There's a surprising team at the bottom of the Eastern conference standings. With a record of 8-22, this talented group is finding new ways to define underachievement. The Washington Wizards combination of terrible effort and lackluster execution has negated the substantial skill on their roster. As of December 30th they have yet to win a single road game.
The most baffling thing about Washington's start is they have the talent to be a high-profile playoff team. They have a terrific young frontcourt with springy seven-footer JaVale McGee and brawny power-forward Andray Blatche. McGee is one of the great shot blockers in the league and Blatche has the potential to be dominant force inside, averaging 21 points-per-game in his first three months of real playing time last season. Rashard Lewis at small-forward is a two-time all-star, a terrific three point shooter and one of the highest paid guys in the league. And the Wizards have Kirk Hinrich and John Wall in the backcourt. The wily Hinrich plays the role of veteran defensive stopper while Wall, the exhilarating number one pick, is an explosive offensive presence. Despite all these big names, the best player for Washington this year has been dazzling but previously unknown two-guard, Nick Young.
So with all these weapons why are the Wizards struggling? The reason most Washington execs offer is injuries. Wall has looked great when he's played, but he's missed 14 games already with a variety of ailments. Sixth man Josh Howard returned in December from an ACL injury. While the rest of the team has been reasonably healthy, the loss of Wall's frenetic energy has affected teammates who aren't exactly known for their balls-to-the-wall hustle.
The explanation offered by many basketball reporters is a serious lack of team chemistry. On Christmas Eve, Blatche and McGee got into a highly publicized scuffle at a local Washington nightclub. After Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittendon's near gunfight in the DC locker room last year, the Wizards hardly need more internal strife.
While Wizards management is furious about the fight, I don't see it as a big deal for the team's prospects. It's a common misconception that NBA teammates have to like each other. Kobe Bryant may not have a friend in the league, yet he has five rings. The fact that the two were clubbing is also a non-issue. A skim of Sam Smith's classic, The Jordan Rules, suggests that if partying wrecked performance, the 1990 Chicago Bulls would have been in the cellar not the NBA Hall of Fame.
But the Wiz needs a coaching change. This isn't a knock on coach Flip Saunders as much as the maturity level of his players. Saunders is a solid strategic coach. His Detroit teams of a few years ago had consistent success. But in Detroit Saunders didn't have to motivate his players. Many of the Wizards seem to think they can flip a switch and automatically start playing hard. Nothing is more frustrating for coaches and fans than players being paid millions who look as if they'd rather be somewhere else. This mentality explains why Washington can play with the leagues best one night and get embarrassed by a horrendous team like the Sacramento Kings (lost by 24) the next.
A fitting metaphor for the Wizards season so far was their December 18th matchup with the Miami Heat. Led by Hinrich and Young, the Wiz outplayed LeBron James and Co. for 47 minutes. With a four-point lead and 17 seconds to play, Blatche fouled Heat forward Chris Bosh shooting a three. The Wizards then turned the ball over twice and four Heat free throws later, the game was over. That lead was erased in 17 seconds by poor fundamentals and a lack of focus.
The newly acquired Lewis is confident the Wizards will improve. "Of course we're going to get better," he told me in the clubhouse in late December. "We have a lot of talent here but this is a young team so it will take time."
The NBA is all about postseason play, with eight teams from each conference making the playoffs. That means you have to stink up the joint to be out of the postseason picture early in the season. Even with their struggles, Washington is only four games from a playoff spot. But to get there, they have to stop phoning it in.