Fans come out to see the Wizards, but more who the Wizards are playing

Kobe Bryant drives to the basket in the face of Antawn Jamison's defense.
Kobe Bryant drives to the basket in the face of Antawn Jamison's defense. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

They've won 14 and lost 30 now. The Washington Wizards are next to last in the NBA's Eastern Conference, worse than the free-falling Detroit Pistons and hapless New York Knicks. Only New Jersey, on its way to becoming the worst team in the history of the game, is worse than the Wizards in the East. Only Golden State and Minnesota are worse in the West, which makes the Wizards the fourth-worst team in the NBA.

It's one thing to lose at home by double digits to the signature team from Los Angeles, the champion Lakers. But there's no way to justify losing at home by double digits to that other team from Los Angeles, the perennial loser Clippers. The all-star break is three weeks away and already the Wizards are in need of a miracle run just to make the final spot in the playoffs.

This means, ladies and gents, we've reached that point of the season where the primary reason to attend Wizards home games is to go and see the opposition, the other guys' all-stars, the icons, the LeBrons and D-Wades and CP3s. They used to market the team this way, in the early 1990s when the Bullets were hopeless. You'd open the morning sports section and the Bullets would be pushing a ticket package that invited you to come and "See the Dream Team," which means paying to watch Michael and Scottie, Stockton and Malone, Patrick and Charles.

The Lakers' visit on Tuesday night meant coming to see Kobe Bryant, who fortunately for the local ticket buyer treats every night like the theater, like he is expected to give a supreme performance and does, regardless of the circumstances. Half of the 20,173 in attendance at Verizon Center seemed to be cheering for the Lakers. Nearly one-quarter seemed to be wearing Kobe jerseys.

"I'm sure they thought that they were playing at home, as loud as it was sometimes," Wizards Coach Flip Saunders said.

This, sadly, is again the state of pro basketball in Washington.

The Boston Celtics visit Monday, which if we're lucky means watching Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the champs-once-removed. The Atlanta Hawks visit five days later and they've become a curiosity, what with Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Mike Bibby and a team that might just have the stuff to knock off Boston or Cleveland in the playoffs. Late in February, Carmelo Anthony, my pick for MVP, visits with the Denver Nuggets. The Bulls and Grizzlies, both models for what the Wizards ought to become with their talented young draft picks, stop by in late February. The Rockets, Magic, Utah still have dates scheduled, and they're all playoff teams. You'd get to see Dwight Howard and maybe Carlos Boozer if he's not traded by then.

I hope you're not waiting to hear a bunch of good news, because there isn't much, if any. "They've been through a lot as a team," the Lakers' Lamar Odom said of the Wizards before Tuesday night's game, a 115-103 Lakers victory that was never in doubt. "You look at their lineup and you think they have the talent. But that doesn't matter in the NBA. The thing you need is time spent together, six, seven, eight guys together for three or four years with the same coach. Look at Boston and Cleveland and the nucleus of people they've got." He could have mentioned the Pistons for most of the decade, and of course the Spurs for forever.

Actually, Odom was describing what the Wizards were on the verge of having, but don't anymore. Eddie Jordan coaching Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood. But it's over now. The events of the last month have killed what was and what might have been. And if the Wizards aren't seriously considering trading their best assets (Jamison and Butler) to start over from scratch, then they ought to.

Jamison, the man who came to represent the professionalism of the Wizards in good times, ought to be rewarded. Allowing him to escape would be that reward, and teams are interested in him, trust me. Jamison hasn't asked to be traded and almost certainly will not. It's a matter of honor with Jamison, who told me after the game he wouldn't think of asking out in tough times, especially not after the death of owner Abe Pollin.

Jamison practices, he plays through injuries, he plays well overwhelmingly.

His 27 points were a game high and his nine rebounds led the Wizards. Only Pau Gasol, with 10, had more.

But it's beyond any player or two players that the Wizards fell into this sinkhole. "If we had played as hard as we did tonight in some of our earlier games," Saunders said, the Wizards could have won a couple of games on this home stand. He mentioned the losses to Miami and the Clippers specifically.

Asked about Saunders's comments, Jamison said: "I totally agree. We've got to bring this same kind of energy every night and for some reason we can't find a way to do it. And that's why we are where we are."

Over in the other locker room, the Lakers were talking about finding the supreme effort every night. They were talking about another level of dedication and desire. Phil Jackson was talking of leadership, of having your top players "showing sacrifice," which is one of the things that makes the other players pay attention and fall in line. The Lakers, the champs, were dealing with the specific concern of being too overconfident lately, or playing as Odom said, "with a better disposition."

The champs left the building believing, with good reason, that this group of players and coaches is building toward something. The Wizards dressed quickly after another defeat. Their dressing room was, well, grim. They left the building not knowing what will happen night after night, whether with nearly three months left in a long and punishing season, they're just marking time.

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