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In the next 41, East should be one wild ride

- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

The Wizards are either in a half-full or half-empty state, depending on the statistical barometer, their season seemingly destined to be played on the edge.

It is true the Wizards have forged a 20-8 record since starting the season at 4-9.

It also is true the Wizards have broken into the top tier of the egalitarian Eastern Conference.

Yet their margin for error remains slight, as their 1.0 point differential attests. No lead is safe with the Wizards, not even a 21-point lead in the third quarter against the helpless Celtics.

Their 7-13 record on the road is a concern as well.

Yet no one can criticize the results after 41 games, as the team's president of basketball operations noted yesterday.

"We have one of the top two records in the East, so we have to feel good about that," Ernie Grunfeld said. "And we have shown that when we play up to our abilities, we can play with anybody. Now we have to do it on a consistent basis."

The Wizards have overcome three telling points in the season: an abysmal November that was threatening to undermine the season, a four-game West Coast trip in December that resulted in three victories, two in overtime, and a convincing victory in Orlando last Friday, with supremacy in the Southeast Division at stake.

The Wizards, for whatever reasons, usually find Orlando to be an inhospitable venue, dating to two seasons ago, when Gilbert Arenas inexplicably missed five of seven free throw attempts in the final 2:02 of a disappointing loss.

As much as the Wizards like where they are in the conference, it is partly because of the absence of a genuinely elite team.

The Pistons have slipped appreciably because of the departure of Ben Wallace, and Shaquille O'Neal and the Heat are endeavoring to expose the regular season as a waste of time.

The Wizards are actually two games behind where they were after 41 games two seasons ago, although perception suggests otherwise.

As Arenas has discovered, perception cuts a lot of different ways.

He finally is receiving the national acclaim in a season that, statistically, is not significantly different from last season.

In fact, Arenas possibly was more consistent last season, less prone to fitful shooting games following a scoring binge.

His shot attempts are up by 1.2 a game this season, his overall field goal percentage down by 1.6 percent, and his free throw attempts are down from 10.0 to 9.1 a game. And he has failed to match his career-best turnover-assist ratio in his second season with the Warriors.

Yet because of a change in perception, Arenas has earned a starting berth in the All-Star Game after being omitted by the coaches last season, an injustice that was rectified through an injury and David Stern's decree.

A slow-evolving perception is possibly an issue to the All-Star cause of Caron Butler, although his chances are being helped by injuries to Paul Pierce and Michael Redd.

The team's 33-21 mark with Butler in the starting lineup last season was often cited last summer, when potential trades and free agent signings filled the NBA rumor mill.

That mark encouraged Grunfeld to limit his personnel moves.

One of his two relatively modest free agent signings, DeShawn Stevenson, has turned out to be one of the best bargains in the NBA, considering his $932,000 salary.

The other, Darius Songaila, remains on the shelf, his debut long in coming.

A healthy Songaila and Michael Ruffin, plus a Jarvis Hayes who locates his missing jump shot, would enhance the prospects of the Wizards.

As it is, they are a mere half-game behind the conference-leading Pistons.

"If someone had told us at the start of the season that we be would be a half-game out at the midway point, we would have taken it," Grunfeld said. "That's not to say anyone is satisfied."

As Grunfeld knows only too well, satisfaction is a misguided state in a conference in which the top six teams are separated by only three games.