- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins has a few things to worry about these days, such as when Richard Hamilton and Christian Laettner will be healthy enough to rejoin the team.
A few things wouldn't come close to describing poor coach Leonard Hamilton's worries in 2000-01. At this time last year, the Wizards, on the road to their worst season (19-63), were puttering along at 7-34 and making more noise off the court especially on the police blotter than on it. In the first week of January alone, former players Rod Strickland and Michael Smith were arrested on drunken-driving and misdemeanor battery charges, respectively. Not only that, both were arrested at other points during the season, and Strickland either skipped or missed practices, as well as a team flight to Miami.
Thankfully, Collins has had little of that foolishness to contend with this season. With the Wizards (21-20) in the playoff hunt midway through the season, there have been no skipped practices players, in fact, consistently show up early and no police reports, things that had become the norm with the Wizards.
Although Michael Jordan's presence on the roster and the surprise play of players like Popeye Jones and rookie center Brendan Haywood have had a larger effect, the absence of those type of incidents has contributed to the team's relevance in the league for the first time in years.
"Off-court situations are what I call de-energizers," Milwaukee coach George Karl said. "If there is not a positive energy flowing through your daily habits, you then have a negative energy force. It just saps your energy. So much of this league is a marathon race. It's winning when you're tired. It's winning when you don't even want to go to the gym. You don't need those kinds of things happening."
Strickland, now with the faltering Miami Heat, was perhaps the poster boy for the off-court fiascos the Wizards endured in recent years. If he wasn't in trouble with the boys in blue, it always seemed to be something else.
After being benched and fined for an unexcused missed practice last season, Strickland thought the punishment was unjust and through the media accused the team of embarrassing him. Rather then play with true resolve in the team's next game, Strickland opted to skip a doctor's appointment and the team flight to Miami, which resulted in a fine and suspension.
When Strickland finally returned to the team after a four-game absence in which he failed to practice, he somehow injured a hamstring, which kept him out of games until late February, and he was finally waived on March 2.
"All of that together put a weight on their back that they had beaten themselves," Karl said.
Some teams can handle those off-court situations with no problems; a prime example is Jordan's old team, the Chicago Bulls. Even with Dennis Rodman disappearing from practice to attend professional wrestling which he did during the 1998 Finals the Bulls made little of it as they went on to defeat Utah in six games.
But that team, which won the last of the Bulls' six championships, was led by Jordan, coached by Phil Jackson and used to Rodman's antics. Besides, Rodman never balked about playing time, almost always shut down the opponent's power forward and was almost always good for 10 to 12 rebounds.
"Unless you've got a really, really good team, it's hard to play through distractions," Collins said. "Distractions will bring down an average-to-fair team in a hurry."

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