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THE WIZARDS were floundering, and forward Caron Butler couldn't figure out why. As he drove back to his Northern Virginia home last month following a 118--92 loss to the Nuggets, Washington's fifth straight defeat to start the season, Butler struggled to pinpoint his team's problems. Not long into his drive he dialed forward Antawn Jamison and told him he wanted to call a players-only meeting before practice the next day. "I said, 'We need to get this thing right,'" says Butler. "Too many guys didn't know their roles. They looked confused out there."
The meeting, which lasted 10 minutes, paid immediate dividends. The following night the Wizards beat the Hawks to start a six-game winning streak—the last three victories coming without All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas, who had injured his left knee. Four weeks later they are still on a roll without Agent Zero, who underwent microfracture surgery on Nov. 21 and isn't expected to return before March. At week's end Washington had won six of its last seven and had climbed to fourth in the East.
How have the Wizards flourished without their leading scorer and primary ball handler? While Arenas's teammates publicly marvel at his skills, privately they acknowledge that they are much more focused without the eccentric Arenas—a constant locker-room clown who lives for the media spotlight—in the lineup. " Gilbert has a tendency to break off a play if he sees an opening or wants to shoot," says a scout. "Without him they are running that Princeton offense, and they are getting wide-open looks."
It helps that Butler and Jamison are both All-Star-caliber players in their own right. Unhappy with his perimeter play last season, Butler dedicated himself to making 100,000 jumpers during the summer—1,000 per day, with a cousin dutifully clicking a counter. The results: He was averaging a career-high 22.1 points through Sunday on 50.4% shooting and had improved his three-point accuracy to 44.4% from 25.0%. "I'm more comfortable with my jump shot than ever," says Butler. "Before, it was never more than a second option. Now I'll pull up from anywhere."
Down low, perennially underrated Jamison was averaging 20.9 points, his best mark in five seasons, and a career-high 10.7 rebounds. "Obviously we are going to try to maximize Caron's and Antawn's scoring opportunities," says coach Eddie Jordan, "but we have been able to get our other guys involved at the same time."
Indeed, center Brendan Haywood is a double-digit scorer for the first time in his seven seasons (10.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game at week's end), and in a 104--91 win over the Heat last Thursday he outplayed Shaquille O'Neal. Antonio Daniels had filled in ably for Arenas, but he sprained his right MCL against Miami and is expected to miss at least two weeks. In the meantime wings DeShawn Stevenson (10.7 points per game since Arenas's injury), Roger Mason Jr. (12.1 points in December) and rookie Nick Young have manned the backcourt, proving that a true point guard is not needed in the Princeton offense.
If Washington continues to play well, general manager Ernie Grunfeld will have some hard decisions to make in the off-season, when both Arenas (who has an opt-out) and Jamison (expiring contract) could be unrestricted free agents. Grunfeld says he will "absolutely" re-sign Arenas, but a successful run without Agent Zero could tempt the G.M. to tinker with the makeup of his club and use his cap space—$14 million, without Arenas and Jamison—to land an unrestricted free agent like the Clippers' Elton Brand or the Suns' Shawn Marion or a restricted free agent like the Hawks' Josh Smith. The Wizards obviously are a more talented team with Arenas, but thus far they've shown that they don't need him to win.