Pain dulls, but Wizards' sore spot lingers


WASHINGTON - As he adjusted his earring Wednesday night after the latest Washington Wizards loss, Larry Hughes stopped and let out a huge sigh.

Hughes has only been around for the past two losing Wizards seasons, but the 25-57 campaign that just ended was more than enough to give him pause.

"It was tough playing and losing games, and knowing that we had enough to get it done," Hughes said. "It's tough. I don't really see a positive other than I finished healthy and Gilbert [Arenas] finished healthy, but Stack [Jerry Stackhouse] is still out, and Kwame [Brown] was hurt. I don't really get too many positives out of this year."

Indeed, with the arrival of spring, the nation's capital marks its usual springtime traditions: the Cherry Blossom Festival, budget posturing on Capitol Hill and another losing Wizards season.

This year marked the seventh straight year the Wizards missed the NBA playoffs. With the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets qualifying for postseason this year, the Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers are now tied for the longest current absence from the playoffs.

In addition, the Wizards, Clippers and Arizona Cardinals of the NFL have the most losing seasons in major professional sports since 1988-89, with 14.

The funny thing is that there actually was hope for this season in Washington. The Wizards added a new coach (Eddie Jordan), a new president of basketball operations (Ernie Grunfeld) and a marquee free agent (point guard Arenas) to the nucleus of a team that just missed the playoffs the year before with a 37-45 record.

Instead, the Wizards, who had a seven-game losing streak, three five-game losing streaks and four four-game losing streaks, never managed to win more than twice in a row.

"One of the things that the Wizards have done over the last 40 games [is] they made me not watch, to be honest," said TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith. "A Wizards game was not one that I was going to tune into."

Of course, the major subtraction from the 2002-03 season was Michael Jordan, but his absence was supposed to relieve mounting tension that had built during his 3 1/2 years in Washington - the last two as a player. And Arenas, who was 19 years younger than 40-year-old Jordan at the start of the season, was thought to be able to contribute as much as Jordan had, at least in terms of skill level.

What no one saw coming was the inordinate number of injuries the Wizards suffered. Only second-year forward Jared Jeffries played in all 82 games.

The biggest hit came among Washington's Big Three of Arenas, Hughes and Stackhouse. They lost a combined 104 games because of assorted ailments.

"The only way you can grade this team is if we had all our pieces," said Arenas, who missed 27 games with a severe abdominal strain. "Just say we won 10 extra games. We would have been in the playoffs, the eighth spot, if we had our team from the beginning."

Hughes, who missed 21 games with a wrist injury, Stackhouse, who was out for the first 55 games with a knee injury, and Arenas played in 11 games together.

"When they played together, we played three of our best games of the year, against Memphis, the Clippers and Cleveland," Grunfeld said.

Still, the injuries had the effect of moving players such as rookies Jarvis Hayes and Steve Blake into the spotlight, and they largely flourished.

"[The injuries] prevent you from building momentum and a rhythm with each other, but we tried never to use that as an excuse," Eddie Jordan said. "It allowed other guys to grow and get some individual development and get some experience on the floor. That was a good thing. Maybe Jarvis doesn't play as much with Stackhouse here and healthy. ... Again, look for the silver lining."

And there were a few. Third-year forward Brown, the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, showed marked improvement, averaging 10.9 points while leading the Wizards in rebounding at 7.4.

"I think I defended well. I played the right way," Brown said. "Every game, maybe I didn't come out with the aggressiveness that I needed, but that happens."

In addition, Jeffries and centers Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood showed incremental improvement. Thomas, in his third season, is an unrestricted free agent and figures to draw some interest.

Meanwhile, the injuries may only have postponed a major organizational decision, namely whether the Wizards need to break up the Big Three.

Hughes and Arenas each averaged about 16.5 shots this season, with Stackhouse, the team's leading scorer the previous year, averaging 12.3 shots.

Stackhouse, who signed a contract extension last draft night that will leave him with three years and about $26 million left to go, took a backseat in the offense, even coming off the bench in some games because he didn't have his usual explosiveness and lift.

But if he is healthy, Stackhouse, who will be 30 on Nov. 5, has indicated he expects to have more of the offense go through him, leading some to wonder if he and Hughes and Arenas can coexist. Stackhouse declined to comment Wednesday.

Among the decisions Grunfeld and his staff will have to make are whom to leave unprotected in the June expansion draft that will stock the Charlotte Bobcats. Each team can protect eight players, but may lose only one player.

The Wizards figure to protect Arenas, Hughes, Brown, Jeffries, Hayes, Blake and Thomas. That means the team will likely have to decide whether to leave Stackhouse, Haywood, forward Christian Laettner or local hero Juan Dixon exposed for the Bobcats to take.

With 10 players 26 years old or younger, the Wizards, who move to the newly created Southeast Division next year with the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic, also could stand a bit of maturity.

Arenas and Brown briefly feuded during the season about shot selection, and with Stackhouse out for so long, there was no active veteran presence to impose his will on the locker room.

Hopefully, [they will] get a high draft pick and get some more experience, whether they use that pick in a trade or however," said TNT analyst Steve Kerr. "They've got to get some veteran players to mix with those young guys."

The Wizards, who had the third-worst record in the league, have a 15 percent chance of getting the first pick in the June draft, but it would surprise few if the team dealt the pick to try to get a wiser head.

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