Editor’s Note: In 2003, the Wizards made dramatic changes to their front office and roster that have shaped the course of the franchise ever since. This week, we’re going to take a look back at how the events of 2003 altered the trajectory of the franchise—for better and worse over the past 15 years.
The Wizards hired Eddie Jordan as the team’s head coach in June 2003. Later that summer, the Wizards signed Gilbert Arenas to six-year contract.
Sometimes it takes an unusual set of circumstances to spark a revolution, and there are very few circumstances more unusual than how Eddie Jordan and Gilbert Arenas both wound up with the Washington Wizards in 2003.
After a short, unmemorable stint as head coach of the Kings from 1997-98, Eddie Jordan made a name for himself as a top assistant in New Jersey, especially after the Nets acquired Jason Kidd to run Jordan’s modernized version of the Princeton Offense. He was so highly-coveted after back-to-back NBA Finals runs that Wizards owner Abe Pollin changed his offseason plans to get his top target:
Pollin had to move fast to get Eddie Jordan, 48, who had interviewed Tuesday with the Philadelphia 76ers for their coaching vacancy. Pollin talked with a variety of NBA officials, including Miami Heat coach Pat Riley and Memphis Grizzlies general manager Jerry West, then met with Jordan on Wednesday.
A deal was struck before the coach could drive back to his New Jersey home. In the process, Pollin ignored his stated plan to first hire a president of basketball operations, who would, in turn, hire a coach.
”I was not going to take a chance of losing this great guy to be my coach,” Pollin said. “When the decision came, am I going to stick with the plan or am I going to be flexible and hire a coach first? The answer was yes, because that coach was Eddie Jordan and I wasn’t going to take a chance of losing him.”
The Wizards didn’t have much in the talent department when Jordan arrived—and he certainly didn’t help his case by advising against trading Kwame Brown for the pick that became Dwyane Wade—but they had plenty of cap space and weren’t tied down to many bad contracts. The cupboard was bare, but the canvas was blank.
Jordan dreamed of building a team with smart, instinctive players that could execute the intricacies of his Princeton Offense, and reportedly pushed for the team to sign former Net Kevin Ollie to run the show. But by the time free agency had started, the Wizards had settled on Ernie Grunfeld as their GM, and he implemented a different vision for the team’s future.
Grunfeld exploited a loophole in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement to pry Gilbert Arenas away from the Golden State Warriors that summer in free agency and jump start the Wizards’ post-Jordan rebuild.
It was a coup from a management perspective, but Arenas didn’t fit the archetype for a Princeton point guard. Coaches who run the system are looking for disciplined game managers who can selflessly run the methodical, intricate offense. Gilbert Arenas was anarchy with a good jumper.
NBA history is filled with stories of coaches and stars getting in a tug-of-war over how the team should play and it usually ends with the coach getting fired or the star getting traded for someone better suited to run the system. Or even worse, it leads to a terrible compromise in which both sides suffer.
Jordan and Arenas found a happy middle ground where they didn’t just get along but brought out the best in each other. Jordan gave Arenas the leeway to fire at will and in turn, when Arenas needed to change things up and keep the defense off-balance, he’d run a turbo-charged version of Jordan’s Princeton offense.
Together in 2003, they made an offense that looks a lot like what everyone wants to run today. Think about it, they had Arenas—a player blessed with Steph Curry-like range and James Harden-like playmaking ability—running an up-tempo, four-out, one-in system with excellent spacing and multiple ballhandlers. They were a decade ahead of the curve.
The Wizards had a top-ten offense all three seasons Jordan coached the team and Arenas played at least 70 games, peaking with the fourth-best offense in the league in 2006-07. When he was on the floor that season, the Wizards scored 109.3 points per 100 possessions, which would have been the second-best offense in the league, right behind the Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns.
It was the first time most Washington fans had ever seen their team have a consistently excellent offense in their lifetime. The three-season run from 2004-05 through 2006-07 was the first time the franchise had a top-ten offense three straight years since 1967-68 through 1969-70, which only happened because it was difficult to be outside the top ten. There were only 12 teams in the NBA in 1967 and only 14 by 1970.
This unlikely pairing started a basketball revolution that is still growing and evolving to this day. But like most revolutions, it usually ends with someone else leading the charge. Jordan and Arenas didn’t have the defensive aptitude to make Washington a serious title contender, and after Gerald Wallace rolled into Arenas’ knee, it was never the same for either side. Arenas only played 68 more games in Washington. Eddie Jordan pulled out every trick in the book to drag the Wizards to the playoffs in 2008, but he ran out juice the following season and was dismissed after a 1-10 start.
Despite the sour finish, Eddie Jordan still looks back fondly on those years. In 2015, while coaching at Rutgers, he was asked about his time in Washington and he had nothing but praise for what he and Arenas built together in Washington:
Gilbert was an assassin on the court. He was great. He was a better point guard than people gave him credit for. He was a great scorer and he adjusted his game to run the offense to help Caron [Butler], to help Antawn [Jamison], even with Larry Hughes. The funny thing was, our team was built for scoring, and there was a lot of talk about we didn’t defend, but you have to do what your team tells you to do. Be great at what you’re good at; we were good at scoring. We had the highest scoring trio with Gilbert, Antawn and Caron in the NBA. We had the highest-scoring back court with Gilbert and Larry Hughes before Caron came aboard. So, we utilized what we had to the best of our ability.
The Wizards franchise has never been defined by innovation. They’re typically the ones who are a day late and a dollar short. But for a fleeting moment in the mid-2000’s, Eddie Jordan and Gilbert Arenas gave the NBA something it wasn’t ready to handle.