Unfulfilled Promise

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

It's a shame the Big Three and Darius Songaila never were healthy at the same time, that they never really got to play together. Songaila bangs. He runs the old pick-and-pop play almost as well as Karl Malone. A big, skilled player like that can play off Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.

It's a shame DeShawn Stevenson is being ridiculed for not stepping up when the role he was asked to play all season was taken away from him with a month left.

It's a real shame the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference exactly three months ago today never made it to May.

The Wizards and a wind-up toy who called himself Agent Zero filled the sports vacuum in the District for several magical months. They weren't a 5-11 mess in Ashburn or a shoestring-budget NHL club. They certainly weren't a minor league baseball team playing in a National League city.

The Wizards had real aspirations to go with their star; they had genuine hope of reaching the conference finals in an East still for the taking.

Cleveland sweeping the shadow of the team that took the court for Game 4 last night just drilled home the regret and introspection now facing the players and an organization closed out for the third straight season on their home floor. They were swept away by LeBron James, one of the last of David Stern's golden children left in the NBA playoffs, and a cadre of big-shot role players who executed in the final minutes of every game -- executed the way the watered-down Wizards could not.

Maverick Carter, LeBron's childhood friend who was in town for the series, asked me yesterday who would have won if Arenas and Butler were healthy. He said, "Cleveland in six, right?"

It's nice of him to have LeBron's back, but he was wrong. The Wizards would have taken this in six games or fewer. And not just because Arenas was out to make amends for last year's missed free throws in Game 6. Butler is a different player -- stronger, more confident and more respected by officials. His defensive-mindedness would have changed the tenor of the first two games in Cleveland.

Not much can be taken from what happened the past nine days to change the fact that the Wizards need a real inside presence if they ever want to genuinely contend. An emotional Antonio Daniels said after Game 4, "I'll go to war with this same team in a heartbeat." But A.D. should look at the video replay of the last few seconds before he makes that statement again.

In it, he'll see Brendan Haywood walking off the court before the game was over, raising his index finger to the crowd. Afterward, the nameplate above his locker room cubicle was taken down. If Haywood didn't remove it himself, the culprit had to be Coach Eddie Jordan, who rightly opted not to play his 7-footer one minute.

The problem with Haywood is, despite his occasional bursts of competent big-man play, his final stat line from this season resembled his old 00 number. He was the proverbial tease in the pivot, good for 15-20 decent games a year and another 60 where you just shake your head and think, "What I would do with that height." He has got to be gone by October. Bargain center at $5 million or not, to bring Haywood back at this juncture only serves to undermine his coach and the team. Brendan Todd Haywood has left the building.

There are others probably on their way out of town, too.

The cruel souls in the blogosphere called the Wizards' starting small forward Arvis Hayes, because they deduced there was no "J" in Jarvis. Hayes actually has one of the smoothest jumpers in the game, but his inability to put his head down and get to the rim eliminated many of his own offensive options and made him one of the easiest perimeter players in the league to guard. I'm still of the opinion he is going to have a very good career in this league when his confidence returns; it just won't happen here.

What can be taken from this series is that Jamison is almost irreplaceable. The trade-Twan sentiment in town ran thick for a good two years, and it's about time Jamison's detractors finally admit how foolish they were. If Dirk Nowitzki took the weight of his team on his shoulders like Jamison did the past few weeks, Dallas wouldn't be one game from going down.

The common perception is the season was lost when Arenas and Butler went out for the season within 72 hours of each other. Actually, the day the season irrevocably turned came the day Jamison was injured in late January. They were 26-17 and rolling at that juncture. Including playoffs, they went on to finish 15-28.

"If you look at the stretch where we were the best team in the East, almost everyone was healthy," Michael Ruffin said last night after Game 4. "When Antawn went down, our confidence was shaken and we never fully got it back. I can't say why, but we just never played like that again for a long stretch."

Stern was in the audience last night, watching Cavs-Wizards Lite. In a league resurrected by its stars 25 years ago, he had to be pleased that LeBron got to the second round injury-free. Kobe Bryant is about to go on vacation, where he will join Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal. Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Nowitzki and the 67-win Mavericks may not be far behind.

The commissioner knows more than anyone: a Golden State miracle can only carry a postseason so far. A monumental first-round upset only moves the needle so much. You need names. You need supernovas. You need personalities. Moxie. A little mayhem, maybe. All the things Gilbert Arenas and the Wizards once brought to the playoff table against LeBron -- all the qualities that made what might have been a shame not to witness.

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