- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

This is the payoff season for Ernie Grunfeld.

The quality of his decision-making ability will be judged on the capacity of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison to take the Wizards to where they have not been the last 30 years.

That judgment has been suspended the last two-plus seasons because of injuries.

“We won 19 games last season,” Grunfeld said Thursday. “But I don’t think anyone around here looks at us as a 19-win team.”

That does not necessarily mean the Wizards will be a 50-win team this season.

Yet the 50-win mark is where the bar has been set.

“We want to get back to the playoffs and then do some damage once we are there,” Grunfeld said.

That would mean at least a No. 4 seed in the playoffs and advancing to a second-round meeting against either the Cavaliers, Magic or Celtics, the widely acknowledged top three teams in the Eastern Conference.

Grunfeld has stuck to his contention that all the Wizards need is good health. That seemingly valid contention will be tested this season assuming the Wizards are in good health.

Grunfeld is destined to be hailed a genius or blind to the injury trend.

To the notion he would have been wise to blow up the core and start anew, Grunfeld said: “Who said we should start over? I want to know who that person is.”

Those persons were not hard to find last season, whether on talk shows or the Internet. A grim season can have that effect on the fan base.

Some players are athletically disposed to get hurt and miss 10 to 15 games. That was Larry Hughes. That concern now dogs Butler.

It would seem the Wizards are more equipped to accommodate the short absences of a pivotal part than they have been.

No wonder Grunfeld is almost ebullient in his outlook.

“I’ve been in this league for 30 years, and I haven’t been this excited in a long time,” he said.

That is because Flip Saunders is his coach, Arenas has been pronounced fully recovered and the additions of Mike Miller, Randy Foye and Fabricio Oberto give the Wizards a depth and flexibility that they have not had recently.

Grunfeld is usually the last one to fan the flame of expectations. But he senses a newly cultivated enthusiasm among the players.

“The season can’t start soon enough,” he said. “We expect to win.”

Some things never change.

As Grunfeld made his way down the hallway by the team’s practice gym around 9 in the morning Thursday, he heard the sound of a bouncing basketball. He popped his head through the door and saw Arenas going through his shooting regimen.

“Gil is in a great frame of mind,” Grunfeld said. “He likes what is going on around him.”

Those who might have drawn a different impression in his recent interview with Mike Jones of The Washington Times are urged to consider the context.

Being on the shelf as long as Arenas has been is frustrating.

“That’s in the past,” Grunfeld said. “The bottom line, he’s healthy.”

Grunfeld made his customary reference to Andray Blatche’s tender years and praised his offseason work, which has become an annual rite of passage in these parts.

Blatche has earned the team’s Best Player in the Summer Award the last three or four Septembers. His trouble starts once the season is under way.

Brendan Haywood is going into a contract season. That should help his energy level.

His importance to the team was underlined last season, when he missed 76 games and the last line of defense was a matador waving the opposition to the basket.

How quickly the new and old come together is unknowable.

What is knowable is the imposing of higher standards.

“Flip has set high goals, and the players are buying into that,” Grunfeld said.

The challenge of meeting those goals will come later.

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