WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Remember the optimism surrounding the long-downtrodden Wizards back in July? Washington had drafted Georgetown star Otto Porter third overall and had re-signed fellow small forward Martell Webster, their most pleasant surprise of the 2012-13 season which had ended with a playoff-worthy .500 record over the final 50 games.
Although Emeka Okafor was sidelined long-term during training camp, optimism still reigned when the Wizards dealt him on the eve of the season for fellow big man Marcin Gortat, a deal that left Nene figuratively dancing about being able to move from center to power forward. With Nene and the young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal healthy, Washington expected to end its five-year playoff drought.
Instead the Wizards are 2-7 as they head into their 10th game tonight against visiting Minnesota (7-4). This is the fourth time in the last five years that Washington has started at least this poorly. Only Milwaukee, Sacramento and Utah are as bad or worse in the 30-team NBA.
Coach Randy Wittman likes to divide seasons into 10-game spans and he doesn’t like what he has seen so far from his disappointing team.
“We got to step up and make plays down the stretch,” Wittman said after last Saturday’s 103-96 overtime loss to Cleveland, a game that made it three losses in seven in which Washington failed to hold a double-digit lead. “We got to make plays where you got confidence you can do it. It didn’t feel [like we did].”
Nene certainly wasn’t feeling confidence in his younger teammates after last Wednesday’s 92-79 loss to the Spurs. It has been difficult for top teams, let alone the Wizards, to win at San Antonio for two decades, but the 31-year-old Brazilian took that defeat hard.
“Our young guys think they’re so smart, but if I was young, I would watch video of that game for one week to see if I could learn something because the way [the Spurs] play is how you’re supposed to play,” Nene said in exasperation at the end of an 0-3 trip through the Southwest that included a late blown 10-point advantage against powerhouse Oklahoma City. “They’re not as talented as us … but they don’t think about stats. We still think about stats. Our young guys must take their heads out of their butts and play the right way because I’m getting tired of this.”
Some of the teammates whom Nene called out met with him two days later to clear the air. Wittman said that he understood Nene’s frustration, but added “It’s not about pointing fingers.” Forward Al Harrington, the only Wizard who has been in the NBA longer than 11-year veteran Nene, said, “Those type of comments can destroy a team.”
But is there much of a team to destroy? The statistics do say that Washington is a better team that its 2-7 record. Only 13 teams are scoring more points and 12 are committing more turnovers while seven are shooting worse and/or rebounding worse, although none of the less accurate teams are over .500. Only Denver, Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia are giving up more points per game than Washington’s 104.6.
“We don’t have to re-invent anything,” Wittman maintained. “We [just] have to do things more consistently. When we do them consistently, we’re pretty good.”
Pretty good is a relative description for the Wizards, whose .354 winning percentage last season was their best in five years. When Beal said, “We’re not a horrible team,” it came off almost like a boast. Imagine LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant saying that.
But then, winning has been a near-foreign concept for most of the Wizards during their NBA careers. Small forward Trevor Ariza is the only one with a championship ring (from the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers). Reserve guard Eric Maynor is the only one with a playoff series victory during the past four years (with the 2011 Thunder).
Washington’s eight homegrown players have yet to reach postseason since Wall, who was drafted first overall in 2010, is the longest-tenured. Wittman’s career winning percentage in 447 games with the Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Wizards – admittedly not the Heat, Spurs and Lakers – is a woeful .333.
“Everybody believes in Coach Witt,” said the 23-year-old Wall, who has slumped dramatically since a strong start to the season.
“It’s really … being mentally there because [the] coaching strategies are working,” echoed the 20-year-old Beal, who has been inconsistent.
It’s hard to believe that much is really working at 2-7, but Washington is just a game out of a playoff spot in the very weak Eastern Conference in which only Indiana, two-time defending NBA champion Miami, Atlanta and Chicago have winning records.
So hope is not yet lost at Verizon Center, but in what figures to a make the playoffs or take a hike season for Wittman and 11th-year general manager Ernie Grunfeld, the future is slipping away with every loss.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.