- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

The Washington Wizards’ season doesn’t begin for another month, but Gilbert Arenas is already back to his usual antics.

Arenas, who last year picked the Wizards (25-57) to reach the playoffs, again said the team will make the playoffs and, in the process, challenge Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat for division title in the new Southeast Division.

“I know everybody is thinking Shaquille O’Neal is going to do everything for Miami, but I think they got rid of too many people to get him,” he said. “If they are at the top, it’s going to be us or them that are going to win the division. Of course, everybody has to stay healthy.”

Interestingly enough, O’Neal, who led the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight NBA championships, and the Heat come to Washington for the Wizards’ home opener Nov.6. Washington begins training camp at Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond on Tuesday.

O’Neal, who is engaged in a cross-country spitting match with former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant, was traded to the Heat in a blockbuster deal this summer that sent Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant — all key contributors in the Heat’s surprising playoff run last season — to Los Angeles. The Heat also threw in a future first-round pick for O’Neal, who turns 33 in March.

Although O’Neal’s presence could help the Heat challenge reigning champion Detroit for Eastern Conference supremacy, Arenas doesn’t believe O’Neal will find it quite as easy without Bryant.

O’Neal’s new teammates include second-year pro Dwyane Wade, a member of the bronze-medal winning Olympic team, and guard Eddie Jones, who has a history of injury troubles.

“Dwyane Wade proved that he couldn’t shoot in the Olympics,” Arenas said about the first-team all-rookie selection. “They’ve also got Eddie Jones, but let’s be honest: Combined, the two of them are not Kobe. Shaq is going to find out that they don’t have the role players or the bench that the Lakers had, so it’s not going to be the same.

“Of course, you have to worry about Shaq because no one can stop him. But since you can’t stop him, it’s not about Shaq. You’re not building your team to stop him. But you can’t just give them the division championship.”

There are some signs O’Neal is beginning to slow down. O’Neal has been limited to just 67 games in each of the last three seasons. And last season, which ended with the Lakers being beaten 4-1 in the finals by Detroit, O’Neal averaged a career-low 21.5 points, almost six below his career mark.

“With Shaq, looking at his past, he’s going to miss at least 15 games,” Arenas said. “Same thing with Eddie Jones. And then you have Dwayne Wade by himself, and I don’t think he can carry a team.”

A severe abdominal strain and a sprained right ankle forced Arenas to miss 27 games last season, although he now says he is “100 percent healthy.” Last season, Arenas led the Wizards in scoring (19.6) and assists (4.6). On the downside, his 4.11 turnovers were second in the league only to Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson’s 4.35.

Arenas will be sitting on the bench when the Wizards open the season at Memphis on Nov.3, the result of a one-game league suspension in connection with a gun charge last year. He will return to the team the next day against expansion Charlotte. Two days later the Wizards play host to the Heat.

“They are going to continue to get all the headlines, and that’s good,” Arenas said. “Everyone else, including us, will be under the radar.”

Notes — Forward Kwame Brown, who suffered a broken foot that required surgery on Aug.1, likely will miss training camp. Brown had his best season last year, averaging 10.9 points and a team-high 7.4 rebounds. …

There will be a one-day sale for individual tickets for all 41 home games on Monday at 10a.m. Beginning Tuesday, fans will only be able to buy tickets for November games.

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