You never want to overreact to one game, especially since there are 65 more to go, but the Wizards couldn’t have had a more discouraging start to the season. They blew a 21-point lead at home to the equally lousy New Jersey Nets and several problems prematurely bubbled to the surface.
Andray Blatche played poorly but blamed the play-calling for his performance. John Wall was scorched by one of the few all-star point guards that he won a head-to-head matchup against last season. Nick Young’s left foot was so sore after Blatche fell on his ankle in the third quarter that he walked out of the locker room in a nice suit and one shoe, unable to slide on his slick, black loafers. And JaVale McGee was benched for the final 4½ minutes and left the locker room without speaking to reporters.
The Wizards’ 90-84 loss was one of the most disappointing since Coach Flip Saunders took over — and he has had more than a few. But this one has to rank among the worst.
They were playing a weakened opponent (the Nets have an all-star in Deron Williams, but their second-best player, Brook Lopez, is likely out for the season with a broken foot and Kris Humphries didn’t sign with the team until last week). They were at Verizon Center, trying to sell an already suspicious fan base on a theme of “New Traditions.” And they collapsed in embarrassing fashion, finding a way to fold after setting up a flimsy tent of hope.
“I think when you win, it breeds winning,” Saunders said after the game.
For the past three years, the Wizards have been losing and breeding doubt. That culture won’t change by putting a fresh red, white and blue coat of paint on the court or designing some new retro uniforms. Repackaging doesn’t change the product inside.
Blatche probably stunned the entire arena when he grabbed the microphone and announced to fans before the game that he is the captain of the team. But his post-game comments about not getting the ball in the low block were especially troubling coming after one game — and a shortened two-week training camp with just two preseason games. They were even more bothersome since the criticism of the coaching staff came from one of the supposed team leaders.
“I’ve been saying that since training camp — I need the ball in the paint,” Blatche said after the game. “I don’t want to be the pick-and-pop guy that I used to be, because it’s not working for me.”
After one game? After one game, when the Wizards built a huge lead through crisp ball movement and aggressive play on defense — and not pounding the ball inside to him?
After discussing his concerns with reporters, Blatche compounded the problem by taking a similar refrain with his Twitter followers. “I may have had a bad game but that’s cause I need the ball in the post not taking jump shots all game,” Blatche posted on his account.
Demanding the ball inside is not the way to respond after the Wizards lost in humiliating fashion and he scored 11 points on 5 of 13 shooting. Complaining about not getting touches also seems out of place when his counterpart, Humphries, nearly doubled his production with 21 points and 16 rebounds. And, Humphries didn’t have to worry about touching the ball because he went and got it, grabbing seven offensive rebounds. The Wizards had nine offensive rebounds as a team. Blatche had none.
Blatche is the longest-tenured player on the Wizards, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he should be placed in the role of captain simply because he has said all the right things since September and worked hard in training camp. On a team that has Rashard Lewis, Roger Mason Jr. and Maurice Evans — the latter two vice presidents in the players’ union — the Wizards aren’t short on veteran players with leadership qualities and playoff experience.
But since taking over as head coach, Saunders has often handed out responsibility too soon in hopes that a player will eventually grow into the role.
He named Wall co-captain last season — after his first practice in the NBA. Just because he was the point guard, and the best player, didn’t mean that he should be given that responsibility before running his first pick-and-roll under the bright arena lights. Even LeBron James, a two-time league’s most valuable player, had to wait before the Cleveland Cavaliers put him in that position.
For years under Eddie Jordan, Gilbert Arenas scoffed at taking on the role as team captain — despite being the unquestioned best player. Saunders named Arenas captain in his first year, and that decision proved to be a disaster within a few months after Arenas told Javaris Crittenton to “Pick one.”
This isn’t to suggest that Blatche will take a similarly destructive path as Arenas, but drop-kicking the coaching staff after one game is not a good start.
Wall was relatively dismissive, and shrugged when asked about Blatche’s comments. “I don’t know,” Wall said. “It’s whatever the play is called, that’s where the play goes.”
Wall is fortunate that Blatche popped off, because otherwise he would’ve gotten more attention for his poor performance against Williams. When the Wizards played the Jazz in one of Williams’s final games before getting dealt to New Jersey, Wall had one his best games against an all-star point guard as he had 19 points and 15 assists, and more important, led his team to a victory.
Whether or not that affected how Williams approached Wall on Monday is unclear, but Williams certainly wasn’t going to let Wall get the upper hand again. He scored 10 of his 23 points in the third period and forced Coach Flip Saunders to put Chris Singleton on Williams in the fourth quarter.
Wall may want to be an elite point guard, but he has to make better decisions to get there. He had four turnovers against the Nets, including one critical miscue in the final minute, and showed that for all the hype surrounding him since arriving as the No. 1 pick, he still has plenty of room to grow and mature before being handed a franchise.
“John’s going to be but he’s not — Deron Williams wasn’t an elite player his second year in the league,” Saunders said. “It’s a process that you go through, and John’s going through that process. I think that John, what he wants to do at times, he tries to do too much at times because he feels that he can take the game over. He got to the hole a lot, but he just couldn’t finish at that end.”
Wall said afterward about not finishing well, “That’s something I’ve got to fix.”
How Saunders plans to fix McGee is unclear, but he couldn’t have been pleased about sitting the final minutes in favor of Ronny Turiaf. Turiaf had the best plus-minus of any Wizard at plus-15, while McGee had the worst at minus-20. Saunders has routinely sat McGee hoping that he gets the message, but there has to be some other way to get the message across because he continues to make the same mistakes – and at his height and athleticism, he has to get more than six rebounds.
The Wizards have a lot to improve upon the rest of way, but they have move beyond the mental hurdles created by the struggles of the past in order to get better. “That’s something you’re going to have to overcome,” Saunders said. “Until we start winning, that’s always kind of going to be in the back of your minds.”