Wizards' Next Coach A Subject to Ponder

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009; Page E03

The Washington Wizards have 23 games remaining in what has been a brutal season. That final stretch continues with a home game against the Atlanta Hawks tonight, but speculation is already swirling about the team's future and one of the biggest decisions team president Ernie Grunfeld has to make is this: Who will be the next head coach?

Ed Tapscott replaced Eddie Jordan on an interim basis on Nov. 24 after the team got off to a 1-10 start under Jordan, who had led the team to four straight playoff appearances and ranks as one of the most successful coaches in franchise history.

Grunfeld has not openly said that Tapscott will not be back but that's pretty much a foregone conclusion, according to multiple team and league sources. Tapscott himself has not intimated that head coaching is something he wants to continue doing.

"Those decisions will be made after the season," Grunfeld said recently. "Right now, we're just focused on finishing the season and then we will evaluate everything."

For his part, the affable and extremely quotable Tapscott has approached a very difficult challenge with a mixture of old-school resolve, professorial insight and gallows humor.

Like Jordan before him, Tapscott quickly realized that squeezing out victories without three-time all-star guard Gilbert Arenas and starting center Brendan Haywood would not be easy.

The remainder of the roster -- one that has entirely been constructed by Grunfeld -- consists of two legitimate NBA starters (Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler), a handful of veterans who should probably be no more than role players at this point in their careers (Darius Songaila, Mike James and Juan Dixon), players who weren't playing particularly well even before going down with injuries (Etan Thomas and DeShawn Stevenson), one total mystery (fourth-year forward-center Andray Blatche) and young players who are either learning on the fly or simply haven't been very good (second-year players Dominic McGuire, Nick Young, Javaris Crittenton and Oleksiy Pecherov, and rookie JaVale McGee).

The team is 13-35 under Tapscott, who formerly carried the title of director of player development and will likely return to that role, according to sources.

Saturday night's 109-93 loss at Milwaukee illustrated just how rough a task Tapscott has faced in his first head coaching stint since his days at American University in the 1980s.

One night after the Wizards played some of their best basketball in a 113-90 win over the Chicago Bulls, Tapscott's team came out flat, fell behind early and never recovered against a Bucks squad that was playing without two of its best players (guard Michael Redd and center Andrew Bogut) but had ample amounts of three qualities the Wizards have lacked so often this season: chemistry, energy and passion.

The loss was so typical of many this season, it felt like a bad case of deja vu.

"One of the things I've learned about the NBA is that every night is unique," Tapscott said. "We looked like we had more fatigue, more mileage on us and it looked like they had better legs. . . . They had more than we had tonight. They just did."

Soon, the team will be someone else's problem. As usual, Grunfeld is playing his cards close to the vest, so if he's identified an ideal candidate or a list of them, it remains a mystery. But there's a good chance that recent coaches who have been fired elsewhere will be considered.

Any potential list likely includes the names of Flip Saunders, who has had successful stints with the Pistons and Timberwolves; Avery Johnson, who nearly won a championship with the Mavericks in 2006; and Sam Mitchell, who guided the Raptors to the playoffs last season.

As with everything else involving Abe Pollin's franchise, the choice of the new coach will likely revolve around Arenas, the mercurial star who is armed with a $111 million contract and a mixture of talent and personality that can alternately make a coach look like a genius or make him want to jump off the Key Bridge.

"Bottom line: Whoever gets that job -- and it's a good job if Gilbert is right and you come back with Butler and Jamison -- priority one is handling" Arenas, said a rival front-office executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to hamper future dealings with the Wizards. "The thing you had to appreciate about Eddie Jordan was that he had a system that made the kid a star but he also handled all of his quirks. That's a rare combination and, now, the guy has that contract. There are some coaches who flat out could not deal with a player like that. So, whoever Ernie chooses, that coach is going to have to be able to work around Arenas. How that plays out is going to determine the direction of that franchise."

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