By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Their season fast approaching the halfway mark, the Washington Wizards went through drills on their practice court at Verizon Center yesterday, preparing for tonight's game against Orlando and looking for ways to improve on a woeful record that has them planted at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
As the practice was winding down, the teammate who might best help the Wizards salvage their season grabbed three of the team's youngest members -- Nick Young, Oleksiy Pecherov and Dominic McGuire -- and challenged them to a game of two-on-two upstairs on the arena's main court. Gilbert Arenas, the three-time all-star who has yet to practice or play this season on a knee that has undergone three surgical procedures since April 2007, was working out.
Arenas's appearance was not a full-fledged workout. Even so, word that he was on hand shooting a basketball in a game of pickup was enough to subject interim head coach Ed Tapscott to a barrage of questions about the status of the Wizards guard, who has not played since he decided to end his 2007-08 season following Game 4 of last spring's playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"When the training staff thinks he's at the right point to begin workouts, we will," Tapscott said. "Obviously, we're going to be conservative because he's a critical member of this franchise. So when they tell us it's time to go to work, we'll go to work."
Thing is, nobody seems to know when that will be, including Arenas, who has traveled with the team this season and does rehabilitation workouts with the team's athletic training staff.
Arenas, who declined an interview yesterday, saying he wants to "keep a low profile," has not set a timetable for a possible return after initially hoping to be back in early December.
"The main thing is just making sure that when I do come back, I can come back right," Arenas said last week, echoing comments he's repeatedly made. "I don't want any more setbacks."
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld has consistently stated that the team expects Arenas to return this season but has offered no clue as to when that would be.
That Arenas has recently started playing games of two-on-two is not necessarily a sign that his return is imminent. He's been playing games of one-on-one against Young, a second-year guard, for several weeks and those games have simply been expanded to include McGuire and Javaris Crittenton.
In the meantime, Arenas's teammates continue to try to grind out victories without him and center Brendan Haywood, who is waiting for clearance to begin rehabilitating his surgically repaired right wrist.
The Wizards improved to 7-25 with a gritty 80-77 home win over Cleveland on Sunday afternoon and face another stiff challenge tonight when they play at Orlando. The Magic (26-8) already has beaten the Wizards twice this season by at least 15 points.
Without Arenas, who is one of the game's most dangerous players in the fourth quarter, the Wizards have often struggled down the stretch of close contests. Sunday's win was no different as Washington nearly squandered a 16-point lead.
"The last couple of years you get accustomed to [Arenas] taking over in the last three or four minutes, him creating easy opportunities for myself and Caron [Butler]," forward Antawn Jamison said. "You get used to having that safety blanket and we don't have that. It's just been an adjustment. Now we have Mike [James], who is new, so that's another adjustment. But Gilbert's a special player and you get used to having Agent Zero or Hibachi or whatever you want to call him. He makes the game that much easier. Down the stretch, that's the reason he is the kind of player he is. So we're doing a little soul searching."
Jamison and Butler both said they hope to see Arenas return as soon as possible. They formed the highest scoring trio in the league during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. The organization's priority last summer was to keep that going, which is why Arenas was signed to a six-year, $111 million deal and Jamison was inked to a four-year, $50 million contract.
If healthy, Arenas would give the Wizards at least an outside chance of making a run for the playoffs, but time is running out. The Wizards have the fewest wins in the Eastern Conference and entered last night's action trailing eighth-place Milwaukee by 7 1/2 games.
"He looks good," Butler said. "I've seen him on and off the court. He's in high spirits, he's trimming down a lot. So I just hope everything works out good. I'm not a doctor or anything, so don't label it as that, but you didn't want to see him out there in November or December playing one game and then missing one. So if he's back at some point at the end of this month or in February, so be it, but we definitely need him back healthy."
Jamison said that while he hopes to see Arenas "a lot sooner than later," he also wants Arenas back at full strength.
"We all know how Gil likes to do things," Jamison said. "So I guess he's been in the bat cave, working with -- what's the butler's name? -- working with Alfred. He looks good, from what I've seen. But I don't know the timetable or how healthy he is. I'm just trying to deal with the task at hand, which is to try and win basketball games."