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Old 09-16-2007, 10:14 PM   #1
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It has become something of a trend for teams within the Eastern Conference - and outside the Atlantic Division - to look towards maintenance rather than improvement in what many feel is a wide-open Eastern Conference.

The Wizards fall into that category, but only sort-of. While they have done little to nothing this summer to bolster their team from last season, they have a financial disadvantage that is really only mirrored in Boston. They have three All-Star caliber players on their roster in Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler and all three make around $10 million per year. They each play different position and each plays a different style of game. If a team is going to lock up that kind of money in three players, this is a pretty good way to go about it.

The issue is that it makes it very hard for management to add pieces around them (or even keep desirable pieces from bolting). They've seen both Larry Hughes and Jared Jeffries depart via free agency after breakout seasons, and so at a time when this team should have been looking to fortify their roster, they had to spend a good chunk of their free agent period this summer locking-up DeShawn Stevenson to a new four-year deal. That left them without money to spend and thus without options to add. Cash is so tight in Washington the team had to pass on signing Spanish standout Juan Carlos Navarro, a 2002 draft pick they had stashed away in Europe, because the contract would have put them into luxury tax territory. They instead traded him to the Grizzlies for a future pick.

All of this becomes that much more perilous because next summer Gilbert Arenas has stated he will opt out of his contract, and he wants to see a reason to stay if he is going to go that route. He will likely command a far more lucrative contract that the one he has currently, which is ironic since it will most likely prevent the Wizards from signing next summer's free agent Antawn Jamison. But that is in the future. What about the here and now?

Well, the Wizards were flirting with first place in the Conference for parts of last year before injuries to Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas saw them tumble into seventh place by the time the playoffs arrived. Surely the feeling in Washington is that if they can stay healthy they can make a run at first place again. They may just do that. However, if they want to be a team that is taken seriously in an improving Conference, they are going to need an attitude adjustment from their franchise-man Arenas. Last season's personal tirade against those he feels wronged him during his Team USA tryouts left the Wizards at his mercy far too many times for comfort. While everyone likes their main guy to demonstrate a certain degree of killer instinct, when that instinct begins veering into personal vendetta territory, it becomes destructive. Last year it did but the consequences were nil because Arenas got injured before the relevant season started.

With the improvement of Boston joining the growth of Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto, it is unlikely that the Wizards will have such an easy go of topping the Conference as they may have last year. Throw veteran-laden Detroit and even New Jersey into the mix and the Wizards will have a battle to even secure home court advantage. Their best bet may be winning their fairly light division and nabbing an easier first round opponent to try and get some momentum on their side. The fact of the matter is they probably still don't have nearly the level of defense it's going to take to go deep into the playoffs, but right now this team is probably looking more towards keeping Arenas happy than they are vying for a title, anyway.

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