Wait Until Next Year!

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Zydrunas Ilgauskas wasn't just trying to be generous. To make his point, the Cleveland center leaned his 7-foot-3 frame in front of LeBron James to get close to the microphone. "Every game we had to work for. This was a tough series, trust me," said Ilgauskas, earnestly. "We know the Wizards have a lot of pride and nobody wants to lose a series 4-0."

Mike Brown even seemed a bit guilty in victory. "The Wizards did a terrific job. They could easily have caved at any point in the series," the Cavaliers coach said after his team was pushed hard to the final minutes of all four games. The Cavs' thoughts might as well have been in cartoon bubbles over their heads: "Could we, should we, beat them if both teams were healthy?"

Franchises are so hard to build and careers are so short, with a player's prime perhaps a decade, that we hate to see any good team cheated of its chance at a title run by injuries to its stars. Few sights are more frustrating. The point of games is to get a resolution to the simple question: Who's better? Now for the Wizards, we're stuck with, "Who knows?"

The loss of Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler in the weeks before the postseason is doubly bedeviling because the door of playoff possibilities, so often slammed in the Wizards' face for the last 25 years, seemed to be cracked slightly ajar. The defending NBA champion Miami Heat have already been swept and the regular season-best Mavericks may soon follow them. In any sport, once the favorites start stumbling, you never know who will discover inspiration or just get lucky and steal a title.

Two years ago, few liked the chances of the Pittsburgh Steelers when the NFL playoffs began. Last spring, the aging Heat wasn't considered the equal of the best in the West. And just six months ago, the St. Louis Cardinals entered the playoffs with only 83 wins.

But, in sports, the unexpected arrives in the postseason. A beloved veteran such as Jerome Bettis becomes the focus of the Steelers' resolve. A coach thought past his prime, like Miami's Pat Riley, gets into one last championship fight. Or the Mets' best pitchers get injured just before the playoffs and the Cards awake in the World Series where the stage-struck Tigers hand them the crown.

That's why Wizards fans hated to walk out of Verizon Center on Monday night after seeing their most promising team in many years get swept. Maybe Cleveland's Big Three of James, Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes would have won anyway, just as Cleveland did in six games last spring. King James and his court looked delighted to have avoided the test.

"Two years ago we made it to the second round of the playoffs, then last year we lost in the first round and now we get swept," said Jordan, refusing to make excuses. "I don't want to go in that direction. I'll leave the asterisks to Phil Jackson."

Nevertheless, credit is due. Basketball is the hardest sport in which to compensate for lost stars. The Redskins, for example, lost Art Monk after nine games of the '87 season, yet revamped their wide receivers and won a Super Bowl with the Smurfs. Pitching staffs can be patched together to survive October. But in the NBA, few teams under such severe duress have kept their composure as well as the Wizards without Agent Zero and Butler, who combined for 47.5 points per game.

The Wizards' effort was even more admirable since 7-foot Brendan Haywood sulked his way so deep into the doghouse that he played only 34 minutes in the series and none in the last game. Then, he left the bench before the final game ended. Somehow, Jordan kept morale high despite this headache in their midst.

"This whole season has been like a runaway train. We haven't reflected back," said Jordan, who coached the East in the All-Star Game when the Wizards still had their conference's best record. "I've never been part of something like these injuries. Those two guys bring more than their numbers, which are huge. It's their personalities, too. They are tough."

No tougher than Jordan and his resourceful staff who had to reinvent a team on the fly, giving every player a substantially different role. Jamison coped best, averaging 32 points and 9.8 rebounds in the playoffs. "He showed consummate leadership. He was everywhere. Everything went through him on offense and everybody knew it would," said Jordan. "He [excelled] in every dimension you can bring to the game."

Guard Antonio Daniels (13.3 ppg) and forward Darius Songalia (10.8) found their increased roles comfortable, but the players asked to take up the shooting slack, especially from outside, just weren't up to the increased defensive pressure they faced. After solid seasons in supporting roles, Jarvis Hayes and DeShawn Stevenson shot a combined 24 for 92.

"We really thought this could be a shining moment for us to devise a plan where players could be in different roles and get a chance to be stars," Jordan said. Here's how close they came to pulling it off. If a healthy Arenas and Butler had, by magic, played just the last five minutes of each game, it might conceivably be the Cavs who got swept. Hold that as a summer thought.

"We always came up just a little short," said reserve Calvin Booth. "It was that one loose ball, one rebound, one shot. It cost us. That was the story of the series. Too little too late."

Despite all his enthusiasm, Jordan knows better than that. The Cavs expended as much energy as was needed to win, but not a great deal more. In the NBA, stars rule. And Jordan was down from the Big Three to The Only One.

"What is a coach?" riddled Jordan, with a wry smile. "It is an empty carriage drawn by horses."

Next season, Jordan's horses will be back. "Next year, you'll see what we can do. This is a dangerous team," vowed Jamison. "If we can stay healthy, this is a hungry team. You saw what we did, what we have and what we could become in the near future."

Wait Until Next Year is a bitter mantra for frustrated contenders, but even more for the Wizards who have waited so long for a team that belongs somewhere in the championship picture. Because of a hand and a knee, they never really had their chance at This Year.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company