Strickland stays for 4 years, $40M; Wizards, guard settle bitter contract dispute


WASHINGTON -- The contract talks at times demonstrated a bitterness between the Washington Wizards and Rod Strickland. But just two days before the start of the regular season, the Wizards were finally able to put together their dream backcourt.

Strickland, a point guard whose 10.5 assists a game last season led the NBA, signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the Wizards last night and will play alongside Mitch Richmond in tomorrow night's season opener at Indiana. The Wizards will have a $5 million buyout option in the fourth year of the contract.

The deal amounts to a compromise. The Wizards originally offered a three-year, $27 million contract. Strickland's agent, David Falk, first asked for $65 million over five years, later dropping the offer to $55 million.

In the end the two sides split the difference, with Strickland able to get the fourth year if he performs up to the high level he has played over the last two years in Washington. Washington's reluctance to sign Strickland to five years stemmed from off-the-court problems that included a drunken-driving arrest, missing team functions and being late for practices and games.

"I always thought it was going to happen," Wizards general manager Wes Unseld said last night. "I'm just glad it's over with."

The deal was done after Unseld and Falk met on Tuesday night, after nearly a week of jousting through the media. Unseld said on Monday that if a deal was not done by tomorrow's opener, the Wizards would seek other options.

Fans who attended the team's open scrimmage Jan. 24 and preseason game against Philadelphia on Saturday had their say in the matter: Chants of "we want Rod, we want Rod" echoed throughout the MCI Center both times.

Players also were eager to weigh in, knowing that the team's success rested largely on Strickland's play-making ability. They urged the organization to sign Strickland, who averaged 17.8 points last season.

"That was one of the reasons I was excited about coming, to play with Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland," Richmond said yesterday. "He brings a lot of things to this team. He's one of the best point guards in the league."

Howard, also a Falk client, said players lobbied owner Abe Pollin every time he stopped by practice.

"They see Abe Pollin walk in the door and guys are saying, 'Where's Rod at? Why isn't he walking in with you?' " Howard said after yesterday's practice, before Strickland signed. "This team needs to know the direction this organization is moving, whether they are going to sign him or not. Instead of keeping us in limbo the team deserves to know, the fans deserve to know."

Now everyone knows. Strickland will likely practice with the team today and play tomorrow, although it's not known how much.

"It represents a problem, because he has to fit in with what we're doing," said coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "But it's a problem I look forward to."

Now it's time to see whether the much anticipated veteran backcourt of Strickland and Richmond -- both in their 11th season -- was worth the wait.

"We all believe this gives us one of the best backcourts in the league; we'll have to wait to find out," Unseld said. "The best place to have veterans is at your leadership positions, and this gives us that.

"It's going to be interesting to see them work together," Unseld added. "I think they'll complement each other very well."

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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