- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

It is unfortunate the Wizards have arrived too late to the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant sweepstakes, assuming the two freshmen terminate their indentured servitude and accept the straightforward business of the NBA.

The Wizards could lose their last eight games and still not quality for the lottery, so pronounced is the separation between the top six teams in the Eastern Conference and all the rest.

Otherwise, the prospect of next season has come before the Wizards.

They are finished, and the rest of their basketball obligation is mere bookkeeping.

They are a 25-win team with the absence of Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, their two leading players.

There is no shame in that. No NBA team could overcome the loss of two All-Stars.

Try not to read too much in the individual numbers that will be fashioned in place of Arenas and Butler.

Even bad teams have players who put up gaudy numbers.

Not that those players would produce similarly on good teams.

The birth of the Timberwolves and Magic in 1989-90 demonstrated that.

The Timberwolves selected Tony Campbell from the Lakers in the expansion draft, the Magic took Terry Catledge from the Bullets. Both were limited players.

Yet Campbell led the 22-win Timberwolves in scoring at 23.2 in their inaugural campaign, and Catledge did likewise for the 18-win Magic at 19.4.

Ernie Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan have a number of personnel matters to consider in the offseason, starting with the Pouter and the Poet at center.

The Pouter has sulked his way back into Jordan’s doghouse, no different from where he was at this time last season.

The Poet brings force and energy to the position but will be forever undersized and a marginal option on offense, despite his showing in the last two games.

The Poet is best suited as a backup if a team intends to be serious.

Grunfeld and Jordan also have to put a dollar figure on the value of DeShawn Stevenson, one of only two defensive-minded players in the starting lineup. Stevenson plans to opt out of his two-year contract the moment the Wizards conclude their season.

Stevenson deserves a significant pay hike after earning the NBA’s equivalent of minimum wage this season. He has shown himself to be a better perimeter shooter than advertised, plus being comfortable with his blue-collar role.

Yet that is no guarantee Stevenson will be with the Wizards next season, as the team’s supporters know only too well from the departure of Larry Hughes two years ago and Jared Jeffries last summer.

With bells sounding and red lights flashing, the team’s call-in general managers have made an urgent plea to the Wizards to play a modicum of defense.

That is just not going to happen, not now, not as long as Arenas eschews that responsibility.

Two things have to happen for the Wizards to become a better defensive team: Arenas, as the team’s best player, has to embrace that aspect of the game, and a potential cleaner in the three-second lane must be acquired.

If not, the Wizards will spend next October talking up defense yet again, only to have it exposed as so much hot air yet again.

Still, there is no need to blow up the roster.

The Wizards had the look of a 50-win team until Antawn Jamison bumped knees with Stevenson on Jan. 30 and was sidelined until March 2.

Jamison’s injury preceded the physical struggles of Butler following the All-Star Game.

Now Arenas has gone down. That merely amplifies the obvious, what with the Wizards holding a 2-9 record with Butler on the bench.

This had the sense of being the breakout season of the Wizards.

Now their season only reflects the tenuous nature of the NBA, and it hurts in a profound way.

The Wizards have been built to outscore the opposition, which is acceptable if Arenas, Butler and Jamison are on the floor.

If one of the Big Three is missing, their defensive deficiencies become a plague.

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