Who says the Wizards aren't in the NBA playoffs? Of course there are Wizards in the playoffs. Bullets, too. All playoffs long I've been watching them, from Sacramento to New Jersey, from C-Webb to Aaron Williams. They're certainly here in the Eastern Conference finals. If it wasn't for the Bullets/Wizards, the Pistons wouldn't be here.

The Pistons are as close as Washington can get to the playoffs. I don't care if they play in Auburn Hills, Mich.; they're our Pistons. If you don't believe me, just take a look at their starting lineup.

At one forward there's Rasheed Wallace, one of the last Bullets, chosen fourth overall by the team in 1995. At the other forward there is Ben Wallace, the best inside defender in the league and a two-time defensive player of the year. He's the first undrafted player in the history of the NBA to start in the all-star game. Wow, somebody did one helluva scouting job by finding Big Ben down at Virginia Union.

At shooting guard there's Richard Hamilton, the best mid-range shooter in the NBA having supplanted Allan Houston. Rip is a young Alex English. The Wizards took him with the seventh overall pick in the 1999 draft, right after he'd led U-Conn. to the NCAA championship. He's the Pistons' leading scorer, he's polished, he's improving as a defender all the time. Mr. Clutch, Reggie Miller, calls Hamilton "Mini-me." Miller says Hamilton has stolen all his Jedi mind tricks, not to mention the fact that he's mastered all the clutching, grabbing, pushing tricks we thought Miller had patented. It was Hamilton who made good on Rasheed Wallace's guarantee by scoring 23 points in the Pistons' Game 2 block party.

That's three-fifths of Detroit's starting lineup, and the most important three-fifths. If you rank the Pistons by importance to the team, you've got to have Ben, Rip, 'Sheed and probably in that order. Another guy, sitting on the bench, is Darvin Ham, a 6-foot-7 leaper people didn't think would be in the league for very long, except he's lasted for eight years, one of them with the Wizards.

Wouldn't you like to have them right now in a Wizards uniform, or for that matter, in one of those Wes Unseld throwbacks?

"We talk about it all the time," Hamilton said before Game 2 against the Pacers. "The core of our success here in Detroit came from Washington. They had all of us. I don't know what they were doing, to tell you the truth. . . . One of my friends from D.C. told me: 'We've traded all the young players we've had here: Rasheed, Webber, Ben. . . . Watch them end up trading you.' A couple months later, they traded me.

"We all loved D.C., everything about it," Hamilton said. "Everybody there is hungry for a winner and it was exciting being a part of an organization that hasn't won and was on the verge of winning. We were all on the verge of winning -- and they broke everything up. I think they were all trying to win right now and they were trading old for young. It's like a pattern. It's hard to see change there because it happens over and over again. There might be something in the water at the MCI Center."

Rip, you're right. It's lead.

And it gets worse, the more players you consider. If Sacramento had beaten Minnesota, Chris Webber would have been added to the roster of ex-Wizards in the conference finals. Webber, Ben and Rasheed Wallace plus Rip Hamilton. How many NBA foursomes are better than that? Put Steve Blake with that group right now and that team just might come out of the Eastern Conference.

What's worse than them all playing elsewhere is that there's virtually nothing to show for their absence.

Mitch Richmond, who came for Webber, is gone. Rod Strickland, who came for Rasheed, is gone. Jerry Stackhouse, who came for Hamilton, is still here; we just wish he was gone. Ike Austin, who came for Ben Wallace, is gone. And as Ben Wallace said the other night on this very topic, "Not just Ike Austin, but Tim Legler, Jeff McInnis and Terry Davis" were included in the deal, too.

"Me and Rasheed just the other day talked about what kind of team we could have had there," Ben Wallace said. "I'll tell you a story. . . . Rasheed and I weren't actually there together. Rasheed got traded, and I came in later. When I got there they didn't ask me what jersey number I wanted to wear. . . . I'd worn No. 32 [in college]. But real quick, they gave me a jersey No. 30 that had 'Wallace' on the back. It kind of smelled like moth balls. . . . Then it hit me after some guys told me my jersey was on sale in some of the [sports] stores. All they had to do was give me Rasheed's jersey."

Isn't that classic Bullets/Wizards?

Collectively, of course, it looks bad. In the aftermath of Juwan Howard thinking he had signed with the Miami Heat in the summer of 1996, Wes Unseld traded Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland, who did trigger the Wizards' run to the playoffs the very next year, 1997.

The deal sending Ben Wallace to Orlando for Austin, "that was supposed to bring in a true center, right?" Ben said. Given that Ben went from 1.7 to 4.9 to 8.4 rebounds in three seasons with the Wizards we all should have seen that Big Ben was about to bust out. Unseld wasn't the only one who didn't see it. I'd like to burn the column I wrote endorsing the trade, but everything's online now so I'm stuck.

Unseld certainly isn't on the hook for dealing Hamilton. Michael Jordan made that deal. (In fact, Unseld was probably the one league executive who pegged Hamilton perfectly from the time Rip started his junior year of college. Unseld's crystal ball was crystal clear.) The rest of us were in a fog. Just about all of us endorsed Stackhouse for Rip, and it's a bigger disaster now than it was when the deal was made because at least Jordan never planned to extend Stackhouse's contract, as Abe Pollin did last summer. Hamilton, who's everything as a teammate that Stackhouse isn't, is still just 26. "If Rip spends one summer a little closer to that weight room," Ben Wallace said, "the league will be in trouble."

Even if Hamilton is destined to be skinny all his life like Reggie Miller, it doesn't mean he can't be effective in the playoffs. He averaged 17.6 points per game in the regular season, and bumped that up to 20.8 points per game in these playoffs. He wasn't by himself when it came to wanting to be part of a successful building program in D.C.

"It was close to where I went to school," Ben Wallace said. "It was an ideal place to be at the time. But . . . yeah, we talk about the Wizards. . . . We talk about 'em, right about the time we're about to play 'em. Then, we want to kill 'em."