Wizards' season of low points comes to a close

"Right now, we have an open canvas," Wizards Coach Flip Saunders said of the season coming to a close after plenty of low points. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

When the Washington Wizards gathered in Richmond last September, Coach Flip Saunders wanted his players to believe in the improbable. He brought in a hypnotist, handed out iPods containing the playbook and a schedule made out through June, and distributed T-shirts emblazoned with a new motto: "Our Time." Saunders wanted to convey that the Wizards could accomplish anything if they put their minds to it.

But seven months later, the Wizards have endured a season that almost defies comprehension. One of, it not the most bizarre, perplexing, unpredictable and disappointing seasons in franchise history came to an end on Wednesday as the Wizards defeated the Indiana Pacers, 98-97, at Verizon Center.

"It was a season unlike any other I've experienced since I've been in the NBA," said Earl Boykins, a veteran of 11 seasons.

After the Wizards started the season with two of their three all-stars talking openly about winning a championship and the third claiming that he was done being an entertainer, Antawn Jamison is now with an Eastern Conference power in Cleveland, Caron Butler is in Dallas with Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson, Gilbert Arenas is in a halfway house -- and the team is headed to the draft lottery for the second year in a row.

The Wizards dealt with major injuries to key players and experienced so much turnover that a franchise-record 27 different players have been on the roster. Longtime owner Abe Pollin died of a rare brain disease at age 85. Arenas and Javaris Crittenton brought guns to the locker room in a dispute that led to both players being charged with crimes and suspended for the remainder of the season. The situation forced President Ernie Grunfeld to expedite another rebuilding process for a franchise that has made only five playoff appearances in the past 22 years.

"Certain things happened that were out of our hands and were unforeseen, as far as injuries and chemistry issues and of course, the incident in the locker room," Grunfeld said. "Those are things we couldn't have planned for."

There also was a snowstorm in February that postponed a home game against Atlanta and forced the team to play on three consecutive nights in March -- a month in which the Wizards set a franchise record by losing 16 games in a row. Andray Blatche received a one-game suspension for being belligerent with the coaching staff and team trainers in January. And, two months later -- after establishing himself as the team's go-to guy -- Blatche refused to enter a game in a spat with Saunders.

In likely his last game as the team's undisputed best player, Blatche led the Wizards with 26 points and seven rebounds. But he watched the final stretch from the bench as the Wizards finished the game with a lineup that included two players who started the season in the NBA Development League (Cartier Martin and Cedric Jackson), two seldom-used reserves from the Dallas Mavericks (James Singleton and Quinton Ross) and JaVale McGee, the only member of the quintet on the opening day roster. Jackson scored a career-high eight points and gave the Wizards the lead for good when he made a three-pointer with 1 minute 31 seconds remaining.

But amidst the celebration, the Wizards (26-56) were dealt one final blow as reserve forward Al Thornton was forced to leave the game with a concussion. At the end of the third period on Wednesday, Irene Pollin, wife of the late patriarch of the franchise, read a prepared statement and thanked the 16,126 fans in attendance for their support. "In spite of everything, next year will be better," she said, trying to show the same enthusiasm of her late husband. "I promise you that."

After a loss to Oklahoma City in late December, Saunders delivered a postgame rant about his defensively deficient players and offered a prescient remark: "Don't think it can't get any worse, because it can."

Asked to reflect on what will stand out as the defining moment of the season, Saunders said, "I think, no question, the incident with Gilbert will be something that will. That's probably the thing that will stick out because it's something that's never really happened before in the league."

But the Wizards' season was headed south even before Arenas's "misguided attempt to play a joke on a teammate" by bringing four guns into the locker room. They opened the season with a surprising win in Dallas, with Arenas totaling 29 points and nine assists in his re-debut. But by late December, the Wizards were 8-17 and Arenas had already gotten into a public spat with Butler.

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