WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards were easy to decipher last season, but not as easy to stop. In making the playoffs for the first time in eight years, the Wizards were led by a trio of stars whose collective nickname - 'The Big Three" - spoke volumes about the team's dynamics.
Figuring out the Wizards this season is a little less predictable. Will the departure of Larry Hughes disrupt the progress the team made, or will the arrival of veterans such as Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins, as well as Caron Butler, help push the Wizards deeper into the playoffs?
It's still a little early, or a lot early, to tell, but the new-look Wizards will be unveiled tonight in their first exhibition game before the 2005-06 season. Washington will play the Cleveland Cavaliers, who signed Hughes as a free agent over the summer, in a 7 p.m. game at MCI Center.
"I really don't get into the predicting, but I know what we have here, and I say this - we're a better team now than what we had last year," said forward Antawn Jamison, who along with Gilbert Arenas was an All-Star for the first time in his career.
Atkins and Butler came to the Wizards in the deal that sent former No. 1 pick Kwame Brown to the Los Angeles Lakers, while Daniels and Calvin Booth joined the team as free agents. They will give experience, depth and more of a defensive presence to a team that succeeded mainly on its scoring power.
What is missing are some very familiar faces.
Along with the trade of Brown, whose disappointing four-year career as a Wizard ended when he was suspended during the playoffs, the team chose not to re-sign free-agent guards Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, both of whom played at Maryland and wound up in Portland.
Washington also sent another former Terp, Laron Profit, to the Lakers in the Brown trade.
"I think this is pretty much a team that's filling in the pieces," said Atkins, who is expected to back up Arenas at point guard. "You've still got two of your three All-Stars here. You've got lot of key role players here. We've got a good team here. We've got a lot of flexibility."
Asked what he thought of the Wizards last season, Atkins said: "It seemed like they did a lot of gambling defensively. If you didn't necessarily make any mistakes, it allowed you to score points against them. This year, you add more veterans, guys who can play defense."
Even Arenas, who was named third-team All-NBA after finishing seventh in the league (25.5) in scoring, joked last week, "They're going to make me play 'D' this year."
While Hughes leaving for a maximum contract seemed to indicate that longtime owner Abe Pollin's penchant for frugality was returning, it appears that's not the case. It just means that the Wizards got three players for the price of one and could get an even larger return on their investment.
Daniels, who came from Seattle, is not concerned about replacing Hughes.
"We can't afford to worry about something we had no control over," Daniels said. "That's something it took me awhile to understand. The fact that Larry left had nothing to do with us. All we can do is bring our own personalities, our own skills and our own game to the table."
A year ago, the Wizards hoped that bringing in veterans such as Samaki Walker and Anthony Peeler would provide leadership for a young team. They did for a while in the locker room, but their contributions on the court were limited. That's not the case this year.
"I'm going to come and be who I am," said Daniels, an eight-year veteran. "I definitely like to work on the defensive end. I've learned a lot from some of the veterans I've played with, and hopefully I can bring some of that to the table."
But the player who can help most to fill the void left by Hughes is Butler, having shown his potential for stardom both in Miami his first two seasons (before being sent by the Heat to the Lakers in the Shaquille O'Neal trade) and in Los Angeles last season.
If the Wizards resurrect the collective nickname involving Arenas and Jamison, it will be because of Butler.
"I just love Caron," Jamison said. "He's a tough guy. That's something I think this team needs, especially when you're playing the Detroit Pistons or Miami, or the Indiana Pacers or Chicago. The Eastern Conference is tough."
Starting his third season as head coach, Eddie Jordan has simplified the offensive sets a bit in hopes of having his players spend more time concentrating on defense. The new additions give the Wizards more depth, size and athleticism all over the court.
"I think we have better size than we have ever had before, especially in the backcourt," Jordan said. "I think we even have more size with our third and fourth options up front, with Calvin Booth. We have good size and a little bit more toughness because of the veteran experience. We always say in this league it's talent, toughness and experience."
That's another kind of "The Big Three" the Wizards will be looking for when the season begins.
At a glance
Nov. 2 at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Comcast SportsNet, WB50, NC8
G Antonio Daniels, free agent F Caron Butler, trade G Chucky Atkins, trade C Calvin Booth, free agent F Andray Blatche, draft
G Larry Hughes, free agent F Kwame Brown, trade G Juan Dixon, free agent G Steve Blake, free agent G Anthony Peeler, free agent G Laron Profit, trade
45-37, second in Southeast Division; beat Bulls in first round of playoffs, then lost to Heat
PPG, Gilbert Arenas, 25.5 RPG, Antawn Jamison, 7.6 APG, Gilbert Arenas, 5.1 SPG, Larry Hughes, 2.89 BPG, Brendan Haywood, 1.68