This Season, Wizards Think Bigger

Coach Eddie Jordan enters his fourth season with the Wizards with higher expectations for the postseason.
Coach Eddie Jordan enters his fourth season with the Wizards with higher expectations for the postseason. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Washington Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said he believes the time has arrived for the franchise to do something it hasn't done since Wes Unseld's Bullets went to the NBA Finals in 1979: get past the second round of the playoffs.

"Eastern Conference finals is the next step," Jordan said yesterday in a news conference at Verizon Center. "How long will that take? I don't know. I like to think it will be this year. In my mind, it's certainly not a three-year plan. I want to get there this year. Saying we went to the Eastern Conference finals, that's a good taste in your mouth. I've been there as a coach. As a player I've been to the [NBA] Finals. This team is becoming seasoned enough -- the chemistry is getting there. That's the next step. Not just making it to the second round. We did that two years ago."

Jordan will get his first real look at this season's team on Tuesday when training camp opens in Richmond. Following one week of training camp on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, the Wizards will have eight preseason games before opening the regular season Nov. 1 against LeBron James, Larry Hughes and the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

Barring injuries, the team that takes the floor opening night will look much like the one that lost a thrilling first-round playoff series to the Cavaliers last spring.

In that series, won by Cleveland in six games, the Wizards lost three games by a point and were unable to come up with the kinds of crucial plays that separate championship contenders from postseason also-rans.

The first order of business for Jordan and his staff will be shoring up a defense that allowed 99.8 points per game last season and broke down in key stretches in the playoff series with Cleveland. "We have to rebound better and we have to protect the rim better," Jordan said. "Those are going to be key areas for us starting in camp."

Any improvements will have to come without guard-forward Jared Jeffries, who was perhaps the team's best all-around defender last season. Jeffries signed a five-year, $30 million offer sheet with the New York Knicks, and the Wizards elected not to match after landing guard DeShawn Stevenson for the veteran's minimum ($932,000).

President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld feels that the 6-foot-5 Stevenson, along with the healthy return of shooting guard Jarvis Hayes and the continued development of second-year forward Andray Blatche, can make up for what the team will miss without Jeffries, who averaged 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds last season.

Hayes, who has been limited to 75 games in the last two seasons, is still recovering from knee surgery but will be available for the opening of training camp. Hayes, Stevenson, Caron Butler and Antonio Daniels will be in the mix for playing time at shooting guard, while forward Darius Songaila will swing between forward and center in what should be a very competitive training camp and preseason.

Jordan and Grunfeld like the depth and versatility of the team, which features the league's highest-scoring trio in Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Butler. They are anxious to see what kind of playing rotations will develop in the preseason.

"Nothing's been decided," Jordan said. "Everything's wide open."

The same thing could be said about the rest of the Eastern Conference. The defending champion Miami Heat will be the favorite while the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets and Cavaliers all figure to be jostling for playoff spots in April.

Grunfeld, while possibly overlooking the fact that the Wizards haven't beaten Miami since 2003, likes how his team stacks up. The Wizards were 3-0 against the Pistons and split season series with the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs.

"We showed last year that we can compete with anybody," Grunfeld said. "We beat all of the best teams last year and we feel that we're better this year. More importantly, our players feel it. That's the key. They are all very motivated. They all worked extremely hard in the offseason and they feel that they are a formidable ballclub."

Wizards Notes: Grunfeld confirmed that rookie first-round pick Oleksiy Pecherov will play in his native Ukraine this season. Pecherov, who turns 21 in December, will play with BC Kyiv of the Ukrainian Superleague after playing in Paris last season. The Wizards will retain Pecherov's NBA rights.

"We felt that at this time it's more important for him to play, to get significant playing time," Grunfeld said. "We felt that the best option was for him to go over there, get some experience, get a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger. We're very high on him. We think he has real potential down the road, but let's not forget that he's only 20 years old."

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