- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan knows as well as anyone that his team, 91/2 games out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, is out of contention for the playoffs.

And Jordan wakes up every morning agonizing about the Wizards, who are 22-47 overall and a woeful 1-19 in the Atlantic Division, in which only New Jersey is good enough to have a winning record.

But unlike Gilbert Arenas, who promised the Wizards would be a playoff team when he was introduced locally before the season, Jordan and president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld never have said anything other than the Wizards are a work in progress.

That’s why the Wizards, who have five road games in seven nights against Western Conference teams, starting tonight in Utah, say they will take this trip seriously.

“We want everyone to know — our fans, our team, our front office, our owners — that we think we have the pieces to be a playoff team in years to come, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Jordan said. “It might not show in the number of wins in the last games that we have. But just to see signs of growth and keep guys healthy so we can see the potential. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Jordan doesn’t want to talk about it, but the toll injuries have taken on the roster will be associated with his first season as coach more than anything else.

The Wizards hoped to count on Jerry Stackhouse, Arenas and Larry Hughes — proven players all — for scoring and leadership, but 70 games into the season the three have been healthy and in the same game for roughly 11 quarters because of injuries.

Coincidentally, the Wizards face an opponent dogged by the same issue tonight in the Jazz.

Hughes returned to the starting lineup Sunday in a 20-point loss to the Miami Heat, a team that missed the playoffs last season but is in the hunt this season.

However, Arenas sprained his right ankle in the first quarter. He taped the ankle — the X-rays came back negative — and tried to play in the second quarter but was forced from the game when the pain became too intense.

Arenas has not been ruled out for tonight’s game but wore a walking cast after Sunday’s game. He likely will suit up — according to him, at least — against Golden State on Thursday. Arenas left the Warriors last summer after two seasons there, the last of which saw him named the league’s most-improved player.

“It’s been a tough year, man,” Stackhouse said. “Every time it seemed like we were getting ready to make a move, something happens and deflates our momentum. We’ve been trying to get a three-game winning streak, and that hasn’t happened yet.

“Maybe before the year is over we can get 10 games where we have everybody on the floor. But we can’t be too discouraged about it. We’re going to keep playing hard and trying to play the right way. Hopefully that will help us in the long run.”

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