Lost Wizards need direction

Friday, November 27, 2009

All the ingredients for a lost season are in place. New coach, new systems of offense and defense, four new players, two players returning after long layoffs, hideous early-season losses, dissension before Thanksgiving and most unsettling, a deceased owner who has been the face of the franchise for more than 40 years. The Washington Wizards, from the top of the pyramid to the 12th man, had every reason to spend Thanksgiving worrying.

The players say they will dedicate this season to Abe Pollin, but the issues confronting the team appear greater than a jolt of inspiration alone can solve.

The squabbles from last week, most notably between Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, are the outward expressions of the frustration of having the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference and the fourth-worst record in the NBA after one month of play. The Wizards were supposed to be so much better than 4-9, what with three former all-stars, so many proven starters and established role players.

What they are is lost. They don't have an identity as a team yet, don't know how they fit individually in Coach Flip Saunders's way of playing. An hour spent in the Wizards' locker room Wednesday night in the wake of Pollin's death and after their narrow victory over the Philadelphia 76ers convinced me the Wizards aren't suffering from any lack of passion. They don't lack capacity for work. And despite last week's bickering, they don't dislike each other, either.

Arenas said it straight away the other night, that the basketball transition from Eddie Jordan to Saunders is difficult and could be long.

"Before the season," Arenas said, "I was thinking that [averaging] 22 [points], 8 [assists] and 4 [rebounds] would be about where I needed to be for us to have the kind of season we think we can have." Teammates agreed with him. One said Arenas would need to average between 7.5 and nine assists and cut his scoring to 21, 22 points a game if the Wizards were going to take advantage of their depth and having so many good perimeter players.

Last week, however, Arenas hinted (some would say threatened) that he might go back to "doing what I do," meaning scoring 30 or more points every single game. But that plan didn't exactly go over well when voiced, so there was Arenas on Wednesday night, having a soul-searching moment. The locker room was pretty much empty except for two reporters Arenas has known for his entire time in Washington.

"I'm trying to figure it out," Arenas said. "Do I get more aggressive now?

"Or do I need to wait for that? Is it a totally different approach that I need to take? I don't think I can be in that mentality anymore. I think this situation calls for getting everybody involved, and I've gone periods without scoring, which didn't happen before [the knee surgeries]. It feels like I'm just coming to the team. It really has been [Antawn Jamison's] and Caron's team the last two years. Look, I've been gone for two years. Shut down for two years from whatever you do. You're going to be rusty. I don't have the killer instincts like I had."

It was a candid half-hour of conversation, to be sure. There was nothing arrogant or selfish about Arenas's views. He was -- make that is -- working through this comeback. David Aldridge, the longtime Bullets and Wizards beat writer for The Post and now TNT's NBA reporter, and I told Arenas we thought it was a big mistake to stop writing his blog, to stop talking publicly, to stop doing all the things that some people might think are quirky but seem to be a big part of who Arenas is as a, well, performer.

"Maybe you're right," he said. "But you know why I did that? I felt I just needed to play, to show I can do this again."

It seemed, though, that Arenas was coming to the same conclusion. In professional basketball, personality is a huge part of a player's game, especially guards who have the ball most of the time and run the team, who take the big shots and the heat for what goes wrong. I would expect to see Arenas's spirit return quickly. But there are basketball issues. Without having to call Hubie Brown in from the bullpen to explain this, let's just say that Saunders's system calls for Arenas to be a more traditional, set-it-up, playmaking point guard. Jordan's offensive system didn't really distinguish between point guards, shooting guards and their individual duties.

All the guards who played for Jordan are still picking up the differences in the system and it doesn't appear they're going to have it nailed anytime soon, which could mean more losses like the lopsided ones in San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

So, there's a lot of on-court stuff to work through and it could take many weeks, not a few games.

Where the Wizards are fortunate is that the off-court transition that could truly disrupt a team shouldn't even happen here. An owner's death, as we've seen with the transition of the Redskins in the wake of Jack Kent Cooke's death, can cause total upheaval. Ted Leonsis, expected to be the new principal owner, already owns the Capitals. He knows the local market, the league, the arena. And he's not new to running a franchise, day-to-day. He's experienced losing as an owner. He's overseen the building of a winner through the draft, firing and hiring coaches. He knows what it's like to manage a superstar through his experience with Alex Ovechkin, which just might help Arenas in the long run.

Having Leonsis own the Wizards would be as minimal a transition as could be reasonably expected. (I've already got a wish list for the new owner: change the name of the team from Wizards back to Bullets, which would be perceived locally as honoring Abe Pollin. We know why he changed the team name, and I applaud his intent and sensitivity. But this team should be the Bullets.

They, like any team that calls Washington, D.C. home, should wear red-white-and-blue uniforms and they should play in a building named after the man who raised it.)

Anyway, if the big stuff, like who owns and runs the team, can be pulled off smoothly and without disrupting the basketball operation, that would be a step in the right direction for the Wizards. The players need to figure out the system they're playing and answer the very real questions Arenas has about how very talented players are going to provide some answers early enough to make this season about competitive victories and not just tributes.

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