- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

I think the Wizards would have eliminated the Cavaliers in five or six games if Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler were not injured.

This undoubtedly is basketball heresy in Cleveland, where the Witnesses can point to the playoff outcome between these two teams last spring.

I just do not like the makeup of the Cavaliers. There is something missing, something lacking, something that is perhaps beyond the control of coach Mike Brown.

He has a mishmash of parts for one thing. Two of his starters, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden, perform better from halfcourt sets. Two of his other starters, LeBron James and Larry Hughes, probably would be better served in a wide-open, let-it-rip offense.

A balance is not easily forged, even if James is the team’s franchise player and Hughes is arguably the No. 2 player on the roster if he is afforded greater creative license in the open floor.

The Cavaliers are a 50-win team almost by default in the wreck that is the Eastern Conference. The conference is destined to have two or three teams in that vicinity each season, no matter how weak it is, because of the unbalanced schedule between the two conferences.

The Wizards could have been in the 50-win vicinity were it not for the spate of injuries that derailed them, starting with Antawn Jamison being shelved at the end of January.

The team never could regain its equilibrium after Jamison was sidelined for a month.

Butler tried to play through a nagging injury following the All-Star break and clearly was not himself. He sat out six games. He then returned and was re-energized, and you know the rest.

He broke his hand in Milwaukee on April 1.

Arenas was lost to a freak knee injury three nights later.

How would have it all turned out if the Wizards had been able to maintain their health?

We cannot know for sure, because sports are full of surprises.

We cannot even be certain the Cavaliers will sweep the Wizards, which is the prevailing view.

We can say the Wizards were among the conference’s elite, as elite is defined down in the conference, and seemingly were relishing their portrayal as the Suns of the East.

We also can say the Wizards were winning converts around the NBA without the services of Darius Songaila, who has turned out to be a nice acquisition.

Here is a fundamental aspect of the Wizards that observers still refuse to accept: They have been built to outscore the opposition, and now two of their leading scorers are out and critics are questioning their defensive resolve around the basket.

Doc Walker, the WTEM-AM commentator, was making that observation yesterday morning. His disgust was fairly evident. He wants to see some bruises on the bodies of the Cavaliers, which is a reasonable enough request.

But that is not who these Wizards are.

They are a pretty team that takes its cue from Arenas, one of the most gifted scorers in the NBA but mostly an indifferent defender.

So the notion of this team incorporating the element of defensive toughness to its game is a dead issue.

Dead, dead, dead.

And it will remain dead unless Ernie Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan decide to remake this franchise in the offseason, which is doubtful.

As disappointing as the circumstances are on Fun Street, Grunfeld and Jordan can look around the conference and see that the Wizards remain favorably positioned.

The Pistons, the favorite to go to the NBA Finals, are getting ever older. The same with the wheezing Heat.

The Bulls figure to be in the hunt next season, and the Raptors made impressive strides this season.

Who else matters in the conference — the Nets? Please. Jason Kidd is not eternal, and who knows where Vince Carter may be next season if he opts out of his contract, as expected?

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are wedded to too many bloated contracts that restrict their maneuverability.

That leaves the Wizards with a rallying cry in the months ahead: Stay healthy next season.a

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