Wizards Insider Live: Wizards woes, Abe Pollin's memorial service, Gilbert Arenas and more

Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post basketball writer Michael Lee was online Tuesday, Dec. 8 to take all your questions about the Wizards' season, longtime owner Abe Pollin's memorial service, the return of star guard Gilbert Arenas and the ongoing NBA season.

A transcript follows.

Read The Post's coverage of the Wizards, and Michael's latest blog posts from training camp.


Michael Lee: Hey, everybody. The Wizards are almost one-fourth into their season and they are really struggling to establish consistency and chemistry. The Big Three is looking extra medium, the players haven't fully bought into Flip Saunders's offense and the defense has been up-and-down, which explains why they are 7-12. The team has also been dealing with injuries and the unfortunate death of former owner Abe Pollin, who will be remembered tonight at a ceremony at Verizon Center. I'm sure you guys have a lot of questions and I'm hoping that this chat won't be as disappointing as the Wizards have been. So, let's go


Fairfax, Va.: In your opinion, what's the biggest reason for the Wizards' poor record? Is it lack of production from the Big Three? Injuries? Chemistry/consistency? It's frustrating because it seems like every player is playing in a one-on-one game. I don't get any sense from them that they can play together as a team. Who's at fault here?

Michael Lee: The biggest reason for the Wizards' poor record is -- believe it or not -- they are not good offensively. Sounds strange for a team that has so many talented scorers and a reputation for lighting up the scoreboard.

But this new offense, which is point-guard driven, is a stark contrast to what they've been used to with the Princeton. Gilbert Arenas has the ball in his hands, but he's dealing with so much stuff, mostly coming back to playing NBA basketball after a two-year hiatus.

The Wizards are playing relatively good defense and rank seventh in FG percentage defense. On offense, they are scoring just 96.7 points and shooting a horrific 43.8 percent. There is just no flow on that end of the floor.


Roanoke, Va.: Firstly, you do a great job covering the Wizards. But on to my question: Does it seem like Saunders isn't quite comfortable with how to use his players? It seems like some lineup changes just kill the momentum the team has going for it in some games. Any thoughts?

Michael Lee: Thanks, Roanoke. I think Flip is really drawing straws some nights. He doesn't know who is going to be a reliable contributor each night, so he's trying to use whatever he thinks will work. Right now, Brendan Haywood has been the most consistent player on the team.

You also have to take into consideration that Antawn Jamison has missed nine games, Caron Butler has missed two games, Mike Miller has missed nine games. So, Flip has had mix and match lineups all year. I think he's had eight different starting lineups. That's too many to establish any sort of consistency.

One of the primary problems is that he has so many players with similar skill sets, especially with the recent addition of Earl Boykins, a scoring point guard on a team that already has Gilbert Arenas, Randy Foye and Mike James.


Rockville, Md.: Most basketball games are won and lost in the final minutes (not just the final possession). Last year the Wizards were actually in most games, but fell apart at the end. Going into this season with Arenas' health being unknown, a main question was who is going to take charge in those final minutes. You saw Bosh basically decide Toronto was not going to lose at the end of the Raptors game and it made me question, who can do that for the Wiz. I think Arenas wants to, but does not seem physically or mentally able to put it all together at this point. Butler and Jamison have never been consistent go to guys in those situations. So does it have to be a cohesive team effort - which they also seem to be struggling with, or is someone going to step up and take control in the final minutes? And if you tell me Boykins is the ultimate answer, though I love his game, I will be very very worried.

Michael Lee: You're right Rockville. The Wizards aren't going anywhere if Earl Boykins has to be their fourth-quarter savior. That's not a slight on Boykins. That just shouldn't be his role.

They have three guys who are supposed to deliver in clutch situations - Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler - and so far, they haven't outside of that win in Toronto last week.

Arenas and Butler have been big-time performers in late game situations. Flip likes going with Earl but you have wonder if Boykins dominating the ball in the fourth quarter helps or hinders them.

