When they scrapped their way to a 99-96 road victory over the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 2, there was a feeling that the Washington Wizards had a talented, mostly veteran group of players that was searching for cohesion, chemistry and some kind of identity.
As the Wizards (7-8) prepare to face the Raptors (3-15) again tonight, this time at MCI Center, they are still looking for all of those things. After a 5-1 start, the Wizards have dropped seven of their last nine games and seem to alternate between playoff-team good and lottery-team lousy on a nightly basis.
So, if it's true that the Raptors are one of the NBA's truly bad squads -- even as they are coming off consecutive wins for the first time this season -- what exactly are the Wizards?
"Right now, we're just in the middle of trying to find ourselves, that's where we are," said center Brendan Haywood, who helped preserve that season-opening win at Toronto by taking a charge against Raptors guard Jalen Rose with 14.1 seconds remaining in the game. "We're not a bad team but we're not an elite team either. We're in the middle with a lot of other teams. We have to work hard to make ourselves a great team and, right now, we have a lot of hard work to do."
With one month of the six-month NBA season already in the books, the Wizards have shown signs of becoming a better-than average team. Guard Gilbert Arenas and forward Antawn Jamison are once again having all-star seasons, small forward Caron Butler has provided toughness and scoring off the bench and is emerging as a candidate for the NBA's sixth man of the year award, and Haywood has been a steady presence on both ends of the court.
However, players such as Chucky Atkins, Antonio Daniels, Jarvis Hayes, Jared Jeffries, Michael Ruffin and Etan Thomas are still solidifying their roles on a team on which Arenas and Jamison are always going to take the bulk of the shots and Coach Eddie Jordan is going to go with a crunch-time lineup that is showing the most promise on any given night.
The Wizards have put up numbers reflecting a .500 basketball team.
They score at a nice clip, averaging 98.9 points per game, but also allow an average of 97.5 points a night. They take good care of the basketball, averaging only 13.7 turnovers a game, but have been outrebounded by an average of 5.6 rebounds per game and aren't a particularly good three-point shooting team (ranked 20th at 33.5 percent) or free-throw shooting club (ranked 20th at 72.5 percent).
The locker room chemistry appears to be good -- players seem to genuinely enjoy being around one another and there have only been minor expressions of frustration over the dispersal of minutes and shots. But at the same time, the on-court chemistry is not always there.
There have been too many examples of players drifting around on offense, unsure of how to respond to the movements of the man with the ball, and defensively. For example, in the late stages of Friday night's 105-102 home loss, the Milwaukee Bucks players broke down the defense and either created their own shots or set up teammates for an open look in crucial situations.
Jordan continues to preach patience with the entire process. He encourages his players to be aggressive and smart on offense and has continually harped on the need for better communication and more concentration on the defensive end, particularly during the fourth quarter of close games.
"I don't know when it's all going to come together," Jordan said, acknowledging that several NBA teams are going through a similar process. "It might take awhile but we all have basic, fundamental jobs to do. We have the basic concept that they understand and if you take care of the basics, you should win the games you should win."
Haywood, who is now in his fifth season as a Wizard, said any immediate improvements must begin at the defensive end of the floor.
"When you have guys rolling to the basket wide open for dunks and layups, you can't have that," said Haywood, who ranks seventh in the league with 2.4 blocked shots per game. "At the same time, we have guys getting beat off the dribble. We just have to become better at team defense and trust each other on defense. We know we have guys who can score points but are we going to play defense and are we going to share the ball with each other? When we do that, we're a good team. When we don't, we're average."