Caron Butler is expected to return from a bruised left kneecap tonight in Cleveland, and Antawn Jamison, sidelined with a right shoulder injury, will make his season debut some time in the next few weeks. But through the first three games of the season, the Washington Wizards (2-1) have shown that even without an All-Star forward or two, they can succeed through double D: depth and defense.
Neither had been present much in past seasons, when injuries left the Wizards without talented veterans, and an indifference to anything other than offense shortened their win totals and had them vacationing in May.
President Ernie Grunfeld addressed his team's depth by trading for Randy Foye and Mike Miller and signing Fabricio Oberto, ensuring that when new coach Flip Saunders had to "change on the fly," he wouldn't have to rely on an unprepared or unproven youngster.
"Veteran players, they know what it's about and they've been there," Saunders said. "That's why Ernie and the front office did what we did."
Those three new additions were in the starting lineup for the Wizards' 123-104 win over the New Jersey Nets on Saturday. Oberto, making his third start at power forward in place of Jamison, did some dirty work and handed out five assists. Foye, a combo guard, started at shooting guard and provided steady playmaking and scoring with 17 points and eight assists. Miller, who slid into Butler's spot at small forward, grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds and hit two three-pointers to finish with nine points.
"We have a lot of depth. Everybody can contribute," said Gilbert Arenas, who benefited from the spacing and screens provided by Foye, Miller and Oberto to scorch the Nets for 32 points. "We get everybody back, we can be even deadlier. Right now, we just have to maintain until Antawn and Caron get back."
When Butler and Jamison return, they will join a team that has bought into Saunders' defensive schemes in the early going, something few believed was possible.
Saunders said he hoped the team could hold opponents to just 44 percent shooting, but the Wizards have held the Dallas Mavericks, the Atlanta Hawks and the Nets to just 42.3 percent shooting and 29.8 percent on three-point attempts.
Saunders has had solid defenses in previous stops in Minnesota and Detroit, where he also benefited from the presence of All-Defensive Team players such as Kevin Garnett, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince. Center Brendan Haywood and reserve guard DeShawn Stevenson, the Wizards' best individual defenders, are back healthy, but the players also credit Saunders' system, which forces each player to help his teammate so that no man is left on an island.
"We like more of a family," said Andray Blatche, who leads the team with four blocked shots. "I don't want to let somebody down or have my family upset with me."