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Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page D07

WHO'S NEXT?

at Jazz

Tomorrow, 9 p.m.

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DENVER, March 22 -- The Washington Wizards' jockeying for Eastern Conference playoff position greatly impacts the Denver Nuggets, who will receive Washington's first-round draft pick should the team end the franchise's eight-year postseason drought. Losing the pick also would free up money this summer so the Wizards can sign free agents, particularly guard Larry Hughes and forward Kwame Brown.

The Wizards dealt the draft pick (and Laron Profit) to Orlando in 2001 for center Brendan Haywood, and the Magic traded the pick to Denver last summer in a deal for Jameer Nelson. When the Nuggets acquired forward Kenyon Martin in a sign-and-trade deal with the New Jersey Nets last summer, Nuggets General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe gave up three future draft picks that belonged to Denver, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Clippers appear headed for another lottery trip, while the 76ers are in a battle for the eighth spot in the East. . . .

The Nuggets started the season 17-25 and their star, Carmelo Anthony, had a few noted off-court incidents, including an appearance in a DVD that glorified the drug trade in his home town of Baltimore. But Anthony said that a playoff berth would make up for all of those early season struggles. The Nuggets entered their game Tuesday night with a 2 1/2-game lead over Minnesota for the final spot.

"Aw, that's a great story. Despite what the team went through, what I went through and here at the end of the season and we're still here playing, that's amazing," Anthony said. "It's a great feeling. Everything happens for a reason and only the strong can survive. So, that's what we've been doing. We had a tough start for a minute, a couple of months, now we picked it back up. We're in good position to secure the eight spot. We control everything right now." . . .

Wizards director of player development Mitchell Butler took his position with the team only a few weeks after the Nuggets made him one of the final cuts in training camp.

"When I walk into this place, I sort of feel like I should be putting on a uniform and playing. It conjured up some feelings, some emotions," Butler said. "It's a double-edged sword. Would I love to be out on this floor? Absolutely. Do I love what I'm doing for the Wizards right now? I love it even more."

After they cut him, the Nuggets offered Butler, 34, a position on their coaching staff, but the eight-year NBA veteran elected to join the franchise where he began his career in 1993.

-- Michael Lee


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