In the midst of the NBA community's lovefest with (deservedly) lauding a big-time Western Conference team who lost one of its top two stars and seems to have just kept on rolling, it seems fitting to take the time to credit another team that has performed fairly admirably in the wake of its own set of obstacles as well this season.
Think fast: Which likely playoff-bound team has already seen its top two players miss nearly a season's worth of games between them?
Perhaps this is just a sad reflection of the Eastern Conference, but with Caron Butler missing 20 games and Gil Arenas missing close to 60 games this season, one would be hard-pressed to suggest that the Washington Wizards haven't shown their own brand of grit thus far this season.
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Generally speaking, sitting at 33-32 and sixth place in the putrid Eastern Conference isn't exactly something to write home about.
But the way this bizarre season has played out for one of the league's most bizarre cast of characters, it is hard to imagine Wiz fans being too bummed about where their team ranks in the standings at present.
The year started with the uncertainty of how Gil Arenas' reconstructed knee would hold up after it cost him the end of last season and the entirety of the Wizards' short-lived playoff run. The team got off to a miserable 0-5 start and then roared right back with six straight wins in the time it takes to say "Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood are the NBA's version of rock 'em-sock 'em robots." But after just eight games, Arenas was headed back onto the shelf, originally for a month or two. That latter part wasn't actually the case either. With the exception of his blogging efforts, his game hasn't been heard from since the injury, and he just recently started practicing with the team again.
Somehow, the team fought to stay afloat after the Arenas injury, riding the efforts of Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison to more victories than expected. As the Wiz reached a high-water mark of 23-18, the classic questions about whether or not this team was simply better without Arenas started coming from all varieties of talking heads and fans alike (fortunately, my respected colleague and friend Doctor Dribbles of We Rite Goode -- one of my favorite sites on this here Worldly Web of ours -- was on the case to respond to this speculation). Outside of D.C., the lion's share of the credit went to Butler, who certainly merited his share of accolades by putting together an All-Star campaign and stepping up in Hibachi's absence in particular.
But this Wizards team isn't a one or two-man show. If that wasn't clear back at mid-season, it certainly should be now. When Butler went down in early February for what would be a 16-game stretch without getting on the floor, the predictions came fast and furious that this team's time was up. One fellow blogging friend of mine even predicted that they would fall all the way out of the playoffs (quite the feat in the East; generally, you need to have all hands on deck trying to do this in order to make it happen), and it seems hard to believe that he was the only one. Certainly, prospects looked bleak when the Wiz lost four straight immediately following the injury and six of seven overall to fall to 25-29.
But this team rallied, because that's what it does.
Antawn Jamison, who somehow always seems to be overlooked, kept right on trucking, continuing to put up 20-10 nights with the consistency that he has all season, even upping his scoring to 25.4 points per game in March. Jamison is a mobile and versatile forward who can score and rebound in bunches and works on defense as well, yet he has long seemed to be the forgotten man on this team. It's worth remembering that this guy averaged nearly 32 points and 10 rebounds per game in the playoffs against Cleveland last year. Dude can really play.
At times, so can the rest of the Arenas-Butler-Jamison trio's teammates. The Wiz got some productivity from center Brendan Haywood. They got some flashes of brilliance from neophyte guards Nick Young and Roger Mason Jr. They have seen one-time sharpshooter DeShawn Stevenson finally start to show signs of life shooting the basketball, most particularly in a 33-point effort in New Orleans that included the dagger trey to win the contest. One way or another, they played like a team and got just enough of these scrap-it-out performances that they were able to win six of their last nine without Butler and back-to-back games once he returned.
Instead of sitting on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, the Wizards are back atop .500 and just one game behind Toronto for fifth in the East.
And now they have one stud back to full health and another on the way.
From that perspective, maybe 33-32 and sixth in the East can't feel too bad after all.