With the Wizards, it's best to deal in small, forward steps. The first day of camp down in Richmond went well. Nobody suffered a serious injury. Players didn't just show up; they came in the kind of condition Wizards players usually aren't in until mid-November. They came ready to do what their coach, Eddie Jordan, wants them to do. There was no complaining that we know of. No private alternative agendas were put forth. The players, the coaches and the GM know each other fairly well, know what the mission is and can read the road map to accomplish it.
That might not sound like a lot to people who follow basketball in Detroit or San Antonio, but it's a pretty good jumping-off point here.
It would be insane to begin the discussion of the Wizards' season with projections because there are way too many "ifs." Optimism outside the team isn't the order of the day when a franchise hasn't reached the playoffs in seven years, two of them with Michael Jordan in uniform.
Perhaps a more reasonable place to start is this: The Wizards will bear watching, maybe even closely. It appears to be a credible, functioning outfit with both a plan and some of the right parts to execute it. Again, this is not a big deal in Sacramento or Indianapolis. Ernie Grunfeld, the GM, is largely responsible for that credibility. He built playoff teams in New York that reached the NBA Finals. He built playoff teams in Milwaukee. He's not afraid of big projects, which is a good thing, because that's exactly what he's got on his hands.
Last year, he and Coach Eddie Jordan had no chance. The dysfunction had set in before they arrived, set in motion by the spring firing of Michael Jordan. Last season wasn't just bad, it was unwatchable.
Eddie Jordan has been here a year. The players, even though there are some new ones, had better be familiar with his complex offense. And Jordan has come out preaching, privately to the team and publicly to anyone who will listen, the theme of defense and rebounding. It's virtually all he wants to talk about at the start of camp, and wisely so because any talk of a successful season needs to begin there or it cannot be taken seriously. See the Pistons. "It takes a huge commitment," Jordan said Monday, "to play defense because it's a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of dedication and it's not glamorous. You have to have the heart and the guts and hardly any glory. ESPN doesn't show defense, but we're committed to playing good defense."
The Wizards should bear watching because Gilbert Arenas is an enormous talent with gym-rat dedication to be even better than he was last season. Okay, Arenas is a little, well, wacky. Maybe he's even downright strange. But with Jason Kidd injured and Baron Davis having departed for the Western Conference, Arenas could emerge right out of the gate as one of the top point guards in the East, up there with Steve Francis, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, and a reborn Stephon Marbury.
"He's the guy," Eddie Jordan said of Arenas, "who stirs the drink. In some possessions, he'll be at the point, and in some he'll be the offensive-minded two-guard. It's a hard thing for him. He's a scorer by nature and by instinct, and yet he has to run the team. It's not easy [but] I expect him to run the offense and, yet, score when we need him."
Still, that's not the hardest thing. Arenas has to prove he can run a team and keep himself in check and stay out of these bizarre episodes that undermined his own efforts and the team last season. Show me a pouting point man prone to meltdowns and I'm going to show you a team going nowhere. Guys like Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest are forwards; they don't have the ball every possession and run the team like Arenas is expected to do. This kid has the skill, the toughness and the creativity to be a great player. Question is, where will his head be? Will he have self-control we haven't yet seen? Arenas alone will be a compelling story.
The Wizards will bear watching because they've got a better North Carolina alum swing player than they had last season. Swapping Jerry Stackhouse for Antawn Jamison, right after improved defense and rebounding, will wind up being the most refreshing change of the season. While Stackhouse tried to quit last season without even telling his coach, Jamison, as Grunfeld said, "is a real professional. He puts team in front of everything else. He got a taste of winning in Dallas last year and he liked it. He didn't take any plays off in the first practice. I'm not saying he's a vocal guy; Patrick Ewing was our leader in New York and wasn't a vocal guy. But Antawn not only says the right things, he does the right things."
It's a team that merits watching because Jarvis Hayes, the second-year kid out of Georgia, has that rarest of skills: He can actually shoot. "He's got a terrific looking shot, great form," Grunfeld said.
They merit watching, at least out of the gates, because Arenas and Larry Hughes in the back court, Jamison at small forward, Anthony Peeler and Samaki Walker coming off the bench with Hayes and Juan Dixon, actually reflects both skill and depth.
Once again, the bigs are the issue. Kwame Brown's status, after his recent foot surgery, will be determined later this week. Either way, he won't be out for long. The question is, will Brown commit the way Arenas and Jamison have? This is his fourth year in the league, and if he can't be a professional now the Wizards can't presume he will ever become one for them. If he can get his 13 points and seven rebounds up to 15 and nine, and not have long stretches where he looks like what he should be -- a senior in college -- then it'll be a lot easier for this team to realize its goals of better rebounding and defense. Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood have to be a whole lot better than they've shown hitting the boards and hitting a body. No benefit of the doubt conveys to any of them.
Overall, "it's not the same group," Grunfeld said of the personnel changes (Walker, Peeler and Jamison instead of Stackhouse and Christian Laettner) and of the mind-set that allowed players to get camp off to a much better start than last year.
"We've added a couple of players from winning environments. The silver lining in the cloud of injuries last year is that guys who wouldn't have gotten as much playing time did get valuable playing time, minutes they wouldn't have gotten otherwise. We're more competitive now. We have a pretty deep team. Minutes have to be earned. Nobody here is guaranteed anything."