By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; D04
CHARLOTTE -- If not for tumult, how would the Washington Wizards know how to function this season? These are wacky times even for them, with their highest-paid player facing sentencing for felony gun possession on Friday afternoon, their best player left on the roster facing criticism for being immature, the head coach and the organization being disparaged as enablers for tolerating selfish and unprofessional behavior.
But the troubles for the Wizards don't stop there. Coach Flip Saunders will utilize his 24th starting lineup against the Charlotte Bobcats with Al Thornton questionable after suffering a strained right hip flexor in a loss to Indiana on Wednesday. And, oh yeah, the team is trying to avoid setting a franchise record for consecutive losses against the team owned by banished former Wizards employee Michael Jordan.
The Wizards have dealt with the Gilbert Arenas distraction for most of the season but a handful of the players weren't around to call him a teammate. Every member of the current cast of Wizards, however, was around on Tuesday night, when Andray Blatche ignored Saunders's attempts to speak with him and sulked on the bench for the final 45 minutes of the Wizards' overtime loss to the Bobcats.
Saunders said that it was the most disappointed he had ever been in a player, but after meeting with Blatche and President Ernie Grunfeld following that game, he made a somewhat surprising decision to start him the next night in Indiana. On Thursday, Saunders read scathing criticism for failing to suspend Blatche.
"This was an organizational decision, not a one-person decision," Saunders said after a rare practice following back-to-back games. "The main thing is, he needed to come talk to me about why he was taken out of the game. After the game, he came to me and talked about it. At that point, he lived up to what I had asked him to do. He knows [if] he has another situation, there are going to be drastic measures."
Saunders said he wasn't concerned that other players would be confused about their boundaries. "We're not afraid to suspend somebody; we suspended him before," Saunders said of Blatche, who was punished for conduct detrimental to the team in January. "I think the players understood by him sitting out for 40-something minutes the rest of the game, they knew I wasn't [messing] around. For his sake, it would've been easier for him if we would've suspended him. It's the same scrutiny. Whether I'm right or wrong, I'm the coach. It's my decision to make."
After initially taking a defensive stance and claiming he "didn't do nothing wrong," Blatche admitted Thursday he should've handled the situation better. "It was petty on my behalf. I heard him talking to me and I didn't stop. I regret doing that," Blatche said. "I owe an apology to the fans and to the organization, to him, my teammates. It took some time, but I was wrong, I see that now. It could've easily been defused and I just want everything to be back how it was."
Blatche said he understands the damage that the incident may have done to his reputation. "I didn't stop when he called my name. They can look at me as a bad person on that one. But I didn't say I didn't want to play," he said. "Stuff happens. Nobody is perfect. If they forgive me, I'll love that. If not, I'll have to regain their trust back."
The first step could be in helping the Wizards snap their franchise-record-tying 13-game losing streak. The Wizards haven't lost 13 games in a row since 1995, when the franchise was known as the Bullets, but both Mike Miller and Randy Foye experienced a similar skid last season as members of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"It's definitely upsetting. You wish that it could end, but you know it doesn't happen that way," Foye said. "No one in this league will feel sorry for you, as far as what's going on. Nobody feels sorry for the Nets, the Timberwolves. We've got to get through this. We've got to fight through this."
With Thornton hampered, Saunders said he would start Alonzo Gee, a player on his second 10-day contract, at small forward. And after grabbing a career-high 21 rebounds against the Pacers, James Singleton may also start at center in place of JaVale McGee. "When a guy goes out and gets 21 rebounds, he deserves a carrot," Saunders said, chuckling.
The Wizards haven't won a game since Feb. 28, when Blatche had a career-high 36 points. They have had several close calls in Boston, where Ray Allen made a late go-ahead three-pointer; in Portland, where Brandon Roy made a game-winning jumper with 0.9 of a second remaining (the NBA has since sent a memo to the Wizards informing them that the officials missed Roy's traveling violation before the shot); and Tuesday, when Blatche's presence could have been the difference in a 95-86 overtime loss.
"It was a winnable game. I feel bad that I wasn't out there," Blatche said. "Now I have an opportunity to help the team out. So, hopefully, I can be the piece to help get us over the hump. Friday is a must-win for us."
Foye concurred. "Enough is enough," he said.