- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

A game away from the midpoint of the season, the Washington Wizards are proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Much is new for this 12-28 team. Ernie Grunfeld is in as president of basketball operations; Michael Jordan is out. Homegrown Eddie Jordan is in at coach; Doug Collins is back in the broadcast booth with TNT.

The one constant is that it appears the Wizards will have another season where losses far outnumber victories.

Only Miami shoots worse than the Wizards (.412); only Atlanta and Utah commit more turnovers than the Wizards (17.075); and their points a game (88.7) ranks the Wizards 25th in the 29-team league.

The Wizards have beaten one Atlantic Division opponent despite the fact that only one team in the division, New Jersey, is playing better than .500 ball.

As much as Eddie Jordan and Grunfeld speak the old school language that injuries are a part of the game, no team in the league has had its projected starting lineup ravaged as much as the Wizards.

In the offseason, the Wizards satisfied last season’s leading scorer, Jerry Stackhouse, with an $18million contract extension. This was rubberstamped by owner Abe Pollin, who thought so much of Stackhouse that he made the deal before hiring Grunfeld.

Before the summer ended, Grunfeld and Jordan traveled between here and Los Angeles and shrewdly enticed free-agent guard Gilbert Arenas with a $64million-plus offer.

Stackhouse has not played this season following arthroscopic knee surgery, and Arenas will miss his 21st game tomorrow at Boston because of a severely strained abdomen that has twice sent him to the injured list.

Arenas is targeting the team’s Feb.17 game at Houston as a likely return date. Neither Stackhouse nor the Wizards have set a date for his return.

As a result, the playoffs, where the Wizards haven’t been since 1997 — and the same place where Arenas predicted Washington would end the season — appear to be at best a reach.

“I didn’t expect this,” said Arenas. “I didn’t expect to get hurt. It’s hard to grade a team where all the players are hurt, especially the key players. Probably in the second half of the season you’ll see what we could have shown in the beginning without all of the injuries.”

Jordan said injuries can’t be discounted and they drastically change things.

“To me it’s a nonissue,” Jordan said of the absence of a former All-Star (Stackhouse) and last season’s winner of the league’s most improved player award (Arenas). “We have to show up and play as hard as we can. That’s our job.”

There really is no getting away from the cold, hard truth, though. After adding Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the roster, the Los Angeles Lakers had the look of invincibility. But when injuries forced them to play without Malone, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers lost six of 10 games going into last night’s contest at Memphis.

Without Arenas, Jordan has tried rookie Steve Blake and journeymen Chris Whitney and Brevin Knight at the point. It seems he has settled on Knight for now.

The most obvious change in the wake of the injuries is a scaling back of Jordan’s offense to the point it looks nothing like the attack he had in mind.

“Now we’re doing a simple NBA set, just a lot of pick and roll,” Jordan said. “It’s not hard to learn.”

One twist that Jordan will continue to experiment with is playing small ball.

In recent days — particularly in the two-game winning streak they’re riding — the Wizards have gone to Kwame Brown at center and four smaller players such as guards Blake, Juan Dixon, Larry Hughes, and rookie small forward Jarvis Hayes.

“This makes us a quicker, better defensive team,” Jordan said. “We want to feed off of the defense and turn it into points.”

While getting healthy for the second half of the season, the Wizards hope that more games at MCI Center will help. Twenty-two of their first 40 games have been on the road.

Following tomorrow’s game in Boston, the Wizards’ next seven games will be at home.

Jordan believes he will learn a lot about the team’s young players in the second half of the season.

“The NBA is a different game,” Jordan said. “You can’t get beaten down by the losing. Anybody who has won at college and high school, going through a season like this can get [him] down. If you can endure, stay on top of things and be a professional, you’ll get through it.”

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