Year of the rebound?
Forward Caron Butler is pacing the room and cracking jokes. Guard Mike Miller is laughing and eating a pregame meal in front of his locker. Guard DeShawn Stevenson is in the middle of the floor, dribbling a basketball between his legs and talking loudly to no one in particular.
The ball gets away from Stevenson and bounces toward a television monitor that‘s showing highlights of the Cavaliers‘ most recent game. I step in to save the day, snagging the ball with my left hand while sending a text with my right.
“Hey, nice catch,” Stevenson says with a serious look.
On the other side of the room, forward Antawn Jamison is lying face down on the trainer‘s table, having his legs stretched out by a member of the Wizards’ medical staff.
“OK, man! That’s enough!” Jamison yells, indicating his hamstring has been extended to its limits.
The room erupts in laughter.
Then, almost as suddenly, it gets quiet. For no identifiable reason, everyone becomes serious. There is a little more stretching, considerably more sitting in silence, and generally more focus.
It was as if everyone remembered, in unison, that the Wizards finished 19-63 last season -- and how they have vowed that things will be much different this year.
Play time, it seems, is over.
“We won 19 games and it left a sour taste in our mouths,” Stevenson said after the game, a preseason win over the dreaded Cavs. “Does what happened last season provide us with motivation? Yeah, man. It does.”
So the Wizards are admittedly taking a more determined approach -- believing that the return of Gilbert Arenas, Brendan Haywood and Stevenson from injuries, as well as a new coach and a few new pieces, give them plenty of ammo to challenge in the Eastern Conference.
Still, the Wizards really believe they can contend. Not only for the East title, but the whole thing.
“Look, we have so many different weapons, not just with the starters but with the guys coming off the bench,” Stevenson said. “We all came back healthy and in shape, we made some key moves in the offseason, and we’re feeling really good right now. One of the reasons last season left us with such a bad feeling is because we know we’re a playoff team.”
Arenas played in just two games last year, Haywood in just six. Stevenson managed 32, but even that was less than half the season.
That left Jamison and Butler to carry the load, coaxing all they could out of their younger teammates, who were suddenly (and probably unfairly) being counted on night after night. Throw in the fact the Wizards fired Eddie Jordan and replaced him with interim coach Ed Tapscott and … well, it was a mess.
“We had injuries, a coaching change, just a lot of bad things happened,” Jamison told me at the end of last season. “But we can’t let it get to us. We have to look at it as just a bump in the road.”
On top of the returns of Arenas, Stevenson and Haywood, the Wizards made a summer deal to land guards Mike Miller and Randy Foye from Minnesota, and hired veteran coach Flip Saunders. Hustling big man Fabricio Oberto was acquired as well.
Miller is clearly looking to shoot more than he ever did with the Timberwolves (the Wizards want him to), and the well-rounded Foye is likely to be one of the NBA’s top players off the bench.
“Flip has a tough job, because he’s the one who has to figure out who is gonna play,” Miller said with a smile. “But that’s OK. We have a lot of talent here.”
Meanwhile, Saunders is the perfect match for a team that often feels slighted. After all, he was fired in both Minnesota and Detroit despite doing nothing in either place but win.
Today, he is a coach who is getting a fresh start with an organization that is desperately seeking one.
“It’s early, but we’re coming together well,” Saunders said. “There’s always an adjustment period. We have some new guys who can play, and we need to work them in with the talented guys who were already here, and other guys who are coming back (from injuries). All of that is a process. But everyone is leaning on each other and we‘re excited.”
Granted, there are some doubts.
Some outside the team wonder if Arenas, who missed 80 games last season and 69 the year before following two knee surgeries, can ever be the same. Also, the center position isn’t necessarily a concern with Haywood and up-and-coming Andray Blatche -- but it’s still not nearly as strong as the ones in Orlando (Dwight Howard), Cleveland (Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) or Boston (Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace).
At the same time, the fact Arenas is back on the floor alone provides the team with a lift. And he’s certainly looked good so far. Not only that, but all of the injuries gave younger Wizards like Blatche, Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Javaris Crittenton a chance to improve. All will be relied upon in some fashion again this year.
Most importantly, the Wizards who were here last season remember 19-63. And all agree on one thing -- it’s payback time.
“If you’re not motivated by it, then you shouldn’t be part of this team,” Jamison said. “We’re good when we’re healthy, and after what happened last season, we’ll definitely have some added incentive. … We’ll be back.”
With that, the Wizards finish getting dressed and head for the bus after a preseason victory. The games don‘t count, but already they are conducting themselves with class, having fun and playing well.
Maybe, they are back already.
Sam Amico is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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