I've got the Washington Wizards going to the Eastern Conference finals. They'll start slowly because they have so many new guys to work in, so many roles to establish, so many kids who still need time to learn how to play in the NBA. But ultimately, sometime in early February, the Wizards will get into a groove and play the kind of pro basketball we haven't seen around here since the late 1970s.
They'll win 45, 46 games in the regular season, and by playoff time, if Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse and Charles Oakley are healthy, the Wizards will be one of the two best teams in the East, trailing only New Jersey.
In the NBA, perhaps more than in any other professional league, the teams with the best players and best coaches win. This is a team loaded with good players, led by a player consumed with winning and a coach with a track record of quickly figuring out what pieces go in what space. The Wizards have more toughness than they've had in 15 years, more quickness and athletic ability in the back court than we've seen in longer than that. There are multiple players who can score, multiple players who can defend on the perimeter and, in time, should cause matchup nightmares even for the best teams in the East.
Oakley, a particularly hard man to impress, said after yesterday's practice, "I like the mix here. We've got Michael, Bryon Russell and me at one end, the old veteran guys who have been in the battles. We've got Jerry Stackhouse in the middle, a guy who has played in the playoffs but is still just coming into his prime. And he's like a bridge to the young guys like Kwame Brown, Larry Hughes, Jared Jeffries, Tyronn Lue . . . all the young guys who have a lot of spirit. I think the parts are here. We've got people who can play post defense. We've got three or four guys who can form a core group every night and who the team can count on at the end of games. It's never easy in this league, and it takes time to put a team together. It takes time for guys to learn how to play together. But I think we're ready to roll."
The Wizards will start the season tonight in Toronto with a lineup of Hughes and Stackhouse at guard, Russell and Brown at forward, and Brendan Haywood at center. When Jordan comes off the bench in the first half, look for him to play alongside Jeffries and Lue. But when Jordan enters the game in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter, look for him to play with Stackhouse and Hughes or Russell in a lineup that figures to strain the defensive resources of just about anybody.
It's an uncommonly versatile team, one that is reminiscent of Jordan's Bulls teams in the way players can man various positions on the court depending on game situations. The Wizards can play tough ball against a big, physical team, such as the Hornets or Jazz, by putting Oakley, Etan Thomas, Russell, Stackhouse and Jordan on the floor. They can play against Philadelphia and Allen Iverson by putting Brown, Jeffries and Stackhouse in the front court with Lue and Hughes or Juan Dixon in the back court.
What are the weaknesses? There's no primary playmaker. Hughes is not a natural point man. Dixon could evolve into that, but certainly isn't ready to assume those duties as a rookie. It's going to be done by committee, which Collins and Jordan have some experience with because that's the way it was done in Chicago. Was the Bulls' point guard John Paxson or B.J. Armstrong? Was it Scottie Pippen or Jordan? Actually, it was all of them at various times, Ron Harper, too.
It takes time to develop that kind of system. Part of the reason the Wizards committed so many unforced and unnecessary turnovers during the preseason was the lack of a primary playmaker. Another serious concern is rebounding. Brown is still a kid. So are Haywood and Thomas. Oakley can't be expected to carry the load, not at 38 years old.
But what Oakley can and will do is accelerate the growth of the kids in the front court. "I'm not looking for a new pretty-boy role at this point of my career," Oakley said. "I'm bringing the same attitude. You can't go anywhere showing weakness. We're not going to let people attack us. You've got to have some toughness."
You've also got to have a coach who understands how to put this all together, which will not be easy when you have this many players who all expect playing time. This probably wouldn't be the best roster for a coach such as Pat Riley who likes to play six people, seven max. It also wouldn't be a great roster for George Karl, who likes to be King of the team. But Collins has put together teams with a bunch of new faces at the beginning of a season. His second year in Chicago he had to incorporate Pippen and Horace Grant, then rework the team the next year when Oakley was traded to New York for Bill Cartwright. In Detroit, Collins lost Allan Houston to the Knicks, found himself sitting there with Theo Ratliff, Malik Sealy and Scot Pollard and re-made that team on the fly.
"It seems every opening night," Collins told me yesterday, "I go in wondering who we're going to morph into, what we're going to become versus what we are right now."
Collins does not have a football coach's mentality; he doesn't come to the office at 6 a.m. and pour over computer data. But one morning this week, he was in his office at 5:30 a.m. "I couldn't sleep," he said, "and my mind was racing 1,000 miles per hour. I was laying awake and planning practice, so I figured I might as well come to the office and get started."
Somewhere in all that planning and anxiety, I'm betting Collins also was excited about the players he has, about knowing that some teams in his conference didn't improve themselves in the offseason, about the fact that nobody in the East is daunting, not even the defending champion Nets. Collins has been around long enough, played and coached long enough, to know when he's got a little something. He flew to Toronto worried about reckless ball-handling, about an icon who built a career of relentless work trying to pace himself, about a schedule front-loaded with opponents who were in the playoffs last spring. Still, Collins said, "I'm excited to see where we are . . . how long it's going to take us to get into the swing of things."