By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 12:29 AM
Flip Saunders was the first to arrive at practice on Monday, so excited about preparing to correct the mistakes that have led to the Washington Wizards' disappointing 1-4 start that he showed up more than three hours early. But Saunders was also the first to leave practice, when he watched his players lethargically push through a scrimmage while complaining to assistants about every call, rather than communicating with each other.
With about 30 minutes still scheduled before practice ended, Saunders got up from his chair on the main court at Verizon Center and stormed to the locker room, shouting, "If you want to get better. Come back at 4."
Saunders forced his team to practice twice, something he said he has done once or twice a year with previous teams. But he has never had to get the attention of his players this early in the season, which speaks to his disappointment with this youthful outfit that remains a desperation Cartier Martin three-pointer against Philadelphia away from being 0-5. As Saunders walked through a tunnel, followed shortly thereafter by his assistants, the players looked stunned as they stood on the court.
"Y'all better wake up. You're making it harder on yourselves," veteran Josh Howard said as players started quietly heading toward the locker room. Hilton Armstrong wasn't willing to just let practice end in that fashion, so he called his teammates together and told them there was a reason for the extra session. He could see the frustration but said, "The coaches only want to make us better. Real talk."
Saunders later explained what set him off, with the Wizards having no excuse for a sluggish practice when they have played so poorly this season. They also had the day off on Sunday following back-to-back losses to New York and Cleveland.
"It's frustration when you lost games that are winnable, and you're in a situation where you've been outrebounded over the last three, four games by 12 and you're averaging 20 turnovers a game," Saunders said. "You would think that you'd come into a practice - especially with a young team - with a sense of urgency. Come in to learn, to be very detail oriented, to get in, get out, get what you need to get done and get better. I didn't think we had the right frame of mind."
The Wizards started the morning session on the practice court, then moved to the main court. During the nearly seven minutes of scrimmage that reporters were allowed to watch, Saunders was heard repeatedly imploring his players to push the tempo while assistants were screaming for them to communicate with each other. Neither request was met with enthusiasm, while players complained to coaches about calls.
Howard said it was one of the worst practices of the season. "As far as focus, yeah. Guys really wasn't focused. We need to be focused right now."
The Wizards rank last in the NBA in rebounding (35.2) and defensive field goal percentage (50.1), are among the league's lowest scoring teams (22nd, 97.4 points) also are among the worst in points allowed (27th, 109). Andray Blatche said the Wizards probably need more practice time.
"What's our record? We 1-4," Blatche said. "Patience is running out. Guys are getting frustrated. I don't have a problem with it. A two-a-day. Training camp in November. Cool by me. We need it. We losing. That's what happens when you lose. You have to put extra time in. . . . People trying to send a message that we need to step it up."
Howard, recovering from left knee surgery, was cleared last week to participate in five-on-five drills. He took part in some drills but said he noticed the energy level wasn't where it needed to be. A seven-year veteran, Howard added that he had never seen an entire team kicked out of practice but understood Saunders's decision based on how the Wizards have performed to start the season.
"I told some of the guys. 'We getting ready to get a paycheck on the 15th.' For right now, they getting a paycheck for nothing," he said. "I can honestly say that. I don't think guys are really buying into this. If anything, we need to work for this paycheck.
"I've been in situations where we started out 0-4, 1-5 and turned it around quick," said Howard, who won 67 games with Dallas in 2006-07 after the Mavericks started the season 0-4. "It's a correctable mistake and guys need to go out there and sell it out for one another."
By forcing the team to come back about three hours after he was done with them, Saunders placed his players in an unusual position. Realizing his teammates were probably stunned by Saunders's move, Armstrong said he had to pull them back together before they headed out for a three-hour break.
"I felt somebody needed to say something to get everybody's head into it," said Armstrong, a four-year veteran, adding he hadn't seen a coach walk out on practice since he was in college playing for Jim Calhoun at Connecticut. "I'm pretty sure everybody was thinking it. But just to hear it come from somebody else's mouth may be different, may spark somebody to pick it up for later on, so this won't happen again."
Saunders said he hopes his players understand what this is about, and if not, he'll go with the players that do. He singled out Kirk Hinrich, Al Thornton and Martin as the three players who brought the correct approach to practice.
"We didn't accomplish what we needed to get accomplished. We're not going to beg guys to play hard. If they want to play hard, we'll come back and go another time, we get people who do play hard. That's one thing as coaches, you can't coach effort. We'll find guys that are going to give it."