Their Mission Is Clear

Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan cited defense as one reason Etan Thomas, above, is starting and not Brendan Haywood.
Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan cited defense as one reason Etan Thomas, above, is starting and not Brendan Haywood. (2005 Photo By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The very first day of training camp, before the Wizards had even boarded the bus for the trip to Richmond, Gilbert Arenas and Antonio Daniels were talking about the No. 1 concern confronting the Washington Wizards: defense -- or lack thereof.

Daniels said he didn't even want to talk much about defense, because the Wizards had talked the talk before last season yet did little to improve it. And Arenas, knowing that the best player on an NBA team disproportionately affects everything, said this new commitment to defense and toughness has to start with him, even if it means shaving a few points off that 29-points-per-game average.

Don't think for one second that the Wizards, from Coach Eddie Jordan to the last man on the bench, don't know they have to play better defense, starting tonight in Cleveland. Oh, they know. How could there be a crueler reminder than opening the season in Cleveland where the Wizards gave away a playoff game by letting LeBron James get free for a layup at the buzzer?

Yes, the NBA's new emphasis on offense, on running and shooting helps teams like the Wizards that can score efficiently and in a variety of ways. Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler make up the highest-scoring trio in the NBA, and the Wizards will need them to be just as prolific again this season because scoring, over the last two seasons, went up from 186.8 points per game to 194 points per game last season. Everybody's doing it. The NBA's powers-that-be wanted a more free-flowing, aesthetically pleasing product that showcases the skills of the league's top players.

The run-and-shoot Phoenix Suns are a popular pick to win it all this season, and the Wizards, while not nearly as prolific, have a bit of that swashbuckling offensive nature themselves, which is why they could finish fifth or sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Still, the Wizards aren't going to take a serious step toward contending unless they can make it harder for opponents to score.

This is one of the reasons Jordan is starting Etan Thomas at center over Brendan Haywood. "What we saw as the preseason concluded, and after all of our evaluations, was that Etan showed a little bit more force and a little bit more aggressiveness," the coach said. "We are looking to protect the rim and the paint."

So, it's not like the Wizards begin the season wondering what they have to do better. They already know. Last season they allowed 99.8 points per game, so their defense was ranked 21st in the NBA. Phoenix and Denver allowed more points, but that's more a reflection of how many possessions there are in their warp-speed games than it is bad defense. The others who allowed more points than Washington in 2005-06: Philly, Seattle, Toronto, Atlanta, Charlotte, New York and Golden State. None of those teams made the playoffs.

You want another indicator? The Wizards were 23rd in field goal percentage defense. Only Milwaukee, New York, Portland, Atlanta, Charlotte, Seattle and Toronto were worse, and only the Bucks from that group made the playoffs. Arenas is convinced that the players on hand are physically capable of doing better. Certainly Arenas and Caron Butler, two well-above-average players athletically, can get better just by deciding to do it and working at it. And DeShawn Stevenson even thinking his value is primarily at the defensive end is another step in the right direction because the Wizards don't have guys who think defense first.

One of the reasons the Houston Rockets figure to be better is the acquisition of Shane Battier, a player who can tightly shadow guards and forwards, particularly on the perimeter, which should enable the team's best offensive player, Tracy McGrady, to avoid having to take the toughest defensive assignment. In fact, Battier is just the kind of player the Wizards need.

The Wizards are at that stage where the players ought not be satisfied to simply make the playoffs for the third straight year -- which is an eye-opener around here -- but to hold their own with anybody in the Eastern Conference other than Miami. Darius Songaila's impending back surgery won't wreck the goal of being better defensively. But it might hurt the offense because Songaila's skills seem tailor-made for Jordan's offense, which puts a premium on passing, moving and shooting. Even though he would be coming off the bench, Songaila's one of those players who can create severe matchup problems on some nights, especially in the Eastern Conference, where there aren't quite as many big men accustomed to scoring from 10 to 15 feet.

The Wizards were the third-highest-scoring team in the league last year and will probably need to sustain that output. Songaila and a healthy Jarvis Hayes could actually improve the offense with their off-the-bench scoring, but we'll have to wait until the all-star break to see how that's going to work now that Songaila is having surgery.

If you pencil in Miami (Southeast) and New Jersey (Atlantic) as division winners, that still leaves six playoff spots. The Bulls, Pistons and Cavaliers, presuming reasonably good health, are stone-cold locks to make it. That's five. No way the Wizards (again, presuming reasonable good health) should be left out of the playoffs. Orlando, which went 12-3 down the stretch, is one of the most improved teams in the league and plays in Washington's division. But the Magic likely will need weeks to figure out how to fully incorporate Darko Milicic (most improved player of 2006-07?). And once again, there's the question of Grant Hill's health.

Even if Orlando puts it all together early, the Wizards should finish ahead of the Pacers and Bucks in the Central, the Raptors, Celtics, Knicks and 76ers in the Atlantic, and the Bobcats and Hawks in the Southeast. But to crack the top five in the East the Wizards will have to get off to a fast start, which is very possible because GM Ernie Grunfeld kept the team together except for essentially replacing Jared Jeffries with Stevenson.

Sometimes teams break camp and begin the season feeling confident about what they've got and get it totally wrong. We need look no further than the Redskins, a team whose members were convinced they would contend for a championship this season.

The Wizards aren't suggesting that, necessarily, just that they've got the right team at the right time to make a big move up. "We have a chance," Arenas said, "to be something special. We really are focused.

"We have been practicing hard and playing hard and we have been getting along. We have all the elements to become one of those elite teams. We just have to go out there and put it all together."

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