WASHINGTON (AP) -Gilbert Arenas was flanked on one side by Caron Butler and on the other by Antawn Jamison a few weeks back, posing for photos near a banner carrying the Washington Wizards' new motto, ``Ready to Rule.''
You get the picture: If those three players avoid injuries, the stand-pat Wizards figure they'll be back among the Eastern Conference elite.
``When we're healthy,'' coach Eddie Jordan said, ``we're good.''
As team president Ernie Grunfeld is quick to remind anyone who'll listen, the Wizards owned the East's best record midway through last season. But that was before fading to a .500 finish, then a first-round playoff elimination after All-Stars Arenas (left knee surgery) and Butler (broken right hand) were sidelined.
When Arenas was out, the team went 2-6 in the regular season. Minus Butler, the Wizards were 4-15. Without Jamison, they were 4-8. All should be ready to go when Washington opens this season next week, so while Jordan is avoiding making any specific forecasts, Arenas is setting the bar rather high.
Big surprise there, right?
``It's about that time where we make that big stand. And this has to be the year, because we know the potential that we have,'' said the shoot-first point guard, never shy about offering an opinion or prediction, in person or on his blog. ``So anything less than going past the second round is a failure.''
Arenas, third in NBA scoring average in 2006-07 at 28.5 points, says his knee is fine and he'll be his old, aggressive self. He plans to opt out of his contract after this season - but he insists he'll do that only to increase his salary while staying with the Wizards.
Even if he vows not to depart, teammates figure a strong season would help seal the deal.
``You want to make it intriguing for Gilbert to come back. He's the franchise guy,'' said Butler, coming off career highs in points (19.1), rebounds (5.8), assists (3.7) and steals (2.1).
The Wizards have made three consecutive trips to the playoffs, but a second-round showing in 2004-05 was followed by two first-round exits against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, including last spring's sweep.
Arenas and Butler were spectators for that series, allowing Jamison to step to the fore. All would prefer to be able to rely on each other.
That trio is why Grunfeld did not do a whole lot to remake the team. The starting five will look familiar - guard DeShawn Stevenson re-signed, and disgruntled center Brendan Haywood was kept - while rookies Nick Young, Dominic McGuire and Oleksiy Pecherov were added to the bench.
The biggest elements the Wizards seemed to lack the past few seasons were frontcourt depth and defensive toughness, and those weren't addressed with any veterans. Indeed, the team could be thinner in both categories, because center Etan Thomas had heart surgery this month and is out indefinitely.
The one bit of good news is that forward Darius Songaila is ready from the season's start; he missed the first 45 games a year ago with a bad back.
Perhaps the lack of significant change is why Grunfeld, Jordan and the players sing the praises of continuity and chemistry.
``If you keep your core group together, you're going to have a great chance of success,'' Jordan said. ``We have a good locker room, and our core guys believe in each other. They know how to play with each other. They share the ball.''
Clearly, scoring is not an issue. Only three NBA teams - Phoenix, Golden State and Denver - averaged more points than Washington's 104.3 last season.
On the other hand, only two teams - Memphis and Golden State - allowed more points per game than the 104.9 the Wizards surrendered. That's why former Philadelphia 76ers and Ohio State head coach Randy Ayers was added to Jordan's staff as an assistant in charge of defense.
Also, Jordan pared down the offense somewhat, something Arenas said would allow for more attention to be paid at the other end. Coach and star clashed last season over Jordan's demands for more focus on defense.
``I'm playing defense this year,'' Arenas promised. ``We're playing defense this year.''
Another problem area for Washington? Away games. During the past three seasons, they're 82-41 at home and 46-77 everywhere else. Improving that even a little could make a big difference in playoff positioning.
Make no mistake: This team is intent on earning a high seeding and making good use of it.
``We're past being satisfied just making it to the playoffs year after year. We want to really make some noise and really contend for something special,'' Jamison said. ``Our goals are high. Nobody felt sorry for us as far as the injuries last year, and they shouldn't. Now everybody's healthy. It's time to put the pieces back together.''

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