Don't expect Wizards to be transformed overnight

January 21, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

WHEN HE HEARS sports talk radio callers say blow up the Wizards, Washington general manager Ernie Grunfeld thinks back to the start of the season. Fans were "unbelievably supportive" of the Wizards' plan to rebuild with young players, to go about things "the right way." "The city understood that," Grunfeld said.

Way back then - it seems so long ago - the post-Michael Jordan Wizards were running and gunning, taking down Western Conference powers such as the Mavericks. Free-agent gym rat Gilbert Arenas was looking every bit the $64 million answer. Rookie Jarvis Hayes was proving he wasn't just legit but also a dynamic NBA player.

The more they won, the thicker the anticipation for the return of Jerry Stackhouse, who was only going to further juice the Wizards with his rim attacks and desire to prove the Wizards could be better without Sir Air.

Heck, before Arenas strained an abdominal muscle and Stackhouse's surgically repaired knee required more rehab time, the Wizards actually looked like they might sneak into the playoffs.

Now the Wizards (12-28) are hanging with Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta and Orlando at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, which means the bottom of the NBA. New coach Eddie Jordan sets goals for winning quarters now, not just games. In these dog days of the midseason, Grunfeld has to take a little time to remind people: Just because the Knicks can rearrange the entire face of their franchise - from general manager to coach to star player - in a New York minute, it doesn't mean Grunfeld's going to jump.

"Every market's a little different. In New York, their roster was older, built to win today. We have young players. The future is ahead. It's unfortunate with the injuries [we've had] to two key players. It's slowed the evaluation process down," Grunfeld said yesterday.

"I'm used to being in the playoffs every year. I'm very competitive, but I think you have to show a little bit of patience, which is not always easy. I think it would be foolish to trade young players for veterans just to try and win a few more games now."

Grunfeld, in his first year at Washington, understands as well as Isiah Thomas what's going on with the Knicks. How many NBA teams could take on $120 million in salary at the blink of an eye, as Thomas did by acquiring Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway from the Suns on Jan. 5? One. The Knicks.

How many teams could take on the fat contract of a fading Hardaway just to get Marbury, essentially turning Marbury into a $28 million player? One. The Knicks.

Grunfeld used to be the GM whose wheeling and dealing caused oohs and aahs at Madison Square Garden, a place where the rules (meaning the economics) are a little different.

"In New York, you have to win. I loved my time in New York. We won a lot. The Garden was alive every night. It was a fun place to be," Grunfeld said.

But now it's the crafty Thomas being lauded for "thinking outside the box." Easier to do when you have the deep pockets of cable baron James Dolan to fund your every fantasy.

Start with $5 million a year for Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens. Add the blockbuster trade for Coney Island's Marbury, bringing home an All-Star point guard to a city filled with natural-born point guards.

The Knicks are 5-3 since Marbury's arrival and are riding a four-game winning streak - a turnaround that seems to spell playoff run, especially in the threadbare East.

Well, once upon a time, it was Grunfeld who brought slickster coach Pat Riley to the city that never sleeps and watched as the basket-brawling Knicks of the '90s racked up sellouts and playoff appearances, including that heartbreaking loss to Houston in the '94 Finals.

After Riles resigned via fax in '95, the Knicks still were able to get to the '99 Finals - after Grunfeld dealt for the controversial Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby. After that, Grunfeld was on his way to Milwaukee, the team that had drafted him out of Tennessee. Grunfeld merely kept alive his streak. For 11 consecutive seasons and between the Knicks and Bucks, Grunfeld's teams made the playoffs.

Is the game over, now that Grunfeld's address is D.C., where the Wizards are 26 years removed from their last NBA title? That's an easy conclusion, considering Washington's drought, its history of playoff futility and its apparent willingness to be playoff contenders, not NBA title contenders.

The Wizards are missing about 40 points a night with Arenas and Stackhouse out, making it nearly impossible for Grunfeld to properly evaluate the team. The Wizards, on paper at least, appear to have perimeter players who match up with just about anyone. Stackhouse, Arenas, Hayes and Larry Hughes are a potent array of scorers, along with solid backup work from rookie Steve Blake.

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