New Blood on Defense Could Make Wizards a Cut Above

By Mike Wise
Friday, July 7, 2006

When the Bulls get bigger and better by signing a player like Ben Wallace and trading for someone like P.J. Brown, the Wizards don't need to stand pat. They've reached the same first-round playoff plateau as Chicago in a conference where the Pistons are ready to be had and LeBron is in limbo at the moment.

The Wizards need to do what other genuine contenders do in the NBA offseason: hit back. They need to make a move. At 9:06 a.m. Monday, their fans should be speed-dialing the co-hosts of Miserable Suburban Guy radio, demanding that Antawn Jamison be dealt for Kenyon Martin. Or asking, without sarcasm in their voices, why Ernie Grunfeld cannot package Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas, Andray Blatche and next year's first-rounder for Kevin Garnett.

This is grist for the offseason, something to chew on before a sensible upgrade can be made. It's fodder before a below-the-radar move is made, that cheap, simple acquisition to push the franchise toward the second round and beyond. But the Wizards might not even make that move.

At this moment, the Wizards' cheap, simple acquisition is the forthcoming hiring of a defensive coach. Or a consultant -- we're not sure yet. It could be a Scottie Pippen or Michael Cooper type. Or Jim Lynam, a confidant of Eddie Jordan's. If it's an old-timer who does not want to live out of a suitcase anymore, the Wizards might accommodate him by just having him work with the players during training camp and at home.

"Someone I can talk to about the defense, whether it's in training camp or during the season," Jordan said yesterday afternoon by telephone from Las Vegas, where he's working with the Wizards' summer league team. "Could be a young guy who was a former player and great defender or an old guy who's not coaching anywhere right now. We're still looking at the names."

Now, having suggested two months ago that the Wizards try to get better defensively by hiring such a coach, second-guessing that decision might appear disingenuous. But that was just one of several pointers for a team that needs so much more than someone telling Haywood, "Do not get dunked upon." The larger idea was to acquire players who do not get dunked upon.

Instead, a serene, almost weird calm has fallen over Verizon Center. The people who essentially brought you Caron Butler-for-Kwame Brown a year ago and took a step back in the postseason have a new slogan for 2006-07:

"We Like Our Deficient Team."

Some faulty executive decisions were made in Washington sports lately, starting with Stan Kasten keeping Jim Bowden and moving on to the Capitals letting Jeff Halpern, their emotional rock and captain, go to Dallas for a pittance. Bowden was a blown save away from a "Cold Pizza" analyst gig and he gets rewarded for cutting and pasting a last-place team together. Meanwhile, Halpern, the local boy who made good, is shipped off without sentiment -- and don't think a lot of season tickets didn't go with him.

But the Wizards seem to be saying that sometimes the best move is the move you don't make. Is no one else following this team alarmed? The Bulls are about to become the baddest team on the planet, a sincere challenger to Miami, and the Wizards are doing absolutely nothing!

Okay, they're trying to work out a deal to keep Jared Jeffries, a restricted free agent. Jeffries is the best defender on the Wizards, which is kind of like being the best soccer player in America or the most liberal guy in the Bush cabinet; it doesn't count for much.

But Jeffries is a link to the last two playoff seasons, and maybe there are worse things than standing pat in today's NBA. Grunfeld has been prescient before. At a time when the league was becoming less physical, he remade the Knicks into an athletic, Finals-worthy outfit. Maybe now he sees Big Ben and P.J. Brown on the floor at the same time and, rather than a strong defensive squad, he sees a Bulls team playing three-on-five offensively.

In a league of stop-and-pop gunners, the Wizards already are the Suns of the East. If getting into the lane and penetrating got Dwyane Wade a championship and Steve Nash a date in the conference finals, who's to say Gilbert Arenas's team can't take the next step?

As ornery as Martin sounds, does it make sense to take on five years and $71 million for a guy with a balky knee? Does it make sense to acquire the last player, after Kwame Brown, suspended by his team for the playoffs?

The problem, however, with not taking a chance is remembering how the Wizards finished last season, the layups given up in the final minutes of big games, the inability to stop the other team from sending them home. They don't need to make a major splash, but they need to dip their toe in the water this summer. If Jamison does not get some help defending forwards, they're going nowhere but one round and out again.

If the Wizards believe the acquisition of a defensive coach can fix that, that's naive.

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