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8 Upper

Buffalo Stance

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/23/2000

There are certain trades in sports that define a franchise's place in history. The 1966 Orioles, having grown to the cusp of greatness, picked up Frank Robinson from the Cincinnati Reds to lift them to the top of the American League. The 1975-76 Lakers, coming off a last-place finish, got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Milwaukee Bucks, re-establishing their Western Conference dynasty. And now the Washington Wizards, in their first major player move under the guidance of director of basketball operations Michael Jordan, are hoping to trade Isaac Austin to the Utah Jazz in a three-cornered deal for Detroit Pistons center Bison Dele and a future first-round draft pick.

It's true that Dele—the idiosyncratic ex-Maryland Terp center who used to be named Brian Williams—is not a Frank Robinson or a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. To be precise about it, Dele is not even supposed to come play basketball in Washington if the trade goes through. Before training camp began at the beginning of this season, he announced his retirement and flew off to Beirut, where he owns a water-treatment plant. He seems to have no intention of returning, but the Pistons have kept him listed as an active National Basketball Association player to comply with the baroque rules of the league's salary cap: To make room on the roster for a real center, Detroit needs to make a paper deal to get rid of their imaginary one.

Whether Austin counts as a real center is a question for Utah to worry about. What matters at the Wizards' end of things is that they are no longer even hoping to have a real center. Having gotten the Jazz to take the burden of Austin's contract, the Wizards plan to file Dele's retirement papers with the league, thereby getting payroll credit for his leaving. Which is to say, they are so bad that they have reached the point of philosophical crisis: Having a nonexistent player is better than having the players they started the season with.

And Dele—that is, the Dele-shaped void Washington is getting—is a perfect match for the team. Both changed their names recently. Both spent the past decade adrift, sometimes raising people's hopes but never really accomplishing anything. And neither Dele nor the Wizards showed up for the start of this season.

In fact, absenteeism has been the main theme of the team's 1999-2000 campaign. Point guard Rod Strickland greeted newly arrived (and recently fired) coach Gar Heard by playing hooky from practice. Jordan showed up last month to take over the team and promptly left town. And the fans have been failing to show up at the MCI Center all year long.

This seems only sensible. Being away from the Wizards is the key to success. Five years ago, the team was overstocked at power forward, with Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, and Rasheed Wallace crowding each other for rebounds and playing time. The backcourt, meanwhile, was empty. So the team sent Wallace to the Portland Trail Blazers for Strickland, then two years later sent Webber to the Sacramento Kings for veteran all-star shooting guard Mitch Richmond. The result? Strickland has been cranky and erratic, Richmond has been injured and inadequate, and Webber and Wallace have become the best players on their new teams.

And those teams have flourished: The Blazers own the NBA's best record, and the Kings lead the league in scoring. On Feb. 20 they squared off, in a game that Portland won, 108-103, in overtime. Webber had 33 points, 19 rebounds, and 7 assists; Wallace had 24 points and 7 rebounds, and led the Blazers offense down the stretch.

Howard, meanwhile, was shooting 4-for-16 and scoring 12 points as the Wizards got whipped by the Golden State Warriors. It was Washington's seventh straight loss (and 15th straight on the road) and dropped them to 1-8 under new coach Darrell Walker. "We didn't deserve to win," Walker said after the game.

That was an understatement. The Golden State game was not the low point of the season—earlier the Wizards suffered back-to-back losses to the lowly Chicago Bulls, scoring all of 66 points in one of them—but it was nicely typical. Howard missed easy shots in the lane. Richmond got ejected for arguing with the officials. Strickland tried to push the ball up, found himself outnumbered, and pulled up to wait as his teammates ambled downcourt, one by one.

The Warriors, a collection of kiddies and journeymen missing their best player (Antawn Jamison, out with a knee injury), had a ball. Larry Hughes, who'd just joined Golden State in a trade from Philadelphia, skittered past Washington players in the open court with undisguised contempt. Erick Dampier, one of the Warriors' interchangeable undersized centers, dropped in a couple of turnaround jumpers over the Wizards' defense. In the fourth quarter, Billy Owens, the itinerant and chubby forward also recently acquired from Philly, lobbed a long alley-oop to Jason Caffey, formerly of the Chicago Bulls' garbage unit. Two possessions later, Owens lobbed one to Caffey again. With about a minute and a half left, the two journeymen checked out of the game, to conquering-hero ovations.

The only time recently anyone had that much fun on the Warriors' home court was the previous weekend, when Golden State hosted the NBA All-Star Game, which was dominated by a new, enthusiastic generation of players. Vince Carter and Allen Iverson put on a show for the Eastern Conference, while Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O'Neal led the West to victory, with the help of Wallace and Webber. The future was dawning. And none of the Wizards were part of it.

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