With an eye on becoming a player in the free agent market within two years, the Washington Wizards traded forward Juwan Howard the NBA’s fifth highest-paid player and forwards Calvin Booth and Obinna Ekezie to the Dallas Mavericks last night for five players, including Christian Laettner. The Wizards also received $3 million.
The eight-player deal at the NBA trading deadline is the largest in franchise history. Along with Laettner, the Wizards acquired Etan Thomas and Courtney Alexander, a center and a guard selected with the 12th and 13th overall picks in the 2000 draft.
The Wizards also acquired guard Hubert Davis (Lake Braddock High School) and forward Loy Vaught. Laettner is in the last year of his contract, while Davis has three more years left on his deal at approximately $9.5 million. Vaught has two seasons left in the range of $10 million.
Removing Howard’s mammoth contract he has three years left at close to $56 million goes a long way toward giving the Wizards an opportunity to pursue free agents following the 2001-02 season, when the salary cap will be in the $44 million to $47 million range.
It will not help them after this season, when Chris Webber, Allan Houston, Mike Finley and Dikembe Mutombo are free. The following year, though, the Wizards will be in position to pursue players like Toronto’s Vince Carter, Golden State’s Antawn Jamison and Denver’s Raef LaFrentz.
“This starts us going in somewhat of a direction of a youth movement,” said Wizards president of basketball operations Michael Jordan. “Hopefully, within a year or two we can buy into the free-agent market. Having some free agent movement is going to help this process a little quicker.
“This is a move that creates some flexibility for the organization. I think it’s good for both parties. Hopefully, we can work hard as an organization and try to find ways of turning this opportunity into something good. We feel good about this transaction.”
Meanwhile, the Wizards waived forwards Gerard King and rookie Mike Smith, whom they took with the 35th pick overall in last year’s draft, and guard Felipe Lopez, acquired from Vancouver in the Ike Austin trade.
According to Jordan there was no serious interest in aging guard Mitch Richmond, 35, and Rod Strickland, whom they placed on the injured list last night.
Dallas coach and general manager Don Nelson expressed satisfaction over landing Howard and paid a compliment to Jordan, often criticized for not being in Washington to conduct the Wizards’ business.
“M.J. has made a good deal for his team,” Nelson said. “He got a bunch of guys and cut his payroll. They gave us the opportunity to acquire a very fine player, and we took advantage of it.”
In his seventh season in the league since the Wizards drafted him out of Michigan with the fifth pick overall, Howard had become the object of MCI Center fans’ scorn in recent years. However, Jordan said that Howard, who is averaging 18.2 points and seven rebounds, played well enough to earn being traded to a team that is clearly headed in the right direction.
“In all honesty, he played well enough to create interest for himself, especially with the playoff contenders that may need a power forward of his stature,” Jordan said. “Although teams were worried about his compensation and his salary, we hoped that teams looked at him as a plus for them, as well as a plus for Juwan going into the playoffs.”
Howard’s trade ends what had been expected to be a grand tandem at power forward for the Wizards when they teamed him with former Michigan teammate Chris Webber in the 1994-95 season. The duo led the Wizards to the playoffs in the 1996-97 season, which prodded Jordan whose Chicago team defeated Washington in the first round to anoint the Wizards as one of the teams of the future.
But the Wizards never reached these lofty expectations, and as a result, Webber was ultimately traded to Sacramento for Richmond following the 1997-98 season. This season the Wizards have slipped all the way to a 13-42 record under first-year coach Leonard Hamilton.
In departing, Howard was gracious and respectful toward the Wizards.
“I have some sad feelings because I leave behind an organization that has been there for me,” Howard said. “Abe Pollin put me in position where I’m able to be in a blessed situation financially where I can take care of my family. He helped make my dream come true.
“They could have put me in a situation totally different from Dallas where the team s not winning. But Dallas is a team on the rise. I’m sorry that I couldn’t help bring this city what they want.”
Howard did say, however, that the Wizards were not patient enough with him and Webber.
“It would have been nice to have stayed around here and shown this city and this organization that we can win together,” Howard said. “We played great together. We gave these fans something to watch. [Webber] was like a sixth sense out there. He did so much for my career. He helped me become a great player out there. If you had given us just a little longer, a little time, then we could have done some things. But right now that’s the past. It’s time for me to move on. I’m happy to be a Maverick now. Life goes on.”