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John Schuhmann

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With a motivated Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards should improve on last season's 19 wins.
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

Wizards primed for a return to contention

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Sep 9 2009 9:46AM

In NBA history, 47 teams have failed to win 20 games in an 82-game season. Of them, only four, including last season's Miami Heat, made the Playoffs the following year. But if this season's Washington Wizards don't become the fifth, their season will be a disappointment.

The Heat made the jump from 15 wins to 43 with the return of a healthy and very motivated Dwyane Wade. The Wizards could make a similar resurgence with the return of a healthy and very motivated Gilbert Arenas, as well as some key additions in the backcourt.

Reversing Fortunes
NBA.com's experts review the teams that didn't make the Playoffs last season and what they'll need to do to avoid the Lottery next season.
Date Team
Aug. 23 New Jersey Nets
Aug. 24 Toronto Raptors
Aug. 25 Oklahoma City Thunder
Aug. 26 Phoenix Suns
Aug. 27 Charlotte Bobcats
Aug. 28 Minnesota Timberwolves
Aug. 31 Memphis Grizzlies
Sept. 1 Washington Wizards
Sept. 2 Sacramento Kings
Sept. 3 Golden State Warriors
Sept. 4 New York Knicks
Sept. 7 L.A. Clippers
Sept. 8 Indiana Pacers
Sept. 9 Milwaukee Bucks

New Wizards coach Flip Saunders isn't afraid of such high expectations and has talked freely with his players about how successful they can be this season.

"It would be different if there was an unknown factor where when these guys were healthy, they weren't successful," Saunders told NBA.com. "But when these guys were healthy, they were a four-seed in the East. And based on that fact, I think they feel that their talent level puts them in the upper echelon of the league. So now it's a matter of being able to bring everybody together and to stay healthy. If we do that, I think that's where we're going to be."

Saunders points out that his "big three" of Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, along with starting center Brendan Haywood, have been together for four years now, even if they've missed a total of 326 games between them during that time. DeShawn Stevenson, the incumbent starting two-guard, has been with the group for the last three years as well.

"It's more of them being in a situation to adjust to, and understand the things that I want done as a coach and how we're going to play," Saunders said. "That's what makes it exciting from that standpoint."

Even though the core is the same, there have been enough changes to the roster that, combined with the memory of last season's 63 losses, this team will play with an edge.

"When you have change, it kind of ignites a passion with everybody," Saunders said. "There's no opportunity for anybody to be stale."

Randy Foye and Mike Miller arrive from Minnesota, giving Washington as much depth and versatility in the backcourt as any team in recent history. Nick Young, who averaged 11 points in 22 minutes last season, is now arguably the fifth guard on the depth chart.

Fabricio Oberto brings his experience to the frontline, but the Wizards had to give up three bigs to get Foye and Miller. So they'll need either Andray Blatche or JaVale McGee to take a step forward in their development and play with more smarts and more consistency.

Of course, handing the ball back to Arenas, who has played just 15 games in the last two seasons, will be the biggest change in Washington. It might take some time for his teammates to readjust to playing with a guy who dominates the ball like Agent Zero does.

Clearly, the Wizards' ceiling will be determined by Arenas, who Saunders believes is "one of the top five players in the league" when he's healthy. And the coach isn't afraid to compare his point guard's situation with that of Wade last season. Though Wade's 2008-09 campaign will be near impossible to duplicate, Arenas will have more help than Wade's teammates were able to give him.

Saunders has met with his point guard and says he talks with or texts Arenas "on a daily basis." Saunders has also met with most of his other players, in an effort to get everyone on the same page before camp starts, understanding his "core covenants" on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, Saunders' top priorities are taking care of the ball and making the extra pass. Defensively, he wants to contain, contest and rebound. Of course, with all the offensive talent on his roster, it will be difficult to get everyone the shots they need. And this team has never been consistent defensively.

Chemistry will be critical. The talent and depth is there for the Wizards to be one of the four or five best teams in the Eastern Conference. It's just a matter of staying healthy and playing together. But even though the Wizards are somewhat starting from scratch, Saunders likes what he's got.

"You always worry about guys playing together," he said. "But the No. 1 thing is having the right people. You can have a team that's been together for six years, but if they don't have the talent or the versatility, they're not going to win games.

"I'm not going to say something I don't believe. And I believe if we're healthy and play together, we can compete with anybody in our conference."

If you have a question or comment for NBA.com's John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.



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