- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

This is the first time in the Gilbert Arenas-Antawn Jamison pairing that the upward progression of the Wizards is in serious doubt.

The genuine potential of the Wizards has kept hope alive during the injury-punctuated period of the last 22-plus months.

That potential is looking ever more distant as the Wizards struggle to be competitive in the absence of Arenas and Brendan Haywood.

Their absence has been exacerbated by the sore knee of Antonio Daniels, the departure of Roger Mason Jr. and the confusion of Andray Blatche.

All these elements come with the long-term uncertainty of Arenas, whose left knee has undergone three surgical procedures.

It is not unfair to wonder whether Arenas ever will make another All-Star appearance. Nor is it unfair to wonder whether the Wizards are stuck the next several seasons because of his $111 million contract.

That is the lot of the Wizards, a team that has lost a good portion of its shelf life to injuries.

Jamison, too, has hit the age of diminishing returns. He is resourceful enough that his drop in production will be incremental in the seasons ahead. But it can be assumed that he has made his last All-Star appearance and that his capacity to carry a team for long stretches of a game will decrease appreciably.

The decline of Arenas and Jamison, if it comes to pass, would leave the Wizards with one All-Star in Caron Butler and no real prospects in the Eastern Conference.

Elite teams in the post-expansion NBA customarily have three upper-echelon players, as it is with the Celtics, Lakers, Spurs and Rockets.

Ernie Grunfeld has built the team with the proper mixture of seasoned players and youngsters who eventually would be able to fill a larger role.

Blatche was one of the young players expected to become a significant part of the team. That assessment now looks farfetched, barring a mental makeover that would transform his approach to the game.

Nick Young has shown promise as a single-minded scorer but no inclination yet of becoming a complete player. That merely could reflect his tender age.

The rest of the roster is stuffed with so many questions and interchangeable parts, as is the case with all NBA teams. Teams do not win because of their 10th man on the bench. But teams do lose if their 10th man is pressed into duty incommensurate with his skill level.

That is one of the hard realities before the Wizards. They have become overly dependent on players who would be collecting a significant number of DNPs with other teams.

The Wizards have hit a tipping point this season. Bit by bit, their talent pool has been negotiated down: Arenas for Daniels for the shell of Daniels, Mason for Juan Dixon, Haywood for the Poet and a raw rookie, a Blatche with prospects for a Blatche with issues.

And injuries have robbed the Wizards of their development. Two seasons ago at the All-Star cutoff date, the Wizards had the best record in the conference and the expectation that they would be involved in a challenging playoff race with the Pistons.

They lost that precious opportunity, plus the prospect of growth, after injuries felled Jamison, Butler and Arenas. They lost a similar opportunity with Arenas sidelined most of last season.

The development of a team is facilitated best by a deep playoff run. When the Cavaliers eliminated the Wizards in convincing fashion in Game 6 last spring, they appeared to have benefited from their playoff experience the previous year. They silenced the hostile crowd and shut down a gimpy Butler, who had tormented them in Game 5.

Difficult as it may be to accept, these Wizards may have hit their zenith with the six-game elimination of the Bulls in the playoffs in 2005.

They have been a big tease ever since then - no fault of theirs - and now they do not have the capacity to be even that.