- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2003

The Wizards, Michael Jordan in particular, are seeking to preserve their dignity in the last 51 games of the season.

This is the unexpected adjustment to the giddiness that accompanied the Wizards going into the season.

The good feeling has been replaced by the uneven march of the Wizards, stationed among the irrelevant of the Eastern Conference. The hope now is a .500 record and the last playoff berth in the conference. Even that modest desire promises to be a struggle.

The Wizards beat the wretched and the infirm of the NBA. They rarely beat anyone else.

Their offense is usually consigned to the perimeter, so their capacity to score diminishes as the game winds to a conclusion. They dribble the ball well. Give them that.

As coach Doug Collins noted following a loss in Indiana: "We lead the league in dribbling in the fourth quarter."

Unfortunately, the NBA does not award style points to those teams that massage the ball with passion. Massaging the ball merely exhausts the 24-second shot clock instead of the opposition.

Standing around is most of the deal in baseball. Standing around is the last resort of the uncertain in basketball. That is one charge against the Wizards in the fourth quarter. Being tedious is another. A field goal from the Wizards in the fourth quarter is sometimes a laborious undertaking, not unlike giving birth. Deep breathing exercises don't seem to help in their case.

The team was averaging 90.4 points going into the meeting with the Spurs last night, down from the team's 92.8 scoring average last season. That is almost hard to fathom, considering the offseason maneuvering that resulted in the additions of Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes and Bryon Russell. The three players landed on Fun Street with credentials far more impressive than those who supported the Jordan-inspired trek to respectability last season.

Yet their capacity to improve the team's whole has been imperceptible.

Stackhouse is a scorer with Allen Iverson-like proclivities to chip the orange paint off the cylinder with his wayward perimeter shots. He came into the season as a 41 percent career shooter, and even with Jordan on the floor to ease some of the scoring burden, he has remained true to that figure.

Hughes is a worker, fearless around the basket, but a point guard only out of team necessity. Setting up teammates with perfectly timed passes is the least of his strengths. Even Tyronn Lue, the equally miscast backup to Hughes, has the vision to complete the occasional alley-oop pass to Stackhouse or Jordan.

Russell, meanwhile, has been the least effective of the three high-profile newcomers. His 3-point shot is out to lunch, his role ill-defined, more so after Jordan's return to the starting lineup in the 16th game of the season.

Even Jordan finds himself in an unaccustomed position, caught between who he was and Stackhouse. The front-office part of Jordan is inclined to defer to Stackhouse. The raging competitor in Jordan is still working out all the details. The result in two games left Jordan fumbling the ball at the end, in a one-point loss at home to the 76ers in November and in the loss at home to the Pistons last week.

"It's one of those games where you just want to hide your head under a pillow," Jordan said after the loss to the Pistons.

There have been a high number of head-hiding games this season, starting with the opener in Toronto, a 68-point dud. A week later, in Minnesota, the Wizards converted only two of 22 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter en route to squandering a 14-point lead in the second half. In mid-November, the Wizards allowed the then-winless Grizzlies to close a 74-74 game on an 11-0 run. There also was the no-show at home against the Trail Blazers and the 65-point outing in New Jersey.

An occasional off night goes with the 82-game territory of the NBA. The Wizards, alas, are making a habit out of the off night.

No easy solutions are available, barring a move before the trading deadline. A viable inside presence is at the top of the team's wish list, assuming there is no change in Brendan Haywood and Kwame Brown. Their relative lack of improvement is the team's ball and chain. One or the other was expected to fill more than space this season. That prospect seemed possible with Brown in the first few games of the season. Brown soon adopted a confused look, and Haywood soon took Brown's place in the starting lineup by default.

The confusion has become contagious.


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