- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

The Washington Wizards reached the playoffs for the first time in eight years and the second round for the first time in 23. To go further than that in the future, coach Eddie Jordan believes the Wizards must find a big man.

“We’ve done all this without an inside presence and that’s almost unheard of in the NBA, to get to the second round without a consistent, inside go-to guy,” Jordan said.

Behind the mostly perimeter play of the Big Three — Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison — the Wizards finished with a 45-37 record, their best since 1978-79, and improved the previous season’s win total by 20 games. Washington knocked out the fourth-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs but without a legitimate inside presence were finished off in four games by the top-seeded Miami Heat on Saturday night.

It remains to be seen whether that inside presence will come in the form of Kwame Brown, the former No.1 pick overall in the 2001 draft who was suspended for the playoffs for skipping practices, a shoot-around and Game4 in the first round. Believe it or not, the restricted free agent still could be wearing a Wizards uniform next season.

Other possibilities include Alonzo Mourning — who had his way with the Wizards in the absence of the injured Shaquille O’Neal in Games3 and 4 for the Heat — Lee Nailon and Stromile Smith.

The Wizards will be allowed to rectify this and other pressing matters only if the league and its players union have a collective-bargaining agreement in place by June30, the day the present CBA expires.

When that is no longer a roadblock, the Wizards will need some shrewd front office work from president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld. The Wizards have six players signed to guaranteed contracts next season totaling roughly $37million. No salary cap has been set, but last season the cap was approximately $43million.

Despite the need for an offensive threat down low, an even more pressing issue will be keeping Hughes, an unrestricted free agent who won’t come cheaply. Hughes, who earned approximately $15million over the last three seasons, is coming off his best season. He was selected as a first-team all defensive player after leading the league in steals.

Hughes will get offers from other teams that dwarf his last contract, and things will get interesting. The Wizards can pay Hughes more than any other team if they so desire. Hughes has expressed his interest in returning to Washington with a long-term deal, and the Wizards haven’t been secretive about wanting to keep him.

In the aftermath of the team’s loss to the Heat, the focus was on what the future could yield.

“There is a lot of character in this locker room,” said Arenas, the league’s seventh-leading scorer (25.5) in the regular season. “We won’t let four games stop what we’re trying to do here. Detroit got swept out the playoffs the year before they won a championship. We’ll just go back to work. It won’t be a bad summer.”

The Wizards began making moves to improve themselves last summer. Right before the draft, they traded the rights to the fifth pick and Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner to Dallas for Jamison.

The deal reunited Jamison with his former Golden State Warriors teammates, Hughes and Arenas, and the dividends were huge. The trio combined to form the highest scoring troika in the regular season (67.1).

But there were numerous roadblocks for the Wizards, most notably a rash of injuries that forced them to use 16 different starting lineups and miss 314 player games because of injury or illness.

When the 2005-06 season begins, the Wizards won’t be a surprise. They will be expected to reach the playoffs with a young, battle-tested nucleus.

“I think about everything that happened here and how it improved us as a team and as an organization,” Jamison said. “I actually believe that we are laying down a foundation. We’re not satisfied, we’re happy. We’re happy. A couple of weeks from now I think we’ll sit down and say we accomplished something great. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

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