WASHINGTON – It’s bad enough that the Wizards have lost four straight games, dropping to 2-5 at the start of a season that began with such high expectations. When your coach and best player can’t even agree on what’s wrong, that’s a sure sign of more losses to come.
Yes, it’s early, and the Wizards are without two key players, Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller. And yes, Sunday’s 102-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns came in a game that tipped off at 1 p.m. ET, an anomaly that elicited a smile and guffaw from the suddenly talkative Gilbert Arenas after the game. One thing you don’t want to do in the NBA is roll out of bed and start chasing Steve Nash and the Suns around.
The Wizards are too talented to be scuffling like this for long, and when they get healthy, they’ll be right about where people expected them to be – a team in the mid-40s in wins seeded somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But not if they don’t erase some bad habits that simply have no place in an offense constructed by Flip Saunders. And not until everyone understands what the problem is.
The good news is that defensively, the Wizards are no longer a pushover. I wasn’t as impressed with their defensive performance against Phoenix on Sunday as Saunders was, but maybe he was trying to mix in a little positive in his post-game analysis of an effort that produced only 15 assists – five of them by Fabricio Oberto. That was two fewer assists than Nash dished out all by himself.
Saunders was right when he described the Wizards’ offense as “stagnant.” Arenas was right when he said the team is still “trying to find out where we are, what we are.” The common ground ended there.
“We’re just trying to figure out how we can put the ball in the basket, what coach wants from each player,” Arenas said. “That’s what we’re struggling with.”
Once again on Sunday, the ball wasn’t moving, the cuts weren’t crisp enough, and there was little trust in the system that Saunders brought here. The typical offensive set consisted of someone getting the ball on the wing, dribbling toward the basket, and shooting. Yet listen to Arenas’ assessment: He thinks the Wizards aren’t shooting fast enough.
“I say it’s when we have shots open, we’re not taking them,” Arenas said. “We’re trying to do the extra dribble, or get closer to the rim, or pass the ball an extra time when we could just take the first shot. If you look at a team like Phoenix, the reason they don’t have turnovers is they’re launching ‘em. They’re letting it fly so they don’t have a chance to turn the ball over.”
Contrary to Arenas’ assessment, the Wizards’ brass knows the opposite is true. The Wiz need to play more structured offense and pass the ball more, not less. Under previous regimes, bad habits ruled. Saunders’ efforts to eradicate those bad habits have been met with the kind of resistance that results in a team with three 20-point scorers (when healthy) hitting the 100-point plateau only twice in seven games.
“We’ve just got to get better acquainted with one another and believe in one another,” said Caron Butler, who needed 20 field-goal attempts to score 19 points against the Suns. “But it’s early.”
It is, but the Wizards already are exhibiting some tell-tale signs of a team with fragile chemistry. After a deplorable 102-86 loss at Indiana Friday night, Jamison unleashed a profane tirade in the locker room. It was first reported that Jamison overturned a fruit tray in the process, but there were indications on Sunday that the perpetrator might’ve been Saunders, who wouldn’t fess up. Either way, somebody had better nail the postgame spreads to the table if the Wizards don’t get on the same page soon.
Jamison and Miller will be back in another week or so from their respective shoulder injuries, and things will get better. Until then, it doesn’t get any easier Tuesday night in Miami against Dwyane Wade. At least that game tips off after the sun goes down.