Wizards are stuck in the middle of an already long season

"What don't break you makes you stronger," said guard Randy Foye, left, with Coach Flip Saunders. (Jonathan Newton/washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

The Washington Wizards have reached the halfway point of what has already been an excruciatingly long season. They started with Antawn Jamison on the shelf with a right shoulder injury and then lost Mike Miller to a left shoulder injury and later a strained right calf. They have endured the death of owner Abe Pollin and are under the cloud of an indefinite suspension and felony gun possession charge for their best player, Gilbert Arenas.

On top of that, the Wizards (14-27) have been an unmitigated disappointment on the floor, with chemistry problems and poor play putting them at 12th place in the Eastern Conference. Coach Flip Saunders chuckled as he said the first 41 games this season actually felt like, "One hundred and 41."

"For me," point guard Randy Foye said, "it felt like 86 games."

Unfortunately, the Wizards can't simply 86 this season, although there is so much more uncertainty surrounding the next 41 games. The Wizards are looking into a possible roster overhaul before the Feb. 18 trade deadline. They are unsure if Arenas will return -- or receive jail time -- and Ted Leonsis is likely to take over as the new owner and guide the franchise into another direction.

"What we'll do, like most things, we'll write the story as it happens," said Saunders, whose team will start the next half of the season on Friday against the Miami Heat. "I think that we're definitely not going to be able to write the last chapter until the end. I think what you have to do is, especially when you put yourself in a position where you're behind the eight ball, is you have to have a sense of urgency. You continue to try to play better and try to squeeze out wins and get some momentum going."

Saunders arrived in Washington with a proven track record that included seven 50-win seasons and four trips to the conference finals. When asked if he had ever been through such a tumultuous season, Saunders mentioned the difficulty he experienced when he took over as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves in December 1995 and lost 42 of his first 62 games.

"My first year there, we went through some similar type things," Saunders said. "The trading deadline came and we changed the whole complexion of our team. By the end of the year, we had gotten rid of [Christian] Laettner and J.R. Rider and some others. But we had a great base, because we had [Kevin] Garnett, who was only 18 at the time."

The Wizards don't have a young building block comparable to Garnett, but they may have to look into starting over, with several Western Conference teams interested in Caron Butler and the Cleveland Cavaliers listing Jamison highly among their trade targets. According to multiple sources, the Wizards have not received viable offers because other teams are expecting a fire sale. One league source said that the Wizards likely won't get equal value in any trade and may have to settle for packages that include expiring contracts and either draft picks or young talent.

"Part of the NBA life is to always look to improve and get the best possible team out there that you can," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said. "Those kind of things take care of themselves. Obviously, at the trade deadline there are going to be a lot of opportunities, but we're going to keep our options open and see which direction we want to go in."

Grunfeld has been around the NBA as a player, coach, broadcaster and executive for nearly 33 years and said this season as been unlike any he has been around.

"I personally have never been in a situation where we've had so much distraction," Grunfeld said. "We're obviously disappointed with the record that we have. Right now, we're trying to do the best job with what we have. And I'm proud of the way our players have come through, with all of these distractions and are competing on a nightly basis."

Grunfeld believes that the season may have headed in a different direction had the Wizards had more success during a difficult six-game losing streak in early December, when they lost to Toronto, Detroit, Boston, Indiana, the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento by a combined 14 points. The Wizards have lost 12 games by five points or less, including a 94-93 loss to Dallas on Wednesday, when Butler broke from the play Saunders called for Foye and had his final attempt blocked by Mavericks forward Shawn Marion.

"No question, the number of close games that we've lost has been astronomical. Our record could be completely flopped at times, if you look at it. But it's not, so you are what you are," Saunders said. "I think [Wednesday] night was a microcosm of what we've done in late-game situations, where we either don't execute when we need to execute or don't do the things that you need to do in order to win, and have that confidence and that trust factor."

"It's a learning experience," said Foye, who has been forced to fill in for Arenas. "I'm taking it in as the days go along. This is what makes you a veteran. You go through a lot of things, you go through ups and downs, you go through the good and the bad times and what don't break you makes you stronger. You live and you learn from it."

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