A Cautionary Tale of Bullets and Free Agency Failure: Losing Dana Barros
If this summer’s frenzied free agent pace has taught us anything, it’s that vying for players on the market, restricted or unrestricted, can be more trouble than it’s worth.
Teams like the 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks can find themselves out in the cold, losing number one targets (like Deron Williams), as well as their own (Jason Kidd and Jason Terry). The Mavs are now scrambling to gauge interest in Elton Brand, the 13-year veteran who was surprisingly amnestied by the Philadelphia 76ers late last week — even a bid to secure his services would be unsure. Ramon Sessions is under consideration. Ramon Sessions. The question being whispered by NBA insiders and, likely, the Mark Cuban brain trust: Is it time to trade Dirk Nowitzki?
Other teams and their fan bases might currently be under the impression that they’ve “won” something in free agency, committing X amount of dollars in a chase to over-pay suspect basketball potential around the league. Money thrown at the likes of Brandon Roy (Minnesota, 2-years, $10 million), Landry Fields (Toronto, 3-years, $20 million), Michael Beasley (Phoenix, 3-years, $18 million), and Omer Asik (Houston, 3-years, $25 million), could quickly backfire. More crazed spending likely on the way.
And not to mitigate the risk involved with building a team almost exclusively through the draft and trades. The Wizards, as much as any franchise, know about the failures in those maneuvers. One only need to start rattling off names like Mike Miller, Randy Foye and Kwame Brown. Different options come with varying repercussions and risks across team situations.
But, more than other options, free agency is a swing-for-the-fences affair. And striking out, or even hitting, can have serious consequences.
The Summer of ’95, Bullets Fans
Prior to (and into) the 1994-95 season, unprecedented changes jolted the Washington franchise. Wes Unseld’s seven-year run as the head coach of Abe Pollin’s team (with a .369 winning percentage to show for it) had unceremoniously come to an end. His replacement: Jim Lynam, hired to rebuild a young, hopeful Bullets core after a single four-hour meeting with Pollin.1
Tom Gugliotta was entering his third season; as was Don MacLean, fresh off winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award; Calbert Cheaney and Gheorghe Muresan were entering their second seasons; and rookie Juwan Howard, after tough contract negotiations, was in the fold. Barely a breath into the schedule in mid-November 1994, fan favorite “Googs” Gugliotta was suddenly jettisoned to Golden State, along with three future first round draft picks, in return for 1993 No. 1 overall draft pick Chris Webber.
The District was ecstatic. The influence that Webber, Howard and their other University of Michigan teammates had in 1992 and 1993 profoundly affected the basketball culture of Washington just as much as anywhere else, if not more. Piggy-backed by the arrival of a gutsy guard named Allen Iverson at Georgetown in 1994 and the nation’s capital was ready to erupt with basketball fever like everyone thought it should.
There are exactly six euphoric moments in my history with this franchise: 1) going to see the Bullets play the Bulls in the 1997 playoffs, even though the hometown team lost the game and was swept 3-0 by Chicago; 2) Gilbert Arenas’ shot in Game 5 to beat the Bulls in the 2005 playoffs; 3) Arenas’ 2007 Martin Luther King Day 51 points and game-winner against the Jazz; 4) his 60 points in a 2006 overtime win against the Lakers in L.A.; 5) winning the draft lottery to select John Wall in 2010; and 6) when the Bullets got two members of the “Fab Five.”
The buzz quickly dissipated when Webber dislocated his left shoulder on December 22, 1994, in a game against Golden State no less. The season quickly went in the crapper. Webber tried to tough it out, but his shoulder wasn’t the same. Rex Chapman was his old injured self. Scott Skiles was aged and creaky, too. Kevin Duckworth‘s conditioning continued to deteriorate. MacLean had chronically sore knees from too much weigh-lifting. And the Washington guards really couldn’t shoot worth a damn. Les Boulez finished 21-61. But next year, 1995-96, that was supposed to be the big year … right?
The 1995 draft brought Washington Rasheed Wallace with the fourth overall pick. Sure, GM John Nash could have drafted for a need — Damon Stoudamire, seventh to the Toronto Raptors, later named rookie of the year — but no one was going to fault him for taking the big man out of North Carolina. The Bullets were sure to find a point guard in … free agency.
