- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The Wizards are in the company of the Cavaliers, Bulls and Nets in the Eastern Conference, the teams looking to be the best of the rest after the Heat and Pistons.

This tentative grouping is destined to shift during the interminable 82-game journey, fraught as it is with injuries, surprises and the vagaries of 15 men endeavoring to find a balance between the individual and the team.

Even one or two of the next grouping of conference teams, the Bucks, Pacers and Magic, could push themselves into the mid-level playoff mix.

The quality of the conference remains suspect, after all.

The Wizards have a genuine franchise player in Gilbert Arenas, who finally is receiving the national acclaim he so desperately has craved.

His challenge is to minimize his turnovers and pull the team out of its indifference on defense.

His background suggests he will achieve results in both areas.

When Arenas was last seen at work on Fun Street, he was in the process of missing two free throws in the waning seconds of Game 6, just after LeBron James had walked past him and offered a few words that planted the seed of doubt.

That was the implication of the exchange, which Arenas has dismissed on several occasions with a smile.

An inexplicable failing happens to even the best, as we know from the storied careers of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

It is left to Arenas to show that the momentary lapse in Game 6 was an aberration instead of a defect in his mental armor, as a few of the armchair shrinks opined last spring.

The Wizards have a worthy threesome in Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison and a competent supporting part in Antonio Daniels.

The rest of the cast is open to questions.

Jarvis Hayes has almost two years’ worth of inactivity to overcome.

DeShawn Stevenson has to show he is the defensive gem he was made out to be in training camp.

The Poet has to stay healthy, and Brendan Haywood and his agent Andy Miller have to call another truce with coach Eddie Jordan.

It would be helpful if their next truce was more genuine than the first one.

Darius Songaila, the team’s most significant offseason acquisition, is slated to undergo surgery because of a herniated disc in his back, the date on his return anyone’s guess.

The summer-league buzz of Andray Blatche has been supplanted by the sober reality that he is a second-year player out of high school.

The nomadic Roger Mason showed a capacity to shoot the ball in preseason and earned a spot on the team’s roster. If this results in help on occasion, the Wizards will consider it a bonus.

The ifs exceed the truths with the Wizards, which explains the lack of a consensus among the national prognosticators. A few even have left the Wizards out of the playoffs, difficult as that is to imagine.

The Wizards undoubtedly are flawed. The same can be said of each team in the conference, starting with the graybeards known as the Heat.

Each member of the supporting cast — the Poet, Stevenson, Haywood, Hayes, Daniels and Mason — is not obligated to perform at a high level for the Wizards to reach the 50-win mark.

But a measure of consistency from three or four of the cast is essential to the 50-win cause.

Otherwise, the Wizards have three of an organization’s most precious assets: a franchise player in Arenas, an All-Star in Jamison and a potential All-Star in Butler.

For all their reputed depth going into the season last year, the Wizards dissolved into the Big Three, Daniels, Jared Jeffries and Michael Ruffin by the end.

The Wizards are hoping to avoid a similar inflexibility this season.

Improvement in their interior and on defense does not have be dramatic.

Jordan would embrace a mere step forward in both areas, which would put the Wizards in the hunt to be the third-best team in the East.

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