You might not believe it, but once there was a time when Mitch Richmond acted as the Kevin Love of his day. Playing as an unheralded All-Star, working on a terrible team, involved in every trade rumor known to man. Rick Pitino, running the show in Boston, worked like mad to make him a Celtic. Pat Riley, then as it is now, had to be in the mix in bringing the Rock to Miami. New Jersey was in on things, Dallas took a swipe, and all manner of trade packages and setups were constructed in order to free Mitch Richmond’s winning ways from his losing Sacramento Kings team.
The 1997 trade deadline and 1997 offseason came and went without a move, though. Even the hectic 1998 trade deadline, pitched in anticipation of a major free-agent class and an expected NBA lockout, dissipated with Richmond remaining a King. It took an unexpected – no Twitter, an Internet you needed to call into, hardly any chatter – deal on the day of the ‘Seinfeld’ finale and just hours before Frank Sinatra’s passing, to free Richmond from Sacto.
Sacramento and Washington: Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe for Chris Webber. Old for young, small for big. All the NBA tenets you’re supposed to go against while making a trade. After years of tantalizing trade expectations surrounding Mitch Richmond, the Wizards and Kings seemed to find the one deal that actually made Mitch Richmond look bad.
It speaks to the despondency of Sacramento’s situation that Webber, who went on to six playoff appearances with the Kings, had to be talked into reporting to Sacramento even eight months after the deal, once the lockout lifted. That’s how bad Mitch Richmond had it in California’s capital, in the years following the 1991 deal that sent him to the Kings from Golden State for Billy Owens. That trade busted up a potential Finals contender for Golden State, one that salted the crops for Webber when he was sent to the Warriors in 1993.
And the Wizards? They never got it together with Richmond in his declining years. By the time Richmond latched on with the Lakers to win a ring in 2002, downing Webber’s Kings along the way, he wasn’t even in the rotation. It’s a tale of hard luck and woe without many nationally televised appearances to go by as his career moved along.
Beside all those bad breaks, though, were the years when Mitch Richmond was playing like an out and out badass.
This was back when the NBA had shooting guards. Latrell Sprewell and Anfernee Hardaway made the All-NBA first team during Michael Jordan’s first retirement, which speaks to the era’s depth at that position, while Joe Dumars, Reggie Miller, Steve Smith and numerous others worked around the fringes. In a pre-zone era that was heavy on the two-man game, an off guard that could squat, shoot, drive and score was of paramount importance.
Richmond was of paramount importance. He could lope into the lane and finish with a finger roll, his post-up game as a guard was only equaled by Jordan and former teammate Tim Hardaway. He shot over 40 percent from behind the arc even before the NBA moved in the 3-point line in 1994, and all of this work was done on a team that boasted no second options. The Kings were terrible, from 1991-98, making the playoffs only once and never giving Richmond the supporting cast he deserved.
This was sadly par for Richmond’s career course. He went from an emerging superstar in Golden State to a trade-rumored martyr in Sacramento to a millstone in Washington (the Wizards signed him to a four-year, $40 million extension, FOR A SHOOTING GUARD, at age 34 in 1999; terms that look ridiculous even by today’s standards) to an afterthought in Los Angeles. He was never about the numbers, but in the end those numbers were all he had.
Those numbers included 10 seasons with better than 20 points per game to start his career, and a near-miss (19.7 a contest) in his 11th campaign. Richmond shot better than 41 percent during the three seasons when the NBA’s 3-point line was shortened to 22 feet, he rebounded and dished as best he could considering the structure around him, and he defended expertly. He was a rock, and in the days before NBA League Pass, he was working on an island.
None of this would have happened had Don Nelson not fallen in love with Billy Owens’ game in 1991, sending Richmond to Sacramento for the draft rights to the former Syracuse star after Richmond had won Rookie of the Year in 1989 and spent three seasons with the Warriors averaging over 22 points per contest. Richmond was a prototype shooting guard, and Nellie never loved orthodoxy – so the chance to trade for the unknown (Owens had the potential to become the next great all-around hybrid forward; a mix of Webber and Boris Diaw, if you will … and he wouldn’t) was too tantalizing to pass up.
It ruined Richmond’s career, the Warriors’ eventual outlook, it put the kibosh on Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin’s time in Golden State, and Nellie’s initial run with the Warriors. Rare do NBA trade outlooks come more certain than this one. Save for, of course, “Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe for Chris Webber.”
Sadly, that’s sometimes how a career goes. And in the interim, should your talent and heart allow for it, you just keep spinning to the hoop, pivoting off of a screen, or using your core and footwork down low. Mitch Richmond kept his head down and his game rose above. His game kind of had to, considering his teammates. We won’t name names, but you can find them easily enough.
It’s Mitch Richmond’s name on the plaque, though. He’s got a ring and an All-Star Game MVP and a gold medal and a whole lot of career points and the knowledge that tells him that he stuck it out on a series of terrible teams while never making a fuss about the noise surrounding him. He’s a Hall of Famer without the help of NBC, without any League Pass alerts, and without ever having the help of a general manager who knew what he was doing.
Mitch Richmond did this on his own. Sometimes, that’s enough.
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