Wizards Turn Into Fight Club

By Mike Wise
Monday, February 12, 2007

In the estimable words of Micheal Ray Richardson, who was once asked to sum up the state of a very bad New York Knicks team, "The ship be sinkin'."

The Wizards aren't going down anytime soon, but they're taking on water fast.

This patchwork lineup since Antawn Jamison went down to a knee injury two weeks ago is flat-out not working.

The youngsters and veterans who were supposed to step up and show they could play quality, big-time minutes in this league -- Andray Blatche and Jarvis Hayes -- aren't yet up to the task.

Gilbert Arenas has played like one of the top five players in the world this season, but his silly-man persona doesn't translate to leadership among his teammates.

He knows that as well as anyone, and was reminded again yesterday when Eddie Jordan verbally traded shots with his star player after the most unsightly game of the year at Verizon Center:

Portland 94, Team Tumult 73.

What a surreal, 10-day meltdown, no? On Feb. 1, Jordan was named coach of the Eastern Conference all-star team, Caron Butler was selected to join Arenas, voted in as a starter, in Las Vegas, and the Wiz kids had emerged as the sweetest story at the halfway point of the NBA season.

A week and a half later, they've lost four of five games and someone has stolen their mojo at home, where the Wizards have looked downright atrocious in three of their last four games. It's one thing for teams led by Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan to embarrass you on your home floor, but Zach Randolph?

The coach and the star player are now officially feuding over philosophy. ("We're focusing on the wrong things right now," Arenas said, meaning defense. "Focus on what got us here.") The role-playing centers traded haymakers in practice on Friday (Brendan Ali-Etan Frazier II was put on the Arenas-Jordan undercard yesterday). And, almost unnoticed, Jordan also took a shot at his roster, which we all know was put together by Ernie Grunfeld.

"First of all, we didn't have the leadership out there that we needed with Antawn out," he said in his scorched-earth, postgame news conference. "And no one else has stepped up into a leadership role. And frankly, we didn't have enough talent out there on the floor."

Arenas started it, making the bizarre assertion that his coach focused too much on defense and that, in turn, led to the worst offensive performance of the season for the NBA's second-highest scoring team.

Jordan countered by calling Arenas's correlation "stupid," and stated that his star player lacks leadership qualities found in other top point guards like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash.

If I'm Arenas, I'm concerned about my All-Star Game minutes on Sunday.

Look, they may not be in deep trouble. As one knowledgeable fan surmised afterward, no one got hurt, the game wasn't on television (which means either no one saw it or, if you work for ESPN, it never happened), and, through a contest shown on the video scoreboard, we found out Butler is a natty dresser. Oh, and Washington is still in first place in the Southeast Division this morning.

But the larger concern is the self-destruction mode in which the Wizards find themselves. In pro sports this is called being unable to handle prosperity, and it affects every good team at some point in their evolution as a contender.

That the Wizards can be this emotionally honest with each other instead of letting these feelings of resentment linger for the second half of the season is a blessing in disguise. Let it out. Let it all out now and rebuild those bonds. Or bow out in the first round again.

The best development at the Phone Booth yesterday was the fans. They booed early and often, letting the Wizards know how they played against Portland was unacceptable. One of my biggest pet peeves about pro basketball in Washington used to be the apathy. My friend Dave Ross over at Fox 5 thought the jeers seemed a little fair-weather, the idea being Portland was one of 82 games and it's been a very memorable season thus far.

But the more the paying customers let the players and the organization know how they feel, the more they demand change in either effort or personnel when things are going badly, the quicker management responds. The entertainment dollar is too precious in this town to have the masses lose interest in a hot product.

The East is not going to be sub-par forever. The Wizards have a window now and they need to jump through before it closes.

I made it clear last month this team deserved a chance to stay together to see what it could accomplish. That meant not shopping Jamison, keeping the core of Jamison, Butler and Arenas together until they graduate to the next level of the playoffs. If not, then you can consider changes.

But I'm backing off supporting the role players. This is a two-man team right now, full of holes on the bench, in the middle, everywhere.

Though I ultimately believe Hayes is going to be a very good player in this league, his confidence isn't there yet. Even when Jamison returns, the Wizards need one more player off the bench who can put the ball in the hole.

It doesn't have to be the Microwave, Vinnie Johnson, from the old Bad Boys championship teams. At this moment, a toaster would do. Either way, Grunfeld has to consider a trade if something makes sense.

The forecast has changed since Jamison went down. Things are no longer calm and carefree in the corner of Wizards' locker room belonging to Gilbert Arenas.

This isn't merely about a blow-up between Arenas and Jordan, another melee between Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood or even another deflating loss at home.

This is about the Wizards fighting themselves. In practice. On the court. In the locker room. And if it doesn't stop now, this signature season will slip away.

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