Courting a Free Agent
Nash’s prime target was Dana Barros. He was the prime target for a lot of teams that summer. Barros was fresh off an 82-game season where at age 27, his sixth year in the NBA, he averaged 20.6 points, 7.5 assists, 49-percent shooting from the field and 46.4-percent from the 3-point line, third best in the league. Did I mention Barros also notched his first (and only, as it turned out) All-Star appearance and was named the NBA’s most improved player? Yep, it was a contract year for Barros, which can also be a component in free agency fool’s gold.
Barros’ agent sent signals that Philly was his client’s first choice (even though the Sixers were 24-58 the previous season, not much better than the Bullets). Nash knew the deck was stacked against the hapless Washington franchise.
“I feel for the folks who make their living selling Bullets tickets,” Nash said.2 He’d already been GM for about five years, so it showed how much faith he had in the task at hand with that comment during the free agency chase in June 1995, especially considering that Nash suddenly up and quit almost 12 months later.
Barros’ preference for the Sixers didn’t last long. Philadelphia offered 3-years, $10 million; the Boston Celtics offered 6-years, $21 million.3 Barros chose his hometown of Boston, having also starred at Boston College. Washington’s comparable offer of 5-years wasn’t going to cut it.
Nor was it going to cut it for Elliott Perry. Nash’s No. 2 point guard free agent target chose to re-up with the Phoenix Suns for six seasons instead of spending five years in Washington.4
“We’re still hunting,” Nash told the Baltimore Sun afterward. “Obviously in the free-agent market, our first two choices were the first two to sign. Aside from the years, our offers were pretty close to what they actually accepted.”
Blame Washington for not being a choice destination, blame the GM, blame ownership, if you will. Nonetheless, Nash was desperate. He asked Portland about a trade for Rod Strickland, asked Atlanta about Mookie Blaylock. The GM dangled Don MacLean and a 1996 first round draft pick to those teams. They wanted Cheaney or Muresan instead, some even having the gall to ask for Howard or Webber.5
The Miami Heat were making Khalid Reeves or Bimbo Coles available; maybe one of them, Nash thought. Desperation. What about Kenny Anderson from the Nets? Golden State is listening to offers for Tim Hardaway…
The available options were not feasible and/or too costly. It was clearly a high priority to sign both the rookie Wallace and restricted free agent Webber to new contracts, but they were already Bullets, no doubt. The October 6 start of 1995 training camp was almost a week away and Nash still didn’t have a point guard to lead his young horses.
The GM was striking out in free agency, yellow-ing the armpits on his shirt with the high expectations on his plate. On the same September 27 day that he finally signed Wallace to a three-year deal worth just over $6 million, Nash traded that 1996 first round draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for 31-year old Mark Price, straight-up. Desperate.
Price was already hurt, bad foot left foot. His missed the start of the season, was having surgery by the first week of November, and ended up playing just seven career games with the Bullets. Not a month after trading for Price, and after Webber’s second shoulder dislocation and resulting surgery in late October, Nash sent Don MacLean and Doug Overton to Denver for point guard Robert Pack. More desperation. After a really productive run, Pack succumbed to a leg injury in January 1996. He would only suit up 31 career games with the Bullets. Uh oh.
By July 1996, Nash was gone. (Remember? He up and quit.) New GM Wes Unseld was soon trading Rasheed Wallace and Mitchell Butler to Portland for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant. The bumbling quest for a point guard resulted in a coveted big man draft pick being much too easily sent away for a 30-year old with a sketchy past — Strickland’s rap sheet included barroom brawls in San Antonio, indecent exposure in Seattle, battery charges in Chicago, and domestic abuse charges in New York.6 The Bullets didn’t really have a choice. After all, they didn’t take Stoudamire in the 1995 draft, choosing instead to relieve themselves of, in total: Wallace, a future first round pick, and three other players to finally procure a point to run with Webber and Howard.
