Washington Wizards Coach Gar Heard will not change his starting lineup for tonight's game against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers, a move he seriously considered after Saturday's loss to the Indiana Pacers. However, if the starting five gets off to a slow start, Heard will not waste time before calling on his bench.
"If our starters get us down early in the first few minutes, I'm going to make some changes," Heard said. "I can't afford to get down 15, 20 points and expect our second unit to come in and dig us out of a hole.
"They're going to get the chance to start the game, a chance to play and keep us in the game. If they play well, then they'll play. If not, they'll go to the bench. Just because I'm starting them doesn't mean they'll get the most minutes."
Heard decided not to make a change because injuries and personal issues have kept starters Rod Strickland, Mitch Richmond, Juwan Howard, Michael Smith and Ike Austin from extensive time together since the beginning of training camp.
"We haven't really played that well, so it's hard to tell what we can do together as a unit," Heard said. "I'd like to find out what this unit is capable of doing before I break it up. I don't want to go into a panic situation.
"If you look at it, this is the group that's going to have to carry us if we're going to be a good basketball team. Our bench has been playing great, but I can't ask them to go up against front-line players every night. But if I see that [the starters] can't get the job done, there will have to be some wholesale changes."
Though Heard provided no timetable, tonight's game could be the last chance some starters have to solidify their roles.
Heard has threatened to alter his starting lineup since a 25-point loss to the New Jersey Nets on Nov. 7. In five of their last six games, all losses, the Wizards have fallen behind by at least 18 points, mostly when the starters have been on the court.
In every game, including Washington's season-opening victory over the Atlanta Hawks, the reserves have been far more solid than the starters. The bench players, as a whole, have rarely missed practice time and for the most part got most of the playing time during preseason.
Heard has not said which starters are in danger of being replaced, but he apparently has considered benching Austin, who was slowed by a strained left hip flexor and has not lived up to preseason expectations. Jahidi White or Gerard King would replace him. King has been especially impressive and will play more regardless, Heard has said.
Austin acknowledged that a change might be necessary.
"We're not getting enough energy out of the starting five," said Austin, who will start tonight. "They've got to make moves. If it's going to be to me, that's fine. I have no problem with that.
"We have to do something to try and get a win. The main thing is to win. Guys have got to sacrifice. If I've got to sacrifice in that situation, then that's fine with me."
Austin offered a candid assessment of what he thinks is wrong with the starting rotation.
"Our whole breakdown is on defense," Austin said. "We're going to score, but we're giving up too many layups, second shots, easy baskets. We're not doing anything about it but standing around, waiting for each other to do something."
In all their losses, the Wizards have surrendered at least 104 points. In its only victory, Washington was a 94-87 winner.
"It's at the point now where everybody's got to come with it," Austin continued. "We've got to execute down the stretch. In the games that we were in in the fourth quarter, we stopped moving on offense.
"We stopped calling plays. We just stand around. We're not executing the things we did at practice. Even in practice we're not executing the things we're being told. If we don't do it out here in practice, how are we going to do it in a game?"