Saturday, December 15, 2007

To sign or not to sign

For the past few weeks, the Wizards (13-10) have played terrific basketball. Since Gilbert Arenas re-injured his knee on Nov. 16 against Minnesota, the Wizards are 10-5. The most recent win came tonight at home against Sacramento with DeShawn Stevenson leading the way with 19 points.

The end of their bench, though, is starting to get thin. After Antonio Daniels sprained his medial collateral ligament in his right knee during Thursday's win over Miami, only nine players remain on the roster healthy enough to play: Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Roger Mason, Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Andray Blatche, and Darius Songaila.

Daniels is expected to miss 2-4 weeks with his injury, which leaves Mason, Stevenson, and Young to shoulder the workload at point guard. But besides the temporary hole at PG that Daniels was already filling for Arenas, the Wizards have other concerns. With all of the untimely injuries and the uncertainty of when Daniels and rookie Oleksiy Pecherov (broken right ankle) will play, GM Ernie Grunfeld has to decide whether or not to sign another player, probably a guard.

Two main concerns come attached to that already difficult choice: the luxury tax and heavy minutes. The Wizards are very close to the $67.86 million luxury tax, and owner Abe Pollin would like to stay under that amount if possible. Teams that stay under the luxury tax get to share the tax money after the season from teams that go over the amount and must therefore pay the dollar-for-dollar tax.

Also, fewer healthy players on the bench means an increased amount of minutes for everyone else, especially star players such as Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Butler is currently tied for first in the league in minutes played per game at 40.7. Jamison is ninth with 39.5. Both players are in great shape and can take the pounding for most of the season, but they may start to wear down as the postseason looms. Arenas is supposed to return in three months, but even if he does, the Wizards will need Butler and Jamison at full strength to make any noise in the playoffs.

But no matter who goes down on the team, the Wizards continue to win, leading to more confusion in the front office. If the Wizards choose to wait and see how quickly Daniels recovers, they could force him to come back too early and have him risk a possible long-term injury. And if they choose to go ahead and sign a player now, they might be risking the chance to stay under the luxury tax for a player who may not really make any kind of impact on the team at all.

Either way, they're stuck in a Catch-22 scenario. It would be unfortunate if they exceeded the luxury tax limit, but building a winning team, especially with this solid group of players, is more important than trying to save a couple million dollars for an already extremely wealthy owner.

Why exactly? Because the Wizards have the talent to win now. With a completely healthy roster, they're arguably as talented as the Orlando Magic and the Detroit Pistons and probably only trail the Boston Celtics in the East.

They have a solid mix of young and veteran players, and they've done very well so far with all of the adversity that's been thrown their way. Butler and Jamison should both be All-Stars. Haywood seems to have turned into a real center who can hold down the paint and grab tough rebounds. Stevenson, Songaila, and Mason have been shooting well and are important role players. Blatche, Young, and McGuire are all young and seem to improve every game by bringing something different to the table. And of course, the return of some guy named Gilbert Arenas is looming in the near future.

Though the season is still young, the Wizards continue to pass every test with flying colors.

Signing a player briefly surely won't make or break the season, but by doing so the front office can still show that they're supporting this team the best they can and are fully committed to this season.

Who knows -- maybe Grunfeld can somehow land another Butler or Mason.

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