An Outsize Goal, but Why Not?

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

It's not often that you come to the opening of Wizards training camp and hear players even remotely suggesting the team's goal should be to reach the NBA Finals. But it's also not often the Wizards begin camp with the kinds of pieces in place that would cause anybody to react with that kind of optimism, either. In fact, preseason talk of anything other than trying to reach the playoffs in the last 25 years would induce little more than laughter and eye rolls.

But setting the bar so high isn't some wild fit of misplaced enthusiasm. Okay, some of us looking in from the outside might temper that a bit. But it appears entirely possible as the Wizards set up shop that they could be pretty good this season, perhaps 50-win good. And since Miami is the only proven team in the Eastern Conference, the Wizards ought to begin camp thinking about a) bolting out of the gate as opposed to the usual sputtering and b) thinking of themselves as good as anybody else in the East.

Detroit has to replace Ben Wallace, which is going to be difficult. Chicago has to incorporate Ben Wallace, which could be difficult. The presumption that Cleveland will only get better with LeBron James might be undercut by some grumbling already from the other Cavaliers. New Jersey (Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson) has better-known stars than the Wizards, but essentially the same team. Indiana appears to be starting over. Milwaukee and Orlando are on the move but are essentially a full step behind the Wizards. And nobody else in the East is worth much discussion at this point.

The Wizards begin camp with a talented roster of players who already know how to play together, who genuinely like each other. There isn't a single knucklehead that we can identify. A rather absurd work ethic has been established by Gilbert Arenas, who has spread the gospel to everybody, especially Caron Butler, who might now do for the Wizards what Jefferson does for the Nets. Antawn Jamison, after averaging nearly a double-double last season, returns from Team USA feeling renewed and improved. Having Jarvis Hayes healthy is like making a trade without giving up anybody.

The Wizards begin camp not having to replace a major player, as was the case last October with Larry Hughes. And they can pick up where they left off, at least for the large nucleus of players that should benefit from not having to incorporate a new guy, as was the case last October with Butler.

In short, for one of the few times in a long, long time the Wizards open camp without cranes and scaffolding everywhere. The addition of Darius Songaila and DeShawn Stevenson are nip-and-tuck moves, not major surgery. "I am really glad," guard Antonio Daniels said, "that we kept this group. We're not starting over. I'm a player and not a GM, but I know from being around for a while [nine seasons] that in this league at some point a team has to keep guys around and let them grow together and learn from each other. It's hard in today's NBA with free agency as it is, and trades coming into play. But I think keeping the core group together is going to be good for us."

We know, from Day One, that this group as presently constituted can score, pass, play unselfishly together. There's plenty of depth and versatility. Players who were new last season, such as Daniels and Butler, know exactly what they're to do now, and Eddie Jordan and his staff know better how to use them.

The question is, since the Wizards lost in the first round of the playoffs, whether they can improve in the two areas where they were 98-pound weaklings last season: defense and toughness. They were as deficient as anybody in the league in those two departments and every opposing player and coach knew it.

"The number one thing we have to do better, and it's no secret, is play better defense," Daniels said. "We don't need to discuss it more, we need to do it. We talked about it all last season but still didn't do it."

Songaila, while highly skilled, is not a defensive player. But Stevenson is -- or at least is attempting to be one. Like so many of the kids who came straight into the NBA from high school, Stevenson wandered through his first few seasons with no basketball identity. But last year in Orlando, when it finally set in that he isn't going to be a big scorer, Stevenson began to earn a rep as a pretty good defensive player.

At 6 feet 5, 210 pounds he's going to be assigned to come in and deal with the likes of Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter.

But even if Stevenson is pretty good in this role (which essentially is to replace departed free agent Jared Jeffries) the Wizards need so much more in the way of defense and toughness. And along the perimeter it's going to have to come from Butler, Daniels and one more unlikely source: Arenas.

Last year, Arenas made himself a truly great scorer. This year, he knows the Wizards can find points if he scores less. Arenas is too quick, too fast, too strong and too good a student of the game to be sub-par defensively, which he has been.

As much as the Wizards need better production out of Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, they need even more out of Arenas. If the Wizards are going to get past the Bulls, Pistons, Nets and Cavaliers this season, it's going to be in large part because Arenas makes himself an even better player. This is what great basketball players do -- take on more. Fortunately for the Wizards, Arenas knows that better than anybody else in the organization. Being sent home by Team USA clearly hurt and angered Arenas personally, but that certainly will help the Wizards because Arenas turns any slight, real or perceived, into a crusade.

He worked out two and three times per day after being essentially cut by Coach Mike Krzyzewski. "I wanted the season to start the next day" after being left off the world championship squad, Arenas said. "You know how I am; I've got to prove somebody wrong. It keeps me going. I need to be better defensively. If Kobe, McGrady and Vince Carter are going to score 40, then let me be the person they score 40 on. We need guards who are actually physical. DeShawn is that. And it's something I need to be."

It was Arenas who said, "Our goal should be the NBA Finals." Butler said virtually the same thing. "Look, we've been through, 'Well, can the Wizards win 40 games?' And we've been through, 'Can the Wizards make the playoffs?' We've even been through, 'Can the Wizards win a round in the playoffs?' We're not in a rebuilding stage anymore," Arenas said. "Did we add toughness? I think so. It's time for us to take the next step."

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