On Saturday night, LeBron James made his return to the Verizon Center and brought back memories of the great games he played against the Wizards over the years. Even though he came to the Phone Booth with a new number and a new jersey, the feelings haven't changed. Fans still remember the heartbreaking shots, the blatant travels and all of his obnoxious mannerisms.
Regardless of what team he plays for, LeBron James will always be a villain in the nation's capital. He's been engraved on the D.C.'s Mount Rushmore of villains, alongside Jerry Jones, Coach K and Sidney Crosby. While the rest of the nation's anger slowly cools from The Decision, the hatred towards James will always burn hot in Washington. Yet, for as much as he's done to crush Washington over the years, he has also helped the franchise on more than one occasion.
LeBron's first and biggest contribution to the Wizards came last season when he goaded the Cavaliers into making a trade for Antawn Jamison. Despite his outstanding production, Jamison's salary was just too high and too long for any team to take a chance on him, except for the Cavaliers. They were desperate for help at power forward and they were desperate to add firepower to convince LeBron to stay in Cleveland. Their desperation led them to make a move no one else would make and they've been paying for it every since.
They took a big risk trading for Jamison, and as we now know, it still wasn't enough to convince LeBron to stay. Now, the Cavaliers are stuck with a fine gentleman and great locker room that's untradeable. If it wasn't for the panic LeBron created with his impending free agency, the Wizards would be in Cleveland's unenviable position of paying Jamison to be stuck on a team that can't rebuild with his contract on the books. Instead, with the cap room the received from the trade, they were able to re-sign Andray Blatche to a long-term deal before he hit the open market. Plus, they managed to pick up a first round pick from Cleveland to speed up the Wizards' rebuilding efforts.
The cap space created by the Jamison trade also helped the Wizards make two more moves to accelerate the transition to rebuilding mode. They were able to send Drew Gooden, who they acquired in their trade with Dallas, to the Clippers in exchange for Al Thornton. Shaving Thornton's salary allowed the Clippers create enough cap room to sign James to a max deal that offseason. Of course, we all know James never would have signed with the Clippers, but they had to try, and the Wizards were more than happy to benefit from a team taking desperate measures to pursue LeBron.
The cap space also allowed them to absorb Kirk Hinrich's contract and pick up a first round pick from the Bulls for the rights to their second round pick from the 2006 Draft, Vladimir Veremeenko. The Wizards made out like bandits, because the Bulls were desperate to create more cap room for LeBron and whomever he wanted to bring with him to the Windy City. Like the Cavaliers and the Clippers, they took a big gamble hoping they could lure LeBron, but wound up falling short.
In all, the LeBroncalypse helped the Wizards obtain two first-round picks, acquire another youngster in Al Thornton, re-sign Blatche and shed $30 million in salary due to Jamison, who doesn't have any value to a rebuilding team. James helped usher the Wizards into rebuilding mode with the Antawn Jamison trade, and now he's helped officially break all ties with the core that couldn't get past him in the playoffs through the Gilbert Arenas trade.
Now, that LeBron has signed with Miami, he's put the pressure on everyone else to assemble super teams to go toe-to-toe with the Heat. Every contender is feeling the pressure to fight star power with more star power. Otis Smith understood that. He knew he needed to make a move to keep pace with their Florida rivals, and was willing to take the risk with a radioactive asset like Gilbert Arenas to keep pace with Miami. Time will tell if the move works for Orlando, but it has already worked for Washington, who finally severed all ties to the past and saved some money in the long-term.
As improbable and unfathomable as it is to say, the Wizards are in a much better place today because of LeBron James. Without the free agent circus he created this summer and the new pecking order he created with The Decision, the Wizards would still be stuck in the past. The unusual circumstances created by James turned Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas, whose age and contracts would be instant trade killers in normal situations, into tradeable pieces for championship contenders.
Hate how he handled his free agency as much as you want, but other than the Heat, no team has benefited more from LeBron James' move to the Miami Heat more than the Washington Wizards. By creating doubt and uncertainty throughout the NBA, LeBron forced teams to into risky decisions that have helped the Wizards unload players who weren't going to help with rebuilding and acquire draft picks to speed along the process. The Wizards still have a long way to go before they're competitive, but thanks to LeBron James, they're at least headed in the right direction.