Howard worth price Bullets aren't


The Bullets open their season tomorrow night, but do not pass go, do not lift a finger, do not touch that dial. This franchise is not worthy of your time, and certainly not worthy of your money.

Sign Juwan Howard, then talk to us.

Sign Juwan Howard, get a clue, make the playoffs, then maybe one of those $35 seats at USAir Arena won't seem like the biggest rip-off in professional sports.

The playoffs? The Bullets haven't been there since 1987-88. They haven't won there since 1981-82. They're coming off their fifth straight 50-loss season. And now they have their highest draft pick in 17 years, and won't sign him.

They finally draw a top-five selection after years of whining about poor lottery luck, and they won't sign him. They raise ticket prices sharply -- in part, they say, to keep pace with escalating rookie salaries -- and they won't sign him.

How shameless can you get?

We all know NBA rookie salaries are outrageous, but the Bullets won only 24 games last season. They're in no position to stand on principle. Yet here they are, the NBA equivalent of a banana republic, trying to create a new world order.

If this was the plan, they should have traded Howard in the first place, packaging him for a superstar such as Scottie Pippen. But there is no plan. There is only this ridiculous posturing by a team that made only one significant off-season addition -- veteran point guard Scott Skiles.

The Orioles were in a similar position in 1988, when they made Gregg Olson their highest draft pick ever. They had to sign him. The same was true in '89, when they chose Ben McDonald first overall. The contract dispute turned nasty. But what could the Orioles do, walk away?

The Bullets are doing just that with Howard, apparently figuring they'll break him. That's a fine way to treat a player who might be the next Maurice Lucas or Buck Williams. At one point, general manager John Nash actually had the gall to compare Howard to Danny Ferry.

Sure, John.

And Gheorghe Muresan is George Mikan.

Is the Bullets' 10-year, $30.7 million proposal unreasonable? No, it's the most they've ever offered a player. But is Howard's holdout understandable? Absolutely, according to the game's current salary structure.

Howard isn't trying to establish a standard as McDonald did with his record signing bonus -- all he wants is fair market value. As the No. 5 pick, he figures he deserves at least as much as last year's No. 5 (Isaiah Rider) and more than this year's No. 6 (Sharone Wright).

The practice is known as "slotting" -- the No. 1 makes more than the No. 2, who makes more than the No. 3, right down the line. It is standard operating procedure in virtually every professional sports league, but now the Bullets want to play by new rules.

Specifically, they want to give Howard less money in the early years of his contract -- $691,000 less than what Wright would earn in his first season, and $5.7 million less than what he would earn in his first six.

C'mon, Juwan, take one for the team.

The Bullets' argument is that Howard ultimately would receive more than both Rider (seven years, $25.6 million) and Wright (six years, $19.44 million). He'd get long-term security and the option to terminate the deal and renegotiate if he met certain performance criteria.

Sounds reasonable enough, but why didn't the Bullets take this stand with their previous two No. 1 picks, Tom Gugliotta and Calbert Cheaney? Why must Howard accept less than market value from a team that desperately needs him?

Oh, there's a way out of this -- if the Bullets create a bigger slot than the $1.309 million available for Howard. But to do that, they'd have to restructure contracts. And here, too, they're unwilling to play the NBA game.

Howard's agent, David Falk, also represents Cheaney and Rex Chapman, and naturally, he's offering to renegotiate for both players. The cap forces nearly every team to juggle in such fashion. But the Bullets are so high and mighty, you'd think they'd won six straight NBA titles.

And so here we are, one day before the opener -- one day before Shaquille O'Neal -- and the Bullets still aren't sold out. The NBA has evolved into the world's most popular sports league, but it's a whisper in these parts. Bullets attendance increases for one reason -- fans want to see the other team.

Howard won't take the Bullets to the playoffs, but at least he'd make them more interesting, move them one step closer. You want to talk about principle? Let's talk about principle. Let's talk about a team that won 24 games, raised ticket prices and won't sign Juwan Howard.

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