Wizards Look to Next Step

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Like Coach Eddie Jordan and such players as Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld feels good about the future of the Washington Wizards.

The Wizards have made back-to-back playoff appearances, Arenas is an emerging star and Butler had his best professional season with the Wizards. But all parties agree that the team must improve defensively to earn a better playoff seed and advance deeper in the postseason.

During a news conference yesterday at Verizon Center, Grunfeld touched on several issues, including the status of Jordan, who is entering the final season of a four-year contract he signed in 2003.

Jordan is seeking a contract extension and Grunfeld said negotiations "will be something we discuss as we go along this summer."

"There's no timeframe for anything," Grunfeld said. "Right now, we're still hurting a little bit and smarting from the playoffs."

Grunfeld, who was hired after owner Abe Pollin hired Jordan in June 2003, praised the work done by Jordan this season.

"Eddie's done a terrific job," Grunfeld said. "We've gone to the playoffs two straight years, players are improving and we fought hard every night. He's done a good job for us."

Grunfeld has added a key player in each of his first three summers, starting with the signing of Arenas in 2003, continuing with the acquisition of Jamison through a trade with Dallas in 2004 and followed with the trade that brought Butler to Washington for Kwame Brown last summer.

With 13 players under contract for next season, the Wizards are over the salary cap but under the luxury tax limit and will have a mid-level exception available to sign a free agent.

The mid-level exception was $5 million during the 2005-06 season (the Wizards used it to sign guard Antonio Daniels) and a new mid-level value and a new salary cap will be established when free agency opens July 1.

The team has until June 30 to make a qualifying offer to Jared Jeffries and then will have the option of matching any offer made to him by another team. Though Grunfeld labeled the upcoming free agent market as "thin," he did not rule out upgrading his team's roster either in free agency or through a trade.

"I'm comfortable with what we have because I think we can compete at the highest level against anybody," Grunfeld said. "Having said that, you always look for things that can make your team better. I think we've shown that, if the right opportunity presents itself, we are not afraid to pull the trigger."

One big man whom the Wizards may consider is former Maryland star Chris Wilcox, who will be a restricted free agent. The power forward, who left Maryland after his sophomore season in 2002, played the best ball of his career after a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to Seattle last season. In 29 games with the SuperSonics, Wilcox averaged a career-high 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 59.2 percent from the field.

Wilcox had spent the previous 4 1/2 seasons with the Clippers, where he was stuck behind all-star forward Elton Brand and center Chris Kaman this season. Seattle would have the right to match any offer made to Wilcox, and General Manager Rick Sund has said retaining the 23-year- old Wilcox will be the team's "number one priority in free agency."

Meantime, Washington's restricted free agent, Jeffries, described himself as "anxious" to test the market. Jeffries started 77 games and averaged 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds while shooting 45.1 percent from the field this season, numbers that are close to his career averages.

Jordan loves Jeffries for his defensive versatility -- Jeffries defended everyone from point guards to centers at various stages this season -- and for his coachable nature. Jeffries had a solid playoff series against Cleveland, but his offensive game remains a question mark.

Opponents invite Jeffries, a career 29.2 percent three-point shooter, to take the open jumper and Jeffries's inconsistency finishing would-be layups and dunks has been a nagging problem throughout his four-season career. However, Jeffries will receive plenty of attention in free agency.

"It's appealing to have a chance to go out and talk to people," Jeffries said. "Everyone likes to go out and have people talk good about you; so to go out and hear people talk about how they want your services, that makes anybody feel good."

Wizards Notes: While he ponders his future this summer, Jeffries will also dip into his past. Jeffries and his father, Tom, are taking a trip to Vietnam this summer. Tom Jeffries served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

"He hasn't been back since the war, so we're going to go over there and see some of the places where he was stationed," Jeffries said. . . .

Daniels plans to improve his jump shot this summer. This season, Daniels averaged 9.6 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 41.8 percent, including 22.8 percent from three-point range. After a cold stretch during November and December, when he made 3 of 26 three-pointers, Daniels said he grew reluctant to take open outside shots. Daniels shot a career-best 40.4 percent from three-point range in 2000-01 with San Antonio.

"I have to get the range back on my shot," Daniels said. "A few years ago, I was in the top 10 in three-point percentage, and I have to get back to the point where I'm shooting that shot with consistency and I'm also making that mid-range shot. It's a confidence thing." . . .

The Wizards will begin working out draft candidates later this month. The team holds the 18th pick (first round) and the 48th pick (second round).

The team still holds the NBA rights to 2002 second-round pick Juan Carlos Navarro, a shooting guard who has spent the last five seasons playing with FC Barcelona in the Euroleague. Though regarded as one of the top players in Europe, Navarro's contract contains a large buyout clause, and the Wizards have no immediate plans to sign him.

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