Mike Wise: Holding the Fort Amid Injury Woes Becoming Wizards' Brand

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Caron Butler's earnest voice reverberated through my car speakers last week -- "Character. Commitment. Connection." After all the cloying and cheesy team slogans in sports-marketing history, this one seemed to fit; it communicated a simple, authentic message and reflected who these Wizards are and what they're about.

And it certainly topped "Ready to Rule," which in 2006 they weren't. By a mile it also beat 2007's "Go All In," which never seemed to connote the right meaning for a club whose former assistant coach allegedly lost $70,000 to a star player in a high-stakes card game -- on a three-hour flight.

But character, commitment, connection? That worked.

Until the most popular thrill ride in franchise history underwent another knee procedure last month, meaning Gilbert Arenas won't be back till late December. Until Brendan Haywood, their best defender -- the guy who went from 7-foot malcontent to game-changing center in the blink of the 2007 offseason -- tore a ligament in his right wrist during training camp. Unless the Wizards go deep in the playoffs, it's doubtful Haywood will return this season.

Suddenly, 2008-09 needed a more accurate, if depressing, label:

Character. Commitment. Convalescence.

There's a reason America's inpatient team feels forever trapped in first-round NBA playoff purgatory. The Wizards don't underachieve; they simply can't build any connections until they mend their disconnected cartilage.

Instead, they've settled into their now-familiar role of holding down the fort, whereby Eddie Jordan waits for reinforcements while somehow siphoning a .500 or better record out of a 35-47 roster.

"It's basically, 'Ride the ship until the wind starts coming again,' " Antawn Jamison said. "It's what we do. It's why we get paid. You know, I don't like it that we're not at full strength. Because when we're at full strength, we have great potential to really, really make some noise. Not at full strength, people are saying, 'Well, maybe .500 or above .500.' We'll see.

"I do know this: I love when people doubt us. I love when people don't think we can get certain things done."

Jamison and Butler have grown accustomed to the challenge of playing without Arenas, who missed 69 games last season. (Butler missed 24 games.) At the bottom of their respective guts, though, they actually relish the opportunity. They know they're a more potent, fuel-injected offensive team with Arenas. But Life Without Gil enables Jordan to isolate his other big scorers, who thrive in half-court offensive sets, breaking down and beating the poor souls assigned to guard them. Playing without Arenas also allows some of the young players to get their bearings in a slow-it-down game more suited to learning than merely reacting; Nick Young can actually think the game rather than just trying to secure a spot on the AND1 bus.

The problem is, if players such as Young, Andray Blatche and maybe even rookie JaVale McGee don't grow up quick -- and major questions about the center and sixth-man positions aren't answered -- the team Arenas comes back to might be taking on more water than even a three-time all-star can bail out.


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