- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Washington Wizards reserve guard Antonio Daniels knows a thing or two about organizations pulling the plug on a team, disassembling what is in place only to realize later that it was a mistake.

And he doesn’t want that to happen here in Washington.

“When you keep a group together and allow them to grow as a unit, that helps,” said Daniels, who spent last season with Seattle before the Wizards signed him to a five-year deal. “But when you have constant changes, you are constantly taking two steps forward and two steps backward. I’ve learned that this doesn’t work.”

Daniels, who won an NBA championship with San Antonio in 1999, doesn’t have to search too far for his reference. Following the 2004-05 season, the Sonics retooled a 52-win playoff team. They waved goodbye to the coach, Nate McMillan, as well, and what they were left with was ugly: The Sonics were the worst defensive team in the league by far and wound up winning just 35 games.

In the aftermath of Washington’s 4-2 dismissal from the playoffs by Cleveland on Friday, the Wizards don’t figure to be anywhere close to dismantling the team in that manner.

Even though the Wizards were bounced from the playoffs a round earlier than a season ago, most players questioned yesterday as the team conducted exit interviews seemed to think Washington should continue to build around the current nucleus. That said, it wouldn’t hurt to add the type of physical inside presence almost every other team in the league dreams of adding to a group of players that took a while to become familiar with one another this season.

Washington won 42 games this season after adding six new players to a team that won 45 games and reached the second round of the playoffs in 2004-05. Key among the new players were Daniels, their top reserve this season, and Caron Butler, whom they acquired from the Lakers in a trade for former No. 1 pick Kwame Brown.

The Wizards struggled working the two into the lineup early, eventually falling six games below .500. But once Butler was inserted into the starting lineup Dec. 21 in a 116-110 victory at Denver, the Wizards started to come together.

“That’s what I like about us,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “We are a better team than our record showed. We are better than a 42-win team. I know that this is a business and that change is always a part of it, but I like what we have together now. We’ll have to make some additions, and we have to get better defensively. But we will get better.”

The Wizards will try to do that later this summer in the draft, in which they pick 18th and 48th overall. They also will explore trades and any other possible means to upgrade a roster that has about $53 million already committed to salaries.

While the 2006 -07 salary cap won’t be set until later this summer, this season it was just a tad less than $50 million. How much the cap rises will determine how much money the Wizards will be able to spend on what is considered a weak free agent crop.

As for their own players, restricted free agent Jared Jeffries will field interest from teams because of his versatility. Jeffries, it is believed by some around the league, earned himself some money with his versatility even though he only averaged 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds a game.

“I love playing in Washington,” Jeffries said. “But I’m anxious to test the market and find out what type of interest is out there. This is a business.”

The Wizards will have the option of matching any offer Jeffries receives.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan still has a year remaining on his contact, a year he intends to honor. While there has been some question whether he will get an extension, Jordan indicated he’s not overly concerned.

“It’s going to be up to [owner Abe] Pollin and [president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld] to move in any direction after that,” Jordan said. “I have a contract that I have to honor, and I have another year on that contract.”

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