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Next Year Begins Now

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Verizon Center had this old-time, playoff feel to it on Sunday.

Packed house, full of sound and passion. LeBron James grimacing. DeShawn Stevenson, even in civvies, goading. And the Wizards, fighting their el-foldo demons, holding on for victory.

Seeing the Cavaliers fall, it's almost incomprehensible that the Wizards have but seven wins in the first week of January, a smidgen of a statistical chance to earn their fifth straight postseason appearance. They own a firm spot in the cellar of an Eastern Conference they somehow believed they could represent in the NBA Finals.

So rather than another visit to the crash site, let's be proactive and figure out how to make most days like Sunday. How can the Wizards get back to what might have been -- before surgeries to their best player and starting center, before Eddie Jordan was axed, before, really, 7-25 ever happened?

The truth, the one Abe Pollin and friends can't ever let on to their season ticket holders: Concede that this is a lost season. Now. Make every important decision today based on next year.

That means don't take a chance on bringing back Gilbert Arenas or Brendan Haywood early from injury, if at all. Don't clear either player to participate in full scrimmages until Arenas's knee and Haywood's wrist are completely rehabilitated. Even then, limit their minutes considerably.

Keep giving the youngsters big minutes. Let Nick Young, Dominic McGuire and Andray Blatche make every dumb, knucklehead mistake on the court until they either learn a better way or play themselves out of the league.

And if they haven't already, start putting every amount of scouting effort into the five top players to be chosen in the June draft -- envision how a Blake Griffin, James Harden, Hasheem Thabeet, Jordan Hill or Brandon Jennings might fit into the rotation a year from now, who duplicates a need already met by another player and who can bring something unique to the lineup.

It's simply too late for anything else.

The Wizards have the second-worst record in pro basketball after the atrocious Oklahoma City Thunder. Yes, their next eight opponents after Orlando tonight are under-.500 teams. But the Wizards don't play anyone worse than a .219 team, which is the bed they made for themselves.

To finish 42-40, Washington would have to go 35-15 in its final 50 games -- a stretch Jordan's healthy Wizards never pulled off during a season. So with all due respect to Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Ed Tapscott and the people who truly care till the end, 2008-09 is over when it comes to any delusions of a playoff run.

Arenas casually threw out much of this thought in late November, that if this is going to be a lost season at least the Wizards could secure a big-time player in the lottery.

He was pilloried at the time, based on the notion that a franchise player should be talking about rescuing his team instead of being okay with it going down in flames. Less than two months later, Arenas looks prescient, a man who clearly understood where the franchise was headed in a down year. His teammates know the truth, too.

"If I'm playing GM, I'm not gambling on Gil," said Brendan Haywood on Sunday when asked to play Ernie Grunfeld for a few minutes. "I wouldn't even want him practicing until he was pain-free for three weeks. Then I wouldn't play him any back-to-back games. Unless we were in the playoff hunt, it wouldn't make any sense for his long-term health.

"That's your $111 million investment. You don't want to be penny-wise and dollar-foolish right now. It's too much of a risk. If you're the GM, you've basically tied your legacy to Gilbert Arenas. If it works out, you're going to be a genius. If not, you might have to find something else to do."

Haywood's other reasoning for caution had to do with the future. "You bring me and Gil back healthy, put us on a starting five with Caron, Antawn, DeShawn or Nick," Haywood began, "and add whoever comes out of the draft, Griffin or Harden or one of those guys. And you throw in some of the young guys who you don't have concerns about anymore because they were battle-tested this year, that's a solid, nine-, 10-man rotation that can beat a lot of teams in this league.

"I think that's how you got to look at it from a bigger picture."

That might be a ridiculously rosy picture, the thought that a seven-win team today can be in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race in a year, capable of unseating Boston or -- miracle of miracles -- managing to ever get past LeBron.

But then, no one has seen more of an about-face in town than Haywood, who was supposed to be gone after the 2006-07 season when he openly feuded with his coach, was called "Brenda Haywood" and worse by media and fans and actually took down his nameplate from the top of his locker room cubicle after the team's final loss that season.

Today, he is the 7-foot defensive stopper the Wizards so badly miss in the middle.

"Two years ago, I wasn't playing, Eddie Jordan and I were at each other's throats and I was basically gone," he said. "Now me and Eddie text each other on Christmas, people come up to me and say how much they miss me being out there . . . it's just crazy how things change."

The immediate casualty to conceding the playoff push is over is the coaching career of Tapscott, who has gone 6-15 since taking over a 1-10 team. If he can get this team to play better than .500 the next two months, he deserves another year whether they qualify for the postseason or not. If not, he has to be viewed as taking one for the franchise.

There is no reason he shouldn't return to the front office or bench next season; he's too valuable in too many areas to lose.

The temptation is also to feel for a guy like Jamison, who committed his NBA future to the Wizards by signing a four-year deal this past summer. A true professional and character guy -- maybe, after Wes Unseld, Pollin's all-time favorite player to suit up for him -- he believed they had a shot.

And now, at 32 years old, he's on a seven-win team. It's like he re-signed with the Golden State Warriors when they were a perennial lottery team, no?

"Hell no," Jamison said when told of the comparison on Sunday, moments after he nailed a game-winning baseline jumper to beat the Cavaliers. "Not even close. The biggest difference is, we're still competitive. We still believe we can win games. With the Warriors, we knew it was over. The locker room was in disarray. You didn't know who was coming or going. It's definitely different here.

"This is about us getting healthy. It's frustrating and it's been going on for a while. But once it happens, I still have faith in what this team can be."

The watered-down Wizards restored that faith on Sunday, if only for two hours or so. If they want to make a permanent fix, because they can't play Cleveland all the time, they need to understand it's about next year.

That doesn't mean tanking games or resting a healthy Butler or Jamison; it means reassessing priorities to meet reality, during a season that was doomed the day they began 1-10.

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