Wizards hope Jamison rights ship
The Washington Wizards knew they would have a challenging start to the season the moment Antawn Jamison's right shoulder popped from its socket last month in Cleveland, but they didn't anticipate a near surrender.
Sitting at 2-7, with the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference, was not a feasible outcome -- even with Jamison missing the first nine games and other players scuttling in and out of the lineup because of injuries.
The other reasons for the Wizards' November doldrums -- they are 0-6 this month -- range from Gilbert Arenas's uneven adjustment to a new, point-guard driven offense after missing nearly two years of regular basketball action; a difficult schedule; the incorporation of three new players; an inability to keep a sustained 48-minute effort; excessive or untimely turnovers; poor starts and even poorer finishes.
Jamison, the two-time all-star, will make his season debut tonight against the Cavaliers and reserve guard Randy Foye is also returning to give the Wizards their core group of players for the first time this season. Coach Flip Saunders said that he hopes this game can set the tone for the remainder of the season.
"I told the guys we're not going to worry about the nine games we've already played," Saunders said. "We're going to worry about the next 73 games we're going to play. I'd be surprised if we didn't play well."
Jamison was hoping to return last Saturday against Detroit but he came down with an illness that he said "wasn't the flu and it wasn't swine flu, but it was something. It felt like I wasn't going to play basketball for a while."
Nothing, perhaps, made his stomach turn more than watching the Wizards playing so poorly in his absence. He grew so enraged after a loss to Indiana on Nov. 6 that he gave his teammates a postgame tongue-lashing. The team has lost three more games since then.
"We haven't been playing well, so you know that magnifies things a lot," Jamison said. "It's little things that I can help out with. It's just certain things out there that you know, with me out there, things are going to be done differently. The energy hasn't been there, playing smart down the stretch, things of that nature. And I don't care who's not playing, that's something you can always control. It's something we got to do a better job of."
The Wizards have also played one of the most difficult schedules in the NBA this season, having already faced seven playoff teams from last season, with five of their first nine games on the road. The Wizards had the league's second-toughest strength of schedule, with an opponents' winning percentage of .611. They've faced four division leaders (Cleveland, Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas), and six teams with seven or more wins (Miami twice). If you eliminate the New Jersey Nets, who are 0-11 this season, their opponents' combined record is 59-25 (.702 winning percentage). But Jamison said the excuses are over.
"I think we kind of got to the point where we was like, 'Let's just wait until he gets back,' " Jamison said, speaking of himself. "You can't do that. You got to find a way to get it done. We've had some games where they was winnable games and we didn't find a way to get it done. We got rattled a couple of games."
Saunders mentioned that teams have been able to overcome early season funks, recalling how the Dallas Mavericks recovered from a 2-7 start last season to win 50 games and advance to the second round. "From our standpoint, you have to start playing well. We've played well in stints but it hasn't been for 48 minutes," Saunders said. "You need to make teams that are going to beat you play a heck of a game and not just a so-so type of game."
Jamison, the Wizards' leading scorer the past two seasons, said that it was odd to see his team ranking 24th in scoring offense (94.22) and 25th in field goal percentage (43.7). "We've never been a team that struggled offensively," said Jamison, who averaged 22.2 points and 8.9 rebounds last season. "I think guys are anxious to see myself and everybody out there healthy at the same time. Just go out there and get into a rhythm and get our team chemistry, because it seems like we don't have any whatsoever out there."
Arenas and Caron Butler are playing like perfect strangers, with both failing to find their comfort zones in Saunders's new offensive scheme. Arenas is shooting just 40.9 percent, leads the league with 4.4 turnovers and recently admitted that he hasn't been able to balance getting others involved and getting his own shots. Butler is shooting just 39.7 percent and averaging 16.8 points, his lowest scoring average since he joined the Wizards in the summer of 2005.
"I think it's good to have Antawn back in the fold. He brings a lot of maturity," Saunders said. "You have him all through training camp for the two weeks and he's a big part of what you're doing, and suddenly you have to adjust on the fly. Now you can revert to what you were doing and guys can go back to their natural roles that were originally planned for them."
Arenas said that he is looking forward to Jamison's return, but added that it might take time for all of the pieces to come together. "The funny part with Antawn coming back, now we got to jell and get him back into the flow," he said. "I hope it can be a quick turnaround. Players have been dropping, players have been adding and we don't have the rhythm we would like right now. But we've never been a team that played in November very well. Since I've been here, December's always been our year."