Wizards vs. Bulls: As losses pile up, Washington continues rebuilding process

Coach Flip Saunders, with John Wall:
Coach Flip Saunders, with John Wall: "If they are not going to play hard, they are not going to play." (Toni L. Sandys)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011

About an hour before each game, Washington Wizards rookies Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Hamady Ndiaye are always on the main court participating in what amounts to a pregame game, with arguments over fouls and trash-talking over blocked shots and tough jumpers. Cartier Martin, Yi Jianlian and Andray Blatche usually join in the three-on-three or four-on-four scrimmages as an opportunity to build up a sweat and shake off any nerves. Coach Flip Saunders often looks on and occasionally calls plays, with his assistants making entry passes and getting out of the way.

Over the past few months, Saunders has employed the same strategy he used while in Detroit, where the Pistons were trying to develop young talent through some intense pregame workouts, while winning games with a veteran championship core. But the situation for Saunders with the Wizards is much different. There is no veteran core to lead the team to wins, and as player development takes priority during a rebuilding season that has led to mostly painful results - such as their current five-game losing streak - there are only glimpses of promise.

"We didn't go in it with being judged on wins and losses," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said of this season. "What we want to be judged on is the assets we accumulate, how hard we play, how competitive we are, player development and making progress as we go along and putting ourselves in a financial situation where we can make some moves down the road. I think we've accomplished some of those things, but . . . we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

Progress can be found when Nick Young drops 38 points on Dwyane Wade, when John Wall has back-to-back games with at least 20 points and 12 assists, when Seraphin makes more jump hooks than offensive fouls, or when Booker muscles his way toward some hard-fought rebounds during a meaningful portion of a game.

Unfortunately, it has not been found in wins.

"Is it tough as a coach? Yeah, because what you want to do more than anything else, you want to win. Our agenda for 35 years as coach, my main agenda has always been to win," said Saunders, who had won 613 of his 1,065 regular season NBA games (57.6 percent) before this season. "You have to change how you go about doing things. Sometimes you have to bite your lip, but sometimes, you have to light into them. I think, overall, when I look at how they're progressing and how their attitude has been, they've been very positive and they continue to work hard. As a staff, I know we're getting through to them individually. Those guys are making progress, maybe beyond where we thought they'd be. Now we got to blend that all together and get some wins."

Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett played for Saunders for more than nine years in Minnesota and said this has to be a difficult adjustment for his former coach.

"Flip is probably struggling a little bit. He's a winner. I know how hard he takes losses. I haven't been with him for, obviously, quite some time. I just know that it's tough for him right now and I know he's a powerful person."�

The Wizards (15-43) have lost 14 of 16 games and are in the midst of their fourth losing streak of at least four games this season. They face another challenge as they host the Chicago Bulls, their third consecutive opponent with at least 40 wins. They were even with the Dallas Mavericks for more than 47 minutes in a 105-99 loss on Saturday and battled Miami well into the fourth quarter, but could only come away with the much-despised moral victories.

"You want young guys to get positive reinforcement. How you get that is ultimately how you win games," Saunders said. "When you go through that schedule, you're playing good teams and you're playing on the road a lot and you don't win. You start playing good and you don't get anything, then all of sudden, when you get a chance, sometimes your confidence has been so shaken, you don't play with the same energy. That's what you're always concerned about."

The frustration over the losses played out in a 23-point loss in Philadelphia, where JaVale McGee exchanged words with assistant Randy Wittman and Wall made some harsh comments about the effort of some of his teammates. Wall has said since, "I wasn't calling nobody out," but Saunders supported his star rookie by declaring that a lack of effort will not be tolerated, even with the team rebuilding. With the new additions from the Kirk Hinrich trade - Mike Bibby, Maurice Evans and Jordan Crawford - Saunders isn't afraid to go in another direction.

"Playing hard should not be an option because if they are not going to play hard, they are not going to play," he said. "We've seen if, by playing hard, you give yourselves a chance. I think over the last couple of weeks, we had games where some of our guys didn't do that. If you get one or two guys that don't play hard, it can become infectious.

"I think that we understood the blueprint of how we were going to go about doing this. It's not easy," Saunders said. "No one likes to sit there, you're biting your lip, because you're letting them play through things to learn and the reality is, it might cost you, as far as a win now or a win then. It's going to help you in the long run."


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