- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

These days Washington Wizards small forward Jerry Stackhouse is talking about karma and wanting to capture whatever it is that has helped his new team march to a season-high five consecutive victories that leave the Wizards in position to be more than just an eighth seed in the playoffs.
Talk of the season slipping away, prevalent at the end of 2002, has been replaced by conversation about moving up. At the same time, Stackhouse knows that what the Wizards have could be dramatically altered if management is approached with one of those deals that would be so good that it has to pull the trigger.
Stackhouse, in the last year of his contract, would be happy keeping the Wizards' nucleus intact.
"I look at this team as a young team with young guys that in the next eight or 10 years that I can play, I can really be on some good teams," said Stackhouse, who will be a free agent at the end of this season. "We've got a lot of pieces in place. If we get another good free agent next season we could be in position to do some damage."
However, there is no guarantee that the Wizards (18-17), despite the painstaking steps taken by the front office to field a winner this season, will remain the same. The NBA's trading deadline is about five weeks away (Feb.20) and general manager Wes Unseld admits to working the phones daily exploring potential trades.
Yesterday coach Doug Collins emphatically denied that the Wizards were looking to move power forward Kwame Brown, selected with the first pick in the 2001 draft. Earlier this week, a report in the Chicago Tribune indicated that the Wizards had discussions with the Chicago Bulls regarding Brown.
"With the advent of the Internet, there are always going to be rumors because people have to take up that space somehow," Collins said. "But Kwame is getting better every day. We're not trading Kwame."
Brown is coming off some very nice games, and it appears that his learning curve, which moved upward dramatically at the start of the season and then leveled, once again is arching upward. In the Wizards' 25-point victory over the Bulls last week, Brown had 20 points and 12 rebounds. In their win over Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, Brown scored all 16 of his points in the first half.
In fact, there are some in the NBA who envy the Wizards' young talent. That includes Orlando coach Doc Rivers, who talked wistfully about Brown and 7-foot center Brendan Haywood, whom the Magic let go for Laron Profit.
"That is some nice talent they've got, real nice," Rivers said. "We could use Brendan right now. A lot of teams could. And I think Kwame is going to be fine. The transition for him isn't really behind schedule, not from what I've seen."
Collins may have the hardest job of any coach in the league. In Jordan, he coaches the greatest player ever, and he is responsible for shepherding Jordan though his final season a season the Wizards hope concludes with their first playoff appearance since 1997.
That said, Collins believes that Jordan understands the team's future is more important than the present.
"We would love to [make a deal], but not at the expense of getting rid of our younger players," Collins said. "What Michael wants to be is a bridge, a bridge between the Wizards that have struggled for years to a team that maybe with him playing can get into the playoffs and taste it, that these guys will understand what it is and never, ever want to be out of them. Once you taste it you realize that this is what you play for."
To some, it might appear that the Wizards' aggressiveness in the offseason was aimed at producing a team capable of making a one-year run at the Eastern Conference championship in Jordan's last season. In addition, they acquired Stackhouse in the last year of his contract and also added Larry Hughes, Charles Oakley and Bryon Russell.
Those veterans have been thrown in the mix with young players like Brown, Etan Thomas and Haywood, and at times the mix has been volatile. Collins took some heat when the Wizards dropped six games in a row and rumors began to gain legs.
But now the Wizards are hot and looking to run their winning streak to six tonight at MCI Center against gradually improving Golden State. They appear to have found a niche and now, after Collins decided to give the veterans like Christian Laettner a bigger role, the Wizards are in the running with teams like Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston and Orlando for one of the middle playoff seeds.
Stackhouse is not the only member of the team who wants to see the Wizards cultivate young talent. The Wizards awarded Hughes, who is just 23, a three-year, $15million deal to be their point guard, which makes any trade with the Bulls even more unlikely.
Hughes, who is with his third team in four seasons, has watched the teams that have had success and knows that the formula involves getting players familiarized with each other and letting their talents come out.
"I want to be a part of a team that's been together for like five, six or seven years," said the Wizards' third-leading scorer. "Teams that have been together that long always win. When you get in an environment where you know who's coming in every year, the same guys, the same system and you know each other in and out, it becomes a good situation when you're allowed to be around 12 guys for 400, 500 games rather than just 82."
Sacramento and Dallas, teams that have had their core group of players for years, are examples.
"Exactly, exactly," Hughes said. "Those teams didn't start off winning, but they stuck together, added new faces here and there but basically the same people were around every year. You know what you are getting every year."
Of course, much of this playoff talk is premature. The Wizards still have 47 games to play, including two West Coast trips after the All-Star Game the second of which is a 10-game odyssey in March that might make or break the season.
Note Rookie guard Juan Dixon, on the injured list with a sprained elbow, has been cleared for contact and likely will be activated next week, according to sources.


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