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Michael Wilbon

Good Teams Start With Good Coaching

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page D01

What stands out most about the job Eddie Jordan has done this season is how calm he remains in the immediate aftermath of a loss like the one last night at MCI Center to the Boston Celtics, one of those losses that can drive a coach into a rant, drive him to lose patience with his team, and in some cases lose the team itself.

Jordan always finds restraint. He can criticize, even publicly, but sound professorial in doing so. He reminds himself the NBA season is a marathon and there are going to be nights like last night, when one of his all-stars, Gilbert Arenas, scores 43 points and another of his all-stars, Antawn Jamison, comes back from an injury to score 30 and grab eight rebounds -- yet, the Wizards lose.

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Antawn Jamison returns but the Wizards fall, 116-108, to Boston.
Michael Wilbon: Coach Eddie Jordan deserves credit for holding this team together.
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The last thing the Wizards need after what has to qualify as a bad loss is a panicky coach, one who flies into a lectern-pounding tantrum that reflects, no matter how understandable, obvious signs of worry. And Jordan doesn't.

Chicago lost in Miami and the Wizards missed a golden chance to reclaim the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference? Hey, Jordan points out, there are nine games left. The Wizards are still nine games over .500, still have the third-best record, along with Chicago, in the East. There are things to work on, places to get better. We'll get 'em tomorrow.

There have been two constants all season with the Wizards: Arenas and Jordan. Arenas has been celebrated and was named to the all-star team. Now, it ought to be Jordan's turn. In a season that has featured some particularly resourceful coaching from Phoenix to Miami, from Washington, D.C., to Washington state, nobody's been any better than Jordan. No other coach has operated as well in such a long-established culture of losing. And the 116-108 loss to the Celtics, maddening as it was, doesn't change that one bit.

Okay, the nominees for NBA coach of the year:

Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns. Okay, I probably would vote for Steve Nash as the NBA's MVP and that almost presupposes he and not the coach is the primary difference-maker. Still, any time your team has improved 27 victories in one season (from 29 to 56 so far) and winds up with more than 60 wins, you deserve serious consideration.

Stan Van Gundy of Miami. (See above, change Nash to Shaq.)

George Karl of the Denver Nuggets. This was a team in total disarray midway through the season. But since Karl came aboard the Nuggets are 23-6. The only thing that counts against Karl is he wasn't around the entire season.

Nate McMillan of Seattle. The SuperSonics won 37 games last season. Who had them winning a division title this year with Jerome James and Danny Fortson as the inside guys?

Scott Skiles of the Chicago Bulls. His team has the second-biggest jump in victories over last season, 18 games (23 to 41). And he's done it with four rookies (Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon, Andres Nocioni and Luol Deng) playing major roles. Chicago leads the NBA in opponents' field goal percentage, and young players simply do not commit on their own to defense. Figuring out how to best use Gordon, as a designated closer, was downright brilliant.

Rick Carlisle of the Indiana Pacers. The brawl could have killed the Pacers' season, and if not the brawl then the injuries. They've had to play without their best player, all-star Jermaine O'Neal, half the season, without Ron Artest just about the entire season, and lately without playmaker Jamaal Tinsley. Even Reggie Miller missed the first couple of weeks of the season. Not only have the Pacers missed a ton of games because of injuries, but the team was clearly in need of psychological and emotional healing after the brawl. Yet, Indiana is now in the sixth spot, one game clear of Cleveland, and only two games behind the Wizards and Bulls for the fifth spot.

Jordan of the Wizards. Jordan has had to negotiate as many injury games as Carlisle. The Wizards have had 14 lineups this season. "He's kept the team extremely competitive with all of the injuries," GM Ernie Grunfeld, said before last night's game. "He's kept them motivated. He's kept them together." The team has played with its desired starting lineup of Brendan Haywood, Kwame Brown, Jamison, Larry Hughes and Arenas for only three games all season.

Only three players -- Michael Ruffin (zero), Jared Jeffries (five) and Arenas (two) -- will have missed fewer than 10 games. Yet, the Wizards have improved 16 games this season so far, trailing only the Suns and Bulls in that department. If I were voting (and I'm not), I would narrow my choices to Skiles, Carlisle and Jordan. Any of the three would be a worthy choice.

But at least Carlisle is working with a group of players who have been deep in the playoffs and have some sense of how the team has to function without O'Neal and Artest. Carlisle also has a future Hall of Famer in Miller, who can carry a team in a sprint to the playoffs.

It's virtually impossible to distinguish between Jordan and Skiles. But there is a tiebreaker. The Bulls have a recent history of success -- huge, confidence-inspiring success. Losing isn't the official way of life with the Bulls.

It has been with the Wizards/Bullets for 23 years. The franchise hasn't won a playoff series since 1982, and not as much as a single playoff game since May 4, 1988, when the Bullets beat the Pistons. In fact -- and this is mind-boggling -- every team in the NBA except expansion Memphis has won at least one playoff game since the Wizards beat Detroit. The Clippers, the NFL Cardinals, the sad-sack Chicago Cubs -- seemingly all the really bad franchises in professional sports have won playoff games since then.

This is what we call a culture of losing, and it's the hardest thing to eradicate in sports.

Yet, Jordan has done that to a great degree. He's gotten the players to embrace strategically and philosophically what he wants to do. But as was obvious against Boston last night, the Wizards struggle against teams with playoff experience. Jordan, after the loss, lamented being outplayed by Indiana and Boston in consecutive home games.

But there's also the sense, for the first time since the Wizards last finished above .500 and last made the playoffs, in 1997, that there is also a resolve, that Jordan might be leading the way, but, refreshingly and because he is doing his job so well, he isn't going ahead alone.

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