Thursday, March 4, 2004

A contrite Christian Laettner thought that after serving his suspension for violating the NBA’s drug policy, he would return to the Washington Wizards lineup and get back in the mix.

Forget it. Since returning Jan.23 from his five-game suspension, the 11-year NBA forward has been stuck to the bench.

In the 19 games since Laettner returned, he has received 11 DNP-CDs (Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision) and clearly has fallen out of the rotation and, most likely, out of the team’s plans. As a result, both he and the team are in tricky situations.

Laettner is the third-highest paid player on the team, his $5.312million salary surpassed this season only by Jerry Stackhouse’s $6.49million and Gilbert Arenas’ $8.53million.

However, Laettner’s production has dropped off dramatically. His scoring average (6.3) is the worst of his career and less than half his career mark (13.7). His rebounding average (5.1) has been this bad only once, during the 2000-01 season when he was traded here from Dallas and averaged 4.7.

Meanwhile, the Wizards have committed to a youth movement. They know what they have in Laettner and are more concerned with finding out whether young players like Etan Thomas — whose contract expires this summer — and Jared Jeffries — a lottery pick like Thomas — can be productive.

“I’d rather not say how I feel about it, but you have to bite the bullet,” said Laettner, whose average minutes are ninth on the team. “All I can say is, I wish I was out there; I want to be out there playing.”

Both president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld and coach Eddie Jordan say Laettner has remained professional, staying ready whenever the team calls on him. He saw his first action in five games Wednesday in the Wizards’ 84-70 victory over the Toronto Raptors and played well, finishing with five points and grabbing nine rebounds.

This, however, is no guarantee that Laettner will play tonight when the Wizards (20-39) face the Boston Celtics (26-36) with a chance to move within 31/2 games of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

“His practice habits are better the last few days to a week; he’s into it,” Jordan said. “Those are signs that help you get into the rotation. It’s just that other guys are fitting a little bit better right now. He’s going to get his opportunity again.”

Grunfeld’s position clearly supports the decision to find out if guys more than a decade Laettner’s junior can play.

“We have given our young players a lot of playing time, and they have made progress because of it,” Grunfeld said. “It’s unfortunate for Christian, because he has been a good professional and a good teammate. But because we are trying to build this foundation, we feel it’s important to develop our young players, and unfortunately it’s cut his minutes. I’m sure he’s frustrated.”

Laettner’s contact is guaranteed through next season, when he’ll make almost $6.2 million. So if he is not in the team’s plans this season, it is almost a certainty that next season, when he is 35, the Wizards will place little value on him.

Moving Laettner won’t be very easy, especially since he has a clause in his contract that guarantees him a 15 to 20 percent increase in salary. And it is uncertain whether the Wizards would attempt to buy out the last year.

Laettner has indicated that he might be willing to drop that trade clause if the circumstances were right.

“I don’t know right now,” he said. “I’d have to weigh the circumstances. It matters what and who they were considering. It matters.”

In the meantime, Laettner will shelve thoughts about the future. He wants to play and would love to play tonight against the Celtics.

“But that’s not my call,” Laettner said. “For now, I just have to bite the bullet and stay ready all the time. What other choice do I have?”

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