- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

When the Washington Wizards drafted Kwame Brown with the No.1 pick overall in the 2001 NBA Draft, they envisioned him as a cornerstone for their future.

Now he might not even have a future with the franchise.

With Brown and seven other players who could be free agents at the end of the season, Washington is faced with the possibility the players it thought as recently as last year would form the nucleus of the team for years to come might not wear the Wizards uniform next season.

As Memphis Grizzlies general manager Jerry West says, “Nothing is really for keeps anymore” in the NBA.

Washington begins its season tonight in Memphis, Tenn., with a roster that averages 25.2 years of age. The Wizards’ ideal starting lineup — meaning once suspensions to Larry Hughes and Brendan Haywood are over and Brown gets healthy — would be even younger at 24.4.

In the past, a team like the Wizards (25-57 last year in Eddie Jordan’s first season as coach) would have gotten a chance to mold itself into a contender. Just look at the 1980s, when the NBA arguably was at its peak. Larry Bird’s Celtics, Magic Johnson’s Lakers, even Isiah Thomas’ Pistons — all managed to string together championships with the same group of players. Even in the 1990s, the partnership between Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen stayed together long enough to turn the Bulls into six-time champions.

In today’s NBA, however, teams can’t afford to wait long for their players to mature.

Teams still build around a star or two — Tim Duncan in San Antonio, for instance — paying them unfathomably large salaries and throwing in some serviceable pieces around them. But the league’s economics structure — dictated by a collective bargaining agreement set to expire at the end of this season — means a short halflife for some of these pairings.

Just look at the divorce of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, whose salaries last year — $13.498million and $26.571million, respectively — ate up most of the $43.84million salary cap, though it should be pointed out Los Angeles’ actual salary figure was at least $20million more than that. The Lakers, of course, were dismantled by the Pistons in the NBA Finals in five games, then had their roster dismantled in their summer of discontent.

“Yeah, those days [of using up the cap for a couple of players] are probably gone forever,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said. “The rules have changed over the years. But the good thing is they are always the same for everybody, so you are always playing on a level playing field.”

The only Wizards signed for next season are Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Jarvis Hayes, Haywood, Jared Jeffries, Peter John Ramos and Etan Thomas.

To a degree, the Wizards essentially are married to both Arenas and Jamison, whose contracts this season eat up $22million of the $43.87million cap. The Wizards like Hayes and Jeffries, but there is no guarantee either player will be around for the long haul. And Brown, as a restricted free agent, probably must improve on his career bests from last season in points (10.9) and rebounds (7.4) for him to remain with the Wizards, though too much improvement also could boost him out of the Wizards’ price range.

“I think [Arenas and Jamison] have both shown that they are legitimate NBA talents,” Grunfeld said. “They’ve both averaged 20 points a game in the NBA. Those two have shown what they can do over a period of time. And we have some other very talented players on this team.”

But they played a part in a good example of an NBA breakup. Just two seasons ago, Arenas and Jamison appeared to have found a home with Golden State, averaging 18.3 and 22 points, respectively, as the Warriors won 38 games, 17 more than the year before.

But instead of building on that success, Golden State dumped Jamison’s huge contract by trading him to Dallas and let Arenas, a second-round pick who was a restricted free agent, come to Washington armed with a six-year, $64million contract.

“It’s not the way it once was, where you could get a lot of talent together for long periods of time,” said West, the architect of the Bryant-O’Neal Lakers. “You don’t have that luxury any more.”

Grunfeld said as much about the Wizards.

“Who will be part of our core for the long haul will be determined by the players’ actions on the floor,” Grunfeld said. “Obviously we are going to depend on Gilbert and Antawn because they have shown they can do it. But basketball is a team game. Everybody has to step up. Everybody has to contribute.”

Grunfeld built the New York Knicks team that went to the NBA Finals in 1994 with Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Charles Oakley and the Milwaukee Bucks team with Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2001. Both teams, of course, had a history of making the playoffs, something Washington hasn’t done since 1997.

“In New York and Milwaukee, those were winning teams that went deep into the playoffs before the nucleuses established themselves,” Grunfeld said. “Our nucleus needs to be established. We feel we have some pretty good pieces. Now we have to see how the whole thing comes together.”

Part of the problem is the increase of high school players in the draft. A player like Duncan, the byproduct of four years of college, often becomes a contributor quicker than players like Brown and the Bulls’ Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, who have yet to live up to their high draft status in 2001.

All three will be restricted free agents at the end of this season because they did not receive contract extensions.

“The best possible scenario is to let these guys earn the huge checks they’re cashing if they want to earn the even bigger checks that are out there,” one Eastern Conference general manager said, speaking anonymously. “Are they worth the money now? No, not after what I’ve seen from them.”

Brown, on the mend from foot surgery, is not concerned with what might be. He is focused on what figures to be the most important season of his career.

“No one is looking beyond tomorrow on this team, I hope,” Brown said. “I think everyone is more confident that we can get something done. If we do that and play well as a team there’s no reason to think we won’t be taken care of.”

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