- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO | With the Washington Wizards mired in their second six-game losing streak of the season as owners of a 7-16 record, a $79.18 million payroll and with roughly an $8 million luxury tax bill on the way, the rumors have begun to fly.

The Wizards have their three All-Stars - Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler - back together. They have the big-name coach in Flip Saunders. They have plenty of depth thanks to holdover prospects, the offseason trade that brought in guards Randy Foye and Mike Miller, the signing of veteran center Fabricio Oberto and the in-season pickup of backup point guard Earl Boykins.

But something’s not working, and league insiders have begun to surmise that Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld could blow up the roster - or at least move a key piece or two.

Butler, the two-time All-Star forward whom the Wizards in the offseason refused to trade to Phoenix with the No. 5 draft pick for Amare Stoudemire, has struggled to find his place in Saunders’ system and has been mentioned in several rumors in the past few weeks. A league source said several teams have interest in Jamison, a two-time All-Star forward who is averaging 22.1 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Grunfeld didn’t return a call seeking comment, but a source with knowledge of the team’s inner workings said the Wizards have told inquirers that they want to see whether things turn around when Miller returns late this month or in early January, giving Washington a healthy roster for the first time this season.

Despite the chatter, the players remain focused on finding a way to achieve their preseason goal of winning roughly 45 games and contending with the Eastern Conference’s elite teams. The captains - Jamison, Butler and Arenas - have heard the trade chatter, but they refuse to let it distract them.

“Whenever you’re not playing up to expectations and searching for wins, trying to get things done, usually other teams in the league call in, trying to get you to break the thing up, trying to force the issue,” Butler said. “A lot of people may think you have a fire sale or something, but we can’t control that. Only thing we can control is that right now we’ve got on Wizards uniforms, and we’ve got to go out and perform at a high level and show that this group belongs together. I think if we continue to chip away and push at it and show this group belongs together, we’ll be fine.”

Arenas said making drastic roster changes wouldn’t be wise, and he believes the Wizards - who have lost those six straight by a combined 14 points - are close to stopping their slide.

“No, you don’t want that,” Arenas said. “When you make a trade in-season, then you seem desperate. We have the pieces. We have all the pieces we need. We just need to get them firing.”

Jamison agreed.

“I do have confidence in this team,” he said. “We’re in games. We’re competing; we’re just not finding ways to pull them out in the end. … The only thing you can do is keep fighting, keep plugging away and staying positive. … Eventually it’s going to turn around, but you don’t want it to be too late and you’re going to be in the cellar and you’ve got to play catch-up the whole second half of the season. It’s really a sense of urgency now.”

Arenas - after Wednesday’s last-second collapse, when he turned the ball over with 3.5 seconds left while attempting to drive for a winning shot - said the team’s inability to fare well late in games rests on his shoulders. He insisted he is close to top form after a two-year injury-induced layoff, and part of the reason he remains confident is the support he has received from his teammates.

“We’re staying together as a unit. Other teams would’ve blown up, been having fights,” said Arenas, who last month had a squabble with Butler before the pair cleared up a misunderstanding. “We’re sticking together, and that’s the best thing you can do in this situation. No one’s trying to jump off the boat while it’s sinking. Eventually I’m going to have to repair it. The team is waiting for me to repair it, and I’m going to have to.

“They’re looking for me to be that leader.”

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