- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

The Big Three last season accomplished what No. 23 couldn’t in Washington: get one of the NBA’s most hapless franchises into the playoffs. Where Michael Jordan failed, Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison succeeded.

After eight long years, the Wizards reached the postseason, beating the Bulls in a thrilling six-game series before getting swept by the Heat in the second round.

Much has happened since. Hughes took the money and ran to Cleveland. Problem man-child Kwame Brown was shipped to the Lakers. Local favorites Juan Dixon and Steve Blake are gone. Left in their wake are a new cast of characters, a deeper team and a lot of questions waiting to be answered:

Q: Can this team be a regular in the playoffs, or was last year a fluke?

A: No fluke here. The key is the Wizards have managed the salary cap well and have flexibility in the future. They have their core guys under contract and will still be a player in free agency in the future.

Q: What is this team’s biggest strength?

A: Depth, baby. The second unit features Caron Butler, Etan Thomas, Chucky Atkins and Jarvis Hayes. Throw in Michael “The Banger” Ruffin and Calvin Booth and this roster is one of the deepest in the league.

Q: How much did being swept by the Heat bother these cats?

A: It irked Antawn, but it’s hard to get a handle on the other guys — and that’s not a good thing.

True, Miami was a better team, and the Heat probably would have gone to the finals if D-Wade were healthy. But the Heat waxed the Wizards with Big Shaq watching from the sidelines, modeling his suits from the Shaft Collection. That should cut deep.

Q: Any juicy tidbit about the team that we don’t know?

A: The Wizards are expecting Jarvis Hayes to bring the pain this season, and we’re not talking about his own injuries. The front office thinks Hayes is a truly gifted scorer — don’t be surprised if Washington starts him at the two for matchup reasons — who has yet to scratch the surface of his abilities.

Q: We know they won’t catch Miami, but is there anyone else in the division with whom they should be concerned?

A: As always, you can write off Atlanta before the first week of the season: the Hawks probably will finish behind second-year Charlotte.

Keep your eyes on Orlando. The Magic suffered a blow with the injury to Grant Hill. But if Dwight Howard — last year’s top pick, who we will call the anti-Kwame Brown — continues to improve, watch out.

Q: Last season the Wizards’ defense was indefensible. Can it be improved?

A: Good question. When you subtract a first-team all-defensive player like Larry Hughes from an already bad defensive team, things become iffy.

That said, this is a vastly different array of characters than those from last year’s edition, and they have brought on guys who will make them tougher. Whether that translates into becoming better defensively is the great unknown.

Q: How much is losing Larry Hughes going to hurt?

A: You just can’t lose someone with his abilities, especially on defense, and expect not to feel it. They will miss Larry, but they are so much deeper than they were last season.

Q: Really?

A: Yes, really. And another thing most people don’t factor in is that Larry may not play at the same level this season.

Q: Was the offer the Wizards made to Hughes fair?

A: The first one was low, $54 million over six years. When they came back with their second offer — $72 million over six years — the Cavaliers already had offered $70 million over five years. Hey, how many of you guys would work for the lesser of two offers?

Q: How much is losing Kwame Brown going to hurt them?

A: Any more questions?

Q: What’s your take on the dress code?

A: Most players say it’s much ado about nothing. They like dressing up. However, there should be a dress code applied to some of the slugs who cover the league. Ever seen some of these cats? Some of them you can smell before they arrive at the arena.

Seriously, though, there is some dysfunction on both sides when grown men feel the need to tell other grown men how to dress.

Q: Let’s take a look at the league real quick. Who’s the best player under 25?

A: Well, it’s not Dwyane Wade, which is what everybody looking for the next No. 23 was saying after Wade sliced through the defenseless Wizards in May. Wade is top three. But I’ll offer this instead: imagine if LeBron James or Amare Stoudemire played alongside the Diesel.

Q: Who is the best player on the planet?

A: It has to be Tim Duncan, for now. Shaq’s prime is in his rearview mirror, and it is doubtful he will recapture the form he had while leading the Lakers to three straight titles. That player is the best we’ve seen since Jordan, but that player is no more. In another year or two we will be choosing among LeBron, Kobe Bryant and Amare.

Q: Who’s the most overrated player in the league?

A: By far, Dirk Nowitzki. Has he ever come up with a big game, big shot, big anything when the Mavericks’ season was on the line?

Q: How will vagabond coach Larry Brown do in New York?

A: It’s a homecoming for LB, and he is the best coach in the league. But melding the talents of some of the many individualists on that roster is going to be a much bigger challenge than coaching selfless Detroit or hard-core Philadelphia. However, he never has failed anywhere.

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