing a closer-than-it-sounds contest, 123-107.

Closing the gap on Miami starts with Wall, because he’s the key to Washington being good in the end. The hope is he doesn’t represent yet another false start for a franchise that has reached the playoffs in only 12 of the last 32 seasons and survived the first round just twice.

There was no sign of the impending drought after Washington’s back-to-back appearances in the Finals, winning in 1977-78 and losing in 1978-79, both against Seattle. The then-Bullets advanced to the playoffs in six of the next eight seasons. Yes, each appearance ended in the first round, but at least they were postseason regulars.

Unfortunately, that’s when the Bullets/Wizards displayed a penchant for landing productive players past their prime, or parting with future producers before they fully blossomed. Along the way, Washington reached the playoffs just once (another first-round exit) in the 16 seasons between 1988-89 and 2003-04.

Rick Mahorn was traded before winning championships with Detroit. A grizzled Moses Malone and gimpy Bernard King were acquired with little shelf life remaining. Fans thought a turnaround was on hand when Chris Webber and Juwan Howard arrived in 1994. But Webber was traded to Sacramento in 1998 and never missed the playoffs with the Kings, posting five consecutive seasons averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Fading veteran Mitch Richmond was fetched in the Webber deal. Rasheed Wallace was traded for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant. Ben Wallace and three other players were traded for Isaac Austin. Richard Hamilton was sent to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse, who promptly averaged 20 points per game for the last time.

You get the picture. Timing has never been the franchise’s strong suit.

When the Wizards reached the playoffs in 2004-05, snapping a seven-year absence, they seemed poised for a sustained run with a young nucleus of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes. And they did make the playoffs for the next three seasons, with Caron Butler replacing Hughes, who left via free agency.

But once again, the franchise was done in by a series of unfortunate breaks – some natural (injuries), and some man-made (guns).

Wall represents an opportunity for the Wizards to get it right. The fact that his rookie season coincides with the formation of Miami’s infamous trinity means the Wizards’ progress will be easy to gauge. And believe it or not, the Wizards might be closer to competing than you think with some of the promising young players they’ve acquired (rookie Jordan Crawford looks like a steal after coming over last month in the Kirk Hinrich deal; he torched Miami for 39 points Wednesday).

All the Wizards need is sound drafting, good health, smart signings and a shrewd deal or two.

Owner Ted Leonsis has expressed a desire to build through the draft, not free agency. But if, say, Dwight Howard had even the slightest interest in playing with Wall in a couple of years, Leonsis would be crazy if he didn’t act. I’m not saying the Wizards should pursue every big-name free agent who hits the market, but someone like Howard would make perfect sense for Washington.

The Wizards have a perception of being “Clippers East,” and the idea of a star CHOOSING to play here would change the culture. So the Wizards shouldn’t rule out anyone who might like being on the receiving end of Wall’s assists.

With a successful lottery pick this year, continued development among the youthful core and a couple of solid additions, the Wizards-Heat matchup can look a whole lot different in a few years.