Trading for center Ike Austin, agreeing to contract terms with free agent Mitch Richmond and securing backup free agent forward Aaron Williams over the past week has Washington Wizards Coach Gar Heard feeling pretty good about his team.
"It looks pretty competitive -- on paper," Heard said.
Richmond, who on Tuesday agreed to a contract that could earn him $40 million over four years, said the upgrade in personnel played a part in his decision to re-sign with Washington after leading the team in scoring last season with 19.7 points per game.
"You've got to be a little excited now," he said. "I think things are going to be a lot better than last year."
Washington missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year in 1999 with an 18-32 record in the lockout-shortened season.
The current optimism is tempered with a sense of reality, though. What feels good now won't feel good later unless players buy into Heard's defense-first system. Players must believe in the capabilities of the assistant coaches, and all parties must sustain focus throughout the course of an 82-game season, forward Tracy Murray said.
"You can be a great coach but if players don't believe in what you're trying to do, it doesn't matter," Murray said. "I hope everybody's committed to winning this season because I think most of us are tired of losing."
Having a veteran-dominated starting lineup with a legitimate center in Austin has things pointed in the right direction, Heard said. However, there are holes.
The Wizards still must sign a starting power forward with the $2 million exception the league affords teams that are over the salary cap. Washington has interest in J.R. Reid, Dickey Simpkins, Samaki Walker, Corie Blount and Grant Long but doesn't plan to make a move right away in case a better player becomes available, a team source said.
Equally important, Heard said, is fortifying a bench that is big on potential but short on experience. Murray and point guard Chris Whitney are the most seasoned backups. Williams has spent five seasons in the NBA but has played in just 159 games, 105 over the past two seasons.
Forward Randell Jackson and center Jahidi White are second-year players who showed promise last season but are far from being polished. First-round draft pick Richard Hamilton has the potential to emerge as a star but, as a backup to Richmond, his progression likely will be marginal. Rookie center Calvin Booth also is skilled, but coaches say he is more of a project than an immediate answer.
"I still look at our bench and right now I'd like to upgrade a little bit," Heard said. "I'd like to get a veteran in here because we are so young. We've got Richard Hamilton, Calvin Booth, Jahidi White and Randell Jackson.
"Aaron Williams is going to get an opportunity to play some minutes, but I'd still like to get a veteran up front that can stabilize the bench."
That veteran likely will be a minimum-salaried player since the Wizards used their $1.1 million exemption to sign Williams.
In past years, landing a minimum salary player might not have been an encouraging scenario. Yet most teams, including Washington, are over the salary cap and have limited spending ability. As a result, a handful of solid players could be available for the league minimum, which is based on a player's tenure in the league.
A player who could slip into the minimum-salary slot is veteran swingman Tyrone Corbin, who was released this week by the Atlanta Hawks. The Wizards would not mind adding another shooter since they traded Tim Legler to Orlando as part of the five-player deal to get Austin, a team source said.