- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

Ernie Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan have a substantial summer ahead, with a deal or three to consummate, considering their desperate need to acquire a scoring option in the low post.

The quality of unrestricted free agents in the frontcourt is limited, assuming Alonzo Mourning plans to remain Shaquille O’Neal’s caddy in Miami.

Moving down the list, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a two-time All-Star who wants out of the uncertainty of Cleveland. The 7-foot-3 Lithuanian is a complementary part with an element of polish, especially in the center-challenged Eastern Conference. The 29-year-old Ilgauskas has missed only five games the last three seasons after being plagued with foot problems early in his career.

Yet Ilgauskas comes with a downside, notably a $14.6million salary the new ownership of the Cavaliers is only too eager to have off its books.

This is the dipping of the toe into the offseason bath water, just under way for the Wizards after being eliminated from the playoffs by Dwyane Wade.

The Wizards have a compelling core on which to build: Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes, Brendan Haywood, Jared Jeffries, Etan Thomas, Jarvis Hayes, Michael Ruffin and Steve Blake.

Hughes is the team’s leading unrestricted free agent who has made no secret of his desire to stay on Fun Street, so long as Abe Pollin is in a sharing mood with his piggybank.

The re-signing of Hughes is the No.1 offseason priority of the franchise, and not just because he is one of the Big Three but because his departure would send a chill over the team’s supporters.

Ilgauskas is one of the names certain to get a good run on the rumor mill this summer, especially in Manhattan, where he is looking to buy a home, and anyone who is someone in the NBA inevitably has a chat at some point with Isiah Thomas.

Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who also commanded $14million this past season, is free to go wherever he likes as well.

Abdur-Rahim has spent nine seasons in the NBA in what amounts to his version of the Witness Protection Program, with stops in Vancouver, Atlanta and Portland, and not one playoff berth to show for it, only strong numbers.

Donyell Marshall is another intriguing frontcourt player set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, although he has a tendency to drift to the 3-point line on offense, which is the last thing the Wizards need in a 6-9 forward.

The same could be said of Antoine Walker, who also lands on the free agent market this summer.

As usual, Knicks forward Kurt Thomas is said to be available. He is a gritty low-post defender who possibly has another quality season or two left in his 32-year-old body.

Of the restricted free agents — a problematic pursuit for general managers — Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Samuel Dalembert and Kyle Korver all have utilities that could meet the various needs of the Wizards.

John Paxson, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, has put the re-signing of Chandler and Curry at the top of his offseason agenda, while Dalembert and Korver won’t be pried away easily from the 76ers.

Grunfeld, though, has a certain flexibility to be creative following the meltdown of Kwame Brown and the return of Hayes next season. Hayes can fill Juan Dixon’s role, only with more conviction, which allows Grunfeld to play with the prospect of both Brown and Dixon in trade talks, if necessary.

Grunfeld has pulled off a personnel coup in each of the last two summers: the free agent signing of Arenas in 2003 and the Jerry Stackhouse trade that secured Jamison last summer.

His offseason is fairly elementary: re-sign Hughes and Ruffin, resolve the Brown situation, add a low-post player who provides an inside scoring presence and land a 3-point shooter to a team that was 25th in the NBA in 3-point shooting this past season.

One other thing: While paring here and adding there, Grunfeld has to be sure not to disrupt the team’s chemistry.

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