- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

Shaquille O’Neal had sized-up the Washington Wizards even before his Los Angeles Lakers trounced them in their annual visit to Staples Center.

“Looking at them on tape you can see that they play hard,” O’Neal said last month. “Thing is, they don’t have their horses. You can’t win in this league without your horses.”

After his Minnesota Timberwolves easily dismissed the Wizards on Friday at MCI Center, Latrell Sprewell had a similar assessment.

“You can’t say they didn’t play hard because that was not the case,” Sprewell said after the 110-91 victory. “They come at you hard. But who are they going to turn to at the end of games?”

Before the season, the Wizards were hoping to turn to stars Jerry Stackhouse and Gilbert Arenas.

But Stackhouse has missed all 23 of the team’s regular season games with a knee injury. Arenas, the highest paid free agent acquisition in franchise history ($64-plus million), has missed nine of the team’s last 10 games with a severely strained lower abdomen.

Stackhouse isn’t expected to return before January. The Wizards are optimistic Arenas might be able to rejoin the team before then.

As a result, in a season in which it looks as if a .500 record might be good enough to win the wretched Atlantic Division, the banged-up Wizards could be watching a golden opportunity slip away.

“You can’t look at it that way,” Wizards forward Christian Laettner said. “We can’t say, ‘Those guys aren’t here, so we’re not going to go out and play as hard as we can.’”

Said Larry Hughes: “All we can do is play as hard as we can, compete every night. No one is going to feel sorry for us.”

Stackhouse led the Wizards in scoring (21.5) and assists (4.5) last season. Arenas, who has appeared in 14 games, leads Washington in scoring (20.0) and assists (5.4) this season.

Together, they were supposed to form one of the best 1-2 scoring punches in the league.

Without them the Wizards (7-16) have struggled to find offense during crucial stretches. They have a four-game losing streak for the third time this season and have lost 14 of their last 18 games. Only Orlando, which lost 19 consecutive games at one point, stands between the Wizards and the bottom of the division.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan has had to shuffle his lineup constantly, hoping to find the right combinations until one or both players return.

One major drawback is that the Wizards are asking players to do more than perhaps they are capable of. For instance, they are starting rookie Steve Blake at point guard, even though they realize he’s not ready to be an everyday starter.

Center Etan Thomas had been the team’s best player off the bench at the start of the season.

However, inconsistent play in the frontcourt from former starters Brendan Haywood and Kwame Brown has forced Jordan to start Thomas.

“No one is going to have any sympathy for you in this league,” Jordan said. “We don’t even talk about the guy that we’re missing. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

The injuries probably have impacted Brown as much as anyone on the roster. The Wizards had hoped Brown, the No.1 pick in the 2001 draft, would start to emerge in his third season in the league.

But Brown, whose contract was extended through 2004-05, continues to be mediocre on his best nights and consistently inconsistent.

All of that caused Garnett to wonder whether the expectations on Brown and the team are too high.

“They’re playing without key guys,” Garnett said. “Kwame doesn’t really play a lot. I think some of you guys’ expectations on what the team should be are a little absurd. Development in this league is very hard. You’ve got to be patient with the team. They’ll be all right.”

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