- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

How big was the loss of Larry Hughes to the Washington Wizards?

Huge, according to the NBA’s 30 general managers. In fact, the acquisition of the shooting guard by the Cleveland Cavaliers was named the move that will have the biggest impact on this season in voting by GMs on NBA.com.

That vote largely reflects the impact Hughes will have as one of the revolving planets encircling the league’s future would-be sun, LeBron James. For the Wizards, it highlights a potentially devastating loss that must be replaced by a team coming off its best season in 26 years.

Gone with Hughes, who signed a five-year deal worth close to $70 million, are 22 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and a league-leading 2.9 steals a game.

The loss would rock the constitution of teams even in the NBA’s upper echelon. And win or lose, it will be the move that underscores everything that happens on the floor for the Wizards, who were swept in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs by Miami last season after posting a 45-37 record in the regular season.

“You can replace numbers overnight, but you can’t replace chemistry,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “That takes time. That may happen to us. Last season there was a great deal of familiarity around the team, and that was a strength, them with me, me with them. Now it’s not a strength, and it’s something we have to build and establish.”

The Big Three — the triumvirate of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Hughes — is no more. Last season they combined to score 67.1 of the Wizards’ 100.5 points a game. And Hughes was the best defensive player — a first-team all-defensive selection — on a poor defensive team.

Standing by itself, Hughes’ loss appears like a move in the wrong direction. But that might not be the case.

The Wizards jettisoned Kwame Brown to the Los Angeles Lakers and acquired Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins, players who instantly made the bench better. Butler was second to Kobe Bryant in scoring in Los Angeles (15.4). In the last 15 games, once the Lakers had no hope of making the playoffs, he displayed character by raising his scoring average to 21.9.

Atkins, who has started 250 games in his career, averaged 13.6 points and 4.4 assists. Additionally, he shot 38.7 from behind the 3-point line and should give the Wizards a consistent long-range threat they didn’t have last season.

To replace Hughes in the backcourt, the Wizards signed Antonio Daniels, a 6-foot-4 guard who was the fourth pick overall by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1997. Daniels, who earned a championship ring with San Antonio in 1999, had his finest season as a pro last year in Seattle, averaging 11.2 points and 4.1 assists.

“I think we will be a well-prepared team,” Jordan said. “I think we can be a tougher team physically, mentally and emotionally because we are more seasoned.”

And with the addition of a third center in Calvin Booth, the Wizards — even without Hughes — are deeper than they were at any point last season.

“We have a much more mature team this season, so we have the kind of guys who can handle all of the expectations,” said Arenas, a fourth-year guard who averaged a career-high 25.5 points last season. “We have a totally different team from last year where everyone was young. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but this year we understand what we need to do and how to be ready.”

Jamison joined Arenas as a first-time All-Star last season. While he was elated the Wizards made the playoffs for the first time since 1997 — and went to the second round for the first time since 1982 — being swept by the Heat left him upset.

“It hurt, and it wasn’t just because we got swept,” said Jamison, who proclaims his surgically repaired right knee fine. “To go from playing the way we did against Chicago to going out like we did against Miami was bad. I lost my composure. Gilbert lost his composure. We were getting on the refs, and we stopped playing the little bit of defense that we did play. A lot of one-on-one basketball.

“I think by adding the guys we did add the organization is showing that it doesn’t want to stand still. And if you look at the guys we added, the one thing they have in common is they are tough, and we need to get tougher. Antonio got a ring in San Antonio, and he has kept that poise that he developed there. Chucky and Caron are both playoff-tested guys. Nothing against the guys who aren’t here, because we had a great time playing with them, but I think we can be better than we were last season.”

Last season Butler, Atkins and Daniels (11.2) combined to average 40.2 points. To put that in perspective, the rest of the Wizards beyond the Big Three averaged just 33.4. So once they figure out Jordan’s Princeton offense, they should have no problem fitting in.

And Daniels and the 6-7 Butler give the team bigger defenders along the perimeter, something that was lacking last season on a team that ranked 23rd in opponents’ field goal percentage and allowed 100.8 points a game.

The great unknown is team chemistry. The Wizards are down a player who put up All-Star caliber numbers, but they have replaced him with bodies who have proven track records.

The only question now is do they go forward or step back?

Butler thinks the Wizards are on the right track.

“We have taken steps backwards, and we have taken steps forward,” Butler said. “We’ve all played on losing teams, and no one wants to go back to that. We want to win games and keep the feelings that are in D.C. We just want to keep it going.”

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