Friday, May 28, 2004

The NBA gathers the Wizards and the rest of the losers on Tony Soprano’s dumping grounds each May and pretends to celebrate the forgettable.

Here are the losers. Here is the order in which they will select in June.

The effort was especially wasted this time around if Emeka Okafor is the No.1 selection overall, as advertised.

Okafor is the hard-playing forward from Connecticut with the bad back.

A bad back is no way to begin an NBA career, given what a bad back does to those near the end of their shelf life. Think Larry Bird and David Robinson.

Dwight Howard, a high school player out of Georgia, is expected to be the second pick of the NBA Draft.

The geography is vaguely relevant, if only because Kwame Brown is the last celebrated high school player to come out of Georgia.

Brown is the cautionary tale of the moment regarding the peach-fuzz brigade, the No.1 pick overall before Yao Ming and LeBron James, as fate would have it.

If it weren’t for bad luck, the Wizards would have no luck at all.

You can tell by their third-worst record that resulted in the fifth pick.

They have been sentenced to evaluate the questionable and the youthfully flawed, if Ernie Grunfeld chooses to accept the assignment. He has a compelling reason to package the pick with one of his shoot-happy perimeter players, assuming someone is interested in Jerry Stackhouse. That is a lot to assume, given Stackhouse’s fat contract and mail order medical degree.

Stackhouse led the league in shutting it down last winter, which inevitably baffled the doctors who could find nothing wrong with the knee. His inclination to play doctor overwhelmed his inclination to play with the team. This peculiar dynamic is not helpful to a player’s trade value.

All NBA teams have enough doctors. Most could use another All-Star player or two, if Stackhouse retains that capacity. That is the other unknown with him.

Is Stackhouse in the throes of a downward spiral or just a player who felt compelled to raise the white flag in a 25-win season? Either way, as someone who appeared to embrace the suggestion of a change in residence, Stackhouse did nothing to facilitate the undertaking.

Grunfeld has moves to make, no doubt, in conjunction with the Charlotte expansion draft that lands two days before the NBA Draft. Grunfeld and coach Eddie Jordan can protect only eight players. Eight in their case is not enough with their youth-dominated roster.

A player or two with a hint of functionality is bound to be lost in the offseason shuffle, the leading candidates being Etan Thomas and Juan Dixon.

Dixon is a redundancy as long as Stackhouse, Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes share a locker room and an indiscriminate shooting manner.

Thomas has the most conviction of the post players but the least long-term upside. He is too small to be a genuine center and too lacking in skill to be a top-line power forward. His next field goal from beyond dunk range will be his first.

Grunfeld insists the Wizards are not as far removed from the pack as their 25-57 record suggests. He is entitled to his hometown observation after sitting through it. The rest of the hometown inhabitants are not apt to be persuaded by the personnel or the junior varsity quality of the Eastern Conference.

At least the Wizards received a favorable position in the NBA realignment plans next season, lumped as they are in the Southeast Division with the Hawks, Bobcats, Heat and Magic. One of the five teams, by design, is destined to win the division and claim a spot in the playoffs, whether in the top eight in the conference or not.

With this modest bunch, anything is possible, although the Heat showed a trace of competence late in the season.

Just don’t expect the Wizards to challenge this low-end crowd.

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