Strickland did, however, appear to have an overall positive affect on the team, at least in the beginning. In his first season he helped turn the young Bullets into one of the teams to watch in basketball after they were swept by Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the 1997 playoffs. Said Jordan after the game: “The Bullets pushed us to the limit.”7
In his second season, Strickland lead the NBA in the assists. But there was also Bad Rod. In September 1997 he was getting arrested for drunken driving. (“Do you know who I am?,” he asked the cops.) In December ’97 he was getting into hotel room fist-fights with teammate Tracy Murray over a woman. In March ’98 he was throwing up a hot dog on the court in New Jersey8, one of several times he blew chunks because of an affection for junk food when it was game time.
No one knows how much Strickland really contributed to the continued lack of institutional control, but team-wide disruption eventually led to one of the worst trades in NBA history. The chance to build something was officially killed when Webber, after a January 1998 weed arrest and pepper-spraying by the police, was sent to the Kings for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe by Unseld and Pollin that May. Strickland continued to get in trouble — DUIs, disorderly conduct at Republic Gardens on U Street, and the Chico DeBarge incident at T.G.I. Friday’s in Bowie.9
What if John Nash never relied on free agency? Or even trades? What if he played it safer? What if he built a team? What if the pressure-cooked decision wasn’t to desperately pursue point guards without a good plan otherwise. Sure, that environment was many moons and a couple collective bargaining agreements ago, but what if Nash didn’t find himself surrendering a first rounder for the washed-up Price? The 1996 draft pick that went to the Cavaliers ended up being Vitaly Potapenko at 12th overall. Kobe Bryant went 13th.
So, yes, assuming Kobe still would have pushed for a trade to Los Angeles, the Bullets could have been the Vlade Divac-Chris Webber Kings before they were the Sacramento Kings … with Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard. Or, maybe Kobe would’ve been happy playing with two members of the Fab Five.
This tale isn’t to argue that building through the draft and trades is better than using cap space for free agency, or more trades. Construction in the NBA can be unique to city, current team make-up, conference, time period, and a ton of other factors to varying degrees of importance.
In Washington’s current situation, where free agents aren’t lining up, the goal is to reserve money to pay maximum contract dollar to the team’s own cultivated players — John Wall, Bradley Beal, and maybe even a Kevin Seraphin one day. The goal is not to get in line to over-pay. Nor should it be.
The goal is to one day have the core kids mature into men who can attract coveted free agents to Washington, using their talent to leverage cost-affordable talent. The goal is not to sign a new player for an extended amount of time only to discover: ‘Crap, we have to sign Wall and other guys, but we’re already committed to so-and-so player … Where’s our flexibility?‘
Dana Barros’ career slowly fizzled under the respective M.L. Carr and Rick Pitino coaching experiments in Boston. It was soon discovered that the Bullets were also chasing Elliott Perry’s knee socks-and-goggles style after a career year; he peaked in 1994-95 at age 25. Signing either free agent would have been a mistake. Not as much of a mistake as trading Webber, but a pretty big mistake nonetheless.
The aim of the Wizards is to one day field a roster of cultivated stars, with a couple of kids in line, and affordable talent mostly through contract exceptions; to be wanted by free agents, not to desperately chase them. The Wizards’ current plan may not be perfect — offsetting the cost of not having to buy-out Rashard Lewis with TFFAs (traded-for free agents) Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza for the next two seasons. They are balancing aggressive talent acquisition without sacrificing flexibility when it will be needed.
The Wizards have their future point guard in a point guard-heavy league. The advanced stats would have selected DeMarcus Cousins first overall in 2010. Take solace in the fact that the Wizards are not dealing with him — Olympic team chair Jerry Colangelo said Cousins has “a lot of growing up to do” the other day — while still in pursuit of a franchise leader.
The Wizards, this summer and maybe next summer, don’t have to make a splash in free agency. They don’t have to chase another Dana Barros.
1 Philadelphia Inquirer, Mike Bruton, May 5, 1994.
2 Chicago Tribune, Sam Smith, June 11, 1995.
3 Philly.com Archives
4 Baltimore Sun, Jerry Bembry, Sept. 23, 1995
5 Washington Post, Richard Justice, Sept. 29, 1995
6, 8, 9 Washington City Paper, Dave McKenna, Apr. 11, 2008
7 Baltimore Sun, Alan Goldstein, May 1, 1997