RICHMOND | The offseason buzz involving the Washington Wizards’ backcourt has mounted amid the healthy return of Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson, the addition of Mike Miller and Randy Foye and the development of Nick Young and Javaris Crittenton.
All the while, Mike James, the old man of the group, just listened.
Obviously Arenas - a three-time All-Star and the franchise player - would start at point guard. But the debate of who lands the shooting guard spot and who backs up Arenas was tossed about all summer.
It appeared James, 34, might be buried on the depth chart. But he believes otherwise.
“Coming into this season, for the most part I was counted out a little bit,” said James, who last season averaged 9.6 points and 3.6 assists and started 50 games at point guard after he was acquired from New Orleans. “Everyone had in their minds what the team and rotation and the roster was going to be, and I’m pretty sure my name wasn’t involved in much of it - just waiting around to see who gets hurt, then Mike will be involved. But I’m confident I can still play this game at a high level.”
James, who missed the last nine games of 2008-09 with a broken finger, approached the offseason on a mission. Hiring the services of former NBA coach John Lucas, he dedicated himself to working his way into the best shape of his career.
“There is a saying that you can teach a dog new tricks,” James said with a laugh. “I learned how to play dead, roll over, go fetch the bone and bring it back. Coach John Lucas really worked with me this summer, and he told me two things: I can either come back as old-ass Mike James or Mike James of old. And I chose the second.”
James said he lost about 25 pounds and boasted that he has 4 percent body fat. He came into training camp looking chiseled and quick. Instead of watching Crittenton and Foye take the majority of the minutes, he has seen a heavy dose of action at point guard.
“He’s representing himself well,” coach Flip Saunders said. “I talked to Mike [before camp], and I said: ‘I don’t have an agenda. Guys will sort out who plays by their play.’ ”
One of the benefits Saunders draws from a crowded backcourt is that the competition will make the players better if they approach it the right way. So far, James has done just that, challenging his teammates for minutes and inspiring them as well.
“Mike is great for us, as far as his attitude and his approach to the game,” Foye said. “No matter what the situation is, if I’m going to play 40 minutes or five minutes a night, I’m going to be prepared every night, and that’s what I admire about Mike.”
James is in the final year of his contract. That’s strong motivation, but it’s not all that drives him. He was part of the Detroit Pistons team that won the NBA title in 2004 but played only sparingly. With the Wizards entering the season publicly discussing championship aspirations, he would like to win another ring - this time as a key participant.
“This being the last year of my deal, I feel like I still have a few years that I can still play not OK basketball but good basketball. I also believe I can help a good team,” James said with a grin. “Plus, we have a chance to do something special, and it’s more fun being part of the rotation than standing on the sideline waving the towel.
“So I choose to be in the rotation. The only way I can do that is not by talking about it but by doing it on the court.”
Note-For the second straight day Thursday, Arenas was held out of the scrimmage portion of practice, a precautionary move to rest his dislocated left middle finger, coach Flip Saunders said.
Arenas dislocated the finger on his nonshooting hand “two or three” weeks ago, Saunders said. It started swelling Wednesday after it was banged in practice.
“We taped it up, and he went through a lot of stuff,” Saunders said. “We held him out of scrimmage from that standpoint. … But he did all the drills and did everything early.”
Arenas took part in the end-of-practice sprints but appeared to be favoring his left knee and jogging gingerly. Saunders was adamant that the surgically repaired knee was not an issue.
“Everything’s fine,” he said. “He has no problems at all. If we had a game today, he’d be playing.”
Arenas didn’t give an update on his condition. While leaving the locker room and heading to the team bus, he declined an interview request.
“I’m not talking,” he said. “I’ll see you guys media day of next year.”