Wizards getting a fresh start - but not a playoff spot

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 11:10 PM

There's no way to put this gently to the hard-core believers, so we'll just say it up front: The Wizards are not going to the playoffs.

There. It's not exactly a CNN crawl line, but it's out.

They may be more aesthetically pleasing, more committed to defense. They might even win 10 more games than the 26 from a lost season of overhaul and chaos.

But to imagine the Wiz Kids (four rookies, seven players with less than three years of experience; yes, they are kids) as part of the NBA postseason is to imagine very big - like Big Baby Davis big.

Flip Saunders would have to be coach of the year, Gilbert Arenas the unofficial comeback player of the year and John Wall the rookie of the year. Every one of those developments is plausible.

But it also means someone has to gather tough rebounds at the end of tight games and that the league's third-youngest team will make veteran decisions in the final minutes against good teams on the road the majority of the time. That's not very plausible.

Not yet.

Ted Leonsis's first season of stewardship has a real chance to be successful out of the gate if two things happen:

1. His fan base views his franchise as almost an expansion team, rather than the 46-year institution formerly owned by Abe Pollin. Look at these Wizards as completely new and original, from the unfamiliar faces in the lineup to the rejuvenated, game-night production at Verizon Center. Don't even mention the word "playoffs," because any such expectation would ruin it.

And 2. This roster of redemption projects and the kids (among them a ridiculously talented No. 1 draft pick) win over the District's hoopheads - engage the old sages, make people talk about them. So that after this season people in Washington can see the future in their pro basketball team like Oklahoma City did when Kevin Durant came to town in 2008.

"What we're expecting is for the team to play hard every night, get better as the season goes along, play the game right way, unselfishly," President Ernie Grunfeld said by telephone from Orlando on Wednesday afternoon. "We want to be a team that other teams respect. We know we're going to have to earn that."

Wall will bring the masses in early on because of the hyperbole machine. When Arenas gets that walking boot off his ankle, his first return to the court since last season's suspension becomes the story.

JaVale McGee will reject several shots into Row 3. Andray Blatche will convert some circus reverse layup to bring the masses to their feet. And Kirk Hinrich, one of the best acquisitions by any team this offseason, will make some clutch steal and hit a money shot and come with maximum effort every possession.

But McGee trying to stay out of foul trouble against the most dominant big man in the game at the moment, Orlando's Dwight Howard, Thursday night in the opener on the road is just the start of problems in the middle; the Wizards simply do not have the interior to match up against more than 20 NBA front lines.

Beyond the youth, there are huge question marks.

Of their three genuine veterans, one is coming off anterior cruciate ligament surgery (Josh Howard), another was, bottom line, a salary-cap dump by the Bulls (Hinrich) and Arenas has barely played in three years.

They are not just bottom five in payroll, right around $58 million; the Wizards are bottom five in overall depth.

This was, of course, the price of detonating the foundation and starting over last season. As Saunders said, "We came to the realization that what we had was not going to win a championship, that the team had to be blown up."

In the coach's mind, this is Year 1 in "learning what it really takes to be a professional." "You don't just all of a sudden wind up in a ring ceremony like the Lakers on opening night," Saunders added. "It's a process. And in that process, you have to start a foundation. In that way, this year is a huge year."

Beyond Wall and Arenas, they have some very nice players. But in NBA parlance, they haven't learned to win at this level yet.

Could they possibly sneak in as a seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference? It's not impossible, given there are only really two tiers of talent - Miami, Boston and Orlando on one level and Atlanta, Chicago and Milwaukee on the next.

But anything above 30 wins should be considered real progress, especially if the Wizards wound up with another top-five pick in the draft.

Going further, this year should not be measured by victories; this isn't about contending anymore as much as re-entering the conversation at some point.

The Wizards don't have to win 30-plus as much as get the District back in their corner, make the disenfranchised care and believe in their effort and motivations.

The more Wall and his teammates are viewed as part of a new beginning - rather than a group expected to right the wrongs of last season - the more this team and its legions have a genuine chance of resuscitating a former contender.

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