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No. 3 WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Jackie MacMullan
November 10, 1997
For Game 1 of the NBA Finals in June , Washington forward Juwan Howard was soaking up the charged atmosphere at the United Center, studying the defending champions' pregame rituals, scrutinizing how the Bulls deferred to Michael Jordan yet still played as a team. "I'm just here to watch and learn," said Howard. "I'm hoping some day our team will mature into a contender. I think we're on our way."
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November 10, 1997

No. 3 Washington Wizards

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BY THE NUMBERS

1996-97 TEAM STATISTICS
Record: 44-38 (fourth in Atlantic)

SEASON AVERAGES

Points per game (rank)

FG pct. (rank)

Rebounds per game (rank)

Turnovers per game (rank)

Bullets

99.4 (10)

.480 (2)

41.8 (9)

15.7 (14)

Opponents

97.7 (18)

.454 (14)

41.0 (14)

16.5 (4)

For Game 1 of the NBA Finals in June , Washington forward Juwan Howard was soaking up the charged atmosphere at the United Center, studying the defending champions' pregame rituals, scrutinizing how the Bulls deferred to Michael Jordan yet still played as a team. "I'm just here to watch and learn," said Howard. "I'm hoping some day our team will mature into a contender. I think we're on our way."

Midway through last season such a statement would have been laughable. The Bullets—who have adopted a new nickname, the Wizards—were leading the league in unfulfilled potential, mired below .500. How could a team that included Howard, an All-Star in 1996, and forward Chris Webber, an All-Star in 1997, and point guard Rod Strickland, who should have been named an All-Star at least once, be so anemic? When coach Jimmy Lynam was fired on Feb. 10, Washington was 22-25. The team lacked continuity, leadership and toughness.

After Nuggets president and head coach Bernie Bickerstaff took over for Lynam, some players met to discuss taking responsibility for their shortcomings instead of pointing fingers at nearly everyone else. That mind-set was endorsed by Strickland, a mercurial talent whose mistrust of his superiors has often been a weapon of self-destruction. Bickerstaff immediately identified Strickland as the key to the team's performance. He freed Strickland to use his catlike quickness not only to create scoring chances for himself but also to orchestrate a more up-tempo attack. With their offense in high gear, the resurgent Bullets finished 44-38 and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

The cornerstones of Washington's future are still Webber and Howard, former college teammates at Michigan who are both working to carve out niches among the top young forwards in the game. Howard is probably best suited to play Webber's position, power forward, though each of them insists there is room enough on the court for both to flourish. Between them looms 7'7" center Gheorghe Muresan, the tallest player in the league. Muresan floundered last season, fighting off a sore hip and back, struggling more than ever to run the floor. He was plagued by injuries again in the preseason, and though his skills are limited, his ability to clog up the middle is vital to the Wizards.

In the backcourt Washington will look for continued improvement from shooting guard Calbert Cheaney, who was on the trading block until he blossomed as a precision shooter under Bickerstaff. The Wizards will spell Cheaney with Tracy Murray, and Strickland will get relief from Chris Whitney, an underrated and exceedingly quick point who drew interest in last summer's free-agent market but re-upped with Washington for three more seasons.

In fact the new 1997-98 Wizards will look remarkably similar to the old 1996-97 Bullets, who lost three straight games to the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs but were competitive enough to prompt an admission from Jordan that they had worried him. Bickerstaff believes the Wizards simply need seasoning, not new ingredients, and some of Washington's familiar faces should indeed get more minutes this year. Tim Legler, the three-point shooting champ at the 1996 All-Star weekend, returns after missing 67 games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Forward-center Lorenzo Williams, a valuable rebounder and defender, is also back after missing 63 games with several leg injuries last season.

Even though the roster has not undergone an overhaul, the renamed franchise has given itself a face-lift. The Wizards, sporting redesigned uniforms, should be playing in the new MCI Center downtown by December. Webber, who was one of only three players in the league last season to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, hopes the changes signify the start of something big. "This is our year," Webber says. "No more excuses. We're ready to show we belong."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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