Wizards have established a losing tradition in Washington

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; D01

The Wizards won their third game in their last seven Monday at Verizon Center against injury-splinted Portland. Afterward, everybody was feeling better, almost slightly optimistic.

"Every crisis is an opportunity," Coach Flip Saunders said, before adding, "you've got the choice to either embrace the opportunity or you've got a choice to let your knuckles drag on the ground."

"It's good to crack a joke again," team leader Antawn Jamison said. "We're just trying to find a cure, win some games.

"We're looking for respectability."

At first, I nodded in agreement. Maybe the Wizards were showing some grit, finding a bit of chemistry and playing better without Gilbert Arenas than they had with him.

Then a dark miasmal cloud lifted, and suddenly, after half-a-lifetime of sharing in Washington's Great Wizard Delusion, I could see clearly: The Wizards were on the verge of celebrating 3-4, a .429 percentage. This is exactly where we've been with this lousy, miserably run and perennially forgiven franchise since 1979.

As soon as Wednesday, Ted Leonsis may become the new owner of the Wizards. If not, then soon. Please, Ted, don't buy into the pap that has been peddled by this organization for a generation.

These days, everybody uses the Nationals as the standard of "bad" in Washington. And they are really bad. Their won-lost percentage in the five years since they moved to the District is .424.

So, what do you think the Wizards' win percentage is since '79? That's 31 seasons. It's .423!

No wonder the Wizards think winning three out of seven isn't so bad. It's what they always do. It's what's expected and accepted.

But it's terrible. Yet we're so used to it, we've grown numb.

Right now, the Wizards are buying into the idea that, without Arenas, they are somehow enduring an enormous hardship. That's typical of the Wizards' losing culture. Buck up. Even without Arenas's $16.2 million salary, the Wizards still have a roster that is earning $62.9 million -- more than the NBA salary cap of $57.7 million. They still have a perfectly viable nine-man rotation.

Leonsis's task is going to be enormous because its roots go so deep into the Wizards' past and are so completely ingrained throughout a slack franchise that has been cruising for decades. In the '90s, at the old Cap Center, an NBA executive said to me: "Look around. Everything's shabby. The player photos are 10 years out of date. From the top down, there's no energy. Of course they lose."

And it's brutally true. At his introductory news conference, Kwame Brown brought his family minister. I asked him about the teenager's background and was told an immediate relative was in prison for murder and other relatives were in jail, too. It wasn't a secret. Brown had big hurdles ahead of him and little support behind him. So I asked various members of Michael Jordan's front office how they planned to help Brown. None knew anything about his family.

They'd drafted Brown No. 1 overall while barely knowing him.

That's how you build a 1,045-1,423 record -- 378 games under .500 -- starting in 1979-80. The Wizards had a six-year period (1989-'95) when they were 186 games under .500, then another six-year period (1998-'04) when they were 130 games under .500. Are they back at it, 56 games under .500 the last two years?

Within a month, when the NBA trading deadline arrives Feb. 18, who will be left? Caron Butler or Jamison or both might be traded. Eight Wizards are free agents, including Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller and Randy Foye (restricted). Which will want to stay? If Miller leaves, and why wouldn't he, the Wiz will have gotten only Foye for their No. 5 overall draft pick last year.

That's typical. That's how you win only one playoff series since 1982. What's just as bad is that, while the Wizards are frequently awful, they have never given the town even one truly good team in those 31 years. Not one team with even a .550 record. The best: 45-37.

In the past 10 seasons, every NBA team, even the Los Angeles Clippers, has had a season with at least 47 wins! Except the Wizards, of course. They haven't had more than 45 wins since 1978-79. (The Bobcats are in just their sixth season, so they don't count.)

Perhaps the most amazing feature of Wizards basketball is the loyalty of their fans in a town -- and a metropolitan area for that matter -- that has, at the grass-roots level, always loved and understood basketball better than any sport. The Phone Booth crowd on Monday, despite being the season's lowest (12,209), roared throughout the fourth quarter as if imploring a contender. As Leonsis and the Pollin family debate and appraise the value of this franchise, one factor is a fan base that has provided middle-of-the-NBA attendance, year after year, for a rock-bottom product.

Why do the Wiz escape being even more of a national and local joke than they are? One possible answer: The Clippers, who are super-naturally bad. So, the Wizards never make the radar. It's time for a new broom and a big one. No franchise has ever needed an innovator -- or simply a dynamic, energized leader -- at the top more than the Wizards.

Leonsis may have been guilty of luring Jordan to town on behalf of the late Abe Pollin, only to discover he had an executive who spent plenty of time flying to Chicago but couldn't bother to scout Pau Gasol in Europe. Luckily, after his Jaromir Jagr era with the Caps, Leonsis's star-struck days are far in the past.

"We kind of know who's next in line [as owner]. But it'll be good to make it official. We're just waiting. Mr. L knows the scenario here. He'll get things moving in the right direction," Jamison said of Leonsis who, of course, is constantly around Verizon Center. "We know him as a person already.

"He's a great guy, fun-loving and crazy about the game. And he has that swagger about him."

With luck, the transition to Leonsis will be completed quickly so he can be totally involved with the many potential trade decisions that must be made in the next month, especially involving Jamison (owed $13.4 million next year) and Butler ($10.5 million). But when was the last time the Wizards were ever lucky?

No, change that. This has never been a franchise that was "cursed." When you are worse than anyone except the Clippers for 31 years, you have made your own luck.

Memo to Leonsis: There's little here that has to be saved. Do as you please. You can't do worse.

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