WASHINGTON -- There's a slight smirk forming on the face of Washington Wizards guard Mitch Richmond, an indication that he has had to answer the comparison question dozens -- if not hundreds -- of times.
The query: How does Richmond, 34, plan to fill the void of the man he was traded for, 25-year-old Chris Webber, who most nights last season gave the Wizards 20 points, 10 rebounds and occasional spectacular moves that wowed the crowd?
Richmond responds in one of those "let's get this straight right away" tones.
"I'm definitely not going to be playing above the rim. That's not my game," he says. "I'm just going to try to do the things that made me successful. And that style is happening below the rim."
Where Webber has plenty of style, Richmond possesses substance. When Webber's numbers were often overlooked when it came to honors, Richmond, a two-time Olympian, has been rewarded with six All-Star appearances.
And now the Wizards are hoping that Richmond -- paired in the backcourt with Rod Strickland, who re-signed yesterday -- is able to deliver for a team that has reached the postseason just once in the past 11 years.
"I know people are going to be looking at me -- just because [Washington] had to give up on a young guy like Chris Webber, a young forward who is going to have great years in the league," Richmond said. "As for me, I feel pressure every time I step on the court. But in basketball, you really can't do it on your own. And on this team, with Juwan [Howard], Calbert [Cheaney], Tracy [Murray] and Rod Strickland, we can all help move this organization in the right direction."
Richmond will be a big part of that movement, bringing to Washington a career 23.1-point scoring average that ranks 19th on the all-time list. Selected by the Golden State Warriors with the fifth pick of the 1988 draft, Richmond has played in six All-Star games, winning the game's Most Valuable Player award in 1995. He has averaged at least 21 points a game in each of his first 10 seasons, joining the elite company of Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.
And yet it's quite possible that the majority of basketball fans -- outside of the All-Star Game -- have never seen Richmond play. He played the past six years with the Sacramento Kings, a small-market team that made the playoffs once in Richmond's six years. When the Kings did make their rare mandatory national television appearance, it wasn't likely fans would flock to their sets to watch. The Kings have not had a winning season since moving from Kansas City, Mo., to Sacramento in 1985.
"I had some great years in Sacramento, and I got along well with the fans," Richmond said. "But as far as the losing, that was very tough on me. I wish I had been traded earlier in my career, and I was trying to get out of there four years ago because I wanted to be in a bigger market.
"It was tough playing there," he added. "You know what type of direction you're going in as a team when you go to training camp and you don't have any guys signed in the off-season."
So Richmond was ecstatic when he heard of the trade last May, bringing him to a more talented team playing in a new building in a bigger media market.
Richmond's style is not flashy; in fact it's basic. He is an accurate enough long-distance shooter to keep opposing defenses honest. Try to take that shot away from him and he can beat you off the dribble, with the ability to finish around the basket or nail a short jumper.
"Mitch Richmond is a two [shooting] guard that can score at will, that's what he brings to this team," said Howard. "Not to say that Calbert Cheaney didn't have it, but Mitch has done it for years."
He has done it in a way that won't garner a lot of "oohs" and "aaahs," and it will rarely earn him much of a mention on "SportsCenter." But the Wizards are hoping it's a style that will complement the team's other components and help the organization win.
"This basketball team obviously has a different personality," said Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "When you talk about the kind of excitement that we had [last season], sometimes I think that was a detriment to our team."
Another detriment was the trouble that key players -- Howard, Webber and Strickland -- ran into off the court. In trading for the mild-mannered Richmond, the Wizards are hoping for a veteran leader who can set an example for some of the other players.
The question now is whether Richmond can provide that type of leadership on the court. In a league that's growing younger and more athletic, Richmond will turn 34 in June. The demands of the coming season, including three games on three consecutive nights occasionally, could be taxing on his body.
But age is the least of Richmond's concerns.
"Look across the board, and all of the guys who are doing well -- like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley -- are older guys," Richmond said. "Personally, I think you get better with age. I still have confidence in my abilities."
Coming tomorrow: Staff writer Jerry Bembry looks at who will be fighting it out to win the first NBA title of the post-Jordan era. Also, a capsule look at all 29 teams. Pub Date: 2/04/99