Gilbert Arenas tore the Wizards apart. On Tuesday night, the basketball gods took a major step toward putting them back together.
In an upset that could make all the misery of the past season worthwhile, the Wizards landed the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NBA draft – a development that gives them an unobstructed path to turning around a franchise that was decimated by Arenas’ gun conviction and season-long suspension.
League sources believe the Wizards will use the pick to select Kentucky point guard John Wall, who watched the proceedings from Beverly Hills, Calif., with his new agent, Dan Fegan.
"It’s a great opportunity to get drafted by any team," Wall said. "It means a lot. I’m just going to come in, work hard, try to make the team better, and just try to win games for the organization next year."
In a phone interview with CBSSports.com, Wall said he was expecting the Nets to get the pick but added, "I'm not disappointed. I'm real happy, just excited to play for any team in the NBA."
The Wizards "went through a lot last year," Wall said. "I'll have an opportunity to help turn the organization around. They have cap space to add some good players."
Wall said he'd received a text from his college coach, John Calipari, who is at the center of speculation about several NBA coaching jobs. Wall said he hasn't discussed Coach Cal's future with him -- nor has he spoken with his pal, LeBron James, since his season ended prematurely with a loss to Boston in the conference semifinals.
As for the possibility that ping pong balls and free agency could bring them together somewhere, Wall said, "That would be exciting, but I haven't talked to him about that. I'm just excited to get a chance to play in the NBA."
Wall, the consensus top pick among a cross-section of league personnel executives, will instantly make the Wizards better simply by showing up. It will be hard to fathom them being worse than the 26-win disaster they were this past season with the addition of Wall and with Arenas coming back.
Irene Pollin, the widow of late Wizards owner Abe Pollin, represented the team at the lottery proceedings in Secaucus, N.J. She wore her late husband’s 1978 championship ring in a moving tribute to the man whose memory was besmirched by Arenas’ weapons possession in the team’s locker room.
The incident led to Arenas being suspended indefinitely, and then for the rest of the 2009-10 season by NBA commissioner David Stern. Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld and assistant GM Tommy Sheppard responded by quickly tearing apart a roster that had been expected to be among the top contenders in the Eastern Conference. By trading Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson, the Wizards not only got below the punitive luxury-tax threshold for this past season, but they also cleared enough cap flexibility to chase a max free agent when the much anticipated negotiating period opens July 1.
If the Wizards decline an $11.8 million player option for Josh Howard, acquired from Dallas in the trade that send Butler and Haywood to the Mavericks, they will have nearly $20 million in cap space – enough for a max player and then some to go with Wall, Arenas, restricted free agent Randy Foye, JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, and role players Nick Young, Al Thornton and Quinton Ross.
And here’s the kicker: If the Wizards want to part ways with Arenas and the $80 million he’s owed over the next four seasons, they can dangle the rights to Wall as his traveling partner. The asking price almost certainly would be one of the marquee free agents threatening to leave their current teams – including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire. Faced with the prospect of losing one of those franchise cornerstones and getting nothing in return, all of those teams will be open to discussions with the Wizards.
The Wizards' good fortune was juxtaposed with the first disappointment of the Mikhail Prokhorov era as owner of the Nets. The Russian tycoon stood stern-faced and emotionless as the news was read in the Secaucus studio that his nomadic, star-crossed franchise had failed to cash in on its league-high 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick. The Nets got the third pick, which also will put them out of the running for Ohio State's Evan Turner, whom many league executives believe will be a fine consolation prize for not getting Wall. The second pick went to Philadelphia, which jumped four spots from sixth in the lottery odds.
The Wizards were slotted fifth, with a 7.6 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick. The Timberwolves, slotted second with a 19.9 percent chance of getting the top pick, wound up with the fourth selection. The Kings, slotted third, fell one spot to fifth, while the fourth-slotted Warriors fell to sixth.