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‘The next step’ may be too steep

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Eddie Jordan believes the Wizards could reach the Eastern Conference finals this season.

"That's the next step," Jordan said yesterday. "I'd like to think we could get there this season."

Jordan is being perhaps overly sanguine in the last week before the start of training camp in Richmond.

Most supporters of the team would embrace the baby step of a victory over the Heat, the NBA's support-hose team that has not lost to the Fun Street bunch since gasoline was 50 cents a gallon.

Jordan expects the Heat to show signs of their age, which puts him in the company of most NBA prognosticators.

Both the Heat and Pistons are expected to slip, the Cavaliers and Nets to be constant, and the Bulls to be improved because of the addition of Ben Wallace and the evolution of their young core.

The Wizards fit somewhere in there, although exactly where is highly debatable in a conference adopting the equal-opportunity bent.

Gilbert Arenas is mad at the basketball world, as usual, which is taken as a positive in Tony Cheng's neighborhood.

His strained groin pull with Team USA turned out to be about as crippling as Brendan Haywood's back problem on the team's West Coast trip last March.

Haywood avoided back and head surgery in the offseason and felt obligated to come to terms with Jordan's contract extension.

The two had a talk, a "good talk," according to Jordan, as the coach and 7-foot diva endeavored to resolve the misunderstandings that sometimes result from a one-rebound first half.

"Hopefully, it will be the start of a great relationship," Jordan said, if not the end of Haywood's sulking march to the end of the bench after being pulled from a game.

Ernie Grunfeld has made enough personnel moves to leave the Wizards less dependent on Haywood and the Poet, one as timid as the other prone to injury.

Jordan and Grunfeld have mentioned the capacity of Darius Songaila to play center so many times since his signing that it is starting to sound like a message to the appropriate parties.

The acquisition of both Songaila and DeShawn Stevenson, the return of Jarvis Hayes, and the showing of Andray Blatche in the summer leagues, stoke the team's twin notion of having depth and versatility.

Of course, Jordan thought the same at this time last year.

"We ended up not being very deep," he said.

Or no deeper than Antonio Daniels at times.

At least Jordan can put five offensive threats on the floor at one time if he likes, which he could not do last season.

The offensively challenged Jared Jeffries received an increased role after Hayes was lost to injury, and the non-shooting Michael Ruffin was sometimes the antidote to Haywood and the Poet.

Too often that left the Wizards playing 3-on-5 on offense and put too much a burden on the Big Three of Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.

Grunfeld and Jordan have taken a cue from the foreign minds that emphasize skill and eschew pigeonholing players by height and position.

This, too, is the approach of the Mavericks and Suns. Like the Wizards, neither team is a defensive juggernaut.

Not that Jordan won't be preaching the tenets of defense to the Wizards next week.

No team can thrive on offense alone, as the Wizards were reminded anew last season.

The Wizards don't have to be the defensive-minded Pistons of recent seasons. They do have to show a grit and conviction that enables them to subvert an opponent's well-drawn play late in a game.

Butler already has that mind-set. Ruffin, too. Stevenson also is said to be of that ilk.

Yet teams are more inclined to dirty a fingernail if their leader shows the way.

That has been added to Arenas' list of responsibilities.

"That's his next plateau," Jordan said.

As is customary, Jordan declined to attach a victory number to the Wizards.

Pushing the 50-win mark is within reach.