- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

The lottery-bound Washington Wizards are up against the longest odds imaginable following the dismissal of Michael Jordan.

Jordan is gone, Wes Unseld is going, and coach Doug Collins is waiting to be told to go. Meanwhile, star guard Jerry Stackhouse is thinking of leaving, and the NBA Draft and free-agent signing period are fast approaching.

Who is running this sinking operation — owner Abe Pollin, president Susan O’Malley or trusted general manager Unseld?

Since Jordan departed, Pollin and Co. have operated in secrecy, failing to publicly address the questions that need answers.

In the meantime, the basketball operations staff is in shambles, being run by Pollin and O’Malley. Unseld, his role diminished as he prepares to take an indefinite leave of absence after the June26 draft, will leave just as the crucial free-agent signing period begins.

And according to a league source, the Wizards “are about to experience the same shunning by free agents” that Chicago did when they “kicked Jordan to the curb” after he won his sixth title with the Bulls in 1998.

So, how can the Wizards emerge from this state of utter disrepair? Others have tried to solve this riddle, only to suffer failure after failure.

Here is a step-by-step program to put the Wizards back on track:

1. Hire a director of basketball operations

The Wizards are talking about doing this now, even though they clearly had no intention of going this route until Jordan became involved with the franchise. They seemed happy underpaying Unseld as a general manager — remember, he once was the GM of the Wizards and the Mystics at the same time — regardless of the consequences.

Money shouldn’t be an issue, considering the financial windfall Jordan brought the franchise the past two seasons — a good thing since directors of basketball operations don’t come cheap. That will be especially true if the Wizards hire one person to do the job of both the president of basketball operations and coach.

Not a good idea.

The Wizards would be wise to copy the Pistons model. Nearly three years ago, Detroit hired former player Joe Dumars as president of basketball operations, he was named executive of the year this season. Two years ago, he hired coach Rick Carlisle who took a 50-loss team and led it to a pair of 50-win seasons. Carlisle was the NBA’s Coach of the Year last season.

Former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Wayne Embry has been mentioned as a possibility. However, the Wizards should not recycle someone unless he has proved he can be successful in the new NBA (i.e. find talent).

2. Make a quick decision on Collins

Collins will either coach the team and earn his guaranteed $10million over the next two years or be fired and still walk away with the cash.

Ultimately, Collins’ future should be left up to the president of basketball operations. However, the coach must have input on the players he is going to lead. The worst scenario here would have Collins influence the team’s draft and then be fired and replaced by a coach who has to coach players who don’t fit into his system.

The basketball operations director must be in place well before the draft so he — assuming he won’t have dual responsibilities — can make the decision.

3. Hire a coach

The continued hand-wringing over Collins — he almost certainly will be fired — could damage the Wizards’ ability to hire the most qualified coach.

The leading candidate on everyone’s list is Paul Silas, fired by the New Orleans Hornets after his team was eliminated from the playoffs. Silas has been targeted by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. Former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy also is said to be interested in coaching again.

The Wizards, who haven’t won a playoff series in two decades, are desperately in need of credibility around the NBA — especially after the Jordan public relations debacle.

They need to target a coach who would bring instant respect.

They did this with Collins and paid him handsomely. However, that has not been the Wizards’ pattern in the past. When the team pursued St. John’s coach Mike Jarvis in 2000, Jarvis cut off talks when the club offered him about $4.5million over three seasons.

Former Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs coach Brian Hill may be interested in getting back to coaching.

4. Make the most out of the draft

This draft is a crapshoot. High school phenom LeBron James and college freshman Carmelo Anthony are expected to be the top two picks. Darko Milicic, a 17-year-old Euro-sensation, also is being touted as a player with the tools to develop into a superstar.

But unless the Wizards get incredibly lucky Thursday during the lottery, those players will play elsewhere this season.

The Wizards’ biggest needs still are at small forward and point guard. There is talk that Juan Carlos Navarro, a 6-3 Spaniard drafted No.40 in 2002, could be the team’s future point guard.

But, barring a trade to move up, the Wizards’ most glaring need is at small forward — especially if Stackhouse remains with the team and returns to his more natural two-guard position.

Most of the top small forwards who have declared for the draft are from overseas, such as 7-0, 240-pound 18-year old Maciej Lampe of Real Madrid and 6-9, 215-pound Boris Diaw of Pau Ortiz (France), who is just 21. Both players are being touted for their potential.

5. Firm up the roster

Only Jared Jeffries, who missed most of the season with a knee injury, should be considered “untradeable.”

The Wizards must either trade Kwame Brown now or commit to playing him next season and see what he can do. Some league officials suggest Brown may show the most improvement of any player on the post-Jordan Wizards. For Brown, it’s now or never in Washington.

Beyond that, the Wizards have to entertain all possible trade opportunities. They should know by now who they can and can’t build around.

6. Play the free agent market — carefully

How much of a player the Wizards will be in free agency depends upon whether Stackhouse opts out of the final two years of his contract. If he leaves, the Wizards could be close to $10million below the salary cap.

The Wizards desperately need a marquee player, but they should not hastily make a play for a free agent this offseason, especially since they will not be able to contend for players such as New Jersey’s Jason Kidd, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan or Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal. However, second-tier players like Brad Miller (Indiana), P.J. Brown (New Orleans) and Gilbert Arenas (Golden State) could help the Wizards.

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