You mention Bosh, but the hierarchy has been established in Toronto. It's his team, no questions asked. This should be Arenas's team in the fourth quarter, but based on what he said after the loss in Detroit, it doesn't sound like he feels that way yet, after missing the past two seasons.


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Exactly how bad is our current record of 7-12? We are indeed last place in the Southeast, but has too much damage been done to continue to hope for that fourth playoff spot?

Michael Lee: You know, the Wizards are really lucky that they are in the lousy Eastern Conference, where only five teams have winning records right now. And, as poorly as the Wizards have played, they trail the Miami Heat by just 3.5 games for the fifth spot. I picked the Wizards to finish fifth when the season began. I have a hard time seeing them catching Boston, Orlando, Cleveland or Atlanta right now.


Washington, D.C.: Why doesn't Flip Saunders be more outspoken about the teams struggles? It seems to me all this speculation and uncertainty about who's comfortable with who and what players roles are etc. would be resolved if Flip just came out and said it.

Michael Lee: Go back and check out his past in Minnesota or Detroit; Flip has never been a guy who publicly criticizes his team. So whenever he does say something negative about his guys, you'd better believe he's a bit upset. I'm not sure what's being said to his guys in private, but whatever is discussed, it doesn't seem that the words stick very long. The thing is, no matter what Flip says, it really comes down to the players doing it on the floor on a consistent basis.


Reston, Va.: Any chance if things keep going this way that Arenas gets traded at the February deadline?

Michael Lee: Arenas isn't going anywhere - not when the Wizards owe him $95 million through 2014.


Northern Virginia: Michael,

As a sportswriter I know you must remain objective - but it must be exasperating to follow this team and their poor performance.

Who do you think is most responsible for getting the Wiz turned around? Flip, Gil, Antawn, Ernie?

Also do you think Ernie built a team that flows with the Princeton Offense - but not well suited to Flip's approach?

Michael Lee: I think it's on all of the above to get the Wizards turned around. Flip Saunders was hired in April to get this thing to work and he has to get this team going, especially on offense. He's got to find a way to Gilbert and Caron to feel more confident within this new scheme. Those guys are playing with a lot of doubt on the floor. Gilbert's confidence has been up and down. He just doesn't seem to know what he wants to be out there.

And, if Ernie Grunfeld isn't pleased with the roster he's given Flip, then he has to make moves to give him a better one. I don't think he got players who were built for the Princeton offense. He got guys who were built to score. The Princeton worked to Caron's benefit because it required more playmaking from the forwards.

But it's really on everyone to do better.


Washington, D.C.: Andray Blatche is starting to show some promise - any rationale why Flip doesn't play him more?

Michael Lee: Flip made a great point last week. The two most consistent players for the Wizards have been Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood, and Blatche is the primary backup for both of them. As good as Blatche has been, he's not better than the guys in front of him, so it creates a problem to get him more minutes.


Arlington, Va.: That is an excellent point on the point guard situation. When Crittendon is healthy will he be able to crack the line up given that he plays a different style than our other four (soon to be three if James goes) point guards? I think that he showed he is able to play at least limited minutes.

Michael Lee: I don't see how Crittenton gets much time, no matter what he showed last year. With Earl Boykins getting major minutes, he has pushed Randy Foye and DeShawn Stevenson out of the regular rotation. Foye averaged 16 points last season and is having trouble getting burn. With Crittenton and Mike James getting healthy, the Wizards will soon have a few point guards too many.


Shaw, Washington, D.C.: Why do we continue to put Stevenson on the court? He may have his moments on defense, but offensively he provides no production.

Michael Lee: He has his moments on defense. You have to have a niche in this league and Flip calls on him when he needs help slowing down a good perimeter scorer. DeShawn had a great game against LeBron James, but he doesn't see much time right now.


Falls Church, Va.: I've noticed a lack of emotion from the Wizards players in most of their games. They have a poor record and even though it's only been 20 games, it seems like they don't play with a sense of urgency or purpose. When they do play with emotion (after Abe's passing or whenever they play Cleveland), they play well.

