- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2002

After a season that might best be described as a trial run, the new-look Washington Wizards open the 2002-03 season with clear intentions: advance to the playoffs and beyond.

When the regular season begins Oct.30, the Wizards could have five new starters; they also could have just two. Lineup combinations, as well as how new acquisitions Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes and Bryon Russell fit into coach Doug Collins' system, among other questions, will be determined this week in training camp and throughout the preseason.

But the overwhelming attitude is that there is ample talent at Collins' disposal, enough for Washington to punch a ticket to the postseason for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

While the playoffs were merely a dream for the Wizards last season, that hope has been ratcheted up to an expectation, an assessment that Collins and players alike reinforced yesterday. They believe that last year's 37-45 team without Michael Jordan for 22 games bolstered by the acquisition of Stackhouse and Hughes, should finish as one of the top eight teams in a so-so Eastern Conference.

"We should definitely be in the playoffs," Jordan said. "I thought physically, if I had held up, we would have made the playoffs last year. I think this team should at least make the playoffs and then go further."

Collins pointed to training camp, which begins today and concludes Oct.9, as a time to make a number of decisions. First, how his starting lineup will take shape, and whether Jordan will start or come off the bench. Second, how his guard rotation will work, particularly at point guard. Hughes figures to have the edge but veteran Chris Whitney started there last season.

"We added size and toughness on our perimeter; I think we desperately needed that," Collins said. "I think our practice sessions will determine how everything shakes itself out."

Collins shrugged off the logjam at point guard; for their part, the candidates said they take a "may the best man win" approach.

And even then, Collins said he won't hesitate to use players in different roles, playing two point guards like Tyronn Lue and Hughes together or letting either Jordan or Stackhouse at times play at the point or at small forward.

The Wizards lost small forwards Popeye Jones and Tyrone Nesby to free agency while bringing in Jared Jeffries, their top draft choice, and Rod Grizzard, a second-round selection. And rookie Juan Dixon joins the mix at point guard.

Of course, with a cast of new players comes another concern how the team's chemistry will materialize and whether the players can jell quickly. With a blend of rookies, veterans and players with a few years experience, the team appears versatile enough to compensate for the extra time needed to learn each other's tendencies.

"I think we pose matchup problems across the board for the opposing team," said Stackhouse, who averaged 29.8 points in 2000-01 for Detroit. "I see Michael [Jordan] on the other wing who are [opponents] going to help off of? I haven't been in a situation like that since I played with Grant Hill."

Kwame Brown begins his second season hoping to put the knowledge he gained into results. The No.1 choice in the 2001 NBA Draft has been battling a hamstring pull in recent weeks and said he probably will not be able to play at the start of training camp.

"I'm still not cleared to play," Brown said. "I played at 70 percent for a while this summer. When I get cleared, I'm going to have some catching up to do."

National interest in Jordan and the Wizards may have waned slightly, but with Stackhouse able to opt out of his contract after the season and with Jordan only definitely committed to playing the second year of his contract, it is apparent there is much riding on this season of high expectations.

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