By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
It wasn't the losing that got Eddie Jordan fired. It was the languor of the Washington Wizards' 1-10 record, the telltale apathy with which they played, that forced him out. The Wizards didn't come to the defense of their coach on the court, unsurprising given the weak defense they consistently played under him these last few seasons.
It became a nightly ritual for Jordan: He had to pray for the Wizards to score 110 points, because it was their only chance to win -- to score so much it covered up their fractional effort on defense. For five-plus seasons under Jordan the Wizards -- despite four playoff appearances -- were blithely unconcerned with stopping the other team, and that chronic lack of commitment was the undoing of a terrifically nice man and promising young coach. Jordan was never able to get the Wizards to play both ends of the floor. That was his real failing.
That it was the reason for Jordan's firing was obvious from the attitude of team president Ernie Grunfeld. "Our 1-10 record is not acceptable and, more importantly, the way we have lost those games is not acceptable," he said. And it was the first subject interim coach Eddie Tapscott addressed. "I really believe we've got to get better defensively," Tapscott said. "The numbers say that, our performance says that."
Jordan's supporters will say that the losses were inevitable, given injuries and a thin roster -- the Wizards are without their best player, Gilbert Arenas, and starting center, Brendan Haywood. But that viewpoint ignores the recurrent nature of the Wizards' defensive problems even with healthy players. The Wizards' defense is an open, swinging door, annually among the four or five worst in the league. It ignores the absolutely viral effect poor defense has on a team over the long term, how it saps a franchise. The Wizards' D has been like a drain through which everything disappears, all of their effort, money and commitment wasted.
In truth, the current crisis has been years in the making; defense is what carries a team through precisely times like these, through injuries and bad patches. It's what a team has to fall back on when things go wrong, as they inevitably will, with hot-handed scorers. The Wizards at 1-10 embody the term defenseless -- what on earth did they think the word meant?
A depleted roster doesn't explain why the Wizards allowed 122 points to the New York Knicks, a team down to just seven players, Saturday night. That rain of three-pointers, including seven from Quentin Richardson, was merely the final indictment. Last year, they improved slightly to 12th in the league in points allowed, but they have totally regressed this season to 27th (103.5).
In the end, defense is nothing if not an ethic, and the ethic the Wizards have displayed as collective defenders is that of a bunch of simpering matadors waving their capes around. Etan Thomas plays D exactly like what he is, an amateur poet. Andray Blatche? Perhaps the lowest moment of the Wizards' cellar-dwelling season was when Blatche let the whining baby-man Kwame Brown blow past him for layups. No wonder the Wizards seem so sapped of will, as if there is a fatal flaw in the heart of the franchise. Guess what? There is one.
What's more, Jordan didn't seem to recognize it -- he actually defended their habits this season. Perhaps that's what finally did Jordan in with management, his apparent resigned acceptance of their half-effort. "The thing we talked about is you didn't win the game but you don't have losing habits," Jordan said after the loss Saturday. "We play hard and we are unselfish and we don't point fingers. We are accountable and we still have confidence that we can still go out and win games so, even though we are 1-10, we don't have losing habits and that's a good thing."
In fact, the Wizards do have some losing habits. It's a losing habit to play harder on one end of the floor than the other. It's a losing habit to not recognize and identify shooters. Above all, it's a losing habit -- some would say the ultimate losing habit -- to play less than the complete game.
Their defensive problems are endemic, not related to who's healthy and who's not. Last season the Wizards were dead last in the league in three-pointers allowed, and three-pointers made. Also, 64.9 percent of the baskets they gave up were assisted. This season they are again giving up a barrage of three-pointers, along with almost 26 assists a game. What that suggests is that they're getting shredded, picked apart, that teams know how to create open shots against them almost at will.
It doesn't take wholesale roster changes to alter a team's defensive effort -- evidence of that is the Boston Celtics. They ranked 24th in the league in defensive field goal percentage the year before they won their championship. Roster improvement helped -- they added the best defensive player in the world in Kevin Garnett -- but so did the fact that Doc Rivers, his job on the line, hired defensive specialist Tom Thibodeau and the result was an about-face. Asked what the difference in his team was, Rivers answered: "Defense. I said defense. We play defense, we're going to win the world championship. That's what they did." The Celtics so bought into it that in Game 4 of their series against the Lakers, Paul Pierce asked to guard Kobe Bryant. "I can guard him," he said. "Let me guard him." It's frankly hard to imagine any of the current Wizards saying such a thing.
Jordan implored the Wizards to defend. He begged and cajoled, and he hired assistant Randy Ayers to help him. But persuading NBA players to defend just might be the hardest job in sports. They are paid to produce points and to put spectators in seats, and defense does neither. It's wearing. It's unrewarding. It's means sacrificing your body and offensive energy and elegance. An old basketball adage says that you can't ask players to defend, you have to make them do it. In his next coaching stop -- and there will be one -- Jordan will know that.
Now it's up to Tapscott to make them defend. Grunfeld points out that the team has plenty of wherewithal even without Arenas and Haywood: The Wizards have two all-stars and locker room leaders in Butler and Antawn Jamison, and some promising young talent. To say that they aren't capable of fighting back, to give up on the entire season or blame it on the roster, is an easy out. This is not a defenseless team, no matter how much it's acting like one at the moment.
Anyone who thinks so should hear a story retired Hall of Famer Lou Carnesecca tells about Joe Lapchick, the legendary New York Knicks coach and his great mentor at St. John's. Carnesecca was a young assistant to Lapchick when he got his most important lesson in coaching. Their team was struggling and Lapchick simply wasn't getting through to some of the players. Carnesecca said, "Why don't you just get rid of a couple of them?"
Lapchick put an arm around Carnesecca. "Son," he said, "anybody can do that. It's your job to make them better."