Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Wizards have no reason to hang their heads because of the Heat series.

They have no reason to wallow in the disappointment of the moment after exceeding all expectations this season.

They have every reason to see their basketball glass as being half full following a 45-37 record, a No. 5 seed in the playoffs and the six-game elimination of the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.

The Wizards have every reason to embrace the seasons ahead, to believe in the possibility of making a championship run.

The Wizards are built to last, starting with 23-year-old Gilbert Arenas, 26-year-old Larry Hughes and 28-year-old Antawn Jamison, the Big Three that provides a solid foundation.

The Wizards undoubtedly need further seasoning, as they discovered in these playoffs.

They need a greater commitment on the defensive end of the floor. They need more development from Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas. And they need to resolve the issue of Kwame Brown, possibly in a sign-and-trade deal that results in a larger version of Michael Ruffin.

Questions still persist with Jared Jeffries, who provides the grunt work and much of the energy on defense. But Jeffries mostly remains a liability on offense. He has come to be the 50-50 practitioner around the basket, which is unacceptable.

Juan Dixon’s role remains equally murky, assuming no one has forgotten the injured Jarvis Hayes.

Hayes does what Dixon does — shoots the perimeter jumper — but also rebounds and defends. Hayes has what Dixon never can have, which is a 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame.

Ernie Grunfeld is obligated to shore up the team’s frontcourt in the offseason, plus seeking a reliable 3-point shooter, if possible.

Anthony Peeler filled that function for a portion of the season until coming down with knee tendinitis and losing his spot in the rotation late in the season.

As Grunfeld endeavors to fill these holes, he now can sell the appeal of Fun Street.

The Wizards clearly are a team in the beginning stages of its ascendancy, perhaps just experience and couple of pieces away from being complete.

Which role player would not want to be part of this ride?

As the Wizards become formidable, the Heat and Pistons are apt to begin their descent from the head of the Eastern Conference.

Did we see a glimpse of the future in the Wizards-Bulls series, the start of a rivalry that flourishes as these two teams mature?

What happens to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the seasons ahead?

At the midway point in the season, the James-led Cavaliers were arguably the third-best team in the conference. Following their nosedive, it is debatable whether James even will elect to stay in Cleveland.

Can the Nets become relevant again with a healthy Richard Jefferson being the third piece to Jason Kidd and Vince Carter?

The Wizards are positioned as well as anyone in the conference, and that includes the Pacers, who will miss the 39-year-old Reggie Miller more than they care to admit.

However impressive the 20-game improvement of the Wizards this season, Grunfeld said it is sometimes easier to make that jump than the next one to 50-plus wins.

Yet the Wizards undoubtedly would have reached the 50-win mark this season if not for the collection of injuries to essential personnel.

The Wizards lost Hughes for 20 games and labored to stay afloat with a 9-11 record. They lost Jamison for 14 games because of a bum right knee. And late in the season, while jockeying for playoff position with the Bulls, the Wizards lost Haywood and succumbed to a five-game losing streak.

If the Wizards did not have bad luck this season, they would have had no luck at all.

Yet they persevered and got through the rough patches, and the city responded in full roar.

This is hardly the time to dwell on the Heat series.

The best times are ahead with this group.

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