By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Three days into preseason the NBA is brimming with good news. The entire league is slipstreaming behind the U.S. Olympic team and its gold medal showing. Optimism is rampant.
In Houston, the Rockets think they can harness Ron Artest. Folks in Philly think Elton Brand can lead the 76ers to places they haven't been since Allen Iverson was a pup. In Portland, Greg Oden is bringing back the enthusiasm that basketball-crazed community once had for the Bill Walton teams.
Toronto, with the addition of Jermaine O'Neal, has twin towers and designs on reaching the conference finals. New Orleans hasn't cared this much about hoops since Pete Maravich left LSU. And the Miami Heat, forlorn for two years, now features three players who at least make you wonder if they can amount to anything again. And that doesn't even count the league's finalists from last spring, the Celtics and Lakers.
While just about everybody from New York to Los Angeles seems to be enjoying even more optimism than normally accompanies preseason, we now move to the downer part of the column, news from your Washington Wizards.
In case, because the NFL season isn't even six weeks old, you're simply not in professional basketball mode just yet, the Wizards are already on the wrong end of some very bad news.
Brendan Haywood, something of a late bloomer for the Wizards at center, is going to undergo surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist. He will miss four to six months, according to sources familiar with the situation. This comes at roughly the same time we find out that Antawn Jamison, who's been the only consistently healthy member of the team the last couple of years, suffered a knee contusion Tuesday night. And this comes just a few weeks after we learned that Gilbert Arenas, the $111 million man, is going to be out until January or so after a third knee surgery.
Haywood has his share of haters, people who'll undoubtedly use what he doesn't do (dominate the game) to argue that he won't be sorely missed, and that his absence will free up time for the rookie first-round draft pick, JaVale McGee.
That would be a silly position to take. McGee, who played only two years of college basketball, isn't ready for the NBA's big-man mayhem.
And Haywood was just starting to settle into a niche. An Eastern Conference all-star told me a few weeks ago that Haywood, at last, had become an efficient player, somebody who could disrupt even good offensive players with his defense while generating enough offense to help the Wizards hold their own down low. The numbers support that.
Haywood played 80 games last year and his contributions, at least statistically, increased in the playoffs. He scored more points and shot a better percentage from the floor and from the line than he did in the regular season. Haywood, after all that erratic silliness with Etan Thomas a couple of years ago, was dependable last season. He wasn't going to be Shaq, but he could be counted on for nearly 30 minutes a game and quite a few double-doubles. He's 28 years old and seemed to be understanding exactly what he needed to do to help this particular team win some games.
With Haywood, Jamison, Arenas and Caron Butler on the floor, the Wizards can compete -- not necessarily beat, but compete -- with anybody in the Eastern Conference. They had a fighting chance at least, along with Detroit, Orlando, Toronto, Philly and Cleveland, to be the "other" team in the Eastern Conference finals. With Haywood out, Arenas's debut delayed and Jamison missing who knows how much of the preseason, it's almost impossible to see the Wizards getting off to a good start. I don't know how they have a great season, unless Andray Blatche, Nick Young and McGee catch fire and become big-time players by the all-star break. There's no sane season forecast that would put the Wizards ahead of Orlando in the division race. And although Miami is a total wild card, what with a rookie head coach, I'd be wary of putting the Wizards, without Arenas and Haywood, ahead of a team featuring a healthy and rejuvenated Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion and rookie scoring machine Michael Beasley.
It's almost incomprehensible the Wizards could start the season with as many health issues as they had when last season ended. As long as we're dealing with the optimistic beginning to the NBA season, the best spin one could put on this is that it's better to begin the season with all these injuries and hope to get people back mid-winter than to lose them approaching the playoffs and have no chance, which is exactly what happened in 2007 and 2008.
Also, you don't want to just sit there spinning your wheels while the rest of the Eastern Conference teams get better, which they are. The Bulls and Pacers could both be really terrible. But new-look Milwaukee (Richard Jefferson and rookie Joe Alexander will join Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut) should be better. Charlotte, another division opponent, will be improved if for no other reason than it will be coached by Larry Brown. There might not be as many pigeons in the East as there have been. Even the Knicks, with Mike D'Antoni shaking things up, can't be as dreadful as they've been. Perhaps the Wizards will find some good news during their preseason trip to Europe. Perhaps one of the youngsters will emerge as one of the league's shooting stars. More likely, the Washington Wizards will have to rely on spirit to begin the season because it looks as though once again the flesh isn't willing.