Washington Wizards have a chance to be decent, but they have to work at it

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 12:35 AM

The Washington Wizards need to practice.

They really, really need to practice. If they work hard, they have a chance to be a losing team, but a respectable one. Wizards fans know the type well: win 30 games but dream about the future.

However, if they keep slacking off, they have a chance to be genuinely bad, despite the addition of John Wall. They even have the reverse potential to be one of the worst Wizards teams. That's the last thing a franchise wants after grabbing a No. 1 overall pick.

Monday, Coach Flip Saunders stormed out of morning practice 30 minutes before it was scheduled to end, threw the team out of the gym and said, "If you want to get better, come back at 4."

Look at their 1-4 record. Focus on the "one." Be consoled by it.

"You would think that you'd come into a practice - especially with a young team - with a sense of urgency," Saunders said. "We're not going to beg guys to play hard. If they [don't] want to play hard, we'll come back and go another time. We [will] 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."

This outburst surprises me because, watching the Wizards, I've thought they looked like they had a chance to be decent. Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee are big men with complementary skills. Kirk Hinrich is a proven pro who can bind teams together. When injured Josh Howard returns, he adds a solid veteran swingman. Al Thornton has energy. Gilbert Arenas is back, sort of. Not the old Agent Zero, but still probably a good scorer off the bench.

I've been excited by Wall's incredible, Iverson-worthy speed with the ball, his creative passing, his mid-range shooting and his knack for infiltrating passing lanes. Sure, he has way too many turnovers with 29 in just five games? But he's a rookie. His shooting percentage is only .429 so far? It's very early. Just wait.

Unfortunately, I have a weakness for facts. And those facts, called statistics, are not kind to the Wizards. They say that, until Wall establishes his NBA value or Arenas proves he's turned back the clock on his bad knee by four years, the Wizards are a collection of barely average NBA players with almost no depth.

More worrisome, in two areas where raw effort is measured - rebounding and defensive field-goal percentage - the Wizards are dead last in the NBA. No wonder the coach has already flipped.

"It's frustrating when you lost games that are winnable . . . where you've been outrebounded over the last three, four games by 12 and you're averaging 20 turnovers a game," Saunders said.

This year's team could go either way - dramatically. They have just enough talent, plus the Wall spark, to be fun most nights. But Monday's eruption is a major red flag. The Wizards need to be honest with themselves: Less than full effort will be a disaster.

If only the Wizards really were a very young team. But they're not. There's a book on 'em. Blatche and Thornton have played more than 6,500 minutes, Nick Young and Yi Jianlian more than 4,400. Hinrich, Howard and Arenas have played more than 13,000, and even McGee and Hilton Armstrong have more than 2,200. They aren't mysteries.

Old tools that date from Red Auerbach and Lefty Driesell can measure them; those coaches added up box scores - all your good stuff, minus all your bad stuff - to get one aggregate number. Or they can be graded by new methods, such as "player efficiency" or "win shares per 48 minutes."

You don't have to agree with any one stat. You only have to recognize the indisputable Wizards pattern. Get to practice!

For years I've enjoyed watching the nuts like me - sorry, advanced students of the game - bring some of the similar stat methods to basketball that have evolved for 30 years in baseball. Basketball is harder to analyze because it's a five-man ensemble, not a pitcher-vs.-hitter battle with defense as a backdrop.

It's said that some players "fill up the score sheet." They don't just shoot; they have a variety of skills. By elegant coincidence, the best players, regardless of position, all end up with roughly the same amount of total production.

Last year, the average NBA player had a score of 22.1 (per 48 minutes) if you added up all his points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, then subtracted his turnovers and missed shots of any type.

How does that compare with great players? Where do LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley and David Robinson all stand? Right on top of each other, that's where.

They all end up with scores between 33.2 and 38.1. The gap between superstar and an average NBA player is huge: more than 50 percent. Perfect stat? No way.

But players end up in the proper general groupings. On the Heat, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh average 31.2. The Lakers' trio of Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom average 28.7, and the Celtics' Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo grade 28.2.

By this measure, the Wizards do not have a star. But they have several players a bit above average. Playing fewer minutes has helped some of them, keeping them fresh at all times. In their careers: Arenas (25.5), McGee (25.4), Blatche (24.2) and Howard (23.4) show why the Wizards might have promise right now, especially if Wall's current five-game mark of 22.6 trends up, as he gets less careless with the ball and more selective with his shots.

The rest of the group's career numbers range from poor to scary bad: Hinrich (20.7), Yi Jianlian (19.0), Thornton (18.2), Armstrong (17.5) and Young (16.0).

All in all, by this measure and plenty of others you can use, the Wizards are not doomed to be terrible. But if they want to compete with anyone, they must use every iota of ability, not force the coach to kick them out of practice in disgust.

"Y'all better wake up," Howard told his teammates.

Somebody gets it.

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