The Washington Wizards entered last season's opener at Memphis with no great expectations. Picked by many to finish somewhere near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the Wizards were able to play like a loose, carefree bunch with nothing to lose.
The Wizards shocked the Grizzlies in the opener, winning 103-91 despite playing without Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes, Brendan Haywood and Anthony Peeler, all of whom were suspended after a fight with the Chicago Bulls during a preseason game. The Wizards went on to win 10 of their first 15 games.
When they take the court in Toronto for Wednesday's season opener, things will be different. Finishing 45-37 in the 2004-05 season, winning a playoff series over the Chicago Bulls, and placing Arenas and Antawn Jamison in the All-Star Game has guaranteed a different outlook.
The Wizards will have to replace the scoring punch, defensive skills and all-around veteran savvy of Hughes, now in Cleveland. But with the additions of Caron Butler, Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins, it's entirely possible that the Wizards will have a deeper team more capable of getting through the grind of an 82-game season.
"We have a much more mature team this season so we have the kind of guys who can handle all of the expectations," said Arenas. "We're a totally different team from last year where everyone was young. We didn't know what was going to happen but this year we understand what we need to do and how to be ready."
One thing the Wizards are reluctant to do is to set a goal for total wins. Coach Eddie Jordan has said that he has a number in mind but isn't sharing. Jamison is taking a different approach.
"We let some games slip away last year and we won some games that we probably should have lost, Jamison said. "Winning 45 games might get you the sixth or seventh seed this year. We want to improve on that. We want home-court advantage but we can't get beyond ourselves, talking about making it to the playoffs and things like that. First of all, we have to start by winning some games early.
"Forty-five in my eyes would not be an improvement. It's not failure, especially if we make it to the playoffs, but I think this team can accomplish more than 45 wins. The problem is that thinking it and doing it are two different things."
The Wizards have until midnight tonight to sign forwards Butler and Jared Jeffries to contract extensions. Both players are entering the final seasons of their contracts and would become restricted free agents this next summer if their contracts are not extended.
Jeffries' agent, Andy Miller, has already indicated that a contract extension is unlikely. Butler has said he is hopeful of receiving an extension but as of yesterday evening, his agent, Raymond Brothers, and Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld had not agreed to a deal.
"We've talked to both Andy and Raymond and we'll wait and see what happens," Grunfeld said.
Should either or both players become restricted free agents, the Wizards would have the right to match any offer made to them next summer.
Blatche to Practice
Rookie forward Andray Blatche has been cleared to practice and will travel with the team for the first time this week. Blatche, who suffered injuries to his right arm and left chest area in a Sept. 25 shooting, did not play during the preseason and will open the regular season on the inactive list.
The Wizards have the option of sending Blatche down to their National Basketball Developmental League affiliate in Roanoke to get more playing experience.