- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

In practically every city the Washington Wizards visit, coach Eddie Jordan is asked how much better the team would be with Gilbert Arenas and Jerry Stackhouse.

And each time, Jordan’s answer gets shorter and shorter.

“We don’t have them. We hope we’ll have them soon,” Jordan said before a game in New York last week. “But we can’t make excuses because we don’t. Other teams have injured players.”

Jordan isn’t being ill-mannered. He has just long since accepted the fact that not having players is a part of the game. But some good news might be on the horizon.

Arenas, who came back prematurely from a severely strained abdomen, could return as early as this week. Stackhouse resumed practicing but is still hobbled following arthroscopic knee surgery and won’t be back until January.

Meanwhile, the Wizards (8-17) continue to trot out a starting lineup that includes rookies Steve Blake and Jarvis Hayes and second-year forward Jared Jeffries. As bad as the Atlantic Division is, this lineup figures to keep losing until Arenas and Stackhouse return.

And this creates a challenge for Jordan.

“I don’t want us to get into the habit of feeling some justification for playing hard and losing or coming back not quite enough,” Jordan said. “We have to start from the beginning, play 48 minutes of disciplined basketball and hard basketball, and we’ve got to make shots. We’re executing well enough where most times we get open shots — we’re just not getting it done.”

General manager Ernie Grunfeld has been involved in previous rebuilding programs in New York and Milwaukee and is responsible for putting together the Knicks teams that reached the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999, plus the Milwaukee team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.

“The important thing to remember is that we’re rebuilding with a young team,” Grunfeld said. “We want our players to continue improving, whether it is in practices or games, and I think they are doing that.

“I’m not making excuses. I’d love to have a healthy roster; those players are important to us. But guys like Jarvis, Steve and Jared are getting valuable experience that they will grow from. When those [other] guys get healthy, we’ll welcome them back.”

Part of the problem for the Wizards has been a ruthless schedule. Tonight’s game at Miami will be their 16th road game against just 10 home dates. It gets easier after that, with 15 of the next 22 at MCI Center.

First though, Washington must face the resurgent Heat (10-17), who have won five of their last seven. Dwyane Wade (16.6) trails only LeBron James (19.2) and Carmelo Anthony (18.5) among rookies in scoring, and second-year player Caron Butler — who last season averaged 15.4 points — is starting to come around after being hampered by knee surgery in the preseason.

Meanwhile, Wizards backup point guard Juan Dixon has pink eye and is uncertain tonight, though he did make the trip to Miami.

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