For Game 1 of the NBA Finals in June, Washington forward Juwan
Howard was soaking up the charged atmosphere at the United
Center, studying the defending champions' pregame rituals,
scrutinizing how the Bulls deferred to Michael Jordan yet still
played as a team. "I'm just here to watch and learn," said
Howard. "I'm hoping some day our team will mature into a
contender. I think we're on our way."

Midway through last season such a statement would have been
laughable. The Bullets--who have adopted a new nickname, the
Wizards--were leading the league in unfulfilled potential, mired
below .500. How could a team that included Howard, an All-Star
in 1996, and forward Chris Webber, an All-Star in 1997, and
point guard Rod Strickland, who should have been named an
All-Star at least once, be so anemic? When coach Jimmy Lynam was
fired on Feb. 10, Washington was 22-25. The team lacked
continuity, leadership and toughness.

After Nuggets president and head coach Bernie Bickerstaff took
over for Lynam, some players met to discuss taking
responsibility for their shortcomings instead of pointing
fingers at nearly everyone else. That mind-set was endorsed by
Strickland, a mercurial talent whose mistrust of his superiors
has often been a weapon of self-destruction. Bickerstaff
immediately identified Strickland as the key to the team's
performance. He freed Strickland to use his catlike quickness
not only to create scoring chances for himself but also to
orchestrate a more up-tempo attack. With their offense in high
gear, the resurgent Bullets finished 44-38 and qualified for the
playoffs for the first time in nine years.

The cornerstones of Washington's future are still Webber and
Howard, former college teammates at Michigan who are both
working to carve out niches among the top young forwards in the
game. Howard is probably best suited to play Webber's position,
power forward, though each of them insists there is room enough
on the court for both to flourish. Between them looms 7'7"
center Gheorghe Muresan, the tallest player in the league.
Muresan floundered last season, fighting off a sore hip and
back, struggling more than ever to run the floor. He was plagued
by injuries again in the preseason, and though his skills are
limited, his ability to clog up the middle is vital to the

In the backcourt Washington will look for continued improvement
from shooting guard Calbert Cheaney, who was on the trading
block until he blossomed as a precision shooter under
Bickerstaff. The Wizards will spell Cheaney with Tracy Murray,
and Strickland will get relief from Chris Whitney, an underrated
and exceedingly quick point who drew interest in last summer's
free-agent market but re-upped with Washington for three more

In fact the new 1997-98 Wizards will look remarkably similar to
the old 1996-97 Bullets, who lost three straight games to the
Bulls in the first round of the playoffs but were competitive
enough to prompt an admission from Jordan that they had worried
him. Bickerstaff believes the Wizards simply need seasoning, not
new ingredients, and some of Washington's familiar faces should
indeed get more minutes this year. Tim Legler, the three-point
shooting champ at the 1996 All-Star weekend, returns after
missing 67 games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his
right knee. Forward-center Lorenzo Williams, a valuable
rebounder and defender, is also back after missing 63 games with
several leg injuries last season.

Even though the roster has not undergone an overhaul, the
renamed franchise has given itself a face-lift. The Wizards,
sporting redesigned uniforms, should be playing in the new MCI
Center downtown by December. Webber, who was one of only three
players in the league last season to average more than 20 points
and 10 rebounds per game, hopes the changes signify the start of
something big. "This is our year," Webber says. "No more
excuses. We're ready to show we belong."