By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
They have a former all-NBA point guard with a left knee injury that kept him on the bench for most of the past two seasons; a 33-year-old power forward who will start the season with a right shoulder injury; a center in a contract year who missed almost all of last season with a torn wrist ligament; two veteran additions, also approaching free agency, who haven't appeared in the playoffs the past three seasons; and a veteran power forward who had an offseason heart procedure. The rest of the roster contributed to a team that won just 19 games last season.
The Washington Wizards understand why some doubt their aspirations to become a factor in the Eastern Conference and find a room on the same penthouse floor as Cleveland, Orlando and Boston.
But the Wizards are encouraged because Gilbert Arenas's left knee has healed, Antawn Jamison's shoulder injury isn't nearly as serious as they initially feared and all of the returning players and newcomers have repeatedly said they are eager to contribute to team success.
They also have a new coach in Flip Saunders, who has reached the conference finals in four of the past five seasons he was on the bench. So the Wizards' optimism for a dramatic turnaround remains palpable as they open their season Tuesday in Dallas.
"It's a renaissance, a rebirth, a new beginning, something special," forward Caron Butler said, describing what the 2009-10 campaign represents. "Now it's time to start from the basics and work our way all the way back to where we were at, which at one time, was the top of the Eastern Conference. We think we can do it. It's a new era."
In many ways this "new era" is rooted in the hope generated from an older one. It was a week-long "era" -- following a win over a Detroit Pistons team coached by Saunders -- from Jan. 26, 2007 to Feb. 2, 2007, when Arenas, Butler and Jamison had the Wizards sitting atop the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for the Wizards, the season also began to unravel that same week, when Jamison sprained his knee in Auburn Hills, Mich.
That all-star trio hasn't shared the floor at full strength since April 1, 2007, the day Butler broke his hand while slapping a backboard in Milwaukee. Three days later, Charlotte's Gerald Wallace fell into Arenas's knee, simultaneously setting back Arenas's career and any hope of Washington's ascension.
Still, President Ernie Grunfeld committed fully to winning with those three in the summer of 2008, when he invested more than $160 million in retaining Arenas and Jamison. Even as the team bottomed out in the first year of those deals and Eddie Jordan was fired as coach, Grunfeld resisted overtures for Butler and Jamison at the trade deadline and during this past offseason.
And, instead of starting the rebuilding process and shedding salary, Grunfeld doubled down on his three all-stars by bringing in Saunders, who's had success in two previous stops, trading the lottery pick for Mike Miller and Randy Foye and signing Fabricio Oberto.
"I was happy that management made some moves in the offseason and kept the core together," Butler said. "The least I can do is go out there and perform at a high level. I think it's important, for all of us to be healthy, be out there together and just show the world how special we are."
Those moves and a reduced salary cap resulted in the Wizards fielding their most expensive team in franchise history, one that comes with an almost $9 million luxury-tax penalty. Despite the high price tag, though, Arenas's expectations are not lofty. "When you only win 19 games I don't think there's any pressure," Arenas said recently. "I haven't heard the expectations, but after 19 wins, it can only go up."
Over the past four seasons, Arenas, Butler and Jamison are 67-48 when they start together, which would put the Wizards on a 48-win pace. But that trio has started only 10 games together, most with Arenas testing his surgically repaired knee, during the past two seasons.
Jamison, who is expected to return less than 15 games into this season, expressed no doubts. "How many teams would love to be in this position to have three guys who have been to the all-star game and three guys who mean so much to their team?" Jamison said. "That's the toughest thing, because we play well together. We love playing with each other. It hasn't happened because of things you can't control."
When asked last month why he has remained so committed to his three stars, Grunfeld said: "I think these guys are good. I think they showed when they did play together for an extended amount of time, they've won a lot of games together. I feel good about that. I feel good about the players around them."
With Haywood, Miller and Foye entering free agency next summer, Butler eligible for free agency in 2011 and Jamison not looking to play beyond 2012, this could be a pressure-filled season for the Wizards.
"I don't really think like that," Grunfeld said last week. "We want to have the best possible team. We feel like we have a chance to be a very competitive team. How competitive? Only time will tell."
Saunders motivated his players the day before training camp began by handing out T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the words "Our Time." Over the past month, he has tried to keep his team confident. He wants his players to focus on "where are we at when it's over? That's going to be the biggest thing, our challenge; continuing to get better and better," Saunders said.
Jamison said he hopes that people continue to doubt the Wizards. "If they still feel that with the moves we made and everybody healthy that we still can't make it or we're not that significant of a team, I can't wait to prove people wrong and sit back in early June and have a smile on my face," Jamison said. "This team is definitely a playoff-caliber team. Our biggest question is, 'Is this a championship-caliber team?' "