Much has been made during the offseason and now in the preseason about the healthy return of a certain Washington Wizards point guard, but nearly as vital to the team's quest to achieve elite status in the NBA is having Brendan Haywood back in the paint.
This time last year, Haywood had just torn a ligament in his right wrist (his shooting hand) and had to have surgery. So instead of following up on a career year in which he posted 10.6 points and 7.2 rebounds and firmly established himself as the team's top center, Haywood missed 75 straight games.
His absence robbed the Wizards not only of their top center but also of the captain of their defense. After many a loss during last season's 19-win struggles, Washington forward Antawn Jamison talked about how badly he missed having Haywood backing him up on defense and calling out opponents' schemes an instant before they ran them.
Not having Haywood hurt the Wizards more than they expected, but his absence also improved his worth to the team. The year before, leading scorer Gilbert Arenas missed 69 straight games, but thanks in part to Haywood's breakout, Washington ended the year with a 43-39 record and as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Without Haywood, Washington was forced to rely on Etan Thomas, who had sat out the previous year while recovering from heart surgery, and rookie JaVale McGee. The Wizards went from giving up an average of 99.2 points in 2007-08 (Haywood's best year) to 103.5 a game without him.
Haywood played six of the final seven games last season and averaged 9.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. The Wizards' season already was lost, but Haywood's return made his teammates realize how good it was to have him back and gave them cause for optimism looking to this season.
"He was there for us all the time. Every time you get beat, you could feel his presence," Caron Butler said after Haywood helped the Wizards upset Cleveland in the center's second game back. "It was great to have [his] big body out there."
Haywood could have waited until this season to make his comeback, but he knew he would benefit now from getting a brief taste last season.
"I think it helped me a little bit because I got those nervous jitters out last year against Memphis. I don't think anyone was watching, so I was good," Haywood joked of his April 1 return. "I'm not nervous or anything like that now. I don't feel like I'm pressing. I don't think like my timing's not there. Those six or seven games last year let me work on some things."
Haywood again will be the focal point of the Wizards' defense. Coach Flip Saunders' strategy asks him to set the tone defensively by being vocal for his teammates, taking hard fouls and closing up the interior with blocks and rebounding.
Haywood dedicated himself this offseason to returning in the best possible shape and having another career year. He had no shortage of motivation. In addition to making up for lost time, he wanted to see his Wizards back in the playoffs, where they had become a fixture the previous four seasons. And this time he wanted to go further. Additionally, Haywood is entering the final season of a five-year, $25 million contract.
But Haywood - who is the longest-tenured Wizards player and said he wants to finish his career with Washington - said a big payday is the last thing on his mind as the Wizards prepare for their redemption tour.
"My biggest thing is winning. If we come out here and win, first of all everybody looks good. Second of all, I feel like I'm going to have a big part in it," he said. "If we come out here and win and make some noise in the playoffs, that helps your contract situation more than anything. When you're coming out playing for yourself and being an individual, nobody wants a guy who's got stats but not on a winning team.
"I'm not trying to play outside myself. ... You don't have to worry about me gunning because I'm in a contract year - that's not going to happen."