- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The Washington Wizards are close to fielding the team the front office envisioned as good enough to compete for a playoff spot this season.

Jerry Stackhouse’s return to the Wizards (14-32) was a pleasant surprise Sunday despite a loss to Cleveland, especially since the Wizards figured Stackhouse — out all season following knee surgery — wouldn’t return until after the All-Star Game later this month.

Now there are strong indications that Gilbert Arenas, the team’s $64 million point guard, could return as soon as this weekend. The Wizards entertain the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday and are at Cleveland on Saturday.

“I don’t know,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “[Arenas] practiced pretty well today. There is always that time in practice when we get them up to a high level of play, where he is being competitive, explosive and physical. Let’s see how he responds the next day. It sounds like it’s OK.”

Arenas, who has missed 26 games with a severely strained abdomen, said he is waiting for an OK from team doctors.

“It’s up to them,” said Arenas, who averages 18.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists. “I feel that I need to sit out just a little bit longer to make sure that I’m healthy.”

Last season Stackhouse led the Wizards in scoring (21.5). Sunday was his first regular-season game since April 14, and he looked rusty against the Cavaliers on his way to 13 points in 27 minutes.

The performance didn’t bother Stackhouse, who participated in all but the final 10 minutes of practice yesterday at MCI Center.

“I knew going in that this is going to be a process,” Stackhouse said. “But I knew that. I know that I’m going to be in different stages for the rest of the season. I know it’s going to be better two weeks from now. Hopefully I’ll just keep getting better while I keep playing.”

And as he re-acclimates, Stackhouse won’t have to digest the complicated offensive system Jordan eventually wants to run. The injuries and the low basketball IQ of the team forced Jordan to shelve the offense for now.

“The system is easy to learn now because we’re playing basic basketball, NBA stuff,” Jordan said. “We’re out of the system that we came into the season with. Not totally but a lot. So it’s not a whole lot for him to learn. It’s mostly physical and him getting his legs back.”

Meanwhile, Kwame Brown practiced without any problems. Brown suffered cartilage damage in his nose when backup Torraye Braggs hit him with an elbow that forced him to miss the first half of the Cavaliers game.

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