Friday, June 30, 2006

Ernie Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan are convinced the Wizards are in a position to flirt with the 50-win mark next season, even if Grunfeld is unable to pull off a high-profile transaction that has marked his tenure on Fun Street.

Grunfeld and Jordan do not speak of 50 wins. That is not their style.

But they note several truths that bode well for the franchise: the team’s 33-21 record with Caron Butler in the starting lineup last season, the return of Jarvis Hayes, who appeared in only 21 games last season, and the continued maturation of the core players who, for the part, are now starting to move into the prime years of their careers.

Continuity and chemistry have come to be two of the team’s bedrock principles, and Jordan’s impending contract extension is the most recent reflection of that philosophy.

Change, even when it is necessary and positive, is rarely pain-free, as the early struggles of Butler and Antonio Daniels showed last season.

Before they became essential parts of the team — Butler to the point that he came to be thought of as a potential All-Star — they endured the typical adjustment period to a new system, coaches and teammates.

Grunfeld and Jordan took notes in the playoffs and see the NBA returning to its offense-oriented days, with the accent on multi-dimensional players who do not fit the clearly defined position players of yesteryear. Think the Mavericks and Suns.

The Mavericks did not advance to the NBA Finals because of a significant presence in the low post. In fact, in the Western Conference finals, the Suns exploited the lugs of the Mavericks.

It was only after Avery Johnson utilized his team’s versatility that the Mavericks were able to wrest control of the series from the Suns.

Bryan Colangelo, who built the Suns before moving to the Raptors, chose Italy’s Andrea Bargnani with the No. 1 pick overall in the draft with the new breed of player in mind.

Bargnani, a 7-footer said to be a capable 3-point shooter, has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki, however overstated those lofty comparisons usually are.

“No doubt the game is changing,” Grunfeld says. “We’re going back to running teams that can shoot the ball, and that is because of the rules changes that favor the offense and the zone defense. Even if a team has a top scoring threat down low, he can be taken out of the game because of packed-in defenses.”

For years, the team’s supporters have bemoaned the inconsistent interior presence of Brendan Haywood and the Poet.

Both Grunfeld and Jordan remain hopeful in the pair and point out that Haywood is 26 years old and the injury-plagued Poet 28. They still have time to develop as players, if not become tougher mentally in the case of Haywood.

“With Etan, you still have to be patient,” Jordan said. “He’s had some setbacks with injuries. Even late in the season, when he started playing well and we put him in the starting lineup, he got hurt again.

“With Brendan, we will have to wait and see. I’ve been thinking about some things with him, and we’ll be trying some different things with him in training camp. Both players have to realize that when teams go small on us, they have to make the team pay for it on the offensive end. If not, then we can’t afford to have them on the floor.”

Grunfeld and Jordan also are hopeful the few teams that do have salary-cap space do not end up throwing stupid money in the direction of Jared Jeffries, which then would force the brain trust to ponder the value of re-signing the layup-challenged one.

Jeffries is a versatile defender who became more productive late in the season.

Yet his proclivity to miss 1-footers causes massive wincing in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood.

The Wizards want to retain Jeffries but within reason.

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