Washington Wizards majority owner Abe Pollin and General Manager Wes Unseld said yesterday that a lack of chemistry because of a new coach and eight new players, as well as injuries to key players, are the main reasons for the team's 2-8 start.
"Certainly I'm disappointed in our first 20 days of the season, but I still have a great deal of confidence in this team, our players and our coaches," Pollin said through team spokesman Matt Williams. "I am confident that we will turn things around on the court. . . . We will turn this around."
Said Unseld: "Our problem truly is nothing more than chemistry. We've got a bunch of new faces that have not worked together. This isn't an excuse. This is a reason why our performance has not been where we wanted.
"There is a new way of doing things that has taken some adjustment. It has taken some time for people to adjust. When they come together, we'll be fine. The problem is not waiting too long."
Unseld would not detail the length of the grace period for a team that has often been in transition over the past decade. He also would not specify what changes could be made, but because management continues its support of Coach Gar Heard, the trading of players is the most probable course of action. As of now the Wizards are not actively pursuing trades, a league source said.
"I'm looking for our veteran players to step up their play and for our younger guys to continue to provide energy and enthusiasm," Pollin said.
Veteran forward Juwan Howard emphatically volunteered his services yesterday.
With shooting guard Mitch Richmond hobbled by a sore knee, center Ike Austin hampered by a strained hip flexor and point guard Rod Strickland missing numerous practices for a variety of reasons, Howard said the responsibility for reversing the Wizards' losing ways should fall on him.
"I wish they would put it on me and let me carry this team since Mitch is injured, " said Howard, who is leading Washington with 14.4 points per game. "That's something the coach has to decide. I don't know if he doesn't have the confidence in me, but if we continue on this path, I'll be sure to go in and talk to him about it. I feel I can carry this team. I want to win. All my teammates want to win. I don't mind putting that pressure on myself."
Howard, who is averaging 13.4 shots, would like to see that number increase to 17 to 20 shots a game. In 1995-96, when he was named to his only NBA all-star team, Howard averaged 18.5 shots and 22.1 points.
Heard has said several times that players have to sacrifice shots and points for the good of the team, especially because the Wizards have so many options offensively. Although the Wizards are 27th in the 29-team league in scoring (91.3 points per game), Howard has been one of the team's steadiest players, Heard said.
"He has been the guy who's carrying us when those guys have been out," Heard said. "His numbers are down but he's getting big baskets for us. As a defender, he's underrated."
Howard's initiative is something Heard and Unseld have wanted to see from all their players--few have stepped forward until now--which is why Unseld said he thinks the Wizards may be on the cusp of coming together. His optimism is tempered, though.
"Things could go in either direction, but from what I'm seeing it's moving in the right direction," Unseld said.
Unseld's comments came shortly after witnessing a "spirited" practice in which all the healthy players participated. Strickland, who did not start in Saturday's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers because he did not practice twice last week because of stomach pains and a sore back, arrived early and worked as hard as he has all season, Heard said.
His absences last week and his eventual benching created tension between Strickland and Heard and an uneasiness in the locker room, one player said.
"It hurt us the last couple ballgames," Heard said. "Everybody was focusing on the wrong things when we needed to be focusing on winning basketball games. Everybody was focusing on what was going to happen with Rod. I don't see a problem with him. We are really putting too much emphasis on that, and we have to get back to basketball. That is in the past."
Added Unseld: "I'm not going to lay this on Rod. Rod will be the first person to admit his performance has not been up to how Rod Strickland can play. This is not about Rod Strickland. This is about everybody."
Strickland, who is averaging 10.5 points and 7.2 assists, will start against the Vancouver Grizzlies at MCI Center tonight, said this has been his most frustrating start since coming to Washington in a trade for forward Rasheed Wallace in 1996.
After an optimistic opening to training camp, Strickland missed practice time to attend a funeral and to participate in his trial on drunken driving charges. He was acquitted of the charges, but his comings and goings were just a part of the team's inability to gel.
Injuries to Richmond and Austin did not allow the team to practice together, and both got off to slow starts. Richmond's sore left knee has relegated him to coming off the bench behind rookie Richard Hamilton, and Austin still has not performed as the Wizards hope he will.
However, Richmond, who underwent acupuncture treatments last Friday, is nearing full strength and could be back in the starting lineup shortly. Heard said players will not lose their starting jobs because of injuries.
The Wizards' bad start came with a season-opening schedule filled with eight home games, including tonight's contest against Vancouver. Starting Wednesday in Philadelphia, the Wizards play 13 of their next 19 games on the road.
The quality of their opponents also increases as Washington plays Utah and New York twice, along with games at Charlotte, Miami, the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix and San Antonio. The challenge of pulling things together is steep.
"If we can improve every day I can live with that," Heard said. "Some days we take a step back. With this team, chemistry is everything. If one guy is going bad, this team has a tendency to just get down. I think chemistry-wise we have to be on the same page if we're going to be a successful team. I think we'll put it together. We're due."