Looking for a playoff dark horse? Try the Washington Wizards
If you're looking for a dark horse in the NBA playoffs, I mean a real long shot, a team absolutely no one figures has a chance to win it, you might want to consider the Wizards.
Of course, a lot of things have to fall just right for the Wizards (who open their first-round series at Cleveland on Saturday afternoon) to have even the slightest chance of pulling a Trevor Immelman and taking it to the big boys, but heck, there are hundreds of reasons to pick the Celtics, Lakers, Suns, Pistons or Spurs. Or you can go out on a little limb with the Rockets, Hornets or Jazz. But what fun is that?
Here are a few things to think about before you split your gut laughing at the thought of the Wizards winning it all after their 43-39 regular season.
The Gilbert Arenas factor. A knee injury sidelined him for 68 games, but he is back as the sixth man, as confident as ever in his new role. Arenas is one of the best in the game at getting his own shot and delivering with the game on the line. His big mouth sometimes leaves teammates and management wishing he had kept it shut, but that's just Arenas being Agent Zero.
Last week on his blog, for instance, when the first-round matchup between Washington and Cleveland became evident, he wrote: "I think everybody wants Cleveland in that first round. They've been a .500 team ever since they made that trade [for Ben Wallace, Delonte West, Joe Smith and Wally Szczerbiak] and everybody wants a chance at that matchup. We want Cleveland for our own reasons, we don't think they can beat us in the [first round of the] playoffs three years straight."
Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Jamison is a difficult matchup because of his three-point shot combined with his effective inside game. He is one of only four players to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds during the regular season (Orlando's Dwight Howard, Minnesota's Al Jefferson and Utah's Carlos Boozer are the other three, while Houston's Yao Ming didn't play enough to qualify). Butler has battled hip wrist and knee ailments much of the season, but he is the heart of the team, a fearless competitor at both ends who can hurt opponents in so many areas. He set career highs in scoring (20.3), shooting percentage (46.6) and assists (4.9).
Improved defense. The Wizards can at least stay in games at both ends of the floor now, reducing their field-goal-percentage defense to 46.1 from 47.3 last season and their points allowed to 99.2 from 104.9.
Depth, experience and interchangeable parts. With Arenas, Jamison, Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, Antonio Daniels and Roger Mason Jr., the Wizards are among the league's most versatile teams.
The modified Princeton offense. The ball moves quickly and there are plenty of open shots as a result. Back cuts and screens away from the ball make it one of the most difficult systems to defend.
The Brendan Haywood factor. The 7-foot center averaged 10.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and shot 52.8 percent from the field in his career year. He's quick, active, covers a lot of ground defensively and is no longer an offensive liability.
The coach. Eddie Jordan won't get much Coach of the Year consideration, but he did a masterful job, considering the prolonged absences of Arenas and Butler, as well as a host of other injuries. He got his team to believe in itself defensively and to trust one another on offense. His style of coaching breeds confidence. Players like playing for him because he is brutally honest and would never hang any of them out to dry.
Boston beaters. They were the only team to knock off the Celtics three times this season (their likely second-round opponent if they get past Cleveland). The Wizards' biggest confidence builder this season came when they beat the Celtics in Washington on Jan. 12 and two nights later beat them again, this time in Boston. They also defeated the Celtics again last week at Washington, with their only loss in the series coming in the second game of the season.
History. For what it's worth, the 1995 Rockets had the 10th-best record (47-35 in a 27-team league), were the sixth seed in the West and didn't have the home-court advantage in any series, yet still won it all. (The 43-39 Wizards finished with the 14th-best record among 30 teams and are the fifth seed in the East).
Before the season began, who would have thought that the Lakers would have the best record in the West and Kobe Bryant would be the leading MVP candidate; Houston would win 22 games in a row; Shaquille O'Neal would get traded to Phoenix; Boston would be the league's only 60-game winner; Greg Oden would miss the entire season and the Trail Blazers would still be a .500 team; and the Hornets would have the second-best record in the West with Chris Paul emerging as Steve Nash's heir apparent?
In a season like that, who is to say the Wizards can't win it all?
David DuPree covered the NBA for nine seasons for the Washington Post and 23 seasons for USA Today. His column will appear weekly at SI.com.