Mike Wise: Wizards seek a team rebound

Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison are back, though Jamison will be out with an injury early on.
Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison are back, though Jamison will be out with an injury early on. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Of course every jaded hoophead in the District moaned, "Here we go again," after hearing about Antawn Jamison's shoulder injury and "three to five weeks" mentioned in the same sentence on Friday afternoon.

Any news about an injury regarding a key player for the Washington Wizards always feels ominous, cause for major concern even, if only because Gilbert Arenas has played less than 20 games in the past two seasons. When Arenas and Brendan Haywood went down a year ago, a season of awful basketball and abject apathy followed.

Nineteen and 63 will do that.

It's one thing for people to loathe how a franchise is put together or how it performs; it's another not to matter. The Wizards went back to not mattering last spring, virtual irrelevancy, a place the Nationals only truly know.

But it's too cheap and easy to make the 2009-10 Wizards about any other team in this area. Don't let your burgundy-and-gold depression cloud your outlook. They play in the only hopeful arena in town these days. Beyond the Wizards, Verizon Center is currently home to just about the greatest North American team-sport athlete alive. (At this moment, I would take Alex Ovechkin slightly ahead of LeBron James.)

And Jamison is supposed to come back before Thanksgiving. Subluxation of his shoulder or not, this isn't Chris Webber's bum shoulder in 1998. These aren't those Wizards.

They have a new coach in Flip Saunders, who's been to the conference finals four times, including three with Detroit. He's a communicator, having personally visited players at either their offseason homes or workout locales. As Arenas said last month: "I talked to Flip for 45 minutes the first time I met him. I was like, 'Huh.' It just kind of shocked me, a coach that interested in what I was doing."

Ernie Grunfeld went out and got Mike Miller and Randy Foye for a pittance from Minnesota, convinced that no team seeking to unseat Orlando or Cleveland or Boston in the Eastern Conference could have too many stop-and-pop perimeter players. The team president also got a nice instigator type in Fabricio Oberto. The Argentine big man is not a complete answer to the girth and grit problems plaguing the team's middle since, well, long before Rick Mahorn was a WNBA coach and Jeff Ruland took over the men's program this season at UDC. But he's also not Peter John Ramos or Ike Austin.

The main reason the Wizards will matter again: the lead characters all return. The main man returns. Arenas is the catalyst. When he is running the floor, distributing, dropping in three-point shots in the fourth quarter -- doing his thing, really -- everything else flows.

Caron Butler can still be an all-star but he doesn't have to be a franchise player every night. Jamison has fewer people paying attention to him on the offensive end, better so he can maneuver inside for a little drop-step, herky-jerky one-hander that somehow catches the net. DeShawn Stevenson doesn't have to be a knifing playmaker, praying for a call that never comes; he gets to play in-your-grille defense and spot up behind his sweet spots on the floor. Haywood gets to clean up the mess, trail the break or start it.

Everyone understands that as good as Jamison and Butler have been for the organization, they're still the supporting cast when the star is healthy and hungry. The show is Gilbert. He's back. And never in his career has he had more to prove to a fan base that's partly turned against him and his $111 million contract.

Is it going to be pretty at first? No. The Gil-Caron-and-'Twan Show has not been on display in a regular season NBA game at full strength since April 1, 2007 -- the day Butler broke his hand. Three days later, ligaments in Arenas's left knee popped.

Arenas basically hasn't played in two years. Haywood and Stevenson have been out for much of the past year. The Wizards are in some ways incorporating half of a new team. When a new coach and a new system are factored in, when Jamison missing perhaps the first 10 games is accounted for, that's not immediately a piece of sublime choreography on the court.

It's going to take maybe until January until signs of a playoff team truly begin to show.

But Miller and Foye eating up minutes taken by Javaris Crittenton and Mike James in the back court a year ago is not unproven, either. That's experience.

Whether two veteran role players want to show they still belong, whether a well-traveled coach wants to prove he still has the ability to motivate multimillionaires or whether one of those multimillionaires wants to show he's worth every penny and then some, there is a theme encircling these Wizards, and it goes beyond the very good marketing line of, "Character. Commitment. Connection."

It goes straight to the core of proving themselves again, straight to starting over after 19-63. That drive alone and improved health account for 20 more wins. Throw in the return of Arenas, and that's 10 more. After a slow start, they finish 49-33 and advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs, still a year short of their dream.

Like we said, it's going to take time.

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