- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2000

Six games into a season that finds the Washington Wizards off to their typically bad start, new coach Leonard Hamilton has had very little of a negative nature to say concerning the team.

Only once, after Stephon Marbury torched the Wizards for 31 points and seven assists and the Wizards didn't defend anybody during an early 37-7 run that resulted in a 102-86 loss to the New Jersey Nets did Hamilton point the finger of blame at the team's effort.

However, if the Wizards are going to avoid another horrendous early start to the season they face defending Eastern Conference champion Indiana tonight and then travel to unbeaten Cleveland tomorrow Hamilton might soon be forced to make a move that could seriously shake things up eventually inserting reserve shooting guard Richard Hamilton into the starting lineup.

That question popped up shortly after Hamilton scored a team season-high 30 points, including 17 in the first quarter, against the Nets on Wednesday. In that same game, Mitch Richmond, the team's starting shooting guard, was 1-for-8 from the floor and finished the game with five points.

This was not the first time this season that Hamilton was the best player on the floor for the Wizards. In their best game of the season, a 95-77 win at Charlotte, Hamilton led the Wizards with 23 points.

After the New Jersey game, coach Hamilton briefly talked about the possibility of getting Richard Hamilton into the starting lineup, but he quickly put out that fire.

"Well, if he had 30 points for us tonight and didn't start, then it's obviously not bothering him very much, Hamilton said. "And he came off the bench against Charlotte and gave us a big game with 23 points and he wasn't starting. I'm not real sure that that might be something that might happen down the road.

"We think that he has the potential to give us a lot of offense that will help us when some of our starters are not on the floor. At this point we're not ready to start making wholesale changes because he is getting his minutes when he's not in foul trouble. I still think we have to win games by committee."

Coach Hamilton believes that Richmond will eventually locate his shooting touch, but Richmond, 35, is struggling like never before since he came to the Wizards. After six games, Richmond is averaging just 12.6 points and shooting just 34.7 percent from the floor. He got off to a slow start last season, then picked his game up midway through the season to average a career-low 17.4 points.

Hamilton is clearly this team's future and the one player on the roster the team clearly wants around for the next 10 years. The more playing time he receives, the faster he will develop. However, in the immediate future there could be a downside to inserting the second-year guard into the starting lineup.

Washington would lose its best offensive threat off an already thin bench. Conversely, benching Richmond right now could be a mistake because Richmond needs to get started early in games if he is to be effective. So far this season, Richmond is averaging just 5.8 points in the first halves of games. More important, though, if the Wizards did in fact bench Richmond, whom they tried to trade over the summer to no avail, then they are openly saying that a player to whom they owe approximately $30 million over the next three years just can't get it done. The Wizards can buy out Richmond's contract after this season but his contract number $10 million annually will still count against the cap through next season.

So the Wizards' best bet is to keep Richmond in the starting lineup and hope that he can shake the funk he's in and regain his form. If he does by the time the trading deadline rolls around in March at least they will have options.

If he is shooting the lights out, then there might be some team headed for the playoffs that would be willing to take on his salary. And if he's lighting it up and the Wizards are in contention for a playoff spot doubtful as that is they might keep him around. Come Christmas we'll have a better grip of this whole situation.

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