WASHINGTON - As Golden State Warriors teammates during the 2001-2002 season, Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes and rookie Gilbert Arenas were supposed to turn one of the NBA's perennial doormats into a playoff team. That never happened, and all three went elsewhere.
Eventually, elsewhere became the Washington Wizards.
Hughes, who was replaced as Golden State's starting point guard by Arenas toward the end of that season, was the first to sign as a free agent with the Wizards in 2002.
Arenas, who in his second year with the Warriors was named the league's most improved player on what became the NBA's most improved team, came to Washington before last season after signing a six-year, $65 million contract.
But it was Jamison's trade to Washington last summer, after being dealt to the Dallas Mavericks before the previous season, that reunited these former teammates and has transformed the Wizards from perennial losers into one of the league's biggest surprises in the first month of the season.
The three players have been pivotal in a 10-5 start - the team's best in 30 years - and a four-game winning streak going into tonight against the Denver Nuggets at MCI Center. Jamison and Arenas are tied for the team lead in scoring (21.9 points) with Hughes close behind (19.4).
Together, they give the Wizards the highest-scoring threesome in the league and, if they can keep up this pace, one of the highest in NBA history.
"When you've got three people averaging 20, if one's off the other two are on," Arenas said last week after the three combined for 63 points against the New Jersey Nets. "We just have to watch out when all three of us are going bad."
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan says his team's early success was generated by the tone Jamison set shortly after arriving in a trade that sent disgruntled veterans Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner, as well as the rights to the No. 5 pick in the draft - former Wisconsin guard Devin Harris - to Dallas.
"He wants to lead a team in his own right," Jordan said of Jamison, who was named the league's top sixth man with the Mavericks last season. "He doesn't want to be a sixth man anymore, he doesn't just want to be another guy."
Arenas sees a difference now with Jamison from what he saw in Golden State.
"He was 25-26 [years old], and you want to do the things your peers are doing," Arenas said. "Now he knows for him to get stardom, for him to get everything he wants, we have to win. He comes to play hard every day. ... He hasn't missed a game in how many years? That is leadership.
"Some [other] people play through injuries just so they can be like him. That's what you want."
Jamison, who hasn't missed a game in more than four years, attributes the way he, Hughes and Arenas have jelled this season to the fact they have played together before and have a collective desire to be on a winning team.
"We're just fed up, we're tired of losing, we're tired of being associated with being a doormat or a laughingstock of the league," Jamison said after practice Monday. "Guys were willing to do whatever it took and put all the egos behind us and be willing to accept our roles."
Friends off court, too
It also helps that Jamison, Hughes and Arenas have become friends off the floor as well, spending time with each other as well as incorporating one another into their family activities. Jamison, 28, and Hughes, 25, are married with young children, while Arenas, who'll be 23 next month, is single.
"We're always hanging out; our families are always hanging out," said Jamison, who spent Sunday watching pro football at Arenas' house. "That's what got us closer and able to jell on the court."
Said Hughes: "I think it helps that we know each other. Each one of us was here the year before the other one got here. We kind of lean on each other that way, the other guy who was here was able to help out and make the transition."
Their maturity as players has given the Wizards the shared responsibility of scoring and leadership.
Jamison came into the league as primarily a rebounder and inside scorer, but has expanded his range considerably while tirelessly working around the basket. Hughes, miscast as a point guard earlier in his career, has become an all-around player who also is averaging close to five assists and leads the league with nearly 3 1/2 steals a game.
Wild cat cools down
But it is Arenas who might be the most talented of the group. Drafted by the Warriors after his sophomore year at Arizona - where the Wildcats lost in the 2001 NCAA championship game to Duke - Arenas had been prone to bouts of flaky behavior that got him in trouble with teammates and coaches alike.
While Jordan jokes that to talk about his point guard "we'll need a whole month and the complexities of Gilbert Arenas," he has seen tremendous growth from last season, on and off the court.
It has resulted in Arenas cutting down on his turnovers and taking over, as he did with a season-high 34 points against the Chicago Bulls that included a tomahawk dunk down the stretch when the Wizards took control of the game.
"He's matured in a great sense from the beginning of last year until now as a person, a professional and as a player," Jordan said. "He's taken his game from 2-guard instincts [as a shooter] to running the team and finding ways to score for us. He is highly competitive, a terrific athletic and he's working on his skills."
A year ago, Arenas was trying to prove worthy of his lucrative contract, then missed nearly a third of the season with an abdominal injury. Despite averaging a career-high 19.6 points, he was never totally healthy or happy.
Arenas believes that the way he is perceived is directly tied to the won-lost column.
"When Stephon [Marbury] was with Phoenix and he averaged 20 [points] and eight [assists] and they lost every game, he was a selfish player, but then does the same thing and they win, he's a great point guard," Arenas said. "If you're winning, you're the best. If you're losing, everyone is selfish."