Is it Flip's job to keep them motivated? I would think that he wouldn't need to provide motivation to the players after they went through a season like last year.

Michael Lee: I would think that you are absolutely correct, Falls Church.


Northeast, Washington, D.C.: Injury update wanted: When is Mike Miller coming back? Javaris? Mike James?

Michael Lee: When Mike Miller got hurt, he was expected to miss three to five weeks. I would lean a little closer to five weeks, which would put him back on the floor around Christmas.

Javaris Crittenton told me that he might start practicing next week and Mike James is expected to practice today.


Fairfax, Va.: I was a fan of Eddie Jordan and I feel bad for him that Philadelphia is struggling so badly. I can't help but imagine how the Wizards would be if he were still the coach. How do you think the current team would do if he stayed as coach?

Michael Lee: I'm not sure. It's really hard to say. The thing is, most coaches go through a stretch where his voice no longer resonates with the players. Eddie may have reached that point last season with some of his guys, including Gilbert Arenas. When you take into consideration that Jordan's teams generally got off to poor starts in November and December, you'd have to assume the record wouldn't be much different.


Thomas Circle, Washington, D.C.: Any thoughts on why this team just can't manage to show up in the first quarter? Seems like we spend every single game playing catch-up. Are we not focused? Too loose? Too tight?

Michael Lee: How about not very good. When you repeat the same thing over and over again, it goes from being a troubling trend to being what you are. The Wizards are 1-9 when they trail at the end of the first quarter. If this was February or March, you could say, 'Man they need to fix that.' But when you have done that in 10 of your first 19 games, you have to wonder what's really going on.


Richmond, Va.: I keep hearing that it will take a while for the Wizards to gell and that they're a talented team, but they need to learn how to play together. Could it be that Jamison, Arenas and Butler are just average players that the Wizards front office has grossly overpaid? Talent wins in the NBA. I've watched this core group for years now and I disagree with the argument that's it's chemistry. It appears the Wizards have average talent at best.

Michael Lee: Gilbert, Caron and Antawn are above average players. Average players don't make more than one all-star appearance and consistently put up the numbers they have over their careers. I don't think people realize that Jamison is one of five active players with 16,000 points and 6,000 rebounds (with Shaq, Duncan, Garnett and Nowitzki). That's not average, Richmond. Caron Butler and LeBron James were the only players in the NBA to average 20 points, 6 rebs and 4 assists last season. Again, not average. Arenas has averaged 25 points or more three times in his career. Average players don't do that.

They might not have elite talent, but I don't think they have average talent.


Boston via D.C.: Thanks, as always, for your great coverage.

When all are healthy, who is the starting shooting guard on this team? Nick Young seems to have earned the spot with all-around good play, but what do you do with Miller, not to mention that Foye would seem, on paper at least, the best partner for Arenas. Any chance Miller might spell Caron a bit until Butler gets it together? Thanks.

Michael Lee: I think you have to put Mike Miller back in there when he's healthy. Nick Young has done a great job scoring and shown some flashes defensively as a starter, but Miller does so much more to spread to floor, which gives more space for Arneas, Butler and Jamison to operate. Miller also grabs rebounds and makes plays for others, something Young hasn't been able to do just yet.


Fairfax, Va.: To your point about Saunders drawing straws to find production and consistency: Is this approach creating division within the locker room? It seems to me that only Arenas, Boykins, Young, and Foye warrant minutes at guard (exluding Miller). The other guys aren't good enough to warrant PT, and should be told that they will only play in isoloated circumstances.

Michael Lee: I have to agree with you on that last point, Fairfax. If players understand what is expected, they might not like it, but they have to accept and respect the decision. You can't give guys a false sense of hope and then repeatedly disappoint them. But I don't think that there would be division in the locker room based solely on Flip's rotation. I guarantee you that if you ask the 13th-15th guy on any NBA team, those guys want to play. But you hope that the players ahead of them are getting the job done.


