They Should Keep Their Head

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The dumbest thing the Washington Wizards could do right now is fire Eddie Jordan. Abe Pollin's history of patience with employees he likes -- and he loves this Jordan -- and Ernie Grunfeld's track record of making smart basketball decisions both suggest the Wizards will be too smart to finger Jordan as the primary culprit for the team's wretched start. But being the only winless team in the NBA at 0-5 makes these conversations inevitable.

The Wizards aren't just off to another slow start, like last year when they also went 0-5 but recovered to win six straight. Through five games this season, they are depressingly awful: last in points allowed, at 108.8, and last in opponents' field goal percentage at 50.2. And since the Wizards are averaging only 97.4 points per game themselves, they're losing by an average of 11.4 points per game, the largest margin in the Eastern Conference. These are comical numbers, old ABA numbers from the 1970s.

They've already lost to the Knicks and Nets, who are not expected to be playoff teams. Their best player, Gilbert Arenas, is out for at least another month and nobody knows whether he'll be Agent Zero when he returns, or simply nothing. Their best front-court defender, Brendan Haywood, could be out for the season. Their best off-the-bench wing player last year, Roger Mason Jr., is now playing prolifically for San Antonio. Their best and only veteran playmaker, Antonio Daniels, is hobbling around on one leg. A fourth-year player who should be coming into his own, Andray Blatche, is great if you need to find an after-hours party but awfully close to becoming a bust as a basketball player. Eddie Jordan isn't responsible for all that; he can't be. The team that's available every night to Jordan is worse than the one that lost in the first round of the playoffs last season.

Quite the opposite of firing Jordan, Grunfeld needs to help him, perhaps by making a deal before the Wizards have fallen out of sight, before Arenas can even return to the lineup. The Wizards need on-the-court help now. Jamaal Tinsley, a veteran point guard, is just sitting around, not playing for the Pacers. Memphis has four point guards on its roster. Too bad Kirk Hinrich just left the Bulls' lineup for 12 weeks with a hand injury because he or Larry Hughes would probably be available.

The Wizards will have to do something other than ask Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler to each have another career season and hold the fort until Arenas comes back. That approach, for the third straight season, just doesn't cut it. The Eastern Conference, which has been dreadful the last five-plus years, has a bunch of teams that figure to be noticeably improved, including the Knicks, Raptors, Sixers, Heat, Hawks and even Bobcats.

It was Grunfeld, even more than the coaching staff, who was sold on keeping Arenas at whatever price, not knowing whether he'd be physically ready to play like a man worth $111 million. More than a few personnel executives around the league believe Arenas is the riskiest free agent signing (at that price) in years because of his health, and that this is the rare instance when Grunfeld -- who has made any number of savvy decisions in New York, Milwaukee and Washington -- made the absolute wrong decision.

True or not, Jordan has been coaching a team without its franchise player, no different in that context than Phil Jackson having to make a go of it without Kobe Bryant or the Cavaliers having to play without LeBron James. Still, the Wizards can play a whole lot better than they've shown these first five games, and will have to if they're to avoid a sixth consecutive loss tonight at home against the Utah Jazz, which, by the way, seems to be doing just fine without its best player, injured point guard Deron Williams, who last night made his season debut.

If you're searching for some good news, there is some -- though the returns won't show up in the short term. JaVale McGee, the 7-foot first-round draft pick, has the early makings of a being a beast. He's the most athletic man of that size the franchise has had in a great many years. He's got passion, energy, and is completely fearless. Ideally, you don't want to throw this kid in now to sink or swim. But McGee is so much more advanced than (sorry to do this) Kwame Brown. Players on two teams have already said to me they're stunned at how imposing McGee is. Chris Paul said McGee is athletic the way Dwight Howard is, which puts him on a real short list. The kid's got a jump shot--who knew?--from 15 feet and in. He can jump over the moon. Okay, he has no idea how to play professional basketball yet, and he'll be totally lost on defense, but so are quite a few Wizards so he'll fit right in. And at least while he's lost he's trying to block every shot he can reach.

So put him on the floor. Let him learn now, on the job. What's the downside? That he'll crumble like (sorry again) Kwame? Seriously doubtful. McGee's got the attitude of a kid who knows that at least physically he cannot be overmatched. Anyway, what's the alternative? Haywood is out. McGee already is twice as productive as Etan Thomas.

Put him out there. Start him. If you're playing to get to the point when Arenas comes back, then give him a big man worth throwing the ball to when he is healthy enough to play. McGee and scorer Nick Young are two big-time talents who bear watching now that there's plenty of playing time for them.

The last thing the Wizards need is a flashback to the years of upheaval and uncertainty, which is exactly what would happen if they brought in a new coach now, even a guy like Jeff Van Gundy or Avery Johnson who has a track record of winning. On the list of issues the Wizards are dealing with right now, coaching is too far down to target.

But if you're going to suffer through a winless two-plus weeks to start the season, at least find out whether the big hope for the future can help you before the end of it.

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