- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Despite having the worst record at the All-Star break in franchise history, the Washington Wizards returned from the much-needed four-day rest determined not to give up on the season.

With 29 games left, the Wizards (11-42) stand a half-game out of last place in the NBA and thoroughly out of the playoff picture. But that doesn’t mean they have any desire to tank the rest of the season to land the top pick in June’s draft.

In fact, starting with Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Wizards would love to resemble the squad that, despite the absence of Gilbert Arenas, managed to remain competitive last season and not the one that has so utterly failed to do so in 2008-09.

This season’s task has been more challenging because of additional injuries - to center Brendan Haywood, guard DeShawn Stevenson, center Etan Thomas and forward/center Andray Blatche - coupled with the youth-related lumps the Wizards took while giving hefty minutes to young players.

That might be the only positive so far for the Wizards; the thin roster gave the second-year quartet of guards Nick Young and Javaris Crittenton and forwards Dominic McGuire and Oleksiy Pecherov, along with rookie center JaVale McGee, more chances to grow.

Of course, after being thrust into larger roles for 53 games, they now have a smaller margin of error and will be expected to contribute more consistently down the stretch.

“Out of 29 games, I think just playing .500 basketball would be great,” captain Caron Butler said. “I used to say ‘develop the young guys,’ but now the first half of the season we spent developing the young guys. The young guys had quality minutes, quality opportunities. … Now it’s time to ball, man. It’s no more excuses.”

Forward Antawn Jamison said he believes the Wizards have the talent - even without Arenas and Haywood - to do better than they have, but he said maturity is key to the rest of the season.

“The most important thing is that the maturity of this team really needs to improve. We all need to take responsibility for what goes on out there on the court,” Jamison said. “What would make me happy is when you lose games, you should come in here pissed off, not acting like you’ve won five in a row.”

The Wizards did receive a positive development Monday when Blatche returned to practice. Interim coach Ed Tapscott gradually worked the center into exercises and scrimmages but said he wants to see him go through at least one more practice before allowing him to return to game action.

Stevenson, Arenas, Haywood and Thomas remain out, but the hope within the organization is that the Wizards will have a full roster at some point during the final two months of the season. Some teams would rather sit such cornerstone players until next season, but team president Ernie Grunfeld said it would be more beneficial to have the team redevelop the chemistry it had in years past than suffer through a draft-day countdown.

“Over the course of the last four or five years, we established ourselves as a winning organization, and we want to keep going that way,” Grunfeld said. “Once we get everybody back, get all of our pieces together, we can be a very competitive team.”

That’s why, despite getting a high volume of calls regarding the trade availability of Jamison and Butler, Grunfeld has refused to make a deal. Several role players, including Thomas and guard Mike James, have been linked to trade rumors, but Grunfeld said Thursday’s trade deadline likely will pass without the team making any moves.

Grunfeld will, however, spend the rest of the season evaluating the team’s talent, along with seeking a new coach. Grunfeld said that situation will be “addressed at the proper time.”

“Obviously as the season goes along, everybody gets judged,” Grunfeld said. “We want to see continued improvement. We want to correct our mistakes and hopefully get our injured players back.”

Butler also is convinced that the Wizards, with a few slight modifications, can easily rebound.

“You know what it is with the core: You get us all healthy, and we can beat anybody,” he said. “Get the core together, get a couple guys. … It’s a long summer, but we can be great next season.”

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