Centers of Dissension

Haywood and Thomas have had at least three brawls at practice in two years, resulting in a suspension for each.
Haywood and Thomas have had at least three brawls at practice in two years, resulting in a suspension for each. (Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Eddie Jordan and Gilbert Arenas had a fuss. Those usually work out. Coaches need 30-point scorers. Point guards who play poor defense and take crazy shots need coaches who appreciate them. Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, on the other hand, have a two-year-long fistfighting feud. Those are pure poison. Until the Wizards' war at center ends, little good can happen.

Luckily for the Wizards, Coach Jordan and superstar Arenas like each other, as they should. They're basically a couple of sweethearts, Jordan with his sly humor and candor, Arenas with his endearing eccentricities like a million-dollar birthday party and "I'll drop 50 on you" quotes. After their straight-talk meeting Monday, with Jordan doing the yacking, things should work out fine.

Team captain Antawn Jamison's clubhouse credibility helps, too. "I put [Gilbert] in the closet and gave him a whipping," Jamison said after straightening out Agent Zero for second-guessing Jordan's coaching style in a loss on Sunday. So, as shellshocked as the Wizards are at the moment with Jamison injured, Arenas's frustrated outburst at Jordan and the coach shooting back at Arenas about lack of leadership, it should subside. Eddie and Gil, exchange valentines. Then be pals at the All-Star Game.

Usually, any flap between a coach and a fan-favorite superstar is the worst team-chemistry news that can befall an NBA squad. The Wizards, however, have a much bigger and longer-lasting problem that must be resolved. The team's two centers, both signed through the 2010 season, hate each other and don't even bother to hide it.

Haywood and Thomas have had at least three brawls at practice in two years, resulting in a suspension for each. Thomas's current self-inflicted TKO will keep him out of tonight's game in Philadelphia. This battle between Washington's little big men seldom ends and barely has truces. The pair bad-mouth each other in public, give each other the cold shoulder during games, sit apart, avoid eye contact -- the whole kindergarten program.

What a pathetic playground-politics spectacle. Both giants are in their sixth seasons, all as Wizards. They're as good as they're ever going to get. And their career stats tell it all: Haywood has averaged seven points and 5.7 rebounds, Thomas, 6.2 points and five rebounds. These guys, combined, barely average a double-double. Wilt's safe.

Yet for this combo production, 13.2 points per game this season, Thomas is getting $5.9 million and Haywood $4.5 million this season -- or nearly a million dollars per point a game. They toss in the fistfights for free. No pay-per-view charge to teammates. Of course, they only fight in practice, where it hurts the team the most. Once games start, peace breaks out. So Shaq's safe, too.

Fortunately, there's a solution. Haywood and Thomas simply need a reality check. But it will require a huge attitude adjustment because these delusional ego-trippers have turned NBA reality upside down. Somewhere, somehow, each man has become convinced that he would be a star -- if only that other jerk wasn't eating up his minutes.

Haywood and Thomas are not blocking each other's careers. They are enabling each other to have careers.

In reality, it is only as a tandem that they can enjoy rich careers with significant playing time for a winning team. If either were suddenly dropped onto the roster of a team with a quality center, he'd be reduced to backup in a heartbeat. Almost nowhere else would they receive the modest prominence they get as Wizards, with whom each man almost perfectly complements the other's weaknesses. Where else could a player like Haywood call himself a starting center, yet be third on his own team in rebounding? Thomas, with 11 assists this season, may be the least likely player in the NBA to help a teammate score a basket.

How can these guys fight? They should hug before every practice and have a beer after every game. They're making each other wealthy by disguising each other's inadequacies. Thomas can set a pick and Haywood can shoot a hook. But neither man could survive playing 35 minutes a night at center. Both have high shooting percentages only because they seldom shoot beyond point-blank range. Neither even makes 58 percent of his free throws. When either touches the ball, the offense comes to a halt.

On defense, tall centers simply shoot over the wide-bodied Thomas while strong pivot men push Haywood around. Neither averages even one assist or one steal per game. Together, they constitute one competent shot-blocker. The reason the pair can combine for about a dozen points and rebounds on most nights is because, when they're in the game, they can expend all their energy and seldom pace themselves. Each provides the other with the rest he needs to stay fresh.

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