- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Some fans look at the Washington Wizards and see a glass that’s half full. Other fans look at the team and see a bare table, no glass at all.

The latter view is overly harsh and pessimistic. But whichever assessment is closest to yours, Washington isn’t close to the A-list teams in Miami, Boston, New York and Chicago, and still some distance from the next tier of Atlanta, Indiana and Philadelphia.

Everyone agrees that a gap exists, and it’s unlikely to close significantly during this abbreviated season which tips off Monday when the New Jersey Nets visit Verizon Center. The Wizards won a mere 23 games last season. Winning the same amount this season would show serious improvement, taking their winning percentage from .280 to .348.

The prospect of a fourth consecutive losing season — preceded by four consecutive winning seasons from 2004-08 — isn’t anything to get excited about. But as painful as it might be, progress for the Wizards won’t be measured by the win-loss column.

“It’s not a one-game, one-season arc and narrative that we’re on,” owner Ted Leonsis said. “It’s a multiseason narrative that we’re on. It’s the second step in a long journey — the second season under new ownership and a new strategy — and I think we’re off to a good start.”

He said the Wizards are playing to win, and he wants to see more wins. But more than anything else, he needs to see upside from the decision to rebuild after dismantling the veteran core of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. He needs the players on one of the NBA’s youngest teams to improve and develop chemistry.

None of that can occur unless the youngsters — eight players in their rookie or second season — receive extensive minutes. “That’s the only way we’re going to know if we drafted and developed well,” Leonsis said. “I’m more concerned with the process right now than the output.”

If winning is the only thing that invigorates you, the 2011-12 Wizards aren’t the team for you.

They require expanded definitions of “progress” and “success,” such as breaking even on a road trip (Washington won just three away games last season). Or enjoying a few stretches with wins in two-of-three games and four-of-six games. Even closing out quarters or making late rallies can generate encouragement.

The Wizards have some nice pieces, including point guard John Wall and a rookie class of Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack. But a few are equal parts puzzling and promising.

Center JaVale McGee demonstrated as much last week in the preseason finale, a loss against Philly, when two of his plays made the Top 10 according to NBA.com.

On No. 10, he demonstrated his extreme athleticism on a baseline drive, swooping behind the backboard and extending for a reverse lay-up, a la Dr. J. On No. 1, McGee caught a lob while coming down the lane and hammered a vicious slam over flailing Sixers rookie Nikola Vucevic … followed by an unnecessary and immature stare-down.

McGee led the Wizards with 20 points and added nine rebounds. If he regularly curtails his silliness and perfects his sky hook, he’ll fit nicely. More maturity also is the theme for Andray Blatche, whose attitude is the sole threat to his ascension. Shooting guard Nick Young can score but has the physical gifts to do much more and should put his mind to it. Shooting guard Jordan Crawford can fill it up, too, but he must improve at doing it within the system.

Leonsis is preaching patience, trying to follow the steps he used to rebuild the Washington Capitals. A similar philosophy was utilized in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have risen to ranks of championship contender.

The plan requires good luck in the draft lottery, shrewd maneuvering for additional picks, wise choices on the draftees and an environment that prompts your superstar to sign long-term. That’s a lot to line up, and everything can fall apart if one step is off.

But the Wizards are in good shape at this stage, perhaps two or three years away from serious contention with Wall and the young core approaching their prime, aided by recent draft picks and a couple of key free agents.

Meanwhile, the 2011-12 Wizards will try to take advantage of their youth, athleticism and length. They have the potential to rank among the league’s more exciting and entertaining teams on the break, with Wall running the point, high-flying options on the wings and shooters on the arc.

It could lead to some fun basketball.

Here’s hoping that it does, because there’s probably not much winning basketball this season.