Wiz rewriting Washington history

Originally Published: January 6, 2005
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

One of the saddest of NBA sagas could well be coming to an end. The Washington Wizards, also known as Clippers East, might finally be putting together a season which features two rarities in the world's self-proclaimed most important city:

(1) a season with more wins than losses -- that would be the first since 1998;

(2) and a season which results in a playoff berth -- that would be the first since 1997 and only the second since 1988.

Be still, my hoop heart. It's true.

Michael Jordan
The Jordan years were more frustrating than fun for all involved.
After Thursday night's methodical dispatching of the mighty Sonics, the new-look Wiz, who won 25 games last season, had the conference's third-best record (18-13). And even that record needs an asterisk because four of their losses have been to omnipotent Miami, whom they won't see anymore during the regular season.

Again, that's the regular season. That has been the only season in Washington hoops for almost a decade. No Eastern Conference team can match the Wizards' ongoing streak of postseason futility -- a Biblical, seven-year drought. (Cleveland and Chicago have been out six years, Atlanta five.) No team in the league can even come close to the Wizards' 17-year drought without a single playoff win. Even the Clips have won four playoff games since Washington's last postseason victory.

Hey, should we be surprised? This is the team that traded Chris Webber (for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe) and Rasheed Wallace (for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant.) From the close of the 1996 season to the opening of the 2001 season, eight different men coached the Wizards for at least a game.

Then came the Great Michael Jordan Experiment, which produced wire-to-wire sellouts but neither a winning record nor a sniff at the playoffs. In the end, it was Jordan who was canned. MJ still can't believe that happened.

But that was then and this is now. Just to give you an idea of how it's been lately in Washington, when the Wizards managed to go through both November and December without a losing record, it marked the first time that serendipitous development had occurred in 20 years.

What has happened to turn this annual underachieving bunch into a genuine Eastern Conference playoff contender? Let's start with this observation from the head coach of the Celtics, Doc Rivers, whose team is 1-1 against the Wizards this season.

"Last year," Rivers said, "no one bought in to the system. Nobody. They couldn't score points. They were disjointed. Now, you can see out there that they trust each other. They are as athletic as any team out there and they are a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams."

The system to which Rivers referred is the one brought in by Eddie Jordan, widely viewed as the power behind the throne in New Jersey when the Nets made their successive runs to the NBA Finals. He's a disciple of the Princeton set from his time in Sacramento and he likes movement and scoring, two no-no's for 90 percent of the NBA's head coaches.

He got a lot of movement last season, his first in Washington -- but the wrong kind of movement. The Wizards led the league in turnovers, averaging a ghastly 17.5 per game. This year, that number is down to 14.7 and the Wizards are tied with Philly for forcing the most turnovers and are No. 1 in turnover margin. They lead the league in steals and Larry Hughes is the league leader in thefts.

The Wizards are scoring this season, that's for sure. They dropped 112 on the Nets on Tuesday night in what Jordan called "one of our most impressive wins of the season." That's a sure sign that things are changing. The Wizards went winless against the Nets in each of the last two seasons. They're 3-0 against them this season.

The Wizards are sixth in the NBA in scoring, another indication that Jordan's offense has clicked. That's despite poor shooting (43.4 percent), which leads to yet another team strength: rebounding. Washington is among the top offensive rebounding teams in the league (they were No. 1 heading into the new year) and that has come despite prolonged absences from Etan Thomas (who's been out all season with an abdominal strain) and Kwame Brown (who's appeared in only 13 games thanks to various ailments).

Scoring comes in waves. Gilbert Arenas and Hughes are the highest scoring backcourt in the league. And the Wiz have what Hubie Brown used to call a necessity to win in the playoffs -- three reliable scorers. Arenas, Hughes and Antawn Jamison are the only trio in the NBA on the same team to be averaging at least 20 points a game. And yes, they were all teammates on the 21-win 2001-02 Golden State Warriors, so, clearly, something has changed.

Gilbert Arenas
The Wizards have celebrated 17 wins this season, after going 25-57 last season.
Said Rivers, "Larry Hughes is starting to turn into what a lot of people thought he'd be."

Indeed he is. You now watch him and say to yourself, so that's why he went ahead of Paul Pierce in the 1998 draft. It has just taken him that many years to finally get comfortable. And he turns 26 later this month.

Defensively, no one is going to mistake the Wizards for the Spurs or Pistons. Until holding the Nets to 88 points on Tuesday night, the Wizards were one of three teams (the Celtics and Magic are the others) to both score and allow 100 points per game. They outscore you  what a concept! But they also have held two teams to fewer than 70 this season and are 10-1 when holding an opponent to fewer than 100 points a game. It just doesn't happen very often.

Washington signaled that it might be a different year when it opened the season in Memphis, christening the FedEx Forum. Arenas, Hughes, Brendan Haywood and Anthony Peeler were unavailable due to suspensions. Brown was out with a broken foot. Eddie Jordan went with a starting five of Jamison, Laron Profit, Michael Ruffin, Jarvis Hayes and Juan Dixon against the Grizzlies, who were coming off a 50-win season. That fab five played 199 of the 240 minutes, and accounted for all but four of Washington's points as the Wizards won, 103-91. Washington already has seven road wins this season, only one fewer than all of last season.

The Wizards' newfound muscle gets a stern test in the next 10 days, with games against three of the better Western Conference teams: Seattle, Minnesota and Phoenix (they beat the Sonics 107-96 on Thursday night). All of the games are at the MCI Center, where the Wiz are a passable 11-5 and where they drew their first sellout of the season last week. It will also be a gut-check for Washington because the Wiz have played only nine games against Western Conference teams.

No one's making comparisons to the Washington teams of yore, but, for a few months anyway, the Wizards are one of the feel-good stories of the 2004-05 season. That in and of itself is as welcome a development as any.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com