- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

The Wizards will try not to break out in hives on defense this season.

That end of the court requires more than lip service, the principal defensive approach of the Wizards last season.

A call to be vaguely interested on defense often resulted in the Wizards waving green flags in front of the driving lanes.

Even the departed Larry Hughes, a first-team all-defensive selection, was not a stopper, just a tenacious opportunist in the passing lanes who led the NBA in steals.

Not that great defense ever stops great offense in the NBA.

Impairing the opposition’s leading scorers demands the attention of all five defenders, not just one or two, as it is with Jared Jeffries and Antonio Daniels.

Defense is the last of the individual challenges before Gilbert Arenas, a third-team All-NBA selection last season whose likeness is on the cover of the 2005-06 NBA Register.

No member of the franchise has warranted such national treatment since the playing days of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes.

As good as Arenas is — and he is every bit as good as billed — the final end of his maturation process involves a more concerted effort on defense. He has all the requisite qualities to be a gifted defender: good size for a guard and copious amounts of speed, quickness and jumping ability.

He dropped seven pounds in the offseason and embraced the urging of coach Eddie Jordan to be more defensively committed. His background suggests he will be successful. It was only last year at this time that Arenas was looking to show he could score and direct an offense in seamless fashion.

That is no easy responsibility, as evidenced by the good number of scoring point guards who disrupt the rhythm of their teammates.

Even if the Wizards play with a sense of purpose on defense this season — and the guess here is they will — they still remain fundamentally flawed in the frontcourt. The lean bodies of Brendan Haywood, Antawn Jamison and Jeffries hardly impose bruises on the opposition.

Etan Thomas and Michael Ruffin provide more muscle but fewer inches.

That is one of the either/or propositions before Jordan.

This team is considerably deeper than last season’s team, with a starting lineup of Arenas, Daniels, Jamison, Jeffries and Haywood and an able bench of Caron Butler, Chucky Atkins, Jarvis Hayes, Calvin Booth, Thomas and Ruffin.

That comes out to 11 players and no easy solution for Jordan to allocate 240 minutes.

Yet the NBA season is a grind, injuries are inevitable, and what appears absolute in November sometimes is out of date by February.

The Wizards did not lose in the departure of Hughes, not with what was secured in his place, although the team’s record may not reflect that supposition in the first half of the season.

The integration of four newcomers in the rotation is problematic, as both a team’s holdovers and newcomers must learn the strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of each other.

The Wizards also find themselves in a conference that is finally narrowing the talent gap with its kin in the West.

The Eastern Conference’s top tier — the Heat, Pistons and Pacers — seems fairly entrenched, barring injuries and meltdowns, the latter the prevailing fear with Ron Artest.

The jockeying starts at No. 4, the possibilities pronounced among the Cavaliers, Nets, Wizards, 76ers and Bulls.

The difference among the five teams promises to be slight, assuming the lead players on each of the teams remain relatively healthy.

Bad health, of course, is the bane to the best outlooks.

The 25-win campaign of the Wizards two seasons ago was mostly the product of nagging injuries to Arenas and Jerry Stackhouse.

As the weakest of the eight teams that advanced to the second round of the playoffs last season, the Wizards are apt to make incremental progress but not have tangible proof.

Their rate of progression will be dependent on the quality of their commitment to defense.

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