- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

Commentary:

Richard Hamilton has gone on record as saying he wants to be a part of the Washington Wizards' rebuilding, and before this summer is out we're going to find out just how important staying here really is to him.
Hamilton's agent, Leon Rose, has had discussion with the Wizards this summer about extending Hamilton's contact, which makes sense. Hamilton, a three-year vet, is coming off a great year in which he averaged a career-best 20 points. And he might have been even better had he not injured a groin muscle last December that never totally healed.
Hamilton has positioned himself where he could sign a six-year deal that would pay him approximately $10million in the first year with annual raises in each of the following seasons. The Wizards have until Oct.31 to hammer out the extension.
But it probably won't happen this way, and if the Wizards are going to climb into the playoffs for years to come, this can be no more than a pipe dream for Hamilton at best.
If they sign Hamilton before the start of the season and make him a happy man, the Wizards' blockbuster trade to remove the stranglehold Juwan Howard's contract had on the franchise, as well as the buyouts of the over-inflated contracts of Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland, will have been for naught.
It has become clear that the Wizards were not focusing on the pursuit of one-time free agents Vince Carter and Paul Pierce last summer. Rather, the space the Wizards have spent the last two seasons sweeping away is for the purpose of making a run at top-tier players like Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd, the gemstones of the 2003 free-agent class.
If Hamilton waits for the Wizards to re-sign him next season rather than insisting upon having his deal done this summer, the Wizards will find themselves in a win-win situation.
To begin with, by waiting until next summer to lock Hamilton up, the Wizards won't lose the precious cap space they've gained, which next summer could be in the $10million to $12million range.
"I think it's a no-brainer [to hold off on signing Hamilton]," said an NBA source with knowledge of the situation. "Their front office has done an excellent job. They've brought in some very good young talent, players that have value. Now they need that legitimate superstar player to make it all come together."
As good as Hamilton is, he is not yet that big-time player, and most likely won't evolve to that point this season either. He still must get in the weight room and put on muscle to gain the strength that has eluded him since he was selected No.7 overall by the Wizards in the 1999 draft.
What he is right now, though, is the perfect No.2 guy on a team that has a true superstar and that doesn't mean a 39-year old Michael Jordan.
But if Hamilton is extended over the offseason, the Wizards will be in a money pinch next summer, the type that for years has kept them from being a player in the free-agent market. And considering that Hamilton is looking for a multi-year contract, the Wizards would have few suitors in this era of the luxury tax.
One of the drawbacks for Hamilton signing a deal next season is that he would become a restricted free agent, which would give the Wizards the option of matching any contract Hamilton is offered.
Conversely, because he would be their own free agent, the Wizards could pay Hamilton more than any other team, and his deal would have no bearing on whether or not the Wizards could open the vault in attempts to land a player like Duncan or Kidd.
And if he really wants to test the free agency next season, the Wizards, in good faith, could tender him an offer sheet by June 30 that would make him an unrestricted free agent.
Hamilton wasn't available for comment yesterday, but previously he has said he is very interested in staying in Washington.
"I think there is great promise in the future," Hamilton said last year. "Even though we haven't won as many games as we would like to, and it has been stressful, I know it's going to get better.
"It's just like in life. Everything can't be great all of the time. But you have to keep positive and know that it will get better. You have to believe that things will get better, and that you will be able to look back on the hard times and laugh. I believe these hard times will make me better and stronger in life and as a player. You want to be part of the process, to get through the adversity to the good times."
Hamilton's comments came on Jan.22, 2001, just after Washington ended a nine-game losing streak in a season they finished 19-63. Then the circumstances were entirely different; Hamilton was preaching optimism about a team headed nowhere fast.
But now that he is on the cusp of stardom and a lifestyle-altering contract as well it will be interesting to see how the next few months play out. The Wizards almost certainly won't extend Hamilton's deal this year. From their standpoint it just doesn't make much sense.
And if they don't, which is exactly what his agent seeks, then we'll find out for sure just how committed Hamilton is to seeing the Wizards come full circle.


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