Wizards don't need to win now, but they do need to try

Wizards Coach Flip Saunders shows his frustration during his team's latest blowout loss.
Wizards Coach Flip Saunders shows his frustration during his team's latest blowout loss. (Matt Slocum/associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 11:23 PM

For the Washington Wizards, it was as inevitable as spring, just not as warm and pleasant. I don't mean Wednesday's trade with Atlanta; I mean Wednesday night's meltdowns in Philadelphia.

JaVale McGee lost his cool completely after being taken out during the 117-94 thrashing by the 76ers. Although a thank-you note might have been more appropriate, McGee instead got into a shouting match with assistant coach Randy Wittman and some guy named Baltche had to step in between the two. Welcome to Washington, home of the National Spelling Bee! Couldn't we just keep one of those kids this year?

"How they going to do that to me?" said Baltche, who turned out to be Andray Blatche. "B-A-L? I'm like, c'mon man. That's so messed up."

Of course, uniform fails are hardly the biggest problem facing Blatche or the Wizards, who Wednesday sent Kirk Hinrich and Hilton Armstrong to the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks for Mike Bibby, Maurice Evans, Jordan Crawford and a first-round pick in June's draft. It's the guys inside the uniforms who are failing - failing to hustle, failing to improve, failing to close out games and now even failing to stay in games. Wednesday night was just the latest example.

"When word got around [about the trade], guys kind of lost their concentration," said Coach Flip Saunders, who turned 56 on Wednesday, odd considering he was 47 when the season started. "I think when the deadline is over, guys will have a sense of relief."

In the short term, perhaps. Then they'll remember they still have 20 games to play.

Look, none of the Wizards - including Saunders and pretty much everyone except John Wall - should join a gym or go in together on a cabin cruiser. The Wizards didn't resemble a playoff team before the trade, and they don't now. That is to be expected. But when the players' effort comes to an end before the fourth quarter, or even halftime, or before we've even turned our calendars to March, that's an epic fail. That's so messed up.

Wall, last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, has been given the nearly impossible task of leading a team at age 20, a rookie with one year of college under his belt. He's far from a finished product - which is why Hinrich was an important acquisition for the Wizards in the offseason, and why Bibby will need to fill that role as mentor, instructor and veteran presence. Wall made it pretty clear throughout the season and again Wednesday night that Hinrich had helped his development on both ends of the court.

Wall has understandably been reluctant to call out his teammates - who are older than him, although not by much - but Wednesday night in Philadelphia, something changed. Maybe it was bidding farewell to Hinrich.

"Nobody has heart," Wall said after scoring 21 points and handing out 12 assists. "I ain't lost this many games, and it ain't just about the losing. I'm listening to my coaches and they're developing me. They don't want me to get a losing mind-set. It's frustrating to see that certain guys don't have the effort to want to be out there, like they don't care. That's the toughest thing for me. No matter if I'm having a bad game or good game, I may show my frustration on my face, but I'm going to compete. That's one thing I did my whole life, and that's compete."

I always smile when I hear a young athlete of 20 talk about what he's done his "whole life," but Wall has a point. He plays hard all the time.

Listen, the Wizards can't win much of anything this year beyond a few more basketball games, but they can lose a lot more than just a bunch more games. The more serious risk is losing more of their dwindling fan base, the support of their coaches and general manager (and maybe the owner; it's not like he's not paying attention), and they can lose their reputations, which some have only just begun to build.

The league is a competitive place, and no team in its right mind wants - or has to put up with - players who give up. And I'm not just talking about the top teams. The Wizards do not have an abundance of talent, but they do not and should not have to put up with players who don't play hard. They are still an NBA franchise, until we hear otherwise, and they need to demand more professionalism from their players. Nothing - nothing - turns off fans quicker than a team that quits, during a game, on itself, or on a season.

This trade didn't rid the roster of the problem, and that wasn't its intent.

Basically, they swapped some parts and got an extra first-round pick, which is exactly what a rebuilding team with as little depth as the Wizards should get. In the short term - for the rest of this interminable season - this trade will neither drive fans away nor put more fannies in the seats at Verizon. In the long term, this year's first-rounders could help get this team back on course.

Until then, expect more fits to be thrown. And not just by the players.

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