- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

The Washington Wizards are still a puzzle.

The club made sweeping personnel changes in the offseason there are seven new players on the roster, including high-profile scorer Jerry Stackhouse but the results so far have been the same.

Twenty-one games into the season, the Wizards' 9-12 record is the same as last season's at the same point. They are scoring fewer points, and coach Doug Collins' multiple lineup shifts have not produced results.

So how do all the lofty preseason predictions Sports Illustrated, for one, ranked the Wizards fifth in the Eastern Conference and 11th in the NBA look now?

"That was absurd," Collins said yesterday. "Look at the top six teams in the Eastern Conference record-wise are they playing any younger players? And how many new faces do they have? So much is placed on the fact that when Michael Jordan is on your team, you are automatically expected to be one of the best teams.

"I feel honored that the people feel the way they do about Michael, but the realistic expectations of this franchise are that we are not one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference."

Right now, the Wizards are struggling to find a starting lineup that works. Collins quickly soured on giving his younger players major minutes. Jordan moved from the bench to the starting lineup. Recently, Collins has turned to other veterans particularly forwards Christian Laettner and Charles Oakley in an effort to develop better chemistry.

The changes specifically inserting Laettner as the starting power forward worked for a while. The Wizards had won three of their last four games before Tuesday's 98-79 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in which Washington trailed by 26 points.

It was the worst performance of the season for the Wizards' veteran-heavy rotation and came against a troubled Blazers team that has had more off-court distractions than any other club. The Wizards were so bad that both Collins and Jordan talked of wanting to give the paying customers back their money.

"What about that guy who worked for three months and saved to take his children to an NBA game to watch the Portland Trail Blazers, and none of us showed up to do our job?" Collins said. "What must that person be feeling driving home from the game? That made me pretty sad."

League-wide scoring is down this year, and the Wizards are not immune. Last season they averaged 92.8 points; this season they are scoring 90.3. They are better defensively, though. Last season's team allowed more than 94 points a game; this season's is allowing 89.1.

Larry Hughes, the 6-foot-5 point guard, has found his game recently. Hughes has posted four consecutive double-doubles (points and rebounds) and has led the team in rebounding for the last five games.

Hughes expected the Wizards to be off to a better start than they are fifth in the Atlantic Division but he believes they are not far from becoming a better team.

"I thought we would have a couple more wins," Hughes said. "I still think that we're a good basketball team and also that there are some games we let get away. I definitely think that our record can be better than what it is."

The lineup changes the Wizards have made eventually could lead to them going on a run similar to last December, when Washington went 13-2 during one stretch to lift its record from 5-12 to 18-14.

To that end, Collins yesterday put the team through a rigorous practice. According to the coach, the loss to the Blazers coupled with the fact that their next three games are on the road prevented any player complaints.

"From my standpoint, what it said to me more than anything else was that we have to have tougher, more competitive practices," Collins said. "We right now don't have an identity. There is not one thing that we can hang our hat on every night. In moments like this, I always say you have to go back to the practice court to prepare yourself for the game. I got away from what has always been successful for me. We've got to get back to doing that here.

"We have got to be tougher, we've got to be more competitive and more defensive-minded. When you ask where we are, I think that's exactly where we are today. We've got to build from here."

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