- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

The Wizards are stuck between the unfamiliarity of their players and a demanding early schedule.
The 82-game march does not ease appreciably until January, when the Wizards are expected to be less prone to pronounced bouts of inconsistency. Their mantra until then might as well be: Keep the Nets in sight, assuming the Nets remain the standard-bearer of the Eastern Conference.
The Nets, no doubt, have looked awfully efficient in winning their first four games and awfully serious about dispelling the notion that their trek to the NBA Finals last season was a one-season aberration.
The Wizards are seeking to duplicate the startling success of the Nets, and the climb is not nearly as steep for them as it was for the Nets last season. The Wizards are coming off a 37-win season, 11 games better than what the Nets posted in 2001.
Yet the Wizards have received no favors from the NBA, considering their sweeping personnel changes and a schedule that is challenging them to be their best in a hurry. Twenty-one of their first 31 games are against teams that made the playoffs last season. Even a few of the softies come with a qualifier. Four of the games involving lottery teams are on the road, two on the second night of back-to-back encounters.
The Wizards, meanwhile, have no feel for who they are yet. They are apt to look imposing or dreadful all in a span of minutes. Coach Doug Collins is a long way from deciding on what his seven- or eight-player rotation might be. Charles Oakley, who has rested comfortably on the sideline for the most part, is bound to have a role after the team develops a personality. Right now, it has none.
Unlike last season, Collins would prefer the Wizards to be a running team, the better to utilize Jerry Stackhouse's talents. To run the fastbreak, however, the Wizards have to be able to rebound the basketball more effectively than they did against the Nets. The absence of easy transition baskets relegated the Wizards to their halfcourt sets on offense against the Nets, hardly a strength of a team trying to integrate five new starters and eight new players on the 12-player active roster.
The result was 79 points by the Wizards, reminiscent of their 68-point output in Toronto on opening night. The team's inability to convert in the halfcourt offense is not likely to improve significantly in the weeks ahead, at least not as long as Michael Jordan is limited to about 25 minutes a game. Jordan remains the one member of the team who still can create a high-percentage shot for himself or a teammate. That is not to say Jordan converts an acceptable percentage of his open looks. If he had not struggled shooting in the first three quarters against the Nets, the Wizards would have been in a stronger position to win the game going into the last 12 minutes.
Jordan, in coming off the bench for the first time in his career, is having to adjust to a role that can be cruel on scorers. Fewer minutes mean fewer chances to develop a shooting rhythm. It also might mean a few more losses for the team along the way. The obvious antidote is short-term, the mistake last season.
Collins claims it is "easy" to resist the urge to go to Jordan in times of stress. There are 78 regular-season games to go, and Collins desperately wants Jordan to be available for all of them. Both Collins and Jordan endured the alternative last season after their plan to manage Jordan's minutes succumbed to the team's 2-9 start.
Jordan and the team sort of mirror one another now. This is strange new territory for both. The uncertainty is not likely to be resolved until the dead of winter, by which time Collins and the Wizards will have a firm grasp of where they are in the conference and where Jordan is. As long as Jordan is able, his minutes will increase then.
That is the blueprint in the initial throes of the season, ever subject to change, either by team need or Jordan whim.
As it is, the Wizards remain an unfinished product, consigned to not knowing what's what at times.
The Wizards are two teams, really, both young and old. This is their lot in what looms as Jordan's last season as a player. This is the franchise's one chance in the last generation to be relevant in the postseason.

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