- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

Not many expected the Washington Wizards to make a deal as the NBA's trading deadline came and went yesterday afternoon and they didn't. More unexpected, however, was the ugly news they got from the injury front as dusk settled in.
Point guard Larry Hughes, recently shunted to the bench after starting 46 games this season, second highest on the team, learned that what he thought was a mildly sprained right ankle on which he might be able to play tonight actually will keep him out for at least three weeks.
"This is a big disappointment," said Hughes, who has accepted taking a back seat to Tyronn Lue as the team's starting point guard with grace. "The time for us to do something is now. Two games [before] the All-Star Game was the time we felt we needed to make a move. It's really urgent right now."
Hughes suffered the injury in the fourth quarter of Washington's 87-75 loss at New Orleans on Wednesday. Although Hughes had been demoted, he was still playing significant minutes, and his absence will leave the Wizards with a big hole in their rotation at a bad time.
Hughes' minutes most likely now will go to rookie Juan Dixon. Dixon has had his moments this season, and only time will tell if he is up to the task of playing extended minutes now.
Lue has struggled as the starter, as evidenced by his three points and three assists in 20 minutes against the Hornets.
Hughes is third on the team in both scoring (13.1) and rebounding (5.3). However, the Wizards will miss him most at the defensive end, where the team has slacked off significantly as the season has worn on. At 6-5, Hughes is the tallest point guard on the roster, and his height and length make it difficult for opposing guards to find open teammates and penetrate.
"We're trying to get some consistency and then this happens," coach Doug Collins said. "It's tough at this time of year because the schedule doesn't get any easier. We need to be as healthy as we can be now. We get Jerry [Stackhouse] back and now we lose Larry. It's tough."
The Wizards' porous defense has become a sore point with Collins, and with good reason. They are 9-28 in games when they don't score 100 points.
"I haven't even really thought about the offense," Collins said. "How many points did we give up to Utah [109]? How many points did we give up to Sacramento [99]? My focus is going to be on the defense. If we're going to win, we've got to defend. That's an area where we've lost any kind of resistance that we've had."
The Wizards, who play host to Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey tonight, won't get any help from new faces. General manager Wes Unseld and assistant GM Rod Higgins worked the phones up to the 3p.m. trading deadline but didn't come across anything enticing enough to make a move.
Young forwards Etan Thomas and Kwame Brown, both believed to be part of the Wizards' latest edition of a nucleus, were the players who drew the most interest, according to a source. Team scoring leader Stackhouse also was mentioned by a number of teams.
"There was a lot of conversation going on, a lot of talk, and we were involved in a number of talks," Unseld said. "It was quite obvious that not much was happening."
One major impediment to a deal is the luxury tax, a highly prohibitive tariff that has owners and GMs reluctant to take on more big contracts while they try to get rid of some. With salaries rising and revenue dropping, the tax is expected to kick in with a vengeance after this season. Any team with a payroll over a projected figure of roughly $53million will have to pay a 100 percent tax on its overage.
For example, the New York Knicks, with a payroll of $93million, could be looking at a tax as high as $40million during the offseason.
Unseld said that was part of the reason the Wizards and other teams didn't make trades, but not the only reason.
"I think that was one of the issues," Unseld said.. "It's tough enough as far as making the deals work. But you've also got to have somebody that you want to get rid of, and somebody has to want that guy."
Note Thomas took an elbow to the lip during practice that required stitches to close and is questionable for tonight's game.



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