- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

Washington Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld can check one item off his offseason to-do list now that the team has its coach in place.

Up next is the completion of Flip Saunders’ coaching staff, which Grunfeld will leave largely to Saunders; the evaluation of a roster that features three All-Stars, a collection of aging veterans and inconsistent project players; and the NBA lottery in May, which determines the Wizards’ selection in June’s draft.

“Those things take care of themselves,” Grunfeld said. “As Flip said, we have six players [who are] 23 years and younger, so player development is crucial for us in the offseason. Flip is very much in favor of helping those players because we have some very solid veteran players, but we also have players who need that development because that’s the only thing we can control.

“You can’t control where we draft; you can’t control any type of trade situations. Of course we’ll be exploring things to see what’s out there and what’s available to us, but those things you can’t control. … But we believe that if we’re a healthy team, we’re a very deep team.”

Finding a way to upgrade the roster, add a potential top-five draft pick and remain under the projected luxury tax spending threshold of $68 million will present a challenge. Washington has $75.9 million committed to salaries next season and will need to free itself of a hefty contract or two via trade or pay the tax.

While Grunfeld and his staff have explored options including trades and possible free agent pickups, they won’t know where they stand until the lottery. If the Wizards, who this season posted an Eastern Conference-worst 19-63 record, land the first or second pick in the draft, they likely will take Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin first, or Spain’s Ricky Rubio with the second pick.

After that, there are no sure bets, and league sources say Washington - if it misses out on first or second - would rather package a high draft pick with a veteran and/or expiring contract to add an established veteran who can contribute right away.

Grunfeld wouldn’t detail his plans for upgrades or discuss what options the Wizards are exploring. He said even if no moves are made, he feels confident the team can contend next season.

“We’ll see,” he said. “We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know what kind of opportunities will present themselves. We’ll explore certain things and see if they will improve our team, we’ll see how our players develop over the summer. But we feel very confident that we have a very good group that can compete with anyone in this league.”

Saunders said he hasn’t started interviewing players or held an in-depth roster evaluation but said he’s comfortable with the roster if Grunfeld doesn’t make any significant moves. One of Saunders’ priorities will be uniting a divided locker room. A rift developed between veterans and some of the slowly developing younger players this season.

“You want to blend those guys,” Saunders said. “You can’t have a division; there has to be a gray area. Your veteran players have to be mentors of those young players, and when you are mentors, you have a vested interest and they take accountability with the young players. You come out and a guy goes into the game, you’re excited to see him have success.”

Gilbert Arenas took the first step toward shrinking the divide last week when he challenged his teammates to better themselves in the offseason and that next year there would be no young guys vs. veterans. Such leadership from Arenas has been rare in his previous eight seasons. He said he still intends to defer to Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler rather than take on a leadership role, but Saunders said he expects that to change.

“When you’re the best player on the team, you don’t have a choice,” he said. “That’s a responsibility you have. I don’t know any team that’s had success that didn’t have leadership from their best player. And I think sitting out the last two years he’s been able to see that.

“I know Gilbert wants to win. And in the texts and conversations that we have, that’s the main thing we’ve talked about: what it is to be a leader, what it is to have commitment and the responsibility that comes along with those things.”

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