- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

When Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins looks at the teams in the Atlantic Division, he notices a trend experienced players.

"New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, they're all winning with guys who have experience," Collins says. "There are some new faces in new places, but the guys who are getting it done are the experienced guys."

That's why Collins has reinserted Christian Laettner into the starting lineup. It is also why Charles Oakley was on the court late in the team's win against New York last weekend. So when tonight's game against the Portland Trail Blazers (9-9) at MCI Center is being decided it is likely those two will be on the court.

Remember, Laettner started 48 of 57 games he played in last season and that number would have been higher had he not lost 25 games to leg injuries, including 14 with a broken left fibula.

Laettner, 33, who has replaced 20-year-old forward Kwame Brown in the team's starting lineup, was brought here to be a starter. And as long as the Wizards (9-11) are in contention for the playoffs, that probably won't change.

"Christian is one of the smartest players I've ever been around," Collins said yesterday. "He knows the game. He knows where to be. He knows all the options of every play."

However, Collins acknowledges there is a disclaimer that accompanies Laettner.

"I've always said that when he's into it, he makes us a different team," Collins said. "When he plays well it helps Brendan [Haywood] and Christian can shoot. So now we've got a power forward that, if you help off on Michael [Jordan] and you help on [Jerry Stackhouse] can make shots, which is critical. When he's into it emotionally he's a terrific player for us."

Laettner (5.8 points, 3.7 rebounds) opened the season in the starting lineup against Toronto, but for the next 15 games he was relegated to a reserve role, and in some cases he wasn't used at all.

All the while Laettner a starter for most of his 12-year career never grumbled publicly about his playing time. Now that Collins has shortened the bench in an attempt to ensure that the Wizards make the playoffs, the emphasis has shifted from grooming young players to winning consistently and securing a postseason berth for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

"We went with the young kids for a long time, gave them a shot and now Doug is trying some other things, going with the veteran look out there," Laettner said. "It seems like the chemistry is a little better. You can call it experience. But the more minutes you play together in big games, the more you come together."

Collins has not gotten away from playing the young big men Brown, Haywood and Etan Thomas. Brown was benched in the team's win over the Knicks on Saturday, but Collins said yesterday the second-year player is still in the team's immediate plans. Haywood continues to start at center and could maintain that job for the rest of the season, barring injury. And Thomas, who started the season slowly due to injury, also has seen his playing time increase.

But when a team starts the season 6-4 like the Wizards did and then goes into a six-game losing streak that threatens to ruin the season, a coach has to rely on his instincts. And Collins' experiences told him there was only one solution.

"I've always felt that when you get into a little bit of a valley you really have to lean on your veteran players," he said. "Just their experience and the understanding of the little things that go into winning. And our guys responded this last week. But with that said, Jared [Jeffries] and Kwame and Juan [Dixon] are still going to be big factors for us as the season goes on."

For Stackhouse, the team's leading scorer (21.3), Laettner and Oakley make the Wizards a smarter team. And right now, smarter means better.

"It's just a matter of guys that know how to play. We lose a little athletic ability, a little bit of above-the-rim play, but we gain knowledge and skill by having Christian and Oak on the floor," Stackhouse said. "We've got guys who know how to play and know how to get the ball to the people who need the ball. And that's a key for us. Hopefully by guys getting a little bit of bench time they'll get eager and anxious to get back in the lineup and play with a little more sense of urgency."

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