By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
I've got a spring crush on the Wizards. They've earned a little adoration. No, they haven't won 22 straight, they didn't swing a big deal for an all-star or pick up anybody after the trade deadline. But what the Wizards have been able to do better than anybody in the NBA this season, especially over the last three weeks, is often the most underrated but important thing in team sports: hang in there.
Teams have persevered, even thrived for a short run, without their best player. The Rockets won 10 straight without Yao Ming and the Celtics went 7-2 without Kevin Garnett. But neither team was forced to play for a prolonged period without two injured all-stars, the way the Wizards were. Gilbert Arenas, despite flirting with a return to the lineup, hasn't played since November. And Caron Butler missed 16 straight games. Yet, the victory over Detroit on Sunday night makes the Wizards 11-4 in their last 15 games, which has pushed them to the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Six of those victories have been especially impressive. The Wizards defeated Western Conference-leading New Orleans (twice), Toronto, Cleveland, Orlando and Detroit, all of which are lock playoff teams. Two of the four losses were to streaking Houston and division-leading Orlando. With Butler back in the lineup and creeping back toward his all-star form, the Wizards suddenly look, well, formidable -- like they might be able to win a series in the playoffs, which are only three weeks away.
Despite agonizing losses to the likes of Charlotte and Atlanta, the Wizards have remained patient, played with a sense of desperation and won games even while shorthanded. A certain perseverance seems to have become ingrained in them.
As the Wizards headed west yesterday for a five-game swing that begins with very winnable games at Portland, Seattle and Sacramento, they had a little bit of time to come to grips with the realization that with Butler in the lineup they've been able to beat all four playoff teams ahead of them in the East (Boston, Detroit, Cleveland and Orlando). In a brief conversation yesterday while traveling, Coach Eddie Jordan said of Butler's influence, "Caron puts toughness, passing, scoring, defense, rebounding in the lineup."
The Wizards are a different team with Butler playing, better than improving Philly and sinking Toronto, perhaps even as complete as Orlando. Antawn Jamison is having the most complete season of his career; he's 17th in the NBA in scoring and 11th in rebounding. Brendan Haywood, easily, is having the best season of his career. DeShawn Stevenson has not only found timely offense to go with his defense, but his toughness is a necessary ingredient. It's not important to agree with his assertion that LeBron James, one of the three best players in the league, is "overrated" as he said the other night; it's only important for the Wizards that Stevenson believes it and played like he believed it in a recent victory over Cleveland.
The Wizards (especially without Arenas) might be the only playoff team that actually needs to find a little swagger, somebody who'll talk some trash and be a little nutty, perhaps even confrontational. Jamison, Butler, Antonio Daniels, Roger Mason Jr. and Darius Songaila are all particularly level-headed dudes who could use the occasional dose of Stevenson.
Of course, the continuing mini-drama is whether Arenas will or should play again this season. Luckily, the team doctors talked some sense into Arenas Sunday night before the Pistons game. Even more important, it's good Arenas listened, which isn't a given. Had he stuck to the rehabilitation plan prescribed by the doctors in the first place last summer, Arenas very likely wouldn't have needed a second surgery. But he did his own rehab thing, rushed back too quickly, and is still in this nightmarish predicament that he wants out of, understandably.
And it's truly a dilemma.
Here's what I'd do: If the doctors give the okay, whether it's on this western swing or not until the team returns east on April 1, I'd tell Arenas he and only he makes the call to play. And if he wants back in, he can only come in off the bench and be the sixth man. That would be the plan. There's no way I'd disrupt the team chemistry at this point, and everything Arenas has said recently indicates he, too, has no intention of doing that. Good.
So he could come off the bench for the remainder of the regular season while the coaching staff assesses to what degree he could help the team in the playoffs in that capacity.
If Arenas comes off the bench firing and can find that part of his game between now and mid-April, I'd play him off the bench in the playoffs. Let the second-unit guys from Cleveland or Orlando try to guard him. It shouldn't be as difficult or as time-consuming as switching from Devin Harris to Jason Kidd, as the Mavericks are struggling mightily to do; or incorporating Shaq; or integrating four new players, as the Cavaliers are endeavoring to do. Arenas isn't some strange entity to these Wizards; they know how to play with him even though he hasn't played since November. And if Arenas can't fulfill that supplemental role or isn't healthy enough to do it, sit him down.
End the experiment and go with the team that was good enough to get into the playoffs.
Either way, Arenas's desperation to get back into the lineup shouldn't be a downer for this team. It's not out of the question the Wizards could go 3-2 out west (losing to Utah and the Lakers at the end of the trip). And even if they drop April games to Boston, Detroit and Orlando, a 5-3 finish is still reasonable. The Wizards certainly don't want to drop to seventh in the Eastern Conference and have to play Detroit in the first round, even if they have matched up well with the Pistons over the last couple of regular seasons. But finishing sixth would match the Wizards with Orlando in the first round. Finishing fifth would match them with LeBron and Cleveland, once again. And both those teams are beatable in the first round of the playoffs.
Even Detroit is puzzling; the Pistons are only 10-7 since the all-star break and seem to play all too often with a lackadaisical sense of entitlement that has cost them in each of the last two years in the playoffs.
In any case, it seems entirely possible that the Wizards, as they count down the final 13 games in what seemed like another season of misfortune due to injury, have a chance to take a turn for the better. As the Rockets lose their best player for the season and as the Mavericks lose their best player, Dirk Nowitzki, for a two- to three-week stretch that could doom their playoff chances, the Wizards are finally getting healthier and not coincidentally getting better . . . enough so to look at the final lap of the season and see a team that, after legitimate doubt, appears ready and excited to at least be in the race.