By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Before the Washington Wizards embarked on this season, Ernie Grunfeld was especially giddy about the prospects of his team. He hired his first coach for the organization in Flip Saunders, Gilbert Arenas was finally returning after a troublesome left knee had sidelined him for nearly two seasons and several new players acquired in trades and free agency had given him the most talented team he had assembled in six years in Washington.
But Grunfeld also offered a bit of caution to temper expectations from those who thought the moves would yield immediate returns for the Wizards. "You can't just say, 'Poof' and it's going to happen," the team president said in late September.
Grunfield admitted on Wednesday that he didn't anticipate that the Wizards (7-12) would still be struggling to win and develop chemistry more than two months later.
"I don't think anybody is happy with where we are at this time," he said a day before the Wizards host the Boston Celtics at Verizon Center.
That doesn't mean that Grunfeld is panicking or planning to make dramatic changes to his roster any time soon. "It's a difficult thing in the NBA. You're always looking for ways to improve. But I think we have plenty of players on the team. Now it's up to them to perform up to their abilities," said Grunfeld. "You obviously evaluate as you go along and you'd really like to evaluate with a full deck for an extended period of time. And we really haven't had that full deck."
Grunfeld said injuries to Antawn Jamison, Mike Miller, Caron Butler and Randy Foye have made it difficult for the team to establish continuity. Jamison, a two-time all-star, missed the first nine games with a shoulder injury. Miller has missed the past seven games with a strained right calf and isn't expected to start running until next week. Saunders tried eight different starting lineups his first 12 games. "Not having all of our pieces and all of our players there for any kind of consistent period of time, I think has been a problem," he said.
Despite the disappointing start, Saunders has helped the Wizards make improvements on defense -- they rank ninth in field goal percentage defense after finishing 29th last season -- and with rebounding. But former all-stars Arenas and Butler have both been unable to find comfortable roles within the offense. Butler, who is averaging just 16.6 points and shooting 41.4 percent, recently said he is "still picking and choosing spots, figuring out where I can be aggressive." Arenas has shown glimpses of being the player he once was, but also expressed doubt about deciding when to score and distribute.
"I think it's going to take a little time," Grunfeld said. "Both of those players have shown that they can do it. Obviously, Gil has missed a lot of time and he's feeling his way around, but he's had some real nice games. It's going to take time and a comfort level with everything that we're trying to do."
Abe Pollin's death at age 85 two weeks ago has created a cloudy ownership situation for the Wizards, but Grunfeld said that he isn't under any restrictions to make moves. "Business as usual. The process is still the same as it's always been. If we think it's something that will help us long-term or short-term, we'll talk about it," he said. "The players really tell us what to do by their performances, by their effort and their production."
After losing their past two games to Toronto and Detroit, Saunders put his players through two lengthy and difficult practices, which Jamison described as "going back to the drawing board." Saunders said he has focused on getting his team to purge itself from the past five seasons in the Princeton offense and getting better acclimated to important aspects of his flex offense, such as setting screens.
"For us, it's not a matter of one game, what we do with Boston. It's a matter of what we do here over the next couple of weeks through December and being able to get better in December, closing out December," Saunders said. "After tomorrow [20 games] are pretty much behind us. You are what you are. We've lost some close games that are extremely disappointing, but you can't get them back, so you have to make up for them."
Brendan Haywood said the Wizards' performance this season has been perplexing, regardless of the circumstances. "Are we surprised we're 7-12? Yes. Even with Antawn out, I thought we'd be 12-7, maybe a little better. It comes down to us, man. It's nothing that Flip's doing. It's executing and taking what we do in practice and applying it to game plans correctly."
Saunders said he thought that the Wizards "are beaten up a little bit" from winning just 19 games last season, with Arenas and Haywood sidelined with injuries most of the year. He is trying to help the team break some bad habits. "I looked at the games last year, and in a lot of games, they were inventing ways to lose at times, too. So I'm not totally surprised, no," he said. "But it's one of those things we have to overcome in order to get better and better."