Wizards: heady taste of progress

Doubling of victories, narrow playoff miss raise next-step hopes

April 18, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - By any objective measure, the Washington Wizards have just completed their most successful season in four years, nearly doubling their win total from the previous season while leading the NBA in attendance, selling out every home game for the first time in history and playing to road sellouts for all but three games.

But perhaps the true measure of how much better the Wizards (37-45) were in 2001-02 than in the 2000-01 season is that they actually dared to be upset about narrowly missing the playoffs.

"To go from awful to OK is easy. To go from OK to the playoffs is hard," Washington coach Doug Collins said after Tuesday's 116-112, season-closing win over the New York Knicks.

"That's the next step. And these guys in the locker room are going to be the ones to decide that, because the commitment that they make this summer will be an indicator of where we can go next year, because we just can't show up in October and say, `OK, let's go again.' We've got a lot of hard work to do."

Washington's efforts to get from awful to OK shouldn't be overlooked, though much of it was obscured by the circus that surrounded the return of Michael Jordan to active duty after three years of retirement.

With Jordan, who led the team in scoring and assists, the Wizards started the season 2-9. Without him, because of the lingering effects of a right-knee cartilage tear, they ended the season 3-7.

In the middle, the team went 32-29, a .525 winning percentage, which played out over the entire season would have safely landed the team in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

As it happened, with four starters or key contributors (Jordan, Richard Hamilton, Courtney Alexander and Christian Laettner) each missing at least 19 games with an assortment of injuries, the Wizards stayed in the playoff race until the season's last weekend, ultimately missing out on the postseason for a fifth straight season.

"Losing Rip [Hamilton] really hurt, and losing Michael really hurt," said forward Popeye Jones. "If you put that burden on any other team in the NBA, to lose their top two scorers in the course of a season, they're going to struggle. That's the reason we're not in the playoffs, because of injuries. If we stay healthy, we're in there."

Though there has been significant hemming and hawing, most observers believe Jordan, who left the Washington front office before the season to sign a two-year deal, will return for next season. He will turn 40 in February.

However, Collins has indicated he will curtail Jordan's minutes to keep him healthy.

"We've got to get it to where he has help out there with him and he doesn't have to take all that on his shoulders," said Collins. "This year, he tried to carry that burden all by himself."

"We know that Michael's not going to play the next five or six years and we're the future of this team," said Hamilton, who averaged 20 points. "We don't depend on him the way everyone thinks we depend on him. We have a lot of young guys on the team, and, in order for us to turn this organization around, it's up to us."

Indeed, the late-season performances of the team's younger players, particularly forwards Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas and swingman Bobby Simmons, has buoyed the club's optimism for next season.

Brown, the first overall pick in last year's draft, who joined the Wizards straight out of high school, started slowly, but earned increasing minutes, particularly in April, when he scored in double figures in five of the last eight games.

"I'm more in shape," said Brown. "I think the game is slowing down and I'm learning to play a little better and making reads on the floor, instead of acting like a deer in the headlights. As a team, we all are playing better and moving the ball."

Said Collins: "It was good for Kwame to be able to finish the way that he did, because he'll feel good about himself going into the summer. Had he not had any success, it would have been a tough summer for him.

"All he would have been hearing about was he was the first pick and they didn't play him much. Now, people can see why we took him No. 1. He's an extremely talented player."

Brown and Thomas, who came on strong in the final two weeks of the season, will likely enter training camp in October as favorites to start at the forward slots, while Simmons is likely to join Jordan, Alexander, Hamilton in the shooting-guard mix.

The Wizards will attempt to upgrade at center, where incumbent Jahidi White and rookie Brendan Haywood were either inconsistent or injury-prone, and at point guard, where newcomer Tyronn Lue and veteran Chris Whitney were serviceable, if undersized.

The club is likely to use its first-round draft choice, a lottery pick, to bolster depth, and will probably be cautious in the free-agent market, hoping to save its pennies for the pending 2003 class, which may include San Antonio's Tim Duncan.

Beyond the burgeoning young big-man talent and a long-missing swagger, the Wizards will start next season with something they haven't had since 1998-99, namely the same coach, Collins, who ended the previous season.

"That'll be fun," said Hamilton. "That will be real great, not worrying about who will be coming back and what type of team we're going to have, who will be the coach, who will be the assistant coaches and a whole lot of different things.

"Every year, you have a coaching shuffle. Every year, a coach had to feel out every person on this team to see what they can do for us. It will be a great situation to know that you're going to have the same coach from last year."

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