- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

The Wizards are 50 wins away from being self-actualized.

Fifty is the rough expectation out of 82 dates in the regular season, assuming Jerry Stackhouse and Michael Jordan are around for the majority of the games.

The Stackhouse-Jordan combination is perhaps the most commanding in the Eastern Conference, and not to overlook the potential output of Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in Orlando. With Hill, a certain skepticism is obligatory after his last two seasons on the shelf.

Jordan is determined to be resolute and patient out of respect to his 40th birthday in February. His impertinence led to both his and the team's collapse last season, just five games shy of the playoffs, following a 26-21 record at the All-Star break. It will be the job of coach Doug Collins to temper Jordan's spirit, no easy assignment. Jordan is both the de facto boss of the franchise and the early favorite to claim the NBA's Sixth Man Award.

The Wizards are not unlike the other leading contingents in the Eastern Conference. They have a few weapons to counter a few deficiencies. That is enough to pass for excellence in the NBA's junior conference. The Nets, considered the best of the also-rans going into the season, might not have qualified for the playoffs in the Western Conference last season. The case could have been made anyway.

The Nets dumped Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch in exchange for Dikembe Mutombo in the offseason, as if the 36-year-old Mutombo is the tonic to Shaquille O'Neal. That is almost funny, and potentially regrettable for the once sad sacks. Van Horn is 27, MacCulloch 26. Unlike Mutombo, both have a lot of years left in their legs.

The short-term thinking of the Nets is understandable, even encouraged by the modesty of the competition. The Wizards are built on a modified version of it. They can employ a lineup that averages nearly 34 years in age, if Collins ever feels an urge to maximize the collective experience of Jordan, Stackhouse, Bryon Russell, Charles Oakley and Christian Laettner. The 40-year-old Patrick Ewing, one of the team's assistant coaches, also has made himself available to a 10-day player contract, if it ever comes to that. The hope is that it won't.

The Wizards are mostly young and soft in the frontcourt, and no testament to Pete Newell's services at this time. There is not one low-post maneuver among Kwame Brown, Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas. Brown prefers to shoot 15-footers, Haywood prefers to dunk and Thomas is bulking himself up to be the gritty bruiser deluxe Oakley once was. The absence of a viable dump-down option, excluding Jordan, often leads to an overreliance on the perimeter. Nothing helps a team overcome a succession of iron-clanging shots from the perimeter like a post player who has the capacity to score from 8 to 10 feet on a consistent basis and who sometimes needs the attention of a second defender. The Wizards have no such player on their roster, not counting Jordan's forays to the low block by the three-second lane.

The lament of the Wizards extends on some level to most of the teams in the Eastern Conference. Believe it or not, Elden Campbell, of the Hornets, is possibly the leading center in the conference, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, of the Hawks, is possibly the leading forward accustomed to playing with his back to the basket.

As always, competence is judged on a sliding scale in the Eastern Conference. The Nets earned the top seed in the conference playoffs last season with 52 victories. The 52-win barometer is not likely to change appreciably, not with two games required against each of the 14 teams in the Western Conference. Even a road game against Golden State can seem daunting if it lands near the end of a 10-day trip.

The Wizards appear to be in a position to have it both ways, to be genuine contenders at no sacrifice to their future. This is the balancing act necessitated by what looms as Jordan's last go-around as a player.

For once, the Wizards figure to be in the playoff mix, possibly with homecourt advantage for a round or two, and only too eager to tap into Jordan's championship aura. No opponent is likely to feel too good in the presence of Jordan in the deciding game of a playoff series, home or away. That is the distant view in Tony Cheng's neighborhood, and reasonable enough around the modest standards of the Nets.

First things first tonight, Game1 of 82, in Vince Carter's den.

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