When John Wall declared for the NBA draft last April, he knew that his first season would be a struggle but this season with the Wizards has been more difficult, producing more gruesome losses than he could’ve imagined. He leapt from a successful freshman campaign in Kentucky and fell right into some sinking sand that doesn’t appear as if it will let up until next season.
“I knew it would be a rebuilding process, but I thought with the group of guys we had, we had a chance to win games,” Wall said after the Wizards lost 116-89 to the Oklahoma City Thunder. “Sad thing is, we never really got on a winning streak. We’d be right there with certain teams and we took good teams to the wire. If we just play hard and play together, we could be in every game, but I felt if we approached every game like that, we could be a playoff team.”
The Wizards rarely took that approach this season, and unfortunately, no amount of hustle and high energy will do much to save the team with 17 games remaining. Their past three losses to Milwaukee, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City have been by a combined 67 points. And, only one of those teams, the Thunder, is definitely going to the playoffs.
The problem for the Wizards isn’t from effort, youth or inexperience. It’s talent, plain and simple. The Wizards are severely deficient in comparison to most other teams around the league and the situation is worse when Rashard Lewis and Andray Blatche are seated on the bench in sport coats, and Josh Howard will soon join them.
Coach Flip Saunders ruled out having all three against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday. And, for a team that had no margin for error before the injuries, this extended list of inactives -- which also includes three-point shooter Cartier Martin -- makes the Wizards’ shortcomings more glaring.
Howard has tried to get his left knee to cooperate all season, but it’s obvious that he just doesn’t have it. He tried to give it another go on Monday, but lasted just one half before realized -- after missing all six of his shots and failing to keep up with that gazelle Kevin Durant -- that it would be best if he sat down.
“I was running out there with a limp and that’s not a good thing,” Howard said.
Howard said he decided to play because the team is “spread thin” but he knows that it will be difficult to keep going, even with minutes restrictions. He admitted that this season has been a challenge, with him appearing in just 17 games and being truly effective in less than half of them. “It’s been tough. It’s part of the game. This offseason is big for me. I got an opportunity to get back healthy. That’s my number one priority.”
Nick Young is still playing but he may not be far behind, as his production continues to slip and jumpers get shorter because of nagging pain in his left knee. Young also appeared to be dragging his left leg at times, which contributed to him scoring just 11 points and missing 12 of his last 13 shots, although some credit could go to Thabo Sefolosha. Still, since scoring 21 points against the Pistons, Young has averaged just 12 points and shot 16 for 46 in his past three games.
“He’s been banged up, in his legs. Really since the all-star break,” Saunders said. “He got swelled up and sore. He’s had soreness in his knee. He’s in a situation that he’s got out of rhythm. And I told him, ‘Teams they scout you.’ A lot of teams have found out, when you get physical, it really bumps him off his rhythm.”
Lewis, his agent, Tony Dutt, and Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, were expected to soon make a decision about an appropriate plan for Lewis for the remainder of the season. Lewis visited with a doctor in Houston last week and has missed the past four games with right knee soreness. He suggested having a minor surgical procedure to clear the problems in his knee. Saunders hinted that there might not be enough time for Lewis to come back and contribute with just 17 games left in the season.
“We’re in a situation where something needs to be done now to shut him down or he needs to play,” Saunders said. “It’s getting late in the year, from that standpoint. He’s sat out now 10 days, even if he comes back now, he’s going to need time to get back in shape. I guess, now it’s a situation, we have to see what’s going to be best from an evaluation point and what he has to do to be ready come next year.”
With injuries comes opportunities, but the Wizards just don’t have much left in reserve. Right now, they are relying on their 15th, 14th, 13th and 11th guys to be major contributors. But as a credit to many of them, including Wall, they don’t want to use that as an excuse.
You have to be impressed with Wall, who showed his desire to win near the end of the first half, when he picked up a technical foul after Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (eight blocks) blatantly slapped a shot that caromed off the backboard -- an obvious goaltend that went uncalled. He also displayed it in the fourth quarter, when he set up Kevin Seraphin for an easy layup, only to watch Seraphin miss. Instead of sulking, Wall tracked down Nazr Mohammed to get a steal.
Trevor Booker had 14 points and 13 rebounds against Oklahoma City, continuing his solid play against it. In two games this season, he has combined to score 35 points and grab 27 rebounds. When asked how the team looked so much different than they did in Oklahoma City almost six weeks ago, Booker mentioned the depleted roster.
“We’re missing Dray and Rashard, Cartier. Those are big keys to our team,” Booker said. “At the same time, other guys have to be able to step up. it’s no reason we shouldn’t play hard every time. It’s hard with the guys banged up. Still could’ve played harder and gave a better effort.”