All of the preseason talk about possibly being a playoff team and reversing the direction of a franchise that has been mired in misery and off-court shenanigans over the past four seasons had been quelled. All of the excuses about being without John Wall and Nene had gone mute.
The Washington Wizards can no longer concern themselves about pipe dreams in April, or possibly being bailed out whenever their two best players return. They simply have to find a way to get a victory that has eluded them for far too long.
In the 35th anniversary season of the team that brought Washington its only NBA championship, a collection of misfit role players and underdeveloped talent has taken the organization to its lowest state to ever open a season.
After a 96-89 loss on Monday to the Indiana Pacers at Verizon Center, the Wizards are a franchise-worst 0-9, breaking the previous mark for futility set last season, when they lost eight in a row. Coach Randy Wittman is struggling to find a rotation that works and the words to explain why they have been so awful.
“I believe these guys can win. I don’t have doubts. I come in here every day, thinking: ‘This is the night. I feel good,’ ” Wittman said, before pausing. “I might be dumb.”
Through this unbearable start, Wittman has said that he wants to instill that belief in his players but the challenge only gets harder with each defeat. And, it had to be hard for his players to keep the faith when they trailed by 19 points only nine minutes into the game and fell back behind by 20 in the third quarter.
But with a recently benched rookie, a point guard who was unemployed and training in Florida last week, and some other scrappy reserves, the Wizards wouldn’t go down easily. They rallied back within one point when Chris Singleton got fouled on a jumper with 3 minutes 30 seconds left.
Forward David West made back-to-back jumpers to help the Pacers hold on and the Wizards had to once again discuss coming up short in a game that they could’ve won if not for a poor execution down the stretch and an even poorer start.
“Always the same story,” Kevin Seraphin said after scoring 13 points off the bench. “We have to fight all the game to come back. But that’s difficult. We play some good teams. This is the NBA. That’s a league with no mercy. If you don’t start right, you already lost the game.”
Rookie Bradley Beal scored a game-high 18 points and Shaun Livingston, in his second game with the team, had 10 points and four assists. But Wittman was unable to get much production from his starters, who combined to shoot 8 for 37 from field and barely outscored West, 31-30.
“It comes down to us. We can’t keep putting our team in the hole right now. For whatever reason, our first five is not getting it done,” point guard A.J. Price said.
As a team, the Wizards shot just 35.6 percent, the second game in a row that they failed to shoot above 40 percent. West was 10 for 14 from the field, responding to every rally with a pull-up jumper, tip-in or bank shot. West also had the support of former Georgetown center Roy Hibbert, who broke out of a season-long slump with his most productive game of the season. Hibbert had 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting and added 12 rebounds in the arena he called home for four seasons.
“I don’t know what to say anymore, to be honest. Probably look at my previous statement. Cut and paste, at this point,” said Emeka Okafor, who had just one point and one rebound and failed to play in the fourth quarter for the fifth time this season.
Wittman changed his starting lineup in the previous loss against Utah, but that unit was mostly ineffective against the Pacers. Jordan Crawford was the only starter to score in double figures but he needed 12 shots, missing 10, to score 11 points.
Seraphin started at the beginning of the second half, replacing Okafor. The struggles of the starters were summed up in one play in the third quarter, when Crawford drove into the lane and flipped an air ball. Okafor jumped to get the putback, but shot an air ball over the rim. Price missed a three-pointer and then Okafor had his shot blocked by Hibbert. Fans started booing.
“I don’t know who to start, who to play, who not to play,” Wittman said. “It’s a confusion of different guys, every game. Whether starter or bench. We have no consistency. To get off to a start like we did tonight, it was no excuse for it. I’m looking down the whole roster and if I had a cellphone, I’d call the waiver wire, trying to find another body. Searching, right now. Searching for people to give me consistency.”
After watching his reserves close out the third quarter on an 18-2 run to cut the deficit to 71-67, Wittman left his starters on the bench for the fourth quarter. He only called on Crawford to get back in the game after Trevor Booker (four points, eight rebounds) hurt his right knee in the final 90 seconds.
The Wizards have lost six games by seven points or less, but the getting that first win will remain tough. Starting with the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, their next eight opponents have records that are .500 or better. They don’t face a team that currently has a losing record until Dec. 11 in New Orleans.
“We’ve got to stay with it. We can’t get down,” Beal said. “I know it’s going to be tough with the record. People look at us and think we're down, but I mean we have to keep our spirits high. On Wednesday we have to turn around and just be ready.”