You know who must feel pretty lucky right now? Doc Rivers and Isiah Thomas. Instead of them being in this predicament, it's Gar Heard who is trying to keep this ship from sinking. We're five games into the NBA season, the Washington Wizards have yet to meet a contender, and yet they're 1-4 with a pair of no-shows and a four-game losing streak to their discredit. Talk about a gloomy forecast.
Here's the good news from last night: The Wizards didn't quit and they only mildly embarrassed themselves in losing at home to Seattle, 109-95.
Now back to the bad news, of which there is plenty. Are we looking at a long season, or what? Durable Mitch Richmond can't play because he's hurt. Heard held Rod Strickland out of the starting lineup last night because he was late for practice Tuesday. That, boys and girls, is your $20 million back court.
"I don't like to lose, but I can deal with losing if we go down fighting, and they didn't even fight," Heard said before last night's game, another double-digit loss. "We fought each other harder in practice the next day than they fought in New Jersey Sunday night."
Five games into his tenure as the Wizards' coach, Heard is angry and he ought to be. It's a good thing that he ripped into his team after that performance in the Meadowlands Sunday. It's a good thing that he's already lost his patience. It's a good thing he's having zero tolerance about being late and lackadaisical. He sees a culture of losing that has existed for a long time, and he knows it's going to take something dramatic to cut through it. If that means benching a veteran player, so be it. Nobody in this outfit has earned the right to miss or be late for anything. The Wizards have the talent to be respectable, particularly in the Eastern Conference, but they've already put forth lame efforts against three of its weakest teams: Orlando, Boston and New Jersey. If they rolled over for the Nets, what should we expect to see when they have to play San Antonio or Portland?
"I'm angry," Heard said, "because I don't think they realize they're in a position to do something good. Look at the Eastern Conference; somebody will eventually emerge but everybody's bunched up. Nobody is head and shoulders above everybody else. Their thinking seems to be, 'We've only played four games.' But I've got to get them out of that mind-set. There needs to be a guy who grabs this team by the throat. The coach can't do that because they can tune the coach out. It's got to be a player who says, 'I'm tired of this, I'm not taking it.' Up in New Jersey, guys were dunking on 'em, shooting threes on 'em. . . . When do you say, 'I'm not having this anymore' ?"
So far, that player has yet to step forward. In fact, I think Jimmy Lynam left town looking for that player, as did Bernie Bickerstaff.
Strickland has been the Wizards' best player for several years now. But he's not particularly vocal on the court. He's a gamer, but not a big practice guy. That might be fine on a lot of teams, but this one needs its best player to be a leader, which never has been Strickland's deal.
"I need him to set a good example," Heard said. "I need him to be on time, to practice hard every day. He sets the tone for everything. If guys see him doing things correctly, they'll follow him. He's got to be the leader on the court, not just the games, but in practices."
Strickland, in a long and thoughtful pregame conversation, said he was "embarrassed" by the losses in Boston and New Jersey. He pointed to the fact that the veterans who are supposed to help him lead this team--Richmond and Ike Austin--have been injured and missed most of camp and the preseason and aren't in the form they hope to be shortly. "I hope there's no panic right now," he said.
Heard said: "It's not panic. But I've got to find guys who are going to fight every night. I don't think they know how to win. We made some runs in each game [at Boston, New Jersey and here against the Sonics] but we didn't make the run to win the game, we made a run to make it exciting. We were happy to get back into the game. We can't be happy with that. . . . Tonight, the [deficit] went from two to 20, just like that. . . . I can tell you this, we're not going to have another game like New Jersey. That's not going to happen again. If we do that again, there will be changes."
Heard sees a team that isn't playing good defense on the perimeter, and a team where the reserves are outplaying the starters. "Nothing against the bench," he said, "but that can't happen."
He thought back to one of the Indiana Pacers teams a few years ago (when Heard was an assistant coach), and he said: "We lost our first six at home to start the season. The thing was, that team got better every night. I don't see that in this team every night."
The question is whether he'll see it at all. I'm convinced that Richmond should not have played the first few games, and that when he's healthy we'll see the real Richmond. But is it possible that injuries and an absurd number of games (800), recent injuries, and age (34) are conspiring to reduce Richmond here and now? Can this team be competitive with Richmond less than his usual all-star caliber self? And is Strickland, 12 years into his career, going to be on time and become the kind of leader Heard wants?
Goodness, there are so many problems so early. "We just don't have a very strong low-post presence right now," Heard said. "Teams are taking us to the basket and we're shooting jumpers. And as soon as something goes wrong, we drop our heads and let other teams make that run."
For Orlando, a guy named John Amaechi ignited one of those runs against the Wizards. Against Boston it was Vitaly Potapenko. Against New Jersey, Keith Van Horn might as well have been Wilt. For Seattle, it was my man Vernon Maxwell coming off the bench to score 24 points in 26 minutes. Fans booed toward the end of the game. Again. More than 7,000 seats were empty. Five luxury boxes on the lower level were unoccupied and the next four games (Heat, Pacers, 76ers, Raptors) look losable.
This is the culture of losing Heard has walked into. This man who has worked his whole life to become a head coach in the NBA has stepped into a mess. "I've cursed more in the last three weeks than I have in 15 years." he said. "But I'll get there. We're going to get better, we're going to break the bad habits. It's going to be rough, apparently, but I'll get there."
I'm certain Gar Heard believes that with all his heart. I just wonder who else is with him.