Monday, December 19, 2005

Bittersweet Revenge

Amidst all of Sunday night’s Redskins euphoria (and it was euphoric—I'm still stunned) a lot of people in this city probably missed two of its most beloved athletic stars sticking it in the eye of the hometown pro basketball team.
University of Maryland legends and current Portland Trail Blazers Juan Dixon and Steve Blake combined for 34 points to down their former team, the Washington Wizards, in front of a barely-there crowd in Oregon late Sunday night. It was sweet justice for Juan and Stevie, who were unceremoniously dumped by the Wizards in the offseason after giving nothing but their all for three and two years, respectively.
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan and GM Ernie Grunfeld—it was explained to us, the stupid fans—wanted more size in the backcourt. Dixon and Blake are just too small to fit in here, you see. So the Wizards went out and got two journeymen guards, Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins. Never heard of either ’em? I didn’t think so. Because they’re no different than a million other guys who have wandered through the NBA.
Juan and Steve, on the other hand, are hometown heroes who still receive standing ovations in D.C., even though they now play for the opposing team. Daniels and Atkins are two veterans that have done absolutely nothing in this league of any distinction, other than managing to stay in it.
Dixon and Blake were never given a fair shot by Jordan, who, apparently, is the first coach in the history of this duo’s combined careers not to absolutely love these guys. Juan received irregular minutes at best in his tenure with the Wizards, and Blake was lucky if he saw the floor once a week. I’m convinced it was all about ego for Jordan—he wasn’t about to let the fans tell him how to coach his team, and he got rid of the heroes wouldn’t have to hear the “We want Juan!” chants anymore.
So how’s that working out for you, Coach?
Playing without three starters, Portland nevertheless dismissed the Wizards Sunday night, led by the former Maryland duo playing together once again in the backcourt down the stretch. Washington’s Gilbert Arenas hit a three-pointer to cut it to one with a couple minutes to go, but Dixon and Blake combined to run off seven points in a row and put the game on ice, dropping the Wizards to a pathetic four games under .500.
If the Wizards don’t make the playoffs this year, Eddie Jordan should be fired. He’s been a mediocre coach that has stuck around because expectations were so low, making the second round of the playoffs last season was the equivalent of winning the NBA championship around here.
But Jordan has made as many mistakes with this team in his three and a quarter seasons as he has made good decisions. No one can figure out his rotation (Juan said as much this season), and he runs his stars into the ground (Arenas is continually ranked among the top minutes played in the league). He and Grunfeld essentially blew up a backcourt that last season was arguably the best in the league. I was never a big Larry Hughes fan, but the team undoubtedly misses him this season. And the Wizards certainly miss Dixon’s instant offense off the bench, as neither Atkins nor Daniels have shown any propensity that they can score and hit outside shots with any consistency (Daniels is hardly even playing nowadays).
Guys like Juan Dixon and Steve Blake—who make up for the lack of natural ability with heart, smarts, and passion—don’t come along nearly as often as faceless roster-fillers like Daniels and Atkins (heck, Dixon is outscoring the latter duo all by himself this year). The Maryland stars made coming to Wizards games worthwhile; last time I checked, professional sports teams do need fans every now and then to pay their salaries—it’s not like MCI is selling out every night.
But even more than all that, Jordan said cutting Dixon and Blake was all about winning. Well, what have you done for me lately, Coach? I thought the Wizards were supposed to be better this year after making the playoffs for the first time in two decades. Dixon singlehandedly won three or four games for Washington last season—including a clutch performance in the PLAYOFFS against Chicago—but for some reason that didn’t matter to Jordan. His ego is too big for his size and his success.
At first I questioned why Dixon and Blake went to a rotten organization like Portland. But new coach Nate McMillan has a mind to turn that whole team around, jettisoning the chaff (like, I assume, Darius Miles), and moving forward in a new, positive direction. If that is the case, he knew exactly what he was doing by bringing in Juan and Stevie. They’re not good enough to make up a starting backcourt in the NBA, but they’re two guys that every team in the league—teams with any sense, anyway—should want. All they wanted was a genuine chance to show what they could do.
No matter what the Wizards go on to accomplish this season and beyond, losing Dixon and Blake will always be an open wound. And it should be. The Wizards got exactly what they deserved tonight.

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