Accokeek, Md.: Do you think the time has finally come to disband the Big Three based on initial returns? If any of the Big Three is traded this season, whom do you feel is most likely to get moved and why?

Michael Lee: I think it's a little to early to discuss moving those guys right now. They haven't played well, but they've only played nine games together this season. From what I hear, they aren't looking to move any of them right now.

You have to remember that the Wizards didn't exactly add the same Gilbert Arenas they lost on April 4, 2007. This is a much different player. At the same time, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are different players since then, too.

It's nice to hope that you can throw them back together and say, 'Vuala!'

The player who would be most likely to get moved is Butler because he has a favorable contract, earning about $20 million through 2011. Plus, Butler was in incredibly high demand this summer.

But Ernie Grunfeld has been really patient with this group. If the Wizards are still stinking up the joint around the trade deadline, I'd expect that he'd try to make a deal right then. Anything done today would be pure panic. Remember, the East is awful. The Wizards can still make up some ground.


Anonymous: It seems to me that Miller is really missed. I know it's a limited sample, but Miller keeps the ball moving. Also, Butler seems to hesitate too much. He does not know when to take the open shot, when to drive, and when to pull up.

Michael Lee: You're are so right. Butler seems to be thinking every time he touches the ball. He admitted on Sunday that he hasn't figured out how to pick his spots in this new offense. I think it has contributed to his poor play.


Washington, D.C.: I tune into Wizards games, but instead I see the Wizards practicing their jump shots. They sure loooooove jump shots, don't they? Bottom line, is this team just soft?

Michael Lee: They certainly wouldn't be described as a physical team.


Bonifay, Fla.: Flip's "problem" in Detroit was, in part, that he couldn't sell his system to the players. Good college coaches create schemes to fit their rosters. Is this a similar case of saying "We found a special on kitty litter, bought a five year's supply, and THE CAT MUST ADAPT?"

Might the problem also be that Arenas is "healthy" by the standard that we judge health, but has actually lost a step or two and can't cope yet?

Michael Lee: I wouldn't compare NBA coaches to college coaches, but I understand your point. I remember Eddie Jordan telling me how in his first season in Washington, the players weren't buying into the Princeton, so he tweaked it some to fit his personell, then added the more complicated stuff as his run continued. Flip is trying to see what his players can and cannot do. I think it's becoming clearer after the first 19 games.

You could be right about Arenas. The guy had three knee surgeries.


Anonymous: If you were GM, what type of player, if any, would you want to bring n for the team?

Michael Lee: What do the Wizards always seem to need? A rugged interior defender and banger. They haven't had a really physical player this decade.


Fairfax, Va.: Michael, It seems that there is a lack of leadership on this team. The guys are just not clicking as they have been before all the injuries. Is it Flip's new system or is it something else?

Michael Lee: There are so many things going on, that if I tried to address all of the problems, this chat won't end any time soon. But you are right that leadership appears to be a huge problem right now. I spoke to an Eastern Conference executive in October who told me that leadership has always been a problem for the Wizards.

Antawn Jamison is their emotional leader and can get guys going at times, but he cannot be THE guy. If you look at the great teams in the league, the leader is either their best player (Kobe, LeBron, Nash, Garnett) or their coach (Gregg Popovich, Stan Van Gundy). For the Wizards to get over the hump, they need it from Gilbert or Flip.


Looking for Tuff Juice, USA: Mike,

Great insider reports. I keep hoping for the return of Tuff Juice. Do you think he will be back?

Michael Lee: He'd better be, if the Wizards are going to turn this thing around.


Anonymous: Do you really think they can beat Atlanta Boston, Cleveland, Miami or Orlando then defeat the western conference champion Lakers, Denver, San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, Portland, Utah and become world champs?

Michael Lee: That's rhetorical, right? I think we know the answer to that one.


Michael Lee: I feel bad. There were waaaaay too many questions for me to get to all of them today. Thanks to everyone for dropping me a line. This was fun. But I really have to go. Peace.


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