Knott: Time for Wizards to return

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So the Wizards are set to resume the 2007 season. That is when they were last whole. That is when they defeated the Pistons twice in a four-day span in late January and ascended to the top spot in the Eastern Conference. That is when defeating the Pistons on the road indicated a shift in power.

Flip Saunders was on the sideline with the Pistons then, and Eddie Jordan was en route to becoming the coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars.

It all fell apart right then because of injuries, and the Wizards have been wondering ever since then what might have been. Was that their moment? Was that their window? Is that time forever gone, overtaken by the changing dynamics of the conference and the aging process?

That is what this season will determine.

Ernie Grunfeld has elected to stay with the trio of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, betting that they have a championship push in them.

He has put solid pieces around them. He has hired Saunders and his postseason portfolio. He has held steady while the upper echelon of the conference has improved significantly in the form of the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic.

Saunders is thinking 50 wins. Brendan Haywood is thinking the Wizards are no worse than the fourth-best team in the conference going into the season. The team’s long-suffering supporters are thinking that this is it, the put-up-or-shut-up season.

No more angst. No more wallowing in injuries. No more talk of being young.

The latter is hardly accurate anyway. Jamison is 33, Butler and Haywood 29.

If the Wizards are unable to make a deep push in the playoffs this season, then it is never going to happen with this group. Then this group will be eternally stuck in 2007, when, for a fleeting period, anything seemed possible.

This is the burden before the Wizards.

A 41-41 season and a one-and-done playoff series just won’t suffice.

Too much emotion has been spent on this group. Too much disappointment has come to this group.

Saunders recognizes the all-or-nothing challenge before the Wizards. He eschews the customary talking points, if only momentarily, and feeds the expectations.

“I don’t think there is any reason why we shouldn’t be able to compete with the elite teams,” Saunders said Tuesday.

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