The Washington Wizards' 5-3 preseason record and the emergence of several individual players as big-time talents has players and coaches feeling fairly positive about this team's chances for success this season.
However, there are some concerns -- mainly developing chemistry and how to best use the team's numerous scoring options -- that have some with the team proceeding with caution as the Wizards prepare to face a brutal early-season schedule that starts Wednesday at Toronto.
"We can't start 2-9 again," Wizards Coach Doug Collins said, referring to last season. "We can't dig ourselves a 2-9 hole and hope for a 15-2 streak to get out of it. Right now we're just trying to learn how to play with each other, who are scorers are, whose job it is to get those scorers open and everybody's role defensively."
Washington will open the season against the Raptors, then play the Boston Celtics in their home opener Thursday. Next is a home game against defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey and a game at Minnesota. Eight of the Wizards' first 11 games are against playoff teams, including a Nov. 8 home date with the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
The schedule means five new starters and seven new players will have to mesh quickly, something that didn't happen overnight during preseason. One contributing factor was that Michael Jordan, who will come off the bench, didn't throw himself into the mix until five games into the eight-game exhibition schedule. Jordan sat out the first few exhibitions in order to pace his 39-year-old body, especially his right knee, which required surgery last season.
"We've got some kinks we've got to work through," Jordan said. "We've got seven, eight new players that we have to adjust to. We're going to have our ups and downs but when the time comes and the chemistry and kinks are worked out, hopefully things are going to be a little better."
The Wizards looked like world-beaters early in preseason, when their high-energy defense forced numerous turnovers and easy baskets. But as the competition improved and teams began using some of their more complex defensive strategies, flaws began to surface.
Post players weren't as effective as they should be, allowing opponents to gang up on the talented back court. Players misread how their teammates ran plays, resulting in turnovers, and it was tough for players to understand their roles, which changed when Jordan came into the game and commanded much of the offense.
"Not only did the ball gravitate to us, but we gravitated to the ball," starting shooting guard Jerry Stackhouse said before Friday's preseason-ending loss to the Celtics, when he scored 36 points and played much more comfortably alongside Jordan than he did in the two previous games. "We're still learning each other."
Collins said some of the disjointed play in preseason was because he installed very few of the team's offensive sets, forcing players to freelance. That the Wizards spent 12 days on the road in three times zones after the preseason opener against Philadelphia at MCI Center, also sapped players' energy and focus, Collins said.
Coaches and players said that most of the shortcomings could be overcome with practice, time and talent. Having a good amount of veterans who have had success -- Jordan, Stackhouse, Charles Oakley, Bryon Russell, Tyronn Lue -- also should help ease obstacles. However, developing chemistry and an identity appears as if it will take longer than initially thought, Collins said.
"It's going to be a while before we just click, before we can just work off each other," Hughes said. "We've got a lot of new guys. There's not that much space on the court. We've got to separate, just figure out when's the best time to get guys the ball and how we need to talk on defense. It's going to come. One of the things that's good is we have the type of guys where we can get by on talent alone until we all get on the same page. We have a lot of talent where if we do things halfway right and play hard, we'll win games."
Wizards Note: Swingman George McCloud, acquired from the Denver Nuggets Thursday in a trade for point guard Chris Whitney, is expected to arrive in Washington today. He will meet with team officials about his status, which very well could end with the Wizards buying out his $2.6 million contract, allowing him to become a free agent. League sources said several teams have interest in acquiring McCloud if Washington waives him. Washington, which must trim its roster by two players by 6 p.m. Tuesday, doesn't have space for McCloud on its talent-laden perimeter.