By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006
The Washington Wizards open the regular season at Cleveland on Wednesday night, but the team is still waiting to get a look at its major offseason acquisition, forward Darius Songaila.
Songaila, who signed a five-year, $23 million contract this past summer, remains out with a pinched nerve in his lower back.
A team source, who spoke about Songaila's injury on the condition of anonymity, said the team is preparing to play without Songaila through November and possibly well into December.
Neither he nor the team has established a timetable for his return.
"I think there's going to be some decision in the near future about how much the treatments are helping him and how much he is just staying the same," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "I think in the next few days or in a week or so, we're going to have to see where he is."
Songaila's agent, Mark Bartelstein, said Songaila has consulted several doctors and has continued to work with the team's trainers in hopes of returning. Songaila has not seriously considered surgery yet, but that could become an option if his back does not improve, according to Bartelstein.
Songaila injured his back while playing for Lithuania in a pre-world championships tuneup game on Aug. 13, and he then tried to play with the injury during the world championships. He has not played since Lithuania was eliminated Aug. 29.For Starters . . .
Jordan could make an official announcement about a starting lineup for the opener as soon as today. Guards Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson and forwards Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are locked in, and Jordan appears to be leaning toward starting Etan Thomas at center over Brendan Haywood.
Thomas and Haywood rotated starts throughout the eight-game preseason, but Thomas appeared to distance himself in the eyes of Jordan during the final three games. Jordan strongly hinted that Thomas was his choice when he met with reporters following Tuesday night's preseason finale in Detroit and praised Thomas, adding, "A pecking order has been established."
"I've pretty much made up my mind," Jordan said yesterday. "I may make an announcement [Friday] but, yes, I'm pretty sure of what I want to do."
Haywood, who averaged 4.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in 17.9 minutes during the preseason, started 70 games last season and has been the team's primary starter at center since the 2002-03 season. Thomas, who averaged 3.7 points and 5.9 rebounds in 14.7 minutes during the preseason, started nine games last season.
Jordan replaced Haywood with Thomas late in the season and said he would have stuck with the move for the playoffs had Thomas not suffered a back injury. In the past, Thomas has said that he is comfortable coming off the bench, but that changed this summer when Thomas made it clear to Jordan that he wanted to compete for the starting job in training camp.
Haywood has expressed displeasure over his role in the past, but yesterday he said he will accept any decision Jordan makes.
"I feel that I'm a starter, but it's not my decision so I have to be ready to go out and help the team however I can," Haywood said.Same Job, New Title
The team announced that assistant coach Mike O'Koren will now carry the title of associate head coach. O'Koren is in his fourth season with the Wizards and worked on the same staff with Jordan with the New Jersey Nets from 1999 to 2003.
The new title won't change O'Koren's duties; he's been Jordan's lead assistant since Jordan took the job with the Wizards in the summer of 2003. O'Koren substituted for Jordan for two games in November 2004 when Jordan was out with a blood clot in his leg. . . .
Rookie forward Mike Hall remains out with a strained right knee. Hall and center James Lang appear to be on the bubble as the Wizards approach Monday's deadline for trimming the roster from 16 to no more than 15 players. . . . Arenas was given yesterday off to rest, Jamison said his sore right shoulder felt "better" and forward Michael Ruffin returned to practice after missing the final three preseason games with a bruised right foot.