By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; D01
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.
"I feel we just needed more chemistry," Nick Young said. "I feel probably C.B. and Antawn, they had bigger roles after Gil was out, and it was kind of hard making that transition once he came back, going back to the old style that they play. I feel as more games went along, the more they would've got comfortable playing with each other. I think we would've gotten better."
That opportunity never came, when Grunfeld decided that a team built around Arenas, Butler and Jamison couldn't compete any longer in the Eastern Conference. After a flurry of trades, the Wizards moved below the luxury tax line and created nearly $18.7 million in salary cap space.
"Seeing the whole team breakup, through all the trades. I didn't see that coming no time soon," said Blatche, who averaged 22 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.6 rebounds after the all-star break. "It's been a roller coaster. It's been a bumpy ride, but that's life. That's basketball. I'm happy we fought through it, and we still had intensity on the court."
But the Wizards' plight didn't necessarily improve after the deals. They won three of their first four games after the trade, but Josh Howard, the most important piece acquired from Dallas, tore his anterior cruciate ligament and was lost for the season. Al Thornton, another acquisition from the Los Angeles Clippers, got hurt shortly after replacing Howard in the starting lineup, and Alonzo Gee, who was on his second 10-day contract before replacing Thornton, bolted for San Antonio. Then, Randy Foye was lost for the season with a torn ligament in his left wrist.
The trades and injuries opened up opportunities for Young, JaVale McGee and Shaun Livingston, who signed a 10-day contract in February and emerged as a starter before the season ended. "It's a blessing in disguise," said Livingston, who averaged 16.5 points and 6.4 assists in his last eight games. "Obviously, it's unfortunate with everything that's happened with the organization, but I still had a job to do and that was my goal, to do it as best as I can. I feel good about it."
Saunders said he feels good that the Wizards "competed and played hard" even through all of the adversity. But he admitted that the season feels a tad incomplete, since the Wizards started the regular season with Jamison shelved because of a right shoulder injury and later losing Mike Miller to a right calf injury.
"I don't know if we ever had the group that we put together in the summertime," Saunders said. "I don't know if we had all those guys play together at all the whole year because of the injuries that happened to Antawn and then you had Mike Miller and then you had the Gilbert situation, and then of course you had the trades and then we had more injuries. It's a very different type situation."
This is the fourth consecutive season that the Wizards have concluded a season without Arenas in the lineup. Unlike the past three seasons -- when his balky left knee had the team pining for his availability -- the franchise is stuck with him and the four years and more than $80 million remaining on his contract.
But with a guaranteed high lottery pick, lots of cap room and Ted Leonsis expected to purchase the franchise and take it on a different course, Saunders ends the season with optimism. "Right now, we have an open canvas," Saunders said. "We'll start sketching a little bit starting tomorrow and it progresses and as we find out where we are in the lottery, the lines will get a little bit thicker, and as we get to free agency, then eventually we'll start painting that canvas and find out where we're at."