WASHINGTON (AP) -The Washington Wizards' fall from first to worst has Caron Butler feeling ``Punk'd.''
Two years ago Monday the Wizards moved atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 99-96 win over the Detroit Pistons.
Antawn Jamison scored a season-high 35 points. Gilbert Arenas had 25 points and 10 assists. Brendan Haywood had 10 points and nine rebounds. Butler and DeShawn Stevenson scored eight points apiece. Within a few days, coach Eddie Jordan would get the nod to lead the East squad at the All-Star game.
``It was a great team. Had a great buzz. Awesome point guard,'' Stevenson said. ``I want to get back to them days, joking, laughing.''
That may take a while.
This Monday, Washington moved into sole possession of last place in the NBA with a 103-87 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Butler and Jamison combined for 55 points, but Arenas, Haywood and Stevenson were merely injured spectators, watching a team that gives every indication it will keep a firm grip on its new title of worst team in basketball.
ope that - somehow, someday, someway - the Wizards will recapture the magic of two years ago.
``That's how I always look at it,'' Butler said Tuesday. ``That why it's so mind-boggling right now. I feel like I'm being 'Punk'd' and I'm looking for Ashton Kutcher because I just can't believe we can go from that to this. Every time, I'm like, 'Brendan, you hand hurts for real?' 'Gilbert, you're really not ready yet?' It's to that point.''
The Wizards are a 9-35 team living on a memory, in possession of a treasured photograph they hope will come back to life before it fades completely. Every decision made by the franchise hinges on the notion that - when healthy - they are one of the best teams in the league, and they desperately need that strategy to work.
``Everybody knows that we're a championship contender if everybody's healthy,'' Butler said. ``That's no secret. I don't think anybody wants to see us healthy in the playoffs.''
The downfall started when Jamison got hurt, then Butler, then Arenas, ruining the second half of the 2006-07 season. Butler missed 24 more games due to various injuries last season, but the big blow came when Arenas went down with a knee injury that has required three surgeries in 18 months. He and Haywood (torn wrist ligament) have yet to play this season and are nowhere close to returning.
So, as time goes by and the losses pile up, the let's-keep-it-together premise that sounded like such a good idea is in danger of turning into a pipe dream. Two years is a long time in the NBA. The Boston Celtics were a lousy team in 2007, and the Miami Heat have since gone from good to bad to good again. The text messages of encouragement that Butler used to send to Miami's Dwyane Wade are now headed in the other direction.
Besides, even if the whole gang does eventually get back together, would they be the same? That, to paraphrase Jamison, is the $64,000 question.
``With Gilbert healthy, DeShawn, we are a better team. We are a playoff-caliber team,'' Jamison said. ``The question is, are we a championship-caliber team? That's the question that pops off: When everybody's healthy, can the organization, can this team bring a championship here? That's what I want to see.''
Actually, it's the $161 million question.
Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld was so sure of the plan that he bet the future of the franchise on it when he signed Arenas to a six-year, $111 million contract and Jamison to a four-year, $50 million deal during the offseason. Grunfeld has attempted to downplay Arenas' absence by citing the six-year commitment, yet this lost season means that 17 percent of that commitment has already gone to waste.
Also, there's no guarantee that Arenas will be the same, buzzer-beating Agent Zero when he returns from such a major injury. Plus, there's one key component that won't be coming back at all: Grunfeld fired Jordan after a 1-10 start and hired old friend Ed Tapscott as the interim coach, a move easy to second-guess considering that Tapscott's record is 8-25.
Still, the team has little option rather than stay the course and wait for the injured players to return.
Jamison: ``Give me Gilbert healthy for a full season, and I'll take that rather than taking a trade. That's a big improvement, if he can get back to the way he was.''
Stevenson: ``We've got to give it at least one more try. We keep saying this, and everybody gets hurt, but we've just got to try one more time and see everybody on the court.''
Butler: ``We're a dangerous squad, but it hasn't happened in a long time. You want to get everybody healthy, but how long do you hold on to that? I don't know. That's management.''
Management wasn't saying, at least not on Tuesday. Through a team spokesman, Grunfeld declined a request for an interview.
Sacramento, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers - even as they reminisce of better days gone by.
``None of us signed up for this,'' Butler said. ``But at the same time it's our job: 'What if this happened?' 'What if this happened?' And all the what-if's happened. We've just got to fight our way through it.''

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