By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009
BOSTON, April 15 -- In their final game of the regular season, the Washington Wizards stepped on the floor as they have most of the year -- undermanned and youthful. Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood -- three players the Wizards had hoped would lead them to their fifth consecutive playoff appearance -- were all on the bench in street clothes, watching a lame duck coach and a ragtag team of eight players get reduced to just seven before the Wizards lost to the Boston Celtics' B team, 115-107, at TD Banknorth Garden.
But as interim coach Ed Tapscott was unable to keep the Wizards (19-63) from matching the worst 82-game record in franchise history, the front office moved closer to filling his spot and quickly moving beyond this miserable campaign. According to an NBA executive with knowledge of the situation, Flip Saunders has agreed to become the next coach of the Wizards and the two sides are closing in on signing a deal soon. The deal is reportedly worth close to $18 million over four years. Another source said an announcement would come early next week.
For the past eight years, the 2000-01 team, coached by Leonard Hamilton and featuring Richard Hamilton, Rod Strickland, Juwan Howard and an aging Mitch Richmond, resided in a house by itself in franchise history -- the worst ever. Now it has a reluctant roommate.
"What's done is done. You live with the verdict of history," Tapscott said in his final postgame interview as coach of the Wizards. "When you have a record like that, you have it for a reason and we are all of that reason. We have to face that. Now, it will be someone else's task to put those pieces up and reassemble them so that we're better than that."
Saunders has been to the conference finals four times and has the seventh-highest career winning percentage in NBA history among coaches with at least 900 games coached. He will take over a team that suffered through insurmountable injuries, with only one player -- Nick Young -- able to appear in all 82 games; a team that couldn't get out of the Eastern Conference basement despite the consistent presence of two former all-stars in Jamison and Caron Butler. Butler led the Wizards with a season-high 39 points last night, but was unable to get that elusive 20th win against a Celtics squad that rested all-stars Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
"I can't thank him enough, in terms of coming out in the last game, nothing to prove for him and he gave me a warrior's effort," Tapscott said of Butler. "Him and Antawn, in particular, have been like that all year long. It was my privilege to coach them."
Jamison was forced to miss his first game of the season because of bone spurs in his right ankle. Jamison initially hurt his foot during the Wizards' emotional 109-101 win against Cleveland on April 2 -- the only time this season that he was able to play with Arenas, Haywood and Butler. Jamison continued to play until aggravating the injury in a loss to Toronto on Monday.
Jamison was hoping to record his sixth career 82-game season but said: "I feel fortunate enough to make it except for one game, with the way things went. But it's something serious."
Jamison said that he will get a few opinions after the season, but the injury could require surgery. "Hopefully not, so I can rest and take it from there," Jamison said. "If it [does], it's just another bump in the road."
Tapscott -- placed in a difficult situation the moment he replaced Eddie Jordan on Nov. 24 -- was forced to field his 21st lineup of the season in Javaris Crittenton, Dominic McGuire, Darius Songaila, JaVale McGee and Butler. Andray Blatche also sat out with a sore left knee.
In a game that was either going to be a show of pride or improve the number of ping-pong ball combinations for the draft lottery, Crittenton was forced to leave after spraining his right ankle after making a scoop shot to give the Wizards a 71-70 lead with 3 minutes 45 seconds left in the third period. Injuries have been the story of the season, but Jamison said being without Arenas and Haywood most of the season wasn't enough of an excuse to finish with such a poor record. "To me, this is the worst season I've ever been a part of," he said. "Even though we had a lot of injuries, we still thought that we had enough talent to play a lot better than we have shown this season."
Butler, the only opening day starter to play in the final game, was pleased that the team never stopped competing until the end. "I was trying to finish the season strong. The goal was always to get 20 wins. Unfortunately, we fell a little short," Butler said. "It's hard as a player to find the bright spot in all this losing and to continue to come out and keep preparing. I respect all the guys in the locker room for rallying together and finding a way to compete and not go on vacation too early. Now it's officially over, so they can enjoy themselves. But I can't wait to get back at it."