- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

Their dreadful, injury-riddled season complete, the Washington Wizards on Thursday cleaned out their lockers, underwent physicals and embarked on a peculiar offseason by their standards.

They missed the playoffs for the first time in five years, which has caused some lingering twinges of bitterness. Sometime next week, the team is expected to announce the hiring of Flip Saunders as coach. Then, after a break for rest and recovery, the Wizards - and Gilbert Arenas in particular - said it’s time to get serious.

“We’ve just been a goofball team for a while now, and it’s fun when you’re winning. But when you’re not winning, it kinda looks depressing,” Arenas said.

Forward Caron Butler said he expected to meet with team president Ernie Grunfeld possibly as early as Saturday and get caught up on the new coaching hire and the outlook for the future. Then he planned on attending playoff games in Miami and Los Angeles, allowing himself to feel the sting of disappointment and use it as motivation for next season.

Teammate Nick Young planned on visiting former USC teammate Gabe Pruitt in Boston and watching Pruitt and the Celtics in the playoffs, soaking up that experience to help him in the future.

Forward Antawn Jamison said he will watch some of the playoffs from home but needs some time away from the game.

“You’re at home watching the first round, knowing that if healthy, you should be out there,” Jamison said. “But just fatiguewise, I don’t want to see the gym floor for an extended amount of days. … But before you know it, it’s gonna be time to start working again.”

As healthy as he has been in two years, Arenas is ready to reassume his gym rat status. On the flight back from Boston on Wednesday, he issued a challenge to his younger teammates to approach the offseason as a time to lay a foundation for next season.

“Everybody was going into the summer glad we had the season over with. I haven’t been in this situation since my time at Golden State and my first year here,” Arenas said. “People were talking about taking two, three months off, and I told them I’m working Monday. [Center] Brendan [Haywood] is working now. It’s going to be serious. We’ve got a new coach coming in, so no one is guaranteed minutes. Everyone’s gonna have to fight for their own.”

All season, Butler and Jamison pushed their younger teammates to approach the game with greater professionalism, but their messages for the most part fell on deaf ears. Second-year players Dominic McGuire and Javaris Crittenton made significant strides, but Young and forward Andray Blatche both had up-and-down seasons.

Young and Blatche said they plan on spending significant chunks of the offseason training with Arenas, who has designed a program to sharpen his skills and help regain his explosion. Arenas said, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but he hopes they join him and buy into his approach.

“If the same guys are here, we’re going to have to approach - especially the younger guys - the game seriously,” Arenas said. “Just everybody. This is bad.”

Blatche said he was taken aback by the let’s-get-serious message coming from Arenas, normally one of the ringleaders of the locker room banter and a regular practical jokester.

“He said next year it’s going to be totally different. It’s not gonna be no young group, not gonna be no old group. Not gonna be no playing around,” Blatche said. “I was surprised myself. I was like, ‘This is Gil?’ ”

Butler said Arenas joining him and Jamison in the call for professionalism is long overdue.

“I’m happy to see him step up in that light,” Butler said. “He’s the face of the franchise. He’s the guy, and it’s about time that talk be coming out of his mouth. I’m happy to see that.”

That type of approach out of the entire roster will go a long way to the Wizards regaining their playoff form next season, Jamison said. But he hopes they can take it a step further.

“Hands down this is a playoff-caliber team; it’s just a matter of if we can just get everybody healthy,” he said. “But the question is going to be, ‘Is this a championship-caliber team?’ We have the talent. We’ll have a pretty high draft pick. … Are we going to be the type of team that is happy to be in the playoffs or really come out of the East and contend?

“We’ve got the coach of the future, and we kinda got that out of the way, and we already know what that’s going to be like. Now it’s just about working hard, making a couple of moves and getting some more veterans on the team and so forth and just taking it from there.”

• Mike Jones can be reached at mjones@washingtontimes.com.

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