The questions regarding the Washington Wizards will begin to be answered tonight when they face the Los Angeles Lakers in Little Rock in both teams' preseason opener.
The Wizards will not have their complete starting lineup because guard Mitch Richmond (strained hamstring) and forward Aaron Williams (back spasms) will not make the two-game trip, which concludes Wednesday in Kansas City, Mo., against the Lakers.
However, Coach Gar Heard said he will be able to measure his team's depth and talent and assess how well the team has adapted to his high-octane, transition offense.
"I think we've really improved a lot," said Heard, who based his judgment on a week's worth of twice-daily practices. "We're improving every day but it's totally different when you get out and start playing games. I want to see a lot of things. I want to see how the guys respond to game situations and see what type of bench we have."
The injuries to Richmond and Williams, which are considered minor, will allow first-round draft pick Richard Hamilton and free agent signee Michael Smith to start against one of the preseason favorites to contend for the NBA title.
Richmond and Williams may be healthy enough to play in the Wizards' public scrimmage Friday night at MCI Center, but Heard said he would not rush their return.
"I tried to go out and run with the team," Richmond said after yesterday's practice at MCI Center. The hamstring "is not as healthy as I thought it was. They say these things usually heal in two, three weeks. I didn't think it was that bad. This has been going on for five days but I hope I can get back as soon as possible. I'm missing a lot of good stuff out there."
Hamilton will come off the bench behind Richmond when the season starts Nov. 2 at home against Atlanta. Smith, meanwhile, is deadlocked in a battle with Williams for the starting power forward job.
Williams worked with the starting unit before his back flared up Friday. Now Smith has the chance to make his case.
Players on the bubble of making the team also have a chance to capitalize on Williams and Richmond being unavailable. James Collins, Laron Profit and Reggie Jordan are competing for the team's fifth guard spot and each player moves up a notch in the rotation.
Free agent forwards Gerard King, Jason Lawson, Jonathan Kerner and Derek Grimm also will see playing time on this trip, although two of them likely will be released Thursday. King, a camp invitee who was the 12th man for San Antonio last season, has been the most impressive. Coaches and players say they like his strength, rebounding and offense.
"He can play," center Ike Austin said of King.
Other than gauging personnel, the coaching staff wants to see how well players execute.
So far players say they are excited about the new offense, which is generated by pushing the ball up the floor quickly after a rebound or made basket. In two scrimmages, the Wizards have run effectively, especially point guard Rod Strickland, who said this system is ideal for his game.
If Washington can't get off a fast-break shot, the offense, in most cases, will circulate around the first player to establish position in the low post. Players will set picks and run plays based on that player's location. Few plays are designed for one specific player or position, players said.
The weaving, quick-passing scheme is a far cry from last season's perimeter-based offense in which players took the best shot available, which in most cases was near or beyond the three-point line. This offense is designed to create high-percentage shots closer to the basket.
"We're getting a better idea of how to run this," Austin said. "We're starting to execute. It's going to take some time but we'll be ready when the season opens."
Austin, the first true center Washington has had since Gheorghe Muresan, is slowly adjusting, Heard said. His lack of consistent rebounding must change for the team to compete inside, Heard said. However, Austin's offensive skills are promising, although he has not displayed them consistently.
"When it gets to November, I'll be straight," Austin said. "Right now I'm trying to get a feel for Rod, Juwan [Howard], Mitch and the other guys. I need to get into a flow with them and see where they want to catch the ball so when I start my moves in the low post and other teams double down I want to be able to hit them right so they can just catch and shoot."
Wizards Notes: Forward Lorenzo Williams, who is recovering from knee surgery, will not make the trip. Williams has done light running in the past few practices but his timetable to return remains uncertain. . . . The Wizards will have only 15 of the 17 players on the trip in uniform for each game. The two who do not play tonight will see action Wednesday.