- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

The Wizards are now a team of the future, nearly eight years after Michael Jordan proclaimed it to be so.

The backcourt of Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes is one of the most productive in the NBA and certain to improve, given the tender years of the principals. Both guards deserve to be selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game next month, if only such laurels were always based on merit.

Vince Carter alters the equation, thanks to the dunk-loving fans who vote on the starters. The reputation of others exceeds their current production. The fear is that Arenas and Hughes will be the victims of a split vote among the reserve-voting coaches and miss out on the festivities.

The Wizards are still in the incredulous phase of their ascent. They have been inept for so long that their about-face in the Eastern Conference is being viewed with a good dose of skepticism.

The doubters are not unimpressed with the team’s 19-13 record and resilience. They just cannot ignore the franchise’s grim history of the last generation. Popularity is sometimes slow to react to the sudden good fortunes of a team.

If there is an absence of quality victories — an early season criticism of the Wizards — the topic is less valid following the last two outcomes. Both the Sonics and Timberwolves are formidable teams, even if the latter is steeped in dysfunction.

The Wizards overcame a late deficit against a team that routed them by 35 points 13 days previously. It was the sort of victory that inspires a team to believe in its worthiness and capacity to beat the long odds. It was the sort of victory notable for two overlooked sequences: the errant turnaround jumper of Kevin Garnett and the two missed free throws of Antawn Jamison.

As one of the three best players in the NBA, Garnett is expected to be the difference in an affair destined to swing on one shot. His is both a gift and a burden. Its predictability increases the focus level of the opposition.

In another time Jamison’s two missed free throws would have been the development that doomed the Wizards. It would have been the moment to rue the shortcomings of another player expected to save the franchise.

In the end, his brief funk on the free throw line merely pointed to the obvious, which was this: Unlike the Timberwolves, the Wizards are not overly dependent on one player. Their Big Three, as Arenas, Hughes and Jamison are called, are learning to cover for one another.

It was the late work of Arenas that turned the game in the favor of the hosts. On another night, the responsibility could have fallen to either Jamison or Hughes. The responsibility seemingly goes to the one of the three having the most efficient game.

Arenas, in particular, can create a shot whenever he likes, and there really is not a lot a defense can do other than foul, deploy a second defender or hope he is unable to finish the play.

This is the healthy Arenas Washington did not get to see last season. The spring in his legs is noticeably more pronounced this season. On one occasion, he caught a missed shot off the rim and slammed it through the cylinder in one motion. Hughes completed a similar play later in the game.

That is another quality of Arenas and Hughes. They don’t merely score. They fill up a box score. Hughes has three double-doubles this season, plus one triple-double. He also leads the NBA in steals.

Hard as it is to believe, a playoff appearance almost has become an afterthought on Fun Street. The real challenge before the Wizards is to secure homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Wizards are in position to fashion a 50-win season, a previously unthinkable pursuit that is being fashioned amid the prolonged absence of Etan Thomas and the injury-riddled woes of Kwame Brown.

Barring injury to the Big Three, this team is not going back to the bad, old days.

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