What would you do to get a superstar?
Genuine NBA superstars are the rarest commodities in all of sports, and franchises have shown time and time again they'll do whatever it takes to get one. Teams surrender years of competitiveness for a shot at drafting the next prodigy. Cities litter their buildings and billboards with signs to convince free agents they'll do whatever it takes to make them feel loved and appreciated in their town. Fellow players will sacrifice minutes, prestige and even salary to convince superstars to join their team. In a league where the best of the best are impossible to overpay, it's also impossible to criticize a team that goes for bust chasing someone who can lead a team to a title.
Over the past year, we've watched the Wizards and their fans completely sell themselves out for a shot at Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016. It's an unusual spot for fans to be in because this is the first time the Wizards have had a shot to acquire a bonafide superstar in over 20 years. Yes, the Wizards signed Gilbert Arenas to a big deal in 2003, but no one could have expected him to develop into an All-Star starter when he signed. And for as much as we celebrate John Wall, we forget the Wizards were trying to make a deep playoff run that season before everything went to ruins in late December.
To find the last time the Wizards pursued and acquired a superstar in heading into their best years, you have to go all the way back to the start of the 1994 season. Chris Webber, the reigning Rookie of the Year, used an opt-out clause in his rookie contract to enter restricted free agency. The reason, as reported by the New York Times, was Warriors' coach Don Nelson:
According to Chris Cohan, Golden State's owner, Webber had asked that Nelson be removed as head coach.
"I rejected that," Cohan said at a news conference tonight at Oakland Coliseum before the Warriors' 109-100 victory over the Knicks. "I want Don to stay. I was told over and over again that if Don stays, we've got a problem with Chris. The lines got drawn in the sand, and I didn't think it could be repaired."
Since the Warriors were unwilling to fire Nelson, they were left with no other option but to find the best trade package they could for Webber. As it turned out, the best trade package came from the Bullets, who offered three future first round picks, and Tom Gugliotta, the Bullets' first round pick in the 1992 draft who just came off a season where he averaged 17.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.
If that seems like a lot, to give up for Webber it was. The Warriors only had to trade three draft picks when they acquired Webber from Orlando on draft night. A prospect like Gugliotta is the premium you have to pay when you can acquire someone with incredible promise and enough of a track record to guarantee they'll be successful in the NBA. If Andrew Wiggins hit the trade market today, he would probably command a similar package.
Still, any time you go all-in, there will be questions about whether or not you gave up too much. It's easy to forget now, but the Bullets faced criticism when they went all-in trading for Webber. Tom Gugliotta was a fan-favorite in Washington and Chris Webber's reputation took a hit after falling out with the Warriors. The Washington Post even compiled a collection of reader comments from people who weren't thrilled with the trade. Here's a quick sampling of some of the comments:
The most positive attribute of this team was its determination to play and win together. The acquisition of Webber destroys the chemistry the players had worked so hard to develop.
The Bullets have made a mistake that they will not recover from until after the year 2000. Chris Webber is a very good player now and will probably be a perennial all-star in the future, but he is no Jordan, Olajuwon or Bird.
I am one of those fans who still struggles with the fact that Art Monk, the quintessential Redskin, is finishing his career in any place but Washington. Although Tom Gugliotta has not had the time to establish himself as Art Monk did, he has done everything asked of him and more.
In hindsight, it's clear to see the affection some of these fans had for Gugliotta and the team he guided to a 24-58 record the previous season were perhaps a bit misplaced. Then again, they weren't entirely wrong on the final outlook for the team. As much as Webber did help revitalize the team in the mid-90's, the trade came back to bite the Wizards when they moved on from Webber in 1998.
When Washington shipped the 25-year-old Webber to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond, who turned 33 before he played his first game as a Wizard, they still had two picks left to convey to Golden State from the original trade that brought Webber to Washington. When you go all in and all you have to show for it is a three-game playoff appearance and the smoldering remains of Mitch Richmond, it's easy to understand why some people don't want to risk the resources to go all-in for a franchise-changing talent.
Even when we look at the Wizards' current preparations to pursue Kevin Durant, we can see where there's some reservation among some fans. While the Wizards may not have to give up a massive trade package to acquire Durant next summer like they did with Webber, they've still made sacrifices. As Blaise Malley pointed out in a FanPost last month, the Wizards' ability to improve has been limited by their preparations for the summer of 2016. If the spectre of Kevin Durant wasn't looming over every decision, the past two years, perhaps Trevor Ariza would be in a Wizards uniform right now, or Paul Pierce, or maybe even Markieff Morris. But alas, that's the price you pay when you go all-in on something. Commitment always requires sacrifice.
Sometimes in the middle of a sacrifice, it can be easy to lose sight the target. So our aim this week is to help refocus everyone's goal by reminding everyone of the best of the Chris Webber era in Washington. We're not going to dwell on the disappointments of how Webber's time in Washington ended, because for as much as he did to hurt the franchise with poor decisions, the team did more to hurt themselves by failing to create a proper environment for him to grow and then giving up on him too quickly when things didn't go the way they planned.
Instead, we're going to look back at the best of what Chris Webber's four years in Washington and those glimpses of greatness he provided that provided just enough hope to bridge the gulf from the end of the Unseld era to the start of the Gilbert Arenas era. By taking time to reflect on what made the best of Webber era so exciting, we can remind ourselves why chasing superstars can be so fun.