Not very often can a team finish with one of the worst records in the league one season and feel like it can compete for a championship the next.
The Washington Wizards believe they have what it takes to pull it off, although they'll start the season without one of their top players.
With Gilbert Arenas healthy for the first time in two seasons, the Wizards hope to overcome an injury to Antawn Jamison in Tuesday night's season opener against a retooled Dallas Mavericks team that addressed problems of depth, versatility and strength.
Washington finished 19-63 in 2008-09 - worst in the East - and tied the 2000-01 team for the most losses in franchise history. While very little went right for the Wizards, they have reason to believe things will improve.
Washington couldn't stay healthy last season. Arenas and Brendan Haywood combined to play in just eight games, and DeShawn Stevenson missed 50 games with back problems.
The Wizards made four straight trips to the playoffs before last season's debacle, and new coach Flip Saunders believes if the core of Arenas, Jamison and Caron Butler can avoid injury, Washington will be back in the postseason.
"If we stay healthy," Saunders said, "we should be able to compete in the East for an elite spot."
Washington isn't going to start the season at full strength, though.
Jamison is expected to miss the Wizards' first eight to 13 games after partially dislocated his shoulder trying to block a shot in an exhibition game against Cleveland on Oct. 14. The two-time All-Star forward led the team in scoring at 22.2 points per game while missing only one contest last season.
"It continues to happen,'' Butler said. "We're going to remain optimistic and remain positive and see what happens.''
While Jamison's injury is a blow to the team, Washington is excited about starting the season with a healthy Arenas.
Arenas has undergone three surgeries on his left knee over the past two seasons, limiting him to just 15 games. In his last relatively healthy-free season in 2006-07, Arenas averaged 28.4 points, third-best in the league.
The three-time All-Star worked this summer with renowned trainer Tim Grover, dropping weight and gaining strength, and has shown flashes of his old explosiveness in exhibition games.
"He's trying to get his rhythm," Saunders said. "He's starting to feel more comfortable every time he steps on the floor."
Arenas won't have to carry the offense, though, since Butler has established himself as a capable scorer.
Butler's scoring has improved each of the past five seasons to a career-high of 20.8 per game in 2008-09, when he also averaged 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Dallas finished 50-32 last season to reach the playoffs for a ninth straight time and looked strong in upsetting San Antonio in five games in the first round. The Mavericks ran into trouble in the West semifinals, though, getting knocked around by a far more physical Denver team and was eliminated in five games.
Dallas spent the offseason trying to build a team that can compete with the other West powers, and owner Mark Cuban feels like they've acquired the missing pieces.
The Mavericks retained their core of Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Jason Terry and Erick Dampier - all starters on the clubs that went to the NBA finals in '06 and won 67 games the next season - plus Jason Kidd. But they altered the dynamic of their lineup by trading for Shawn Marion to try to solve matchup problems and also added veteran post players Drew Gooden and Tim Thomas.
"What's not to like?'' Cuban said. "We've got a lot of guys that everybody knows can play. We've got some young guys that everybody knows can play. We've got some veterans that are here to win. I think that makes all the difference. You can see there's a lot more trust as opposed to uncertainty.''
Nowitzki is still the leader, and he enters this year in great shape after losing about 17 pounds since last season ended.
"I think we added some really nice pieces,'' said Nowitzki, who averaged 25.9 points and 8.4 rebounds in 2008-09. "I think we're all going to fit in well and mesh pretty well together. ... It should be fun.''
Nowitzki averaged 28.5 points on 52.2 percent shooting in helping Dallas win both games over the Wizards last season.
The Mavericks have won six of seven over Washington in Dallas, and were tough to beat at the American Airlines Center for much of last season.
After losing their first four at home, the Mavericks won 32 of their final 37 regular-season games in Dallas.
I only atched the first half but from what i saw they played pretty impressive. I thought that Blatche should have played for the start but he did really good in the minutes he played. One thing i noticed about gilbert is that he loves to drive. My memory might be blurred since it has been about two years since i have really seen him play, but last time i remember him pulling up more so than driving. I was predicting 9-6 for the first 15 games but now im thinking 11-4 or maybe 12-3 out of the first 15. Lets go Wizards top 4 in the East baby.