- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

The Wizards are bumping up against the start of preseason amid a rising level of unthinkable expectations.

Wes Unseld, the team's general manager, has added athleticism, toughness and defense in Jerry Stackhouse, Bryon Russell, Larry Hughes and an intriguing draft class.

It no longer will be Michael Jordan and a mishmash of parts trying to eke out a 90-85 victory. It no longer will be a question of body parts made of stone, either Jahidi White's hands or Christian Laettner's feet. It no longer will be about role players being extended beyond their means.

Doug Collins, the team's paragon of stress on the bench, can drop his "no-margin-for-error" obsession this season. There is now a margin for error with this team. There are options. There is a sense of upward mobility. There is every reason to think that a 50-win season is within the team's grasp, which would represent a 13-game improvement from last season.

"Let's not go there," Unseld said yesterday. "I'm not ready for the expectations. I never really consider those kind of things until a team is on the floor."

Even Patrick Ewing, the newest member of the organization, seems to have come down with the spirit. He has made himself available to a 10-day player contract, if it ever becomes necessary. The Wizards hope to be spared that unappealing prospect. A 40-year-old Ewing in uniform would mean massive trouble in the frontcourt.

Not that the team's frontcourt is an area of unrestrained joy.

Brendan Haywood is still looking to complete his first move on offense in the low post. He also has to be ready to play 82 games, as the schedule dictates. He hit the so-called "rookie wall" late last winter and never really reclaimed his early-season energy on defense.

Kwame Brown remains the 20-year-old riddle who developed a severe case of cauliflower ear last season following the consistent verbal assaults of Jordan and Collins. Will he be ready to have a role with the team this season or will he take refuge in the fetal position again?

Collins will receive a solid indication the first day of training camp Oct.1. If Brown is sucking wind after the first few trips up and down the court, Collins can count that as a worrisome pattern and a sign to look elsewhere.

As it is, Collins is facing a predicament with the perimeter-leaning dynamic of the roster. His four best players are, arguably, Stackhouse, Jordan, Hughes and Russell. There is not a natural point guard in the mix. There is no pure outside shooter either.

Stackhouse is the consummate slasher, while Jordan is probably at his best at this point in his career when he is posting up opponents.

Jordan's 45-point effort against Kenyon Martin and the Nets on New Year's Eve might have been his best piece of work last season. Martin, the so-called tough guy and defensive maestro, was absolutely befuddled by Jordan's bag of tricks in the low post. There was the fadeaway jumper, the up-and-under maneuver, and the jab step one way and the drive the other way. It was all there from Jordan that night, and there was nothing the younger, stronger, taller Martin could do to stop it.

Collins has some juggling to resolve with this foursome, even if Jordan comes off the bench, as planned. There is only one basketball.

Russell is the least obtrusive offensive player of the bunch after being mostly a glorified spot-up shooter with the Jazz. His emphasis is defense. It was his luck to be the victim of Jordan's memorable push-off in the final seconds of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

Russell is coming off an injury-plagued season, marked by one of the season's most embarrassing shot attempts: an air ball off a breakaway layup try. Unlike Stackhouse and Jordan, Russell is uncomfortable with his back to the basket. With Karl Malone in Utah, of course, he never really had to develop that part of his game.

Collins is not apt to complain of the problem-solving tasks ahead after dealing with the limitations of the personnel last season. He may have an imbalance on the perimeter and a shaky frontcourt, but he also has more weapons to utilize and a nice mixture of youth and experienced performers.

This is a time to imagine the possibilities, if not fiddle further with the roster.

A highly productive offseason, chaired by Unseld, has changed the mood, tone and temperance of the franchise.

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