The Washington Wizards' seventh straight loss, a 95-73 humbling by the Philadelphia 76ers before 14,524 booing fans at MCI Center last night, was the last straw.
Wizards Coach Gar Heard will bench some of his starters for Thursday's home game against Toronto. Guard Mitch Richmond, center Ike Austin and forward Michael Smith are the likely candidates to be removed from the starting lineup and the changes do not appear temporary.
Though Heard would not say exactly whom he plans on benching, he said rookie guard Richard Hamilton--Richmond's backup--will be in the starting lineup.
Hamilton scored a team-high 17 points in last night's loss, in which Washington scored 10 first-quarter points and made a perfect opposition for 76ers guard Allen Iverson's highlight reel. Iverson finished with 39 points.
"We're going to have to look at replacing two of three of the starters," said a distraught Heard, who held a meeting with his coaching staff after the game to discuss the moves. "That's going to happen. If we're going to lose, we're going to lose with young guys and by playing the right way.
"It's not that the guys are not trying. I'm trying to find the right combinations, and it's not working. . . . We're not rebuilding. I have not given up on this season."
Heard, who was visibly shaken by his team's horrible performance, did not dump all the blame on his players.
"We're 1-7," he said. "I have to take the blame."
Heard said he might have to change some of his offensive strategies, especially if he uses a younger lineup.
Benching Richmond--whom Washington made the league's highest-paid shooting guard this season with a four-year, $40 million contract last summer--would show Heard's shrewdness in trying to salvage a young season in which Washington has lost seven straight.
Richmond, who started against Philadelphia (4-4) but came off the bench behind Hamilton in the second half and made just 3 of 13 shots, said he would not have a problem with coming off the bench.
"I understand that Richard has been giving us a lot of energy in the preseason, and he's been giving us energy off the bench," said Richmond, a six-time all-star and two-time Olympian. "He's been one of our main scorers, and he's been playing well."
Richmond, who entered the game shooting 33 percent, suffered a strained right hamstring in the preseason and has been nursing a sore left knee the past few weeks. Heard said it is clear that Richmond is not healthy and will be examined by the team's medical staff today. There is a chance that Richmond could be placed on the injured list, which would make him inactive for at least five games.
Richmond did not play in last week's loss to Seattle because of his sore knee. Hamilton replaced him in the starting lineup and scored 15 points.
Hamilton is one of three Wizards scoring in double figures, and his ability to create shots for himself and his teammates off the dribble is a dimension a hobbled Richmond has yet to provide. Hamilton declined to give any specific comments about starting because he had not been notified of any changes.
"I think that when I get out on the floor, if it's in the beginning, middle or whenever, I just have to continue to work hard," Hamilton said. "If I work hard, everything will fall into place."
Austin played just 14 minutes last night and failed to score. Austin took just four shots and grabbed two rebounds. Austin was upset with his performance after the game and said he is not getting into the flow of the team's offense.
He said he was unsure if his troubles are due to his effort or how he is being used, but he said he is capable of performing better. Before the game he said if he were benched, it would be a sacrifice he would be willing to make.
If he is benched, Jahidi White or Gerard King would start.
Smith, who got into a fourth-quarter tussle with Philadelphia center Theo Ratliff, has played well. He grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds against the Sixers. However, Aaron Williams, who scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds, has provided energy off the bench. Right now, any energy is better than than the Wizards' flatline performances.
"This is getting out of hand," said small forward Juwan Howard, who had 13 points and is not in danger of losing his starting job. "It's about going out and wanting it. Going out and being dedicated and bringing the heart and determination and drive. It's not just about talking about it.
"It's about performance. We can sell all the woof tickets we want. It's about performance out there, end results, and the end results have been losses. We've got to get it together."
Though most players said they don't think the lineup changes will cause the inner turmoil that led to last season's 18-32 record, several players stressed the need to stay unified or else the bad start might be the least of the team's problems."
"We're going to have to be able to understand it," said Richmond, a co-captain.
The Wizards did not lead after an early 1-0 edge and trailed by as many as 25. Washington did not score its first field goal until Rod Strickland's 11-foot jump shot with 1 minute 58 seconds left in the first quarter. That brought the Wizards to 21-5.
Washington shot 34 percent for the game and made just 16 of 31 free throws (52 percent).