Players only meetings don’t always yield immediate results. Venting might feel good in the moment, but its significance is truly measured by what follows.
On Tuesday, the Wizards spent 30 minutes before the morning shoot-around expressing their frustrations with each other and a disappointing start. After Washington pulled out a 104-100 win against a Minnesota Timberwolves team now run by Flip Saunders, reserve Trevor Booker could only feel one way about the effect the frank, morning conversation.
“I guess it worked,” Booker said with a shrug.
Two seasons ago, the Wizards were off to a then-franchise worst 0-6 start when veteran Maurice Evans, frustrated at the sense of entitlement with his unaccomplished teammates, brought the players together to put their concerns out in the open. In their next game, the Wizards lost to New York by three points and would lose the next game by 21 points – the Timberwolves, no less – before finally claiming their first win of the season. Less than three weeks later, Saunders was canned and replaced by Randy Wittman.
For one night, at least, the Wizards (3-7) could find the benefit in veterans Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington forcing the players to settle their differences without the presence of coaches. According to the players in the room, Ariza initiated the discussion, then Harrington took over and asked his teammates if they could handle constructive criticism from one another. Every player on the team spoke up to explain the team’s problems for his own perspective.
Booker said the discussion never got contentious or confrontational, but the players were honest and direct.
“It was something that we definitely needed. Just for guys to air out their opinions on what the team needs to do better and what we need to do to, and what we need to do collectively in order to win,” Beal said. “It was a deep and serious conversation. Hopefully we’ll be able to buy into what everybody said, and accept criticism when we criticize each other and continue to move forward.”
Later in the meeting, Wall stood up and said he told his teammates that they needed to start holding each other accountable and know their roles. Harrington then told Wall that since he is their leader and they trust him, he needed to explain to everybody what roles they are expected to play. Wall then told his teammates, one by one, what he thought they should do.
“As a leader that’s what we need him to do. And he did that,” Beal said of Wall. “We need him to speak up. As long as he continues to lead by example, and continues to communicate with us, and everybody is on the same page, we’re going to be a pretty good team.”
Wall said he contemplated calling a meeting himself, but he was pleased that two of the Wizards’ established vets – Ariza, who owns a championship ring, and Harrington, who entered the NBA when Bradley Beal was 5 – decided that something needed to be done to put a halt to a four-game slide. Ariza is out with a strained right hamstring and Harrington is dealing with a sore right knee, but they don’t want to return to a team in shambles.
“It was big for him to call it,” Wall said of Ariza, “and I think it was what our team really needed. We came straight-forward with it and I think everybody understand what we are and what we’re capable of achieving.”
Nene was the first player to voice his displeasure with the direction the team was taking, but his comments about the “young guys” taking their “heads out their butts” eventually led to a conversation with him, Wall and Beal. Harrington felt that what Nene had to say needed to be kept in house, but he wanted to create a private forum to open to every one in the locker room.
The meeting could be the moment that turns around the season and possibly gives Wall the confidence and security that he needs to be the leader. Or it could just be a discussion that coincided with a game in which the Wizards shot a season-high 48.2 percent from the floor, made all 15 of thier free throw attempts, held Minnesota to an opponent-low 37 points in the second half and got contributions from all over.
“You saw the game, but for sure, it was a big step,” Nene said of the meeting. “But we need to maintain the focus, the trust the hard work, the pride with each other. It doesn’t matter if you score a lot, because if the whole team don’t succeed, the whole team fail.”
The Wizards will see if it has any long-term effects in the upcoming days, beginning with their game on Wednesday in Cleveland.