- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

At the end of his first two seasons with the Washington Wizards, Richard Hamilton spent almost as much time wondering who would be his next boss as building up his body to endure the rigors of the grueling 82-game NBA regular season.
During that period, Hamilton played for two coaches with short rides in Washington (Gar Heard and Leonard Hamilton) and one interim coach (Darrell Walker). But when Michael Jordan hired proven coach Doug Collins last spring, the carousel stopped. He'll be back next season, providing some welcome continuity.
"That will be real great!" Hamilton said Friday night. "Not worrying about who's coming back next year [or] what type of team we're going to have, knowing who is going to coach, who are going to be the assistant coaches. Every year [in the past], you had to prove yourself. Every year the coach had to feel out each player to see what they can do for us. It's going to be a great situation where you know you're going to have the same coach from last year."
One of the reasons Jordan came out of retirement was to add stability to the Wizards, who play host to Indiana today at MCI Center in a meaningless game for Washington but one with playoff implications for the Pacers.
Although the Wizards still have two games they close the season Tuesday night at home against New York they are already talking about this season in positive terms and looking forward to the next.
And with good reason.
Since the 1996-97 season, when Washington made its last postseason appearance, the Wizards had seen their full-season victory total decline each year (44, 42, 29, 19). But with at least 36 wins this season and a playoff bid that lasted through 80 games, the Wizards feel they are headed in the right direction.
"We've gotten better, we've gotten better," Courtney Alexander said. "It's a completely different team. We've got a new head guy. We've almost doubled our win total. But it wasn't good enough. We look forward to getting into the playoff race next year."
Said Collins: "It's fun for me, as the season winds down and we're out of the playoffs, to look forward to next year and what some of these young guys are going to be able to do for us."
Collins' goal down the stretch, even if the Wizards had made the playoffs, was to make sure he was able to evaluate the younger players Etan Thomas, Kwame Brown, Tyronn Lue, etc. so that he could have a good idea of what to expect from them next season.
Lue has been consistent for most of the season, and Brown and Thomas have looked significantly better lately with more playing time.
As the playoff race continued without them, many of the Wizards speculated on what might have been. What if Jordan's season hadn't ended prematurely because of a knee injury? What if Hamilton hadn't suffered a groin injury that robbed him of 17 games in December and January? What if they hadn't started the season 2-9?
"For all intents and purposes, after the All-Star break we played most of the 35 games without Michael either healthy or on the roster at all," Collins said. "Rip Hamilton missed about 20 games with injury. Christian and Courtney both missed a lot of games. Those are critical people, and we're plus 17 [over last season's victory total]. And we're not done. We want to win two more games.
"No, we didn't reach the playoffs, the ultimate goal. But things are heading in the right direction."

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