It seemed almost unfathomable at the time.
Chris Webber, one of if not the most hyped high school recruits of all time, he of two championship games with the Michigan Wolverines, and the number one pick in the NBA draft the year before, was going to come to Washington and revitalize a once-great Bullets franchise that had been stuck in the NBA's doldrums for a little over ten years. This was 1994, a time when DC was known for the Redskins, politics and nothing else. The Bullets' best player that year was supposed to be Tom Gugliotta or Juwan Howard. Both were shaping up to be solid, maybe even good players, but neither had superstar potential. Webber, coming off of a Rookie of the Year performance, was already at that level or at least pretty close to it.
Webber was practically a rock star at the time, or at least he was to younger fans. The Fab Five embraced baggy shorts, black socks and a freshman starting five before any of those things were common. Webber was the centerpiece of Michigan's recruiting class, a 6'10 power forward with elite athleticism, handles and court vision. After going first in the 1993 lottery, Webber backed up all of the hype that had surrounded him since he was a teenager by putting up 17, 9 and 3 assists as a rookie.
Everything wasn't peaches and cream in Golden State, though. Webber hated playing for the Warriors, largely due to clashes with Coach Don Nelson who preferred to play him at center in small lineups. Long story short, Webber and his agent played hardball with the Warriors and essentially forced a sign and trade (side note: It's easy to forget that the Michigan-born Webber's first choice was the Detroit Pistons).
Meanwhile, the Washington Bullets were terrible, and not even in a "we suck now but wait until next year" way. Washington had won more games than they lost only three times between Webber's arrival and the team's last NBA finals appearance. Although the Googs and Howard tandem looked good, a team led by them had no chance whatsoever of beating Jordan's Bulls, Ewing's Knicks, Mourning's Hornets or Shaq's Magic in a playoff series. The Bullets before Webber were basically last year's Bobcats.
CWebb didn't come cheap, and the deal wasn't as simple as you'd think. Washington gave up three first round draft picks as well as a recent lottery pick Tom Gugliotta for a guy who'd only played one season of professional basketball. Once he made it to DC, though, he said all the right things, reunited with Juwan Howard, debuted as a Bullet in front of a sold out crowd at the MCI Center, wore number 2 and put up one of the oddest statlines (20.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks, 50% from the floor, 50% from the line) in franchise history. Even though the Washington won only 21 games that year, they looked like a team on the rise with a bona fide franchise player for the first time since Leif Garrett was topping the charts and Rambo was just a book.
But Webber never got much better than that as a Bullet. After missing most of 1996 with an injury, he teamed up with Howard, Rod Strickland and Gheorge Muresan to lead Washington to the franchise's first post-season appearance in over a decade. Sure, they were swept by the Bulls, but Michael Jordan had nice things to say about the team so everyone was pretty happy. The year after that saw the Wizards win two fewer games, miss the playoffs by a hair, and just like that management reached a tipping point with regard to Webber's worsening attitude problems and
gifted traded him to the Kings for pennies on the dollar.
It's easy to remember the Webber years fondly despite the fact that the team went 146-182 and topped out at 44 wins. Even if the Bullets never really mattered, Webber did, and it was a welcome change of pace to see the team get some respect around the league as a result. Webber was an All-Star in 1997 and consistently produced whenever he was healthy. Even if the team didn't do as well as it had been predicted to do upon his arrival, he had more individual success than anyone else who played for Washington until Gilbert Arenas arrived.
Chris Webber statistics, per game, during the Washington years
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com
Unfortunately for Washington, while Webber lived up to the hype as an individual, he could be almost Blatche-like in his ability to drive coaches insane with his lackadaisical defense and overindulgence of his perimeter game. With his physical gifts, Webber could have been (and for a while in Sacramento actually was) an elite, Josh Smith-esque defender, one of the few players of any era who could protect the rim at a high level and stick with wings on the perimeter. His combination of basketball IQ, quickness, size and hops allowed him to average 1.4 blocks and 1.4 steals for his career despite playing the last five years or so of it on one knee. He could have been a good player in his sleep, was a very good one in Washington and finally became a great one when he teamed up with the right kinds of players and the right coach in Sacramento.
Webber came to Washington with the hype of a superstar and the results were a mixed bag. He played very well, the team played sort of well and the team won a few games. The team never quite became elite, though, and was seen as more of a curiosity - remember, the Bullets starting line up for most of this period included a 7'7 movie star, two of the Fab Five, a point guard who ate hot dogs during games, and a guy named Calbert - than a threat to the NBA's elite. So, more or less what the Wizards were during the Gilbert Arenas years. For a franchise that's used to failure, that Webber allowed it to have as good an era as it had experienced since the 70s while selling a lot of jerseys could be seen as a sign that he lived up to the hype.
Basketball is a team game, though, one that requires mental discipline and the competitiveness to play both sides of the floor. For all his gifts, Webber didn't do this in Washington. Even if Chris Webber lived up to the hype, Chris Webber and the Washington Bullets never quite made it.