Friday October 9th, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Angered by their 19-win season in 2008-09, several Wizards players insisted that they would come to training camp in the best shape of their lives.

Their promises proved to be no empty, end-of-the-season rhetoric. Gilbert Arenas arrived 22 pounds lighter. Mike James dropped 25 pounds. Caron Butler cut 11. DeShawn Stevenson (10), Brendan Haywood (seven) and Andray Blatche (five) also slimmed down.

"Guys are focused on getting things in the right direction," Jamison said, and he isn't just referring to rebounding from a season in which the injury-plagued Wizards fired coach Eddie Jordan after a 1-10 start and finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards have made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, but they have advanced past the first round only once.

"I'm not just frustrated at the 19-win season," Jamison said. "You could definitely say I'm done with the one-and-done playoff appearances too. We have a nice window of opportunity here that we need to take advantage of."

With the players making a commitment to improve, the front office had their backs. General manager Ernie Grunfeld hired Flip Saunders, who led the Pistons to three consecutive conference finals appearances before being fired after the 2007-08 season. Grunfeld brought in bruising center Fabricio Oberto to back up Haywood. Grunfeld also turned the No. 5 pick in the draft into veteran sharpshooter Mike Miller -- a 16.4-point scorer in '07-08 before slipping to 9.9 points in his only season with Minnesota last year -- and guard Randy Foye (16.3 points last season). NBA general managers voted the Miller pickup as the most underrated player acquisition of the offseason.

The players supported the decision to pass on a lottery pick such as Ricky Rubio or Stephen Curry in favor of immediate help.

"The consensus was that we needed veterans," Butler said. "There is not enough time to wait for a young guy to develop. We need guys to come in and play a consistent role and knock down shots."

One Wizard who has never had a problem knocking down shots is Arenas. His problem has been staying on the floor long enough to take them. Arenas has played only 15 games the last two seasons because of three knee surgeries. But after spending the summer working out with trainer Tim Grover, Arenas has pronounced himself healthy. He's also adopted a no-nonsense approach, cutting off all communication with the media (including blogging) and accepting Saunders' appeal to take on a leadership role. One of the game's most lethal gunners also says he is willing to ease off the throttle a little and be more of a playmaker in the Wizards' new offense.

"We are going to ask him to do something different than he has done in the past," Grunfeld said. "With this team, he doesn't need to score 28 or 30 points per game. Flip has challenged him to be more of a leader, to get everybody more involved."

Saunders has also challenged the team to be better defenders. The Wizards ranked 29th in field-goal-percentage defense (48.2) and 24th in points allowed (103.5) last season. Saunders wants the Wizards to cut the shooting number to 45 percent, and he's pushing Butler to make the All-Defensive team.

Still, as much as the tide seems to be turning in Washington, not everyone in the locker room is buying the hype.

"It's always like that at the beginning of the season," Jamison said. "When things are going good, of course you are going to be all right. What's going to be our mind-set when we are struggling a little bit? When we get blown out one game or lose two out of three? When you're not playing? We can't answer that question quite yet because a lot of scenarios haven't taken place."

Said Butler: "We have to police ourselves as much as possible. There are going to be guys who are going to take more shots and guys taking less. We have to stay together. We're trying to win a championship."

1. Third-year guard Nick Young and fifth-year center Blatche have shown flashes of brilliance in their careers. But they've been plagued by inconsistency that at times has infuriated some veteran teammates.

Blatche, however, has drawn praise from Saunders for his work ethic in camp. After watching Blatche work hard but struggle to score in one practice, Saunders pulled him aside and reminded him that if he puts in the work in the first three quarters, the shots will start to fall in the fourth.

Young, who studied tapes of Pistons guard Richard Hamilton in the offseason, says Saunders' offense is tailor-made for him.

"I don't have to work as hard for my shot," said Young, who was lost in Jordan's complex Princeton offense in his first two seasons. "The only thing I'm thinking about now is making it when the ball comes my way."

Said Butler: "Flip is making the game real easy for them. The Princeton offense was hard. It's a man's league and you have to be professional, but it was tough on those guys. This is a much simpler offensive system."

Young and Blatche will have to play at a high level to earn minutes. Because of their new depth, the Wizards don't have to rely on the two developing players. Miller and Foye can replace Young's scoring, while Oberto is a proven interior player with championship experience.

"If it happens and they play well, great," Jamison said. "But if they don't, we have Foye, Miller and Oberto ready to step in. Those are pretty good insurance policies to have."

2. The secret to Butler's weight loss? Eating breakfast. "I'm not a big breakfast guy," he said. "But I started eating bananas and oatmeal in the morning. It filled me up."

Working with a trainer for the first time, Butler ran drills on a football field throughout the offseason. In the weight room, Butler focused on core workouts and spent extra time strengthening the muscles in his hips and ankles. The result is a healthy and rejuvenated Butler in training camp.

"I don't have any nagging injuries," Butler said. "I'm able to jump right back into it."

3. Grunfeld received plenty of phone calls about the Wizards' coaching job after he fired Jordan in November and replaced him with interim coach Ed Tapscott. But as the process played out, Grunfeld found himself gravitating more and more toward Saunders, eventually pulling the trigger on the hire mere days after the end of the regular season.

"I followed his career for a long time," Grunfeld said. "He has credibility. He's very knowledgeable and he's good with people. He has all the qualities that I felt like we needed. We wanted a combination of [an offensive and defensive coach]. We don't want to take away our strength. But I think it has been well documented that we all felt like we needed to improve on the defensive end."

Grunfeld has enjoyed some of Saunders' training-camp gimmicks, such as bringing in a hypnotist and putting the 250-page playbook on an iPod.

"It's great," Grunfeld said. "It keeps the players motivated and it keeps it fun."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.