- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

So who are the Washington Wizards?

Are they the team that ended the Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks’ 12-game winning streak earlier this month? The team that went into Los Angeles and throttled the Lakers behind Gilbert’s Arenas’ franchise-record 60 points?

Dream on.

Or are they the team that one week beats the Denver Nuggets — with Carmelo Anthony in the lineup — by 29 points and then, not even a week later, comes out against that same team minus Anthony, the league’s leading scorer, and J.R. Smith, Denver’s second-leading scorer, and plays with no energy whatsoever?

Nope. They are better than that. They just have to believe it as much as other people do, and so far they still don’t.

But what they are, for sure, is a team that at the end of the season will be better than the one that pretty much backed into the playoffs last season and was eliminated in the first round by a Cleveland team that didn’t seem as good, top to bottom, as they were.

Caron Butler is so much better and so much more comfortable than he was last year. That’s the biggest difference. He’s become a rebounding force at less than 6-foot-7, averaging a team-high 8.4 boards a game.

And almost anyone following the team realizes DeShawn Stevenson is better than Jared Jeffries. On any night, he’s able to score 12 to 15 points, and more often than not he makes the smart play.

The Wizards have won eight of their last 11, which is good in the Eastern Conference. All the while, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan has been reminding everyone the team is turning the corner, and he has made it clear he isn’t talking about Seventh and F Streets. He says this turn is going to be more like those lefts made at Daytona and Indy.

That’s a wise way to look at it because the Wizards have more than enough talent now to win 45 to 50 games this season, even after a poor beginning.

They have gotten through that horrendous road start that produced a psychological barrier so bad that some of them actually started to believe they were two different teams at home and on the road.

But with that psychological baggage now discarded, the Wizards are 12-12. At this time last season, they were a wobbly 10-14 team and headed to 13-19.

The Wizards have a chance to go .500 on this road trip with games at Sacramento and Phoenix left. Don’t expect this team to fall anywhere near six games below .500 like last year.

And when they come back home, rest up and hopefully see the healthy returns of Etan Thomas and Michael Ruffin, the Wizards will have more depth just in time to feast on cupcakes like Memphis, Charlotte and Milwaukee (twice) in four of their first five games after Christmas.

Honestly, the only area in which the Wizards can’t point to with any optimism (other than the fact that this roster will never morph into the defensive bully fans foolishly think it has the personnel to become) is Darius Songaila’s return. Whenever he is able to come back from his back surgery, he will be so woefully out of shape that he might not contribute all season.

The Wizards have a tendency of announcing a player will return from injury much quicker than he really will. Ruffin was supposed to miss about a week with his sprained foot, and he already has missed almost half the season.

When Songaila had his surgery about two months ago, the Wizards said the procedure would probably keep him out for 10 to 12 weeks.

However, Songaila is doing little more than riding an exercise machine for his conditioning, and he has yet to run at all. A more realistic time for his return is at the All-Star break in February, and hopefully he will be a contributor in time for the playoffs.

Yes, the playoffs. And while they aren’t ready to take the Eastern Conference and reach the finals, the Wizards are indeed better than they were last season.

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