Two Good Men, One Tough Spot

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Even with Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood on the shelf with injuries, Ernie Grunfeld felt the Washington Wizards should be playing better. Increasingly, he saw a group that still includes two all-stars playing selfishly and without confidence. He felt they had regressed defensively. Grunfeld, who manages largely by intuition, said more than once yesterday, "Things just weren't right."

So he fired Eddie Jordan, the best coach the Wizards have had since Dick Motta.

Usually when a team starts 1-10 and is dead last in the league, the firing of a coach is a welcome move, perhaps even mandatory. Not here.

Eddie Jordan is the local boy who made good. He's a Washingtonian, smart and classy, exactly the man you want fronting your outfit. And on top of all of it, he breathed life into a stone-cold loser, a team so bad for so long it appeared cursed. No, Jordan didn't lead the Wizards to a championship. But he coached an exciting brand of basketball. Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler thrived in his system.

The only thing that might smooth over Jordan's firing, to some small degree, is that Grunfeld replaced one stylish, well-schooled, basketball sophisticate from Northeast Washington with another. Ed Tapscott, now the interim coach, is one of the most diversely skilled, uniquely qualified men in professional basketball. He's been a college head coach, represented players, been assistant general manager, worked in broadcasting, consulted, scouted. He did 99 percent of the heavy lifting that resulted in a franchise in Charlotte for billionaire Bob Johnson. Tapscott's résumé glitters.

Of course, the new coach has some ideas about how this group of players, still missing Arenas and Haywood, can be better than 1-10.

After putting the Wizards through a particularly difficult practice yesterday, Tapscott talked pointedly about this team playing better defense, specifically about closing down the lane, protecting the rim and closing out on three-point shooters -- all things the Wizards have failed miserably at doing, which is why they're the worst team in the NBA defensively. Tapscott said he wants to refine what the Wizards do well (run Jordan's offense) and do all the other things at a higher level. He's going to demand they give more than they think they can. He wants the team to be more physical and he wants to narrow the rotation to eight, maybe nine players, the better to motivate those outside the rotation to practice hard enough to earn playing time.

Sounds good. But can they? Are these Wizards skilled and tough enough to do what Tapscott wants? To be more physical, to shut down the lane, to protect the rim, to close out on three-point shooters? In other words, to play NBA-level defense? Grunfeld and Tapscott believe they are good enough, that no matter the injuries they shouldn't under any circumstance have a worse record than Oklahoma City, which looks like one of the worst teams ever. "We're not that far away," Tapscott said, referring to several lost fourth-quarter leads built on just the kind of play he wants to see more consistently.

There are players around the league who beg to differ. Two current all-stars who have played against the Wizards this season told me that these Wizards are dreadful, not improved one lick over the summer through personnel moves. "They're the same team they were two years ago in the playoffs where they're trying to figure out what to do without Gilbert," one of the all-stars said. "That was pretty good then, but just about every team in the East is better than they were two years ago and last year . . . except the Wizards."

There's no arguing that. Atlanta, Philly, New York, Miami, Toronto, Milwaukee -- they all got better over the summer. The Wizards gave Arenas $111 million and he hasn't played one second, and we don't know when he will or what he'll look like when he does. Every time the Wizards lose a game it looks like keeping Arenas, especially at that price, was an enormous mistake. Grunfeld made a very nice draft pick in JaVale McGee, but the kid needs a couple of years to become a consistent impact player.

Other than McGee, the Wizards sat at the table with pretty much the same hand, minus reserve ace Roger Mason, who is playing very well for San Antonio. How long can the same group hold the fort while waiting for reinforcements? That's not Jordan's fault, it's Grunfeld's. The GM acknowledged that when he said, "We're all responsible . . . myself, the players, the coaches." GMs, of course, don't fire themselves. They're the boss. Grunfeld was frank when he said, "This is an area we can control."

To what degree, we'll find out fairly quickly. Grunfeld called the 1-10 record "unacceptable." Okay, the Wizards shouldn't be 1-10. They certainly shouldn't have lost to the Knicks, who were down to seven players Saturday night. That loss had to seal Jordan's fate. But what should the Wizards be right now? 3-7? Perhaps 4-6? Is it possible, as opposing players have suggested, that this team simply isn't any good?

I probably should admit here that I'm rooting for Tapscott, whom I've been close friends with for 20 years, to find some way to trigger a turnaround. What keeps me from thinking "Same old Bullets" right about now is that Grunfeld has a track record of being right about these things, and Tapscott can diagnose what ails a team as well as anyone. In tandem, they set up the Knicks to reach the NBA Finals twice. They were setting the table in Milwaukee before ownership got meddlesome.

Jordan is unemployed now, though surely not for long, because Grunfeld's instincts tell him the Wizards ought to be better than their record and because he believes Tapscott can get out of them something Jordan couldn't. Few people can communicate the game's strategies and its nuances, to insiders or outsiders, as well as Ed Tapscott. Whether the coach, new or old, can get the players to do what he knows is necessary is always at the core of the season.

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