WILMINGTON, N.C. The Washington Wizards begin their preseason today looking to answer a few questions.
At the top of the list as they completed their first training camp under new coach Leonard Hamilton is how to strengthen themselves at small forward.
Although the Wizards don’t begin the regular season until Oct. 31, if the season started today they would have to chose between starting 35-year-old Harvey Grant or rookie Mike Smith. Their other option would be to start Juwan Howard there, but Howard has worked almost exclusively at power forward in camp. And even though he has stated that he is willing to play small forward, Howard clearly would prefer to play his more natural power forward position.
“I’m a little concerned,” president of basketball operations Michael Jordan said. “In the East you’ve got some very talented small forwards. I think what we have in camp is not one of the elite groups.”
Jordan did not rule out the potential of making a trade to improve the team at the position.
“If we find one available in a trade, we will certainly consider that,” Jordan said. “We are not going to stop trying to improve this basketball team.”
The Wizards’ problems at small forward began when they released Dennis Scott on the second day of training camp because the 10-year veteran looked shot. The Wizards acquired Scott in a four-player trade with Vancouver in August. This made Tracy Murray, then the backup small forward, expendable. And after a summer of grumbling about his role with the Wizards, the team shipped Murray to Denver on Sept. 25 for power forward Popeye Jones.
One option the Wizards have is the mid-level veteran exception, which enables them to sign a veteran player for $2.25 million despite being over the salary cap. However, sources within the organization say this is not likely because there don’t appear to be any veterans out there worth spending the money on.
The Wizards did not practice yesterday morning, as they were supposed to. Instead, the team flew in the afternoon to Memphis, where it will face the Los Angeles Lakers tonight in the first of seven preseason games.
Jordan and Hamilton said they were satisfied with what the team accomplished in training camp, but both added everything will now take a more serious turn as they begin to pare the roster. The Wizards have 21 players on the roster. Teams must be down to the 15-player limit (12 on the active roster and three on the injured list) by Oct. 30.
“From this point on the scrutiny and the intensity goes up,” Jordan said. “I think that everyone starts to set expectations and achieve individual and team goals. The party has started. Now you have to be ready each and every day to put on that uniform. I think they’re anxious to go out and prove themselves and go out and earn the respect that they deserve.”
Said Hamilton: “Our guys have worked real hard in the preseason camp. I think we’re showing signs of improvement. I’ll be anxious to play against other teams to see where we are and what direction we need to move in specific areas.”
One of the biggest concerns both Jordan and Hamilton had was how far point guard Rod Strickland might have fallen behind in both conditioning and recognition. Strickland, who said he came into camp in excellent shape, missed most of the workouts with a nagging right hamstring injury. However, Strickland ran the offense smoothly when he was on the court in the team’s intrasquad scrimmage Tuesday.
“With limited practice, Rod has picked up most of our offensive and defensive schemes by watching,” Hamilton said. “For him to go out and execute and call our plays out, read primary and secondary situations shows that he has really been focusing even though he has not been out there and able to participate.”
Strickland was the most efficient player on the floor in the scrimmage. In 20 minutes he scored 12 points and had a game-high four assists. And just as Hamilton pointed out, Strickland seemed very comfortable on the floor.
“I think everybody feels good about how we progressed,” Strickland said. “We had a tough training camp and everybody worked hard, and everybody got through it. Overall I think we’re pretty satisfied with what’s been going on.”