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Wizards' frustrating year has become a season-ending audition

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; D04

The Washington Wizards didn't stamp an official "Wait 'til next year" sticker on the 2009-10 season when President Ernie Grunfeld rebooted the franchise with some cost-cutting trades in the aftermath of the Gilbert Arenas gun incident. But once Josh Howard tore his ACL in just his fourth game after arriving in a trade deadline deal with Dallas, center JaVale McGee said, "It seems that the spark in our firecracker went out."

Randy Foye recently described this season as "a roller coaster," but after experiencing several corkscrews and loops, the Wizards (21-51) appear to be headed on a speedy, unending decline. They are on a franchise-record 15-game losing streak and have lost 17 of 18 overall without Howard, making it easier -- or perhaps the preference -- to overlook the present and peer ahead to the future.

"Obviously, it's a very frustrating situation right now," Grunfeld said.

Arenas avoided jail time with his sentencing on Friday and Grunfeld declared a day later that the three-time all-star would be back in a Wizards uniform next season. But uncertainty abounds with the team in the process of being sold to current minority owner Ted Leonsis, Grunfeld's status as the possible architect of the rebuilding project yet to be determined and with only five other players under contract beyond this season (including Quinton Ross, who has a player option).

Grunfeld has the Wizards well-positioned to move forward after shedding the contracts of Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson and creating nearly $18.7 million in salary cap space (a number that could increase by nearly $4 million if the Wizards renounce the rights to Foye, a restricted free agent). The New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets are the only teams with more cap room.

Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer, who will be a free agent next summer, said on Saturday that he didn't think the Wizards would have much trouble luring players, despite concerns some may have about teaming with Arenas, who has had three knee surgeries and has played only 47 games the past three seasons. "D.C. is a great environment," Boozer said. "I'm sure they'll get somebody this summer."

The Wizards are also guaranteed a high lottery pick and two large trade exceptions worth $6 million and $4.5 million, which could bring in more pieces. "You're in a situation where we have so many options, from a standpoint of the draft, free agency," Coach Flip Saunders said. "Everyone has to be on the same page, as far as the personality of the players, the intelligence of players, and how those players are going to fit in, in order to build for a championship."

Saunders has used these past few weeks as an opportunity to evaluate several of the Wizards' young prospects, including McGee, Andray Blatche, Al Thornton and Nick Young. But the Wizards' injury problems didn't end with the loss of Howard. Thornton suffered a strained right hip flexor in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Foye aggravated a nagging left wrist injury the next game in Charlotte and both could miss significant time.

"Has this been a rough stretch for these guys, everybody? There is no question," Saunders said. "This has been a whirlwind, where we've had players come in, players get hurt. So many things."

The Wizards were officially eliminated from playoff contention last week, but Saunders has reminded the six free agents on the active roster that there is still something to play for. "A lot of these guys can be involved in" the future, Saunders said. "As I've told them -- I took the same approach that I took with my CBA players -- you're being evaluated by, not only us, but also other teams every time you step on the floor. So, you have to take advantage of that."

Blatche and several others have had some good performances, but the production hasn't produced many victories. "It's hard," Young said. "We ain't trying to come out and be the New Jersey Nets."

The Nets have the NBA's worst record at 9-64, but they actually have a better record than the Wizards since the all-star break. Over that stretch, the Wizards have gone 4-18, while the Nets have gone 5-16. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves have been worse than Washington at 1-19.

"The main thing in this league is win. People like winners and that's what I want to be," said Blatche, who is averaging 21.7 points and 8.3 rebounds since the deadline trades. "But picture if we had Gil or picture if we had Josh Howard on the team, we'd probably be a completely different team. We're just missing one more piece. All the games we're losing, it's not like we're going every night and getting our tail whipped -- we're losing by a couple of points. If we had Gil to take over in the fourth quarter -- bam! -- that's a different story for us. Once we get another piece, I think we'll be great."

But the Wizards won't get another piece or more pieces until next season.

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