WASHINGTON (AP) -A look around the gym at a recent Washington Wizards practice made clear the problems facing the team as the season approaches.
First and foremost, Gilbert Arenas was nowhere to be found. The three-time All-Star is recovering from a third operation on his left knee, and the Wizards won't say when they expect the man known as ``Agent Zero'' to pull his ``Hibachi!'' out of storage.
Also absent was starting center Brendan Haywood, who will miss most - if not all - of the season after surgery on his shooting wrist. Even the players who were present weren't an all-around healthy bunch, from the blue sleeve on guard Nick Young's left knee to the wrapping on forward Andray Blatche's right hand. And then there were guys such as Etan Thomas, out all of last season after open-heart surgery, and Caron Butler, who lost 24 games a year ago.
Enough to make the Wizards worry they're jinxed when it comes to injuries?
``At one point,'' Butler acknowledged, ``I did feel that.''
n the regular season Wednesday against the visiting New Jersey Nets, the Wizards expect to be in the mix for a playoff berth - their fifth in a row - thanks primarily to All-Star forwards Butler and Antawn Jamison.
Consider: Butler was the only player in the league to average 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals last season. Jamison was one of only two players in the East to average 20 points and 10 rebounds.
``We've got the scoring. We just need to go out there and understand that if Gilbert's here, then it's a great thing,'' guard DeShawn Stevenson said, ``and if not, we're just going to have to work a little bit harder.''
Butler went so far as to say, ``Hands down, we're the best team in the Eastern Conference when healthy.''
Perhaps, but when might this team be healthy? It's been a recurring theme in recent seasons.
``It's just been the story with us - stay healthy, stay healthy. Everybody's saying the same thing for the last three years: 'We've got to stay healthy.' But that's the bottom line,'' forward Darius Songaila said. ``Otherwise, we're never going to know what we can do.''
Arenas has offered various predictions for when he could return, ranging from late November to January. Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld won't hazard a guess about when the team will begin to see production from a player given a $111 million, six-year deal in July.
we have to do until Gil comes back,'' said Antonio Daniels, the 11-season NBA veteran who replaces Arenas in the starting lineup. ``That's easier said than done, but last year, we got a little experience of what we need to do.''
Arenas appeared in only 13 regular-season games in 2007-08, and Washington went 43-39, good for fifth in the Eastern Conference. Arenas was shut down after Game 4 of what turned out to be a six-game elimination against Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs.
Even when Arenas does come back, teammates wonder how long it could take him to be the buzzer-beating, high-scoring MVP candidate he was before his first surgery in April 2007.
``One thing I'm expecting to happen is that when he comes back, we're going to see Gilbert this year, but we probably won't see 'Agent Zero' until the end of the season or maybe toward next year,'' Jamison said. ``You look at the history of the guys who've had that surgery - it took some time.''
The Wizards essentially stayed pat during the offseason, re-signing Arenas and Jamison, losing reserve guard Roger Mason to free agency, and adding backup guards Juan Dixon and Dee Brown and 7-foot draft pick JaVale McGee.
king his way into playing shape, the rookie McGee and the versatile-but-raw Blatche.
Jamison spoke out during the preseason about Blatche's need to be more serious and contribute more consistently. Coach Eddie Jordan often emphasizes how important the progress of youngsters Blatche, Young and backup forward Dominic McGuire will be for this team.
Still, it seems nothing is as important as when - and how well - Arenas plays.
``We feel very confident in the players that we have and the way we played last year, the way we shared the ball, moved the ball, played defense and made the playoffs,'' Jordan said. ``But certainly you need a Gilbert Arenas to get to where we want to go - we certainly want to win an NBA championship.''

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