Older Wizards want to show they're wiser

NBA: Surrounding Michael Jordan with players closer to his 39 years of age, Washington starts the season hoping to teach the league some new tricks.


October 30, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Whatever you do and however you choose to describe this season's Washington Wizards, please don't call them old.

Or at least don't do it around coach Doug Collins, who prefers to look at the recast lineup as experienced, not aged.

"We felt like the moves that we made we tried to better our talent and add different pieces. I don't think it had anything to do with age," said Collins, starting his second season in Washington.

It may just be a case of semantics, but the flurry of moves the Wizards undertook, particularly in September and October, got them older and more experienced in preparation for this season, which starts tonight in Toronto. (The home opener is tomorrow night at MCI Center against Boston.) At Michael Jordan's behest, the front office surrounded the 39-year-old with some guys he can relate to.

To wit, the Wizards added former Utah forward Bryon Russell, 31, over whom Jordan hit the championship-winning shot to clinch the 1998 NBA title for the Chicago Bulls, and forward Charles Oakley, 38, who broke in with Jordan in the mid-'80s.

That makes for a lot of, um, experience, particularly come the stretch run of games, where a wiser head might be just what the situation calls for.

"You've got a veteran core out there, and you get some other teams that will look at us and go, `Damn. There's some warriors out there,' " Oakley said. "That will make them wonder if it's going to be a tough battle. If you've got two or three [young] guys on the court during that stretch, teams tend to run plays their way. They make fouls and get in the bonus. They try to pick on the young guys. That's how the league is. If they feel that have a mismatch, they're going to use it."

The remaking of the Wizards, who stumbled out of the gate last season with a 2-9 start on the way to a 37-45 finish, looks a lot like the scene out of the movie The Blues Brothers, where John Belushi's Jake, through divine suggestion, convinces Dan Aykroyd's Elwood that they can best save the orphanage they grew up in by reassembling their old blues band and hitting the road.

In this case, after watching much-counted-on younger players such as Richard Hamilton and Courtney Alexander come up short in key moments last season, Jordan, in the Jake role, and Collins, as Elwood, decided to assemble players they could count on.

In short order, Alexander was dealt to New Orleans for a first-round draft pick that became former Maryland star Juan Dixon, and Hamilton was shipped off to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse. Dixon may not play a lot this season, but is being counted on for big things in the future.

Meanwhile, Stackhouse, one of the league's prolific scorers, and free-agent guard signee Larry Hughes, who came over from Golden State, are the nucleus of a bigger, tougher, more defensive-minded backcourt that will theoretically hold down the fort until Jordan can ride to the rescue off the bench.

"We've got a better ballclub and more firepower at those positions," Jordan said. "One of the reasons that I wanted to play more last season was the productivity levels at those positions. The better the productivity in those situations, the easier for me to step away. But if productivity isn't there, then obviously, I feel like I can provide something by being there. I can't honestly say how I'm going to react. It depends on how the guys in front of me react."

Some of this depends on how Jordan himself reacts to a reduction in minutes and to being a reserve for the first time in his career. The theory goes that by reducing his minutes, Jordan, who missed 22 games last season with tendinitis in his knees, will be more productive longer into games and into the season.

His ability to adjust will be a key to whether the Wizards return to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Not all the kinks have been worked out yet, particularly when Jordan and Stackhouse are on the court together, but when they are, Washington should have few difficulties scoring from the perimeter.

"It's a natural tendency for guys still, because when Michael is out there and demands so much attention and still has the respect of the players, to kind of feel around," Stackhouse said. "But I'm just going to be aggressive. I'm going to continue to do the things that I'm doing whether he's in the game or not. That benefits me and that benefits the team."

Where things may get hairy for the Wizards is up front, where they begin the season without a proven center and with last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Kwame Brown, starting at power forward.

Washington drafted 6-foot-11 combination forward Jared Jeffries, whose Indiana Hoosiers played Dixon's Terps in the NCAA final, and he played well in the preseason. So did Brown, who earned the starting spot up front alongside second-year center Brendan Haywood and Russell.

"We're further along this year than we were last year," Collins said. "How that's going to play out in wins and losses, I don't know. I sure hope we don't dig ourselves a 2-9 hole like we did last year. We've got to get out of the gate much better than we did last year. Experience-wise, we have players who have won. I think that's important. We've got guys who have been around winning situations, and that's a big benefit to our younger players on the front line."

Wizards tonight

Opponent: Toronto Raptors in season opener

Site: Air Canada Centre, Toronto

Time: 7

TV/Radio: ESPN, Comcast SportsNet/WTEM (980 AM)

Inside: Wizards roster, schedule. [Page 2d]

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