The Washington Wizards returned to their practice court at Verizon Center on Christmas evening with a seven-game losing streak, six blowout defeats on their ledger, five straight lottery trips in sight, four injured players who likely won’t return until 2013, three victories on the season, two newly signed players from the NBA Development League and a Brazilian big man with a sore foot.
At 3-22, the Wizards are off to the worst start in franchise history and on pace to win just 10 games — or half the total from last season, when they played just 66 games in a lockout-shortened campaign. The team has made a precipitous drop since winning eight of its final 10 games last April.
John Wall has yet to play and Nene remains a part-time player, though he made his first start of the season in a 96-87 loss on Saturday to the Detroit Pistons. After losing consecutive games by a combined 41 points to the 21-loss Pistons, Nene questioned the professionalism and heart of his teammates — a rare, honest expression of disappointment and frustration during a season in which players are obviously in a beleaguered state.
“I just try to take care of what I can take care of,” said Nene, who has been playing despite plantar fasciitis in his left foot for the past month. “I just try to play hard and make my best on the court, but sometimes you can’t control, you get frustrated, you get mad.”
Coach Randy Wittman gave his players a two-day break to rest, recuperate and spend the holiday with family. They will host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday.
Despite the dreadful start, the only moves the Wizards have made have shown that desperation doesn’t always spark the most creativity. They waived point guard Jannero Pargo to sign point guard Shaun Livingston off the free agent scrap heap, then cut Livingston and Earl Barron last Saturday to clear up two roster spots.
They have filled those vacancies with D-Leaguers Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack, who was cut in October after failing to beat out Pargo or the injured A.J. Price for a point guard job that was up for grabs in the absence of Wall.
Mack has kept track of the Wizards while playing for the Maine Red Claws and believes he can make a difference on a team that has foundered.
“I know they’ve been playing hard, but things haven’t been going their way,” said Mack, who averaged 3.6 points and 2.0 assists in 64 games as a rookie last season in Washington. “I think I can bring a little leadership. I know how everyone plays. I can help make everyone’s job easier, help them get their field goal percentages back up by putting them in the right situations. Add a little something different that other guys couldn’t bring, relationship-wise, hanging out with guys off the court. A lot of that stuff correlates on the court.”
The chemistry has clearly been disrupted by lineups that have consistently changed because of injury or poor performances. Wittman has used 10 starting groups through the first 25 games, including three in the past three games.
The Wizards have tried to not lean on injuries to Wall, Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker, Price, and earlier Nene, but Wittman acknowledged that this season has been challenging without ever being handed a full deck.
“It does take an effect on your team, the way your team is made up. You take your main ingredients out, you’re left with not what you maybe thought you had going in,” Wittman said.
Wall remains out indefinitely and his teammates have encouraged him to take his time recovering from a stress injury in his left knee, even as he has finally begun to increase his activity level in the past week. What remains of the roster continues to carry a brave face in spite of the circumstances.
“We’ve got some work to do,” Martell Webster said, “but I don’t have any doubt in my team, at all. I really love this team. . . . I’ll continue to have [faith]. I’ll never run out — especially with this team — ever.”
Jordan Crawford said the players are still responding to the message from Wittman, who has misfired on several motivational tactics this season, including failed attempts to get ejected in hopes of igniting some emotion from his team.
“He’s doing a great job. Him and the coaching staff. They come in every day, have new ideas. They’re giving them to us. They’re not giving up. We’re not giving up,” Crawford said. “It’s a lot of season left. That’s what we’ve got to realize. Everything will work out for itself.”
Rookie Bradley Beal, perhaps revealing either extreme naivete or delusional optimism, said he believes the Wizards are capable of a turnaround.
“I still have confidence in my teammates that we’re still going to pull it out, that we’re still going to have a great record at the end of the year,” Beal said. “That’s just my opinion. I’m still confident.”