Washington Wizards Coach Doug Collins said he plans on using the final three preseason games to fine-tune his rotation by using his key players in longer stretches and getting players into a rhythm as to when they will be used.
That leaves open the possibility that guard Michael Jordan, who has not played in Washington's five preseason games -- four of which have been victories -- could see action this week, maybe as soon as Monday against the Denver Nuggets. Jordan has said he does not plan to play in the preseason and Collins has been noncommittal in terms of Jordan's playing status.
However, there is mounting speculation in the Wizards' locker room that Jordan is leaning toward getting in some game action before the Oct. 30 season opener at Toronto.
The Nuggets have offered the Wizards a $200,000 incentive if Jordan plays Monday. If Jordan sits, Washington will receive only $50,000. Jordan would not see any of the money -- it would go to the team -- so his decision to play won't be determined by Denver's lure, a team source said.
"I expect him to play," Nuggets General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe told the Denver Post. "Knowing him, he'll want to play."
Jordan has not wanted to extend himself in the preseason to ease the burden on his 39-year-old body but he has been practicing with the team every day to maintain his conditioning and to familiarize himself with his teammates. During training camp, Jordan said he would not be surprised if he gets off to a slow start because of his plans not to play in the preseason.
"I haven't talked much about it yet but we're going to see how and if I want to continue to break up the minutes," Collins said about shaping his rotation. "I'll talk to the guys to see what kind of shape they think they're in. The guys who are going to play heavy minutes, are they ready to play the kind of minutes they're going to have to play?"
Collins said he plans on forming a nine- or 10-man rotation, which will include Jordan once the regular season starts. Collins said he would not have to play Jordan in preseason games to incorporate him into the lineup. That could be done in practice, he said.
In Washington's lone preseason loss, on Saturday to the New Orleans Hornets, Collins started the likely regular season opening game lineup: Larry Hughes at point guard, Jerry Stackhouse at shooting guard, Bryon Russell at small forward, Kwame Brown at power forward and Brendan Haywood at center. Jordan is expected to come off the bench behind Stackhouse.
Based on how Collins has used players, guards Tyronn Lue, Juan Dixon and Jordan, forwards Charles Oakley and Jared Jeffries and center Etan Thomas will make up the early-season rotation. Dixon and Jeffries probably won't play as much as they have in the preseason but they are not expected to be completely shelved, either.
Christian Laettner could be used at backup center and power forward depending on the situation, but he has not played much lately and appears to be fifth or sixth in the pecking order of big men.
Last season's starting point guard, Chris Whitney, is in an even more precarious position. He has played just 12 minutes of one preseason game because of a right hip flexor injury and has seen Hughes, Dixon and Lue play very well.
Whitney, if he remains hurt, could open the season on the injured list. He also could be traded. Although it sounds like a long shot because he will earn $3 million in this last year of his contract, he also could get cut. Washington has eaten big guaranteed contracts of several players -- Lorenzo Williams and Loy Vaught, among others -- so such a move can't be ruled out.
The Wizards have to release two more players to get to the NBA maximum of 15 by Oct. 29. Forwards Bobby Simmons and Brian Cardinal and center Ratko Varda are on the edge, but Simmons is a favorite of Jordan's and Cardinal seems to have worked his way into the good graces of his teammates and coaching staff.
Varda has been bothered by hamstring and back injuries and has not participated in practice or preseason since early in training camp. He seems to be in the most jeopardy. One way or another, the Wizards will have to make a tough decision unless one of the players on the edge plays himself out of a job this week.