So now, Abe Pollin and Wes Unseld say a lack of "chemistry" is the reason for the Wizards' 3-8 record. They say losing to the sorry, no-account Clippers at home is just a matter of the team not "coming together" quickly enough. Apparently, Washington's NBA franchise will start and end the decade with the same reasons for losing: Bad chemistry, bad luck, not coming together, sun in our eyes.
Here's what you need to know about the Washington Wizards as the 1990s come to a close. Twenty-seven NBA teams played basketball for the entire decade, and of those only Washington and Dallas failed to win a playoff game. Not a playoff series, mind you, a playoff game. One game. Miami, Orlando, Minnesota and Charlotte, the expansion teams that were born just before the decade, have all won at least one.
In the NHL, which, like the NBA, sends 16 teams to the playoffs, all 26 franchises have won at least one playoff game and this includes San Jose, Anaheim, Tampa Bay and Florida--all expansion teams. Even in the NFL, where it's decidedly more difficult to qualify for the playoffs, and where teams play only a single game and not a series, only a handful of teams have failed to win a playoff game in the 1990s.
Any discussion of the worst professional sports franchises in America would have to bottom out with the Clippers, Mavericks, Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals. The Wizards, with their performance the first three weeks of this NBA season, are seriously threatening to fall into that category.
The bigger picture is not about chemistry or coming together.
It's about bad decision after bad decision after bad decision. This is about drafting Kenny Green while Karl Malone was still on the board. This is about trying to build a franchise around a fragile and overweight kid named John Williams. This is about trusting Kevin Duckworth. This is about thinking Mark Price was worth a No. 1 draft pick. This is about refusing to give Juwan Howard $24 million, then having to turn around two years later and give him $105 million. That's my entry for worst decision made by a professional sports franchise this decade!
This is about getting Moses Malone, Gus Williams, Michael Adams and, apparently, Mitch Richmond after they've passed their primes. This is about having traded, in essence, Tom Gugliotta, Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland and Richmond. This is about not having a No. 1 draft pick--again--next year because of the Webber trade for Googs. The Wizards end up overpaying every time, through money or picks, because somebody is too old or not good enough. And when they do let some journeyman walk, Jaren Jackson goes to San Antonio and contributes to a championship.
There are always people who manage to see around the corner better than the Wizards; teams that can exploit the draft or the salary cap or free agent system to make their teams contenders. Bullets/Wizards coaches have come and gone. Players have come and gone; this franchise has had more make-overs than Michael Jackson. Yet, the Bullets/Wizards haven't won a playoff game since May 4, 1988. It was a Wednesday night against the Pistons. Eleven barren seasons have come and gone. A 12th seems to be a lock.
It's even sadder because Pollin and Unseld try so hard, because they go back to the drawing board every couple of years with as much enthusiasm and as many good intentions as are possible. There's no questioning their sincerity, just the results. Pollin, who probably has less personal wealth than any other chief operating officer in the NBA or NHL, nonetheless went into his own pocket and to his banks and built a downtown arena at a time when the richest men in the country try to get local governments to foot the bill, and at a time when the District was desperately in need of a downtown project.
Individually, most of the moves Pollin/Bob Ferry, Pollin/John Nash, Pollin/Unseld made were completely endorsed at that moment. (I know, I've been one of the endorsers.) Like dealing Googs and those three picks for Webber. We all figured--okay, I figured--that the Wizards would be so good, those picks would be low first-round picks and not worth particularly much. Boy, it looked like getting Strickland for Wallace was a freebie since Commissioner David Stern gave Pollin a mulligan, which kept Howard in town. But it hasn't turned out very well, has it? One playoff series in 11 years. Three games, all losses to the Bulls. Collectively, it adds up to disaster.
I'm certain this pains Pollin more than anybody else in town. Yet, when he says, as he did in a statement Monday, that the team will turn it around, how many people believe him? How many years have we heard him say the team will get it together? Nobody in town believes the Wizards are going to turn it around this season, which is why more and more seats are empty at a sparkling new arena.
It's not the sincerity folks are questioning, it's the know-how. Nothing that's happened the last dozen years suggests management knows how to reverse the team's fortunes. The only encouraging thing is there are talented players on this roster and 71 games to play. "We have a long way to go, as you can obviously see," Richmond said last night after an 89-87 victory over Vancouver, which nearly broke a 25-game road losing streak before the Wizards erased a 12-point deficit. "But we have it in the room. Our confidence has been shot, all of us probably. You can't get it all back at once. It's step by step and you've got to have something that ignites it. This wasn't pretty. It was ugly. But we needed it."
Unseld said this week that too many new players playing for a new coach have led directly to the Wizards' poor early season performance. Okay, let's take Unseld at his word. But what about the new faces playing for that new coach in Orlando, which came in here and beat the Wizards? Nobody has more new players than Orlando.
One day the big questions are about Richmond's prolonged slump (though he had 19 last night and essentially won the game), the next they are about Ike Austin, the next they are about Strickland. Without question, players who make this much money have to accept responsibility. But how is it the Wizards always seem to wind up with the wrong players or combinations of players?
You can't just keep changing coaches, can you? On the other hand, how many times can you just keep shuffling the players? The results stay the same no matter who is in uniform, no matter who is sitting on the bench. And until this franchise's top executives can make better decisions and demonstrate some long-term vision, it's a very real possibility we'll be examining these same issues and wondering why the Wizards can't win a playoff game into a new decade.
Join Michael Wilbon online at 2 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com for "The Tony and Mike Show."