- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

At this same juncture of the NBA season a year ago, the Washington Wizards had a better record (26-21) and a five-game winning streak. But was that team better than the current 24-25 team that has the eighth best record in the Eastern Conference?
After last season's All-Star break, the Wizards won 11 more games, ensuring that they again would be in the lottery the annual losers' rite conducted every spring in beautiful Secaucus, N.J.
This year, the Wizards seem to have Michael Jordan on the upswing at the break rather than breaking down; an All-Star-caliber player in Jerry Stackhouse; Larry Hughes; and in general appear better suited to pursue a playoff berth in the 33 games left. Granted the schedule is tougher after the break, but the Wizards also are better if they stay healthy.
Here's a look at how the coach and players on the active roster grade out midway through the season:
Coach Doug Collins: B+:
There isn't a general manager in the league who won't agree that Collins' job of shepherding Jordan through his final season is as difficult a task as there is. Collins made the decisive move of going with Christian Laettner over Kwame Brown early, and now both parties after some angst agree the move was the right one. Collins has done a better than average job of developing young players.
Biggest complaint: A tendency to sometimes pull players just as they are heating up.
Forward Kwame Brown: C-:
Brown is where most high school-to-pro players are at this stage of his career, but there are still too many times when he is lost on the court. He has shown the ability to be a player at times, but must play like a stud not just against peers throwing barbs (see Tyson Chandler) but on a more consistent basis. That said, there are plenty of GMs who would pounce on him if the Wizards were actively shopping him, which they aren't.
Biggest complaint: Not aggressive enough offensively.
Guard Juan Dixon: B-:
This grade might be lower if he played more and some of his flaws were allowed to be exposed. As it is, Dixon, who has played in 16 games mostly because of an elbow injury, has played well enough so that he's not just on the court in garbage time.
Biggest complaint: Sometimes he forces his shots.
Center Brendan Haywood: C:
Coaches say he is the most advanced of the big players along the frontline. He's steady but, unlike Brown, has four years of college under his belt. Looks more like he has leveled off after an impressive rookie season.
Biggest complaint: He needs to develop a go-to shot.
Guard Larry Hughes: B:
The player with the most ability you haven't seen. He's not a point guard, which Collins has realized, but he is the kind of guy who can get you a double-double he did it five times in a row in December that almost goes unnoticed. When Jordan is gone, look for his numbers to escalate.
Biggest complaint: Needs to go to the basket more and use his height advantage against shorter point guards.
Guard Michael Jordan: A: You can't compare him to the player he once was, so let's compare him to other effective 40-year-old shooting guards. Oops there aren't any others, especially the type who can still go for 45 points and instantly punish double teams.
Biggest complaint: That he has only 33 regular-season games left.
Forward Christian Laettner: C:
Laettner is into this season more than he was last year. Like him or not, Laettner knows how to play the game, even if his skills have greatly diminished. Since being put in the starting lineup, he has done a better job rebounding.
Biggest complaint: Shoot that 15-foot jumper that used to be automatic more often.
Guard Tyronn Lue: C+:
He's almost always ready when Collins gives him the call, which the coach has done more recently. Lue is a victim of diminished minutes, with Dixon and Hughes siphoning them away.
Biggest complaint: Still waiting to see that consistently ball-hawking defense the team promised he would bring.
Forward Charles Oakley: C-:
His minutes have been minimized because of the large number of potentially good big men on the roster. When he plays, he still has both the attitude and the savvy that have carried him through 17 under-appreciated seasons. Still, the ravages of time can't be denied.
Biggest complaint: That he's not on the court more when teams go the intimidation route.
Forward Bryon Russell: C-:
Don't buy for a minute the line that he was brought in to start. He was brought in to start until Jordan said he was fit to start, which happened a little more than a month into the season. He has yet to look like the player he was in Utah for nine seasons.
Biggest complaint: Show the defensive tenacity that has been the hallmark of your career.
Forward Bobby Simmons: Incomplete:
Hasn't appeared in enough games since being called up from the NBDL last month to determine if he's headed in the right direction:
Biggest complaint: That he'll see less time in his second season than he did as a rookie.
Forward Jerry Stackhouse: A+:
It's a crime this guy isn't in the All-Star Game. Last year he adjusted his game so that the Pistons could reach the playoffs. This season, a contract year, he has been the consummate teammate, again sacrificing his own numbers for the sake of the team.
Biggest complaint: Must demand the ball more in the fourth quarter.
Center Etan Thomas: C:
Now that he's finally worked himself back into Collins' good graces, Thomas could make a huge impact in the second half as the Wizards will have to show depth along the frontline. He's just got to do what's asked of him: rebound and defend the post.
Biggest complaint: It's time for Thomas to get mean. Watch Charles Oakley. Closely.

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