- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

The Washington Wizards are not satisfied, and that is a good thing.

They are not happy to be 21-20 at the halfway point of the season, a record identical to last year's mark after 41 games, because, quite frankly, they feel this year's edition of the team is markedly better than last year's.

"I thought we would be better," said point guard Larry Hughes, the team's top free agent acquisition this summer. "But that's how it goes. It's a long season. We've got 41 more games to go. The good thing is we've put ourselves in a place where we are not underwater."

So how many wins does Hughes think the Wizards should have now? Twenty five, maybe 26?

"About that," Hughes said. "That sounds about right."

Hughes is not the only member of the Wizards who thinks the team should have reached the midpoint with a better record. Last year's team finished with just 11 wins after the All-Star Game (this year's is Feb. 9) and extended the Wizards' absence from the playoffs to five years.

"To be honest with you I thought we would be six or seven games over .500," said Charles Oakley, who signed a one-year deal in training camp. "Look, we've got two All-Stars, [Jerry Stackhouse] and Michael [Jordan], and Larry Hughes is playing great. We've got some other guys trying to play a role, but we haven't been consistent. We should really be better than we are, especially since we're in the East. That's second class. We should have a nice little cushion here, but we're just 21-20 and right in the pack. For now we have to settle for that."

The Wizards have played their last three games without Stackhouse, who has a pulled groin. Stackhouse is expected back tonight when the team plays at New Orleans, as well as being ready when they play the Bulls on Friday in Jordan's final game in Chicago.

Even without Stackhouse, the team's leading scorer at 22.5 points a game, Washington has done OK. The Wizards are 2-2 without him in the lineup, and that mark probably would be 3-1 if they did not overlook a horrible Toronto team last week.

However, the Wizards' fortunes have been on somewhat of an upturn after a bad start. They have won eight of their last 11 games and appear to have rebounded from a six-game losing streak that threatened to leave their season the meaningless string of games to which fans have become accustomed.

That's why those Wizards who feel they have underachieved also contend there is reason to be optimistic despite two trips to face teams in the far superior Western Conference in the second half.

"I'm not really worried about the West Coast," said Hughes, who played for Golden State last season. "We just want to get out there and play well. All we have to do is put wins together, and hopefully it will continue to go how it's been going with teams fighting in the middle of the pack with everybody."

Among the teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference, the Wizards appear to be headed in the right direction, at least for now. Philadelphia has been imploding on a nightly basis; Orlando has trouble stopping anyone; and tonight's opponent, New Orleans, has underachieved all season.

"We gave away a few games, and we could be better," Jordan said, "And we've gotten through some injures to guys like Jerry and Juan Dixon. But I like the position we're in. I'd like to see us improve in the second half, get more confidence and take a hold of who we are as a basketball team. I believe all of that can happen."

The confidence is palpable in the locker room. So much so that even Kwame Brown, whose name comes up every now and then as the trading deadline approaches, is confident the Wizards can stay the current course.

"I'm shooting for the moon," Brown said. "We lost some close ones, but I think we all know the mistakes and what hurt us. But we're shooting high now. We want to do some things that a lot of people don't think we can do."

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