- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Boston Celtics shelved franchise player Paul Pierce and threw out a D-league-caliber roster for the final 11 games of the 2006-07 season in hopes of improving their chances of landing potential No. 1 pick Greg Oden.

Last year, the Miami Heat called off the dogs in dramatic fashion, resting Dwyane Wade for the final 21 games. Pat Riley left the bench to start scouting college talent in the NCAA tournament as the Heat hoped for Derrick Rose.

But even though the 17-58 Washington Wizards have spent the second half of the season switching places with Sacramento in the basement of the NBA standings, no one can accuse the members of Abe Pollin’s organization of tanking.

Just after the All-Star break, team president Ernie Grunfeld said the Wizards would continue to battle as if they were in a playoff race.

“We have a standard that has been set, and it’s important that we maintain that and continue to do everything in our power to win,” Grunfeld said.

And sure enough, nothing has changed with the Wizards’ approach.

Team captains Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler remain the workhorses, despite an array of ailments. In the past two months, Jamison - who leads the NBA with 37 double-doubles - has averaged 38.8 minutes a game, nearly identical to the load of 38.9 minutes he averaged in December.

Butler averaged a season-high 39.3 minutes in February. And in March, despite being limited to five games by a strained left hamstring, he averaged 35.8 minutes.

And even as a healthy Butler scored 31 points in 41 minutes and Jamison added 29 in 38 minutes Sunday night, the result was the same: a loss. But rather than taking the another-step-closer-to-Blake Griffin mindset, the only solace Jamison and Butler take from such losses is that they did it “the right way.”

“We’ve got pride,” Jamison said. “Not try to win? I work too hard not to try to win. I mean, it’s tough enough. This has been some unbelievable [stuff], but [we’re] going out there, still competing, making it fun. That’s how I am. That’s the way we are. So it didn’t go the way we planned, but I’m not fixing to lose as many games as possible.”

Further evidence of the Wizards’ effort to maintain integrity was Saturday’s return of franchise player Gilbert Arenas, who missed the first 73 games of the season while recovering from September knee surgery. The team remains hopeful center Brendan Haywood - out all season after wrist surgery - also can come back this season.

“It’s commendable, though, what they’re doing,” one league insider said of the Wizards’ refusal to tank. “You don’t want to lose on purpose, and bringing Arenas back now gives the fans some excitement after a tough year, but Blake Griffin is a difference-maker. Add him to those three, and next year this team is back among the top in the East.”

Of course that’s as long as the Oklahoma sophomore decides to declare for the draft.

Even if the Wizards were to try to improve their draft chances, there’s no guarantee it would work. After all, that’s why the lottery was instituted in 1985, a year after the Houston Rockets were accused of tanking to get Hakeem Olajuwon. The Wizards have the second-worst record in the league and would have a 19.9 percent chance of landing the top pick, compared with 25.5 percent for Sacramento.

“It’s a weighted system with multiple balls, percentages based on losses. If you’ve got 13 percent versus 19 percent, that gust of wind has to blow the right ball in there,” interim coach Ed Tapscott said. “The system was designed to make sure teams don’t go out and try to tank games. Nor would we want to. We owe it to our fans to play our games competitively right up to the end.

“It’s also the process by which you develop your young players. You’ve got to let them know that we’re going to compete up until the end, so we’re not hurting our chances in the draft. The draft is a separate issue from our performance right now.”

In the past six drafts, the last-place team has managed to land the top pick only twice. And even if the Wizards did get the top spot, Jamison said Arenas - and possibly Haywood - reacclimating to live action will have more of an impact next year than Griffin would.

“One pick is not going to make the difference as far as us winning a championship or not. Gilbert being healthy is going to make a difference; Brendan being healthy is going to make a difference,” Jamison said. “I think that’s a chicken way out as far as trying to lose as many games as possible.

“We’re competitors. We don’t want to lose any more. It’s been tough enough. … So I’m not a big fan of [tanking]. And if anyone in this locker room is, I don’t want to be a part of that.”

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