- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

Order your playoff tickets now.

The NBA postseason is coming to Tony Cheng's neighborhood next spring, assuming Jerry Stackhouse recovers from his disappointment and stays committed to the game's all-around dimensions.

Applause is in order for the woebegone franchise on Fun Street, starting with Wizards general manager Wes Unseld, who engineered the six-player trade.

Unseld is almost the forgotten cog of the team's front office, superseded by the star power of Michael Jordan and the competence of coach Doug Collins.

Unseld's Hall of Fame career with the old Bullets, marked by four appearances in the NBA Finals and a championship in 1978, has come to be overshadowed by his caretaking stint as coach in the late '80s and '90s and the Chris Webber-Mitch Richmond trade in 1998. He has come to represent a generation's worth of bad breaks, bad heads and bad moves, interrupted by Jordan's 60 games last season.

With this maneuver, however, Unseld has restored hope and promise in a way Jordan the player could not. Jordan, because of his age, was always a temporary tonic. Even now, after breaking down last season, Jordan has not given himself the go-ahead to play in the upcoming season, although clearly he wants to return.

Unlike Jordan, Stackhouse has a considerable amount of basketball left in his 27-year-old body. He is a seven-season player who is not even at the peak of his physical powers yet.

No, Stackhouse is not a star of the highest order. He does not shoot well enough from the perimeter to be that. He is a scorer who is susceptible to double-team measures and grim shooting efforts. His last game with the Pistons was a nose-holding 3-for-18 shooting ordeal in the second round of the playoffs against the Celtics.

Stackhouse's proclivity to be errant, a taller version of Allen Iverson, contributed to the debate that raged inside the head of Pistons president Joe Dumars much of the summer. Would Stackhouse eventually advance to the top tier of NBA stars and lead the Pistons to an NBA championship?

That was a question Dumars could ponder after the Pistons improved 18 games in posting a 50-32 record last season. That is not a question before Unseld and the Wizards at the moment. They will take a playoff berth first and consider an NBA championship later, along with Stackhouse's plans to opt out of his contract and seek the maximum after the season.

Unseld is apt to end up where Dumars was, if he isn't already crunching Stackhouse's potential contract numbers. Stackhouse could command as much as $15million a season, which is liable to give pause.

Tim Duncan, among others, goes on the free agent market next summer. Sufficient salary cap room is paramount to be among Duncan's suitors.

That is a concern for another day, preferably after the Wizards have qualified for the playoffs and Jordan is on the floor to steady everyone's nerves.

Stackhouse already has answered some of the skeptics who trailed him from Philadelphia to Detroit. He tempered his shoot-first, think-later manner and discovered the advantages of passing the ball last season. He, in effect, reinvented himself, and the defense-oriented Pistons flourished as a result. The trade is his thanks. His motivation to evolve further is ample, especially with Jordan and Collins expected to be in his ears.

The cost to acquire Stackhouse was Richard Hamilton, a wonderful mid-range shooter but a questionable piece of the playoff puzzle otherwise. Hamilton, as well as Hubert Davis and Bobby Simmons, became more expendable with each offseason maneuver: the drafting of Juan Dixon and the free-agent signings of Larry Hughes and Bryon Russell.

If the Wizards have a curious element in the backcourt, it is the abundance of natural shooting guards who must make an impression at point guard, namely Dixon, Hughes, Tyronn Lue and Chris Whitney.

A Jordan-Stackhouse backcourt in the late going of a tight game is a pleasant option.

That comes out to two bluebloods from North Carolina and one headache for the opposition.

The Washington winter just improved.

There is the hint of a 50-win season in the air, the unimaginable being imaginable in the equal opportunity Eastern Conference. The Nets are a handy reference point.

The Wizards and their supporters now have a reason to dream.

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