- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

The Washington Wizards' 18-14 start represents the team's best break from the gate since the Bullets began the 1984-85 season 19-13. Having won 13 of their last 15 games, they are the hottest team in the league. Each game they play seems to be re-visited later that night as the showcase game on "SportsCenter."
It is success that no one not even Michael Jordan or coach Doug Collins anticipated.
But now they are at a crossroads of sorts. In a year when the Eastern Conference is clearly the NBA's minor league, the Wizards, overachieving in just about everyone's eyes but their own, are faced with a daunting dilemma: Should they make a trade that could make them a serious threat to reach the finals this season, or do they stay pat, leaving them with salary cap space in the future, and see how far they can go with the talent they have.
Yesterday Wizards officials scoffed at the idea of trading for Portland's Rasheed Wallace, a former Wizard, pointing out that the deal would require breaking up this team the trade would require moving at least three players and taking on the remaining three years on the 6-foot-11 Wallace's $80million deal.
"That's just taking on too much," said a team official, scoffing at the Internet rumor.
Jordan said he still subscribes to the theory that a team must have three scorers to win a championship. Presently, Jordan is the only true scorer on the roster. When Richard Hamilton returns from a groin injury later this month, he is the team's other bonafide scorer. But as good as rookie center Brendan Haywood has been thus far, Jordan knows that he is not ready to take on that type of load this early in his career.
"You have to go with that theory," Jordan said. "We've got great perimeter scoring. We don't have as much inside scoring, which I think I'd like to get more of to balance ourselves. If our guys are not hitting our shots, we have another phase of our game that we can go to and survive with. Defense is the key, but I'd rather have a little bit better balance offensively with the inside-outside game."
There really aren't too many players out there that can help the Wizards in that category, and it might not be worth trading for them considering what they already have. The name most often tossed out is disgruntled Golden State center Marc Jackson. Jackson was set to sign with Houston this summer when the Warriors matched their offer (six years, $24.38million) to keep him in the fold.
Jackson, used sparingly thus far, was headed for a likely rookie-of-the-year season last year, averaging 13.2 points and 7.5 rebounds before injuries cut his season short. However, at 6-10 and 270-pounds, Jackson isn't the athlete that the 7-foot Haywood is, and his upside isn't nearly as promising.
As for trading for a low-post player in the last year of his contract, there is no one available worth trading for.
The restrictiveness of the salary cap has forced teams to make decisions even when one does not appear needed, and last season's Philadelphia 76ers team is a perfect case. The 76ers reached the All-Star break with the best record in the Eastern Conference (36-14). But coach Larry Brown felt that the team needed an upgrade at center if they were going to have any chance at all at beating either the Spurs or the Lakers should they reach the NBA finals.
So they traded injured, 6-10 Theo Ratliff to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo, marking the first in history that a team with the best record in either conference made a major trade that late in a season.
The downside is that the Sixers did not beat the Lakers in the finals, and they re-signed the 35-year-old Mutombo to a four-year, $65million deal. Mutombo has been average this season and the Sixers are 15-19 (before last night's game). This time last year with Ratliff in the lineup they were 25-9.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Wizards to stand pat is the year 2003. Although they have missed the chance to sign marquee players such as Paul Pierce and Vince Carter, San Antonio's Tim Duncan can opt out of his contract that summer. As of now the Wizards will have close to $20million in cap space available.
As for this season, the Wizards will be hard-pressed to make a trade that will make them much better than they are. Wallace is intriguing because he answers some questions, but ultimately he is too costly a gamble.
And even though Collins has said that the team will make a deal if there is one out there that can improve the team, right now that deal doesn't appear imminent.
Both Collins and Jordan cautiously advised that there are still 50 games remaining in the season, and that it is foolish to jump ahead three months into the playoffs. But that could change shortly. The Wizards on Friday begin a stretch that will see them face three division leaders (Milwaukee, New Jersey and San Antonio), and a Minnesota team that is breathing down San Antonio's neck. And even though they may have Christian Laettner back from a broken leg in time for the New Jersey game (Jan.16), they won't have Richard Hamilton.
"This is a crucial time for this franchise," Jordan said. "We'll be playing for teams that could work themselves into the finals. If we do some great things in the next five games, I'm pretty sure people are going to start thinking, what happens when Rip gets back?"
Originally the plan was to begin cultivating a better attitude among the young Wizards. But a nine-game winning streak and the overall weakness of the conference now forces the front office to view things differently.
"We're getting to the point where now people are taking us seriously and giving us consideration for the playoffs and as a possible contender for the Eastern Conference," Jordan said. "As we continue to have success, we can see those dreams become a little more visual."

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