Wizards try to take next step

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor


WASHINGTON - So close.
Gilbert Arenas and the Washington Wizards came so close to reaching the second round of last season's playoffs, losing three games by a point apiece, including twice in overtime.
And that was after they came so close to blowing their postseason positioning with a five-game losing streak late in the regular season that put them in danger of being seeded No. 8 in the Eastern Conference.
Were they on the verge of being an elite team?
Or on the verge of being an also-ran?
Preparing to open the new season Wednesday night in a nationally televised game at the Cleveland Cavaliers - the team that eliminated them from the playoffs - the Wizards are counting on some roster tweaks and a this-time-we-mean-it commitment to defense to put them among the NBA's best.
"We have to move forward. We can't think about just getting to the playoffs," said Arenas, a two-time All-Star whose 29.3-point scoring average ranked fourth in the league in 2005-06. "We have to set our goals higher - championship, NBA finals. That's a realistic goal with the team we have now."
There was a time, not all that long ago, when making the playoffs would have been the be-all-and-end-all goal for Washington. This is, after all, a franchise that went 18 years without consecutive postseason appearances.
But that drought was snapped with the last two seasons, and now the Wizards have a bit of stability. Eddie Jordan enters his fourth season as the coach, Arenas and forward Antawn Jamison enter their fifth season as teammates (three with the Wizards, two with the Warriors), and last year's key additions, Caron Butler and Antonio Daniels, are now entrenched in their roles.
"We have a very good core of players. We have continuity. Last year, we made some changes. This year, we have the core of our players back," president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said. "We wanted to be a perennial playoff contender ... and I think we all feel now that we can take another step."
There were changes, of course, as there always are.
Etan Thomas supplanted Brendan Haywood as the starting center. Jared Jeffries left via free agency for the New York Knicks, and DeShawn Stevenson was signed at the league minimum to replace him as a defensive stopper on the perimeter. Darius Songaila was brought in to add some bulk up front, although the Wizards announced Tuesday that he needs back surgery and will be sidelined up to three months.
In what will seem like a big addition if he can stay healthy, swingman Jarvis Hayes is back after missing 89 games the past two seasons with a knee injury.
"We have a chance to be something special," Arenas said. "We are really focused, we have been practicing hard and playing hard, and we have been getting along. We have all the elements to become one of those elite teams. We just have to go out there and put it all together."
In many ways, the Wizards will go as far as Arenas takes them. He's more than merely their point guard. He's their most dynamic player, their scoring and inspirational leader.
"When he has to step up, Gilbert steps up," Grunfeld said. "Every year that he has been here, he has improved on a certain aspect of his game. Two years ago, it was the consistency on his 3-point shot, because he was always great at getting to the basket. Last summer, he added the mid-range game, the pull-up jumper. This year, he is focusing on trying to improve on the defensive end."
Ah, yes, the defensive end.
That's where Jordan and his players know they let themselves down against LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the postseason.
"The last three games of the season," Jordan said, "were the most excruciating part of coaching I've ever experienced."
To that end, he's simplified his team's approach on defense, relying on what he calls lock-down, man-to-man, half-court 'D,' rather than some of the pressure schemes Washington tried in the past. Stevenson's physical approach will help, and Arenas maintains he's more serious about defense than ever before, vowing to take on opponent's top scorers, starting with James in Game 1.
The problems on defense - something Jordan talked about before last season, too - were a major reason the Wizards were only 42-40 despite having Arenas, Jamison and Butler combine for 67.4 points per game, the highest-scoring trio in the league.
"Last year, we relied on our offense a little bit too much," Jamison said. "Not to take anything from our offense - we're still going to be one of the top scoring teams in the league - but it makes it easier on yourself and your team when ... you get some stops, also."