Just 18 games into the season, the Washington Wizards are on dangerous ground. Frustration is mounting, and losses are coming in waves. It is not the way the Wizards or first-year coach Gar Heard wanted to start the team's toughest road trip of the season.
"The biggest thing is that we have to stay together," forward Aaron Williams said. "We're all we've got. If we start pointing fingers at each other we might as well throw in the towel."
The Wizards (5-13) embark on a four-game, Western Conference road trip this week that even the best of teams would find brutal. They play at Utah tonight, then face the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs, all teams with winning records.
Wins and losses aside, this is a time when players and coaches could galvanize or the team could fall by the wayside.
Asked if he sees signs his players are giving up on him and the season, Heard said: "I don't see that happening. What I see right now is total frustration. These guys want to win. Nobody likes to lose."
All parties are aware that most, if not all, of the Wizards' high-salaried players can't or won't be traded any time soon. Heard's job is believed to be safe as well. Since everyone is riding in the same boat, they can either pull together or they can suffer through 64 more games, Heard said.
"Never in my imagination would I believe that we'd be where we are right now," Heard said. "We're all frustrated. We feel as though we should be doing better than we are. We feel like we haven't found the answer.
"Things are going bad. We just have to work harder and pull together. It's a tough stretch but we're in a position to build character. Right now everybody feels like everybody is against them.
"You have 15 players, four coaches and a trainer with you all the time. Those are the only people you have to please. You do that and everything will be fine."
But there have been signs of fraying within the team.
This week center Ike Austin questioned the team's discipline. Some players are quietly second-guessing Heard's rotation of players. And one player who declined to be identified said other players seem to be tiring of Heard's dressing-downs during timeouts and are turning a deaf ear.
Heard defended his rotation strategy.
"If a guy is doing the job on the floor I won't take him out," Heard said. "If he's not doing well, I've got to get someone else in there who can do the job. My job is not to worry about egos. I've got to find some answers to get us some wins."
As far as his sideline lectures, Heard said: "I've been a player and a coach, and in some instances you try anything to trigger guys to play well. My job is to make sure to keep the guys motivated. In a lot of ways that's not my personality. Players are going to turn you off when they feel like it anyway, whether you're making a plea to them or you're patting them on the back. You've still got to try and do what it takes to get things going."
In an effort to find a remedy, Heard has asked for suggestions from players and his assistant coaches. Although neither Heard nor his players would provide specifics about the 30-minute meeting held after Saturday's 114-104 loss to Sacramento, Heard said there was an open dialogue between coaches and players about how to make things better.
From strategy to attitudes, several topics were discussed, Heard said. Some players and Heard deemed the meeting constructive.
"The best thing for us right now is to go on road and get closer and iron out some problems," Heard said. "It will be a different team when we come back."