Reporting David Elfin
Maybe major events in our lives really do come in threes. First, the sub-.500 Redskins won on Thanksgiving in Dallas for the first time in seven tries. On Monday, Maryland’s young and unsure of its place in the college basketball world, smoked a Big Ten school on the road. And last night, the hoops heavens finally smiled on the Wizards.
In their penultimate chance to avoid a winless November, 13 proved to be the Wizards’ lucky number as they halted their franchise-record worst start at 0-12 by edging Portland 84-82 at Verizon Center. Of course, they wouldn’t be the Wizards if they hadn’t tried to give the game away by getting outscored 15-0 to forge a 79-79 deadlock. And they had to survive a questionable offensive foul call on Nene with nine seconds left and a last Trail Blazers possession before coach Randy Wittman could finally smile.
Wittman, whose team continues to play without John Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, has to feel great that Washington held Portland to 34.9 percent shooting and that its bench outscored Portland’s by a whopping 46-4. Of course that means the Wizards’ starters, who shot just .381, were outscored by 36 points.
Next up for Washington is a meeting with Atlantic Division co-leader New York in Madison Square Garden, a special house of horrors for the visitors in recent years, before Miami comes to F Street on Tuesday.
The world champion Heat start the big three of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh along with former NCAA Championship Game heroes Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. The Wizards start Trevor Ariza, Kevin Seraphin, A.J. Price, none of whom would elicit much reaction from an average sports fan, Bradley Beal, the No. 3 overall selection who’s shooting a ghastly .326 a sixth of the way into his rookie year, and Emeka Okafor, who has never lived up to the potential he displayed as the 2004-05 Rookie of the Year with Charlotte
Speaking of Charlotte, last year the Bobcats were the worst team in NBA history and the Wizards’ salvation. Washington was 4-0 against Charlotte, 16-46 against the rest of the league during the lockout-lessened season. However, the Wizards are already 0-2 against the Bobcats this year, getting blown out once and losing in double-overtime last Saturday.
Of course, Washington has been hurt immeasurably by playing every game without swift point guard Wall, who won’t return from a right knee injury by the end of the season’s first month as had been expected since he hasn’t even begun practicing, and all but three contests without fellow linchpin Nene, the 6-foot-11 center who has long been struggling with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
But even with Wall and Nene fully healthy, the Wizards wouldn’t be on the level of the 10-3 Heat, the 10-4 Knicks or even less-talented Indiana and Houston, both 7-8. While their 0-12 start was noteworthy, no one outside of Washington would have noticed if they had been 2-10 because that’s what has become the rule for this franchise.
The Wizards made the playoffs in just five of the past 24 seasons, winning a lone series. That’s an incredible track record of futility which encompasses two buildings, two owners, five front office bosses and a dozen coaches.
Back in the spring, I advocated for general manager Ernie Grunfeld’s dismissal because he had been the architect of a franchise which had an abysmal .282 winning percentage over the past four years, and lamented the retention of Wittman, who had done better than predecessor Flip Saunders but still had a career .331 percentage.
Beating Portland means Washington can’t set an NBA record for worst start, but doesn’t begin to address what’s wrong with owner Ted Leonsis’ franchise. It’s still early, but what seemed to be a sensible trade for Ariza and Okafor has been a bust as has the 19-year-old Beal.
However, I disagree with those Wizards followers who want to fire everyone including the locker room attendants. There’s no point in firing a GM when there’s not much he can do to change the roster until the Feb. 21 trade deadline approaches. A new coach might make sense, but let’s not judge Wittman, who’s popular with his players, before he has an extended stretch with Wall and Nene in the lineup. That produced a 6-0 finish to last season.
This season was going to be about Beal and the 22-year-old Wall, whose June 2010 arrival makes him Washington’s seniority leader, learning to become a backcourt tandem and about Nene being a stabilizing force inside while they matured. This wasn’t going to be a playoff team under almost any circumstances. But if the Wizards haven’t improved on last year’s .303 winning percentage within a couple of months of Wall’s return, then by all means fire Grunfeld and Wittman and bring in a fresh set of bodies.
Change can be good, but the Wizards’ changes since they were flying relatively high behind the power of the Arenas-Jamison-Butler threesome four years ago have almost always made matters worse.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin