With different Jordan, Wizards lower their profile, expectations

Coach Eddie rallies young cast with MJ gone

October 29, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - This is the time of the year on the NBA calendar when teams do their best to be noticed, to let the world know that the coming season is full of hope, with a playoff berth a virtual lock.

Of course, winter and reality eventually sets in in places like Memphis and Golden State and hope dies before Christmas.

After the tumult of the past two seasons, the Washington Wizards, who open play tonight in Chicago, would very much prefer that things stay as quiet as possible, that fans keep their expectations to a minimum and that their kiddie corps be allowed to grow and progress with as little attention as possible.

Whether that happens is a different matter.

"In the NBA, you're not looked at like that [unnoticed]," said new coach Eddie Jordan. "You're looked at like lamb chops. They come at you. They think it's a win and they go at you. No one is creeping up on anyone. The middle-of-the-road teams can't wait for us to come in. We're on the radar screen as a W for the other team. We don't sneak up on anyone. We have to make our own way. We can't hope that someone overlooks us. That's not going to happen."

The presence of Jordan, who coached for a season and a half in Sacramento, is a part of the Wizards' attempt to lower their profile after two years of high visibility with the on-court presence of Michael Jordan and coach Doug Collins.

Team owner Abe Pollin told the Associated Press last week that he wanted things to be quiet after two tumultuous years. The team posted identical 37-45 records, but also posted a lot of turmoil, judging from the comments that leaked out after Collins and Michael Jordan were bounced just after the season.

Since then, all evidence that either Collins or Michael Jordan was part of the franchise has been systematically and surgically removed, and the players, particularly the young ones who chafed under Michael Jordan's rule, have emerged, not unlike the citizens of the Emerald City after the Wicked Witch was killed in The Wizard of Oz.

"It's definitely going to be better," said third-year forward Kwame Brown. "They've changed the whole environment, the locker room, the colors. The whole focus is to make a peaceful environment where we can get in here and work and concentrate on basketball.

"If you want to get in here on your own time, there's no coaches running trying to get you to do extra stuff. They want you to do it on your own and they encourage you to bring your own people. Earlier in the year, there were guys working out and playing and they were inviting open gym runs, as opposed to the other two years, where nobody was here. ... Now, it's more freedom to do what you have to do."

The Wizards have made a few moves to let the public know that while things will be quiet, they won't be moribund. For instance, they signed guard Jerry Stackhouse, the team's leading scorer last year, to a two-year extension before he could opt out of the final two years of the deal he signed with Detroit. The team drafted Georgia forward Jarvis Hayes with the 10th overall pick, and selected former Maryland point guard Steve Blake in the second round.

Pollin then pried away respected executive Ernie Grunfeld, who built playoff teams in New York and in Milwaukee, to run their basketball operations. Grunfeld, in turn, signed third-year guard Gilbert Arenas, last season's Most Improved Player in the NBA while he was with the Warriors, to a six-year, $65 million contract.

The biggest move, however - that of signing Eddie Jordan - was the one that slipped the furthest under the radar screen. Jordan, a Washington native who comes to the Wizards after three years as lead assistant in New Jersey, which reached the NBA Finals the past two years, has been low-key and workman-like, an approach that has rubbed off on his players.

"Our young guys are having to learn to take responsibility now," said Jordan. "The game is in their hands now. Stack is not here, and [in] the experiences that they've had the last two years, they weren't go-to guys. Now, we're asking them to play an important part in the game, in making plays for themselves and for their teammates. We have to approach games as if each possession on both ends is important."

With Stackhouse out indefinitely with a knee injury, the possessions will take on even greater significance. That's where the team expects Brown, the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, to be more noticed. Brown, who clashed with both Michael Jordan and Collins over his role, was maddeningly inconsistent in his first two seasons, averaging 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds last season.

Despite some offseason problems, including a drunken-driving arrest in his hometown of Brunswick, Ga., and an early departure from summer league, Brown is being counted on as a key part of Jordan's system.

Brown says he's ready to step into the spotlight.

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