- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

SECAUCUS, N.J. | Well, so much for a franchise-changing consolation prize.

The Washington Wizards lost out on a chance to land the No. 1 or No. 2 picks in the NBA Draft lottery and wound up with the fifth pick in the draft for the second time since 2004.

The Los Angeles Clippers, who held the third spot in the lottery - one spot behind the Wizards - landed the top pick in the June 25 event. That selection is expected to be used on Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin. The Memphis Grizzlies were awarded the second pick, which is expected to be Spain’s Ricky Rubio. And the Sacramento Kings, who finished with the worst record in the league at 17-65 and had the best chance of winning the lottery, instead wound up with the fourth pick.

The Wizards returned to the lottery after enduring an injury-plagued 19-63 campaign in which they plunged from a playoff team the previous season to second worst in the league.

The Clippers posted an identical record. Because of that, a tiebreaker was held to determine which team would earn the second-highest number of combinations in the lottery, which is a pingpong ball system featuring 1,000 different combinations divided among the teams with the 14 worst records in the preceding season.

Washington won that tiebreaker and was awarded 178 chances (a 17.8 percent chance of landing the top pick). The Clippers, meanwhile, were given 177 combinations (a 17.7 percent chance).

But that victory morphed into a loss, and the Wizards became the 11th consecutive team to have the second-best chance in the lottery yet miss out on the top spot.

“Obviously, everyone wants the No. 1 pick, and only one team gets it,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. “I’ve said all along that there are some very good players in this draft and we will explore all our options and see where they take us.”

When healthy, the Wizards have three All-Star-caliber players in Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, a blend of veteran players and six players under the age of 23 - which management sees as an efficient mix.

The options Grunfeld mentioned include keeping the pick. The players expected to be available at the fifth spot - Italian pro and former star high school point guard Brandon Jennings, USC shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, Arizona State swingman James Harden and Davidson guard Stephen Curry - are all talented, but each has his share of questions.

The Wizards, according to league insiders, are hesitant to take on yet another project player and would rather package their pick in a trade for a veteran who could contribute immediately.

The last time the Wizards wound up with the fifth selection in the draft was 2004, after they had posted a 25-57 record. Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld, however, used that pick to select Devin Harris and shipped him, Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner to the Dallas Mavericks for Jamison.

“We can only control what we can control,” Grunfeld said. “We’ve said that when healthy, we believe we are a playoff team capable with competing with anyone in the league. We have three All-Stars and young players that have proven themselves to be NBA-quality, and we’ll be getting somebody who can help us.”

The Wizards were represented at the lottery by new coach Flip Saunders, who his last time onstage at Secaucus represented the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995. Coincidentally, Minnesota wound up with the fifth pick that year and used it on former league MVP and defensive player of the year Kevin Garnett. Saunders, reflecting on that memory, said the Wizards still could find an unexpected star in this year’s draft if they decide to keep the pick.

“At the time, everybody was saying, ‘Nobody’s taken a high schooler in 25 years,’ ” Saunders said, also noting that Garnett at that point had yet to work out for teams. “The four main guys were Joe Smith, [Antonio] McDyess, Rasheed Wallace and Stackhouse. And when we got fifth, we thought we had been left out of the pool because we weren’t even sure [Garnett] was going to stay in the draft. So there were a number of unknown factors at that time.”

Regardless of whether the Wizards keep the pick, they feel comfortable with the position in which they stand because of their options.

“[The pick] is like icing on the cake,” said Saunders, who carried a good-luck silver medallion with an angel engraved on it. “You’ve got a good foundation, and we’re going to be able to add to it. We have the luxury of being very flexible. Ernie’s put himself in a position to be very flexible. You’ve got the pick. You’ve got players that have expiring contracts. You know, the [32nd overall] pick in the second round is a good pick, too. A lot of people like having those high second picks because you don’t have to guarantee players for all that time and you can get a pretty good player there.

“It gives our management team a lot of flexibility, but it makes them really have to do their homework,” Saunders added.

• Mike Jones can be reached at mjones@washingtontimes.com.

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