By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
One year ago Tuesday, Eddie Jordan had just finished handing out Thanksgiving turkeys when he was informed that he had been relieved of his duties as head coach after a 1-10 start. And in a twisted coincidence of scheduling, Jordan returns to his home town on the anniversary of that firing as the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Jordan's former team has two of the pieces that he lacked for his final, futile season -- Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood -- but the Wizards (3-9) have improved only slightly from this point last year, despite the addition of several new pieces and Coach Flip Saunders.
With the team losing eight of its past nine games, there has been another more troubling development: an apparent rift between co-captains Arenas and Caron Butler that both sides claim they worked out by speaking to each other on the telephone late Monday afternoon.
The situation came to head after practice, when Arenas made some comments that slighted Butler. After hearing the comments, Butler later called Arenas. Afterward Butler said via text message, "I never had a problem with him."
Following the team's 22-point loss in San Antonio on Saturday, Arenas claimed that "hidden agendas" had been derailing the season. In an impromptu conversation with reporters on Monday -- his first post-practice interview since the regular season began -- Arenas responded to a question about teammates trusting one another by saying: "Most of us feel we're confident in each other on the floor and there are a few that don't. I have no idea. But for the most part, we all get along. There are, what, 15 players on the team? Fourteen do."
Arenas didn't name anyone, but moments later, he was asked who would take responsibility for healing the fissures within the team. "Me and Antawn" Jamison, Arenas said. "That's our jobs. But at the end of the day, if 15 players don't want to go and it's only 14, you've seen 'Remember the Titans.' It's the same thing, we've just got to play."
The Wizards have three captains: Arenas, Jamison and Butler. When Arenas was asked if Butler was also part of the equation to alleviate some of the problems with the team chemistry, he smiled, leaned in and asked, "Come again?"
Again, he was asked if Butler was also a part of that? "Yeah," he said, coyly.
Butler, who had an MRI exam after developing some swelling in his right ankle, didn't speak with reporters after practice. But contacted by phone afterward, he said he was surprised to hear those comments from Arenas.
"I really don't have a problem with anybody on the team. When we're together behind closed doors, we're all laughing and joking," Butler said. "I try to be professional on and off court and do the right thing. And the right thing is to continue to chip away at it, play hard and continue to try to get better. That's all you can do right now. We're all struggling. We're losing together. It's not Caron lost tonight; or Antawn lost this night; or Gilbert lost this night. It's the Washington Wizards. Collectively, we got to find a way to win games."
Butler called Arenas shortly thereafter to discuss what has been said and what is occurring on the court, where the two have been unable to jell since Arenas returned from missing most of the past two seasons after three surgeries on his left knee.
Arenas and Butler have scaled back their games in order to adjust to Saunders's new point-guard dominated offensive system, but neither has been able to find a comfort zone. Arenas has complained about Butler's inability to be a catch-and-shoot player, which cuts down on Arenas's ability to get assists, and Butler's scoring (16.8 points) and assist (1.2) numbers are down from previous years.
That situation may be resolved in the short term, but Jamison said that these have been frustrating times for the entire team. "We realize we got a lot of work that needs to be done and we definitely are not satisfied at all, in terms of how things have gone so far. But when things are not going well, the true character of the team comes out," he said.
Saunders said the only way the Wizards can dig themselves out of this hole is "to look at yourself in the mirror. I think you don't look at anybody else. First, look at yourself, no matter who that is. When we struggle as a team, which we are -- we all are bad, from the coaching staff on down to the players -- you can't be satisfied. But don't look for somebody else to make a change. You got to change first within yourself."
As they did in many seasons under Jordan, the Wizards continue to deal with serious injuries -- the latest to starting shooting guard Mike Miller, who is walking with crutches and will miss three to six weeks after straining his right calf in that 106-84 loss in San Antonio. Butler will be a game-time decision against the 76ers after developing some swelling in his right ankle.
When asked to reflect on how his tenure in Washington ended, Jordan told reporters in Philadelphia that he and management "weren't on the same page" with the belief that the Wizards could still be competitive despite injuries to Arenas and Haywood. The team finished 19-63.
"It was the best thing that happened to me at the time," said Jordan, who led the Wizards to four playoff appearances in his five-plus seasons. "It was the right thing to do, at the right time, for the team and for me and [assistant] Mike" O'Koren, who joined Jordan in Philadelphia.
Jordan said that he believed the Wizards have the talent to be a "formidable team." But when asked about Arenas's recent comments about the team, he said: "It doesn't surprise me. Gilbert's very outspoken. Some of it's for entertainment; some of it is coming from his heart. He's capable of leading them in scoring; he's capable of leading them in being a presence that is very competitive, and that can be contagious. I don't know if he can be a leader. I just don't know that. I'm not saying he can't. I just don't know if he can be.''