Washington Wizards Coach Gar Heard apparently has seen enough poor performances. After six consecutive losses, including three blowouts on the road, he is poised to alter his high-priced, veteran starting lineup. Team management is backing him.
"That would be a coaching decision, but I support whatever he thinks he's got to do to get it done," General Manager Wes Unseld said.
Heard has tried to give his starters time to adjust to playing together after a preseason in which injuries kept them from practicing enough to form an effective unit.
The grace period seems to be over, however. After the Wizards fell to the Indiana Pacers, 105-83, Saturday in a loss Heard called "embarrassing," the coach said lineup changes might come as soon as Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers at MCI Center.
With his team having the worst record in the NBA--it has lost six in a row after opening the season with a victory over Atlanta--Heard feels he can't do any worse by using other players.
"We're at the point where we are going to make some changes," Heard said after Saturday's loss gave Washington its poorest start since the 1966-67 season.
If a move is made, it likely will involve sending center Ike Austin to the bench in favor of 6-foot-9 Gerard King, who made the team as a training camp invitee, or 6-9 second-year center Jahidi White.
Heard, who gave his team the day off yesterday, has not completed his lineup plans but clearly is not pleased with Washington's interior play. After Friday's loss to the Miami Heat, Heard said he had tried to get the 6-10 Austin involved in the low post. Austin leads the team with 6.8 rebounds per game, but he has yet to deliver consistently on either end of the court, Heard said.
White, when he stays out of foul trouble, has been a fairly solid inside presence. He is averaging four points, and has used his bulky frame to keep opposing centers from establishing position close to the basket. He also is the team's best shot blocker.
King is is averaging 7.5 points and five rebounds in 14.7 minutes per game, and has been Washington's steadiest interior player on offense--and perhaps on defense. He also has shown the inspired effort Heard has sought during his team's woeful start.
Before Saturday's loss, Heard said he planned on using King more anyway because he has played too well to spot him occasionally behind power forwards Michael Smith and Aaron Williams. After King registered career highs in points (20) and rebounds (16) against the Pacers, getting him more minutes is a certainty.
"Every time I've put him in the game, he's played well," Heard said. "Gerard is really the only guy who has been consistent. . . . I'm going to do what I think is best."
Unseld said it is clear the team's problems revolve around the starting lineup having had little practice time together. Small forward Juwan Howard is the only starter not to miss any practice or game time. Smith missed only one day of practice.
Austin and guard Mitch Richmond, who have struggled the most among the starters, missed almost all of the preseason with hip flexor and hamstring injuries, respectively. Point guard Rod Strickland has missed or been late to a handful of practices, citing personal reasons. He has been disciplined twice.
"Everybody is disappointed with the way things have turned out," Unseld said. "We all see or feel that this is going to turn around. You see that the players who have had a chance to work together are playing pretty well, and those that have not had a chance to play together have not been effective.
"That doesn't mean you have to stand back and wait to do something."
Washington's six-player bench rotation is outscoring the starters 46.2 to 41.0 per game. In the Wizards' last two games, against Miami and Indiana, the reserves outscored the starters 108-75.
If Heard decides to keep his starting lineup intact, he won't give players much time to falter.
Strickland (12.1) and Howard (14.4) are the only starters with scoring averages in double figures, but both are well below their career averages of 15 and 19.3, respectively. Backup shooting guard Richard Hamilton (10.4) is the only other Wizard scoring in double figures.
Richmond clearly has not recovered from his preseason hamstring injury and a sore left knee that kept him out of last Wednesday's home game against Seattle. Richmond, who has a career scoring average of 22.9 points, is averaging 7.5 points this season.
He has made an alarmingly low 20 of 60 shots (33 percent) and has scored in single digits in three of the six games in which he has played.
Though Smith is averaging just four points, he has provided the toughness, defense and key rebounds to secure his spot in the starting lineup.
"We need some answers," Heard said.