Several minutes after the Washington Wizards registered their most disheartening loss of their disappointing season — a 117-113 home defeat to the Denver Nuggets — Coach Randy Wittman, for the umpteenth time since early November, highlighted his team’s inability to steadily generate focus and intensity, particularly on defense. He was then asked why a team saturated with veterans and on the heels of consecutive playoff appearances remained incapable of consistency.
“That’s a good question,” Wittman said. “I don’t have a good answer.”
Wittman’s players tried their hand at solving the riddle a little earlier, conducting a players-only meeting in the locker room immediately after the loss, their 15th in 25 home games, this one to a lottery-bound club that was playing its second game in as many nights.
Players talk among themselves throughout the season, and sessions formal enough to warrant a “player-only meeting” designation can be kept private, but the Wizards were forthcoming about Thursday night’s session, which indicated a new level of urgency for a team that has failed to regularly generate such desperation.
That flaw was on display again Thursday, when Washington spotted Denver an 18-point lead in the third quarter before countering to tie the score in the fourth. The surge was unsustainable, and the Wizards, losers of three straight, now find themselves four games under .500 for the third time this season. They are 20-24 with 38 games to go, including a brutal three-game stretch starting Saturday against the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors.
“In a few games, if we’re going to continue to play like we’re playing, it’s going to be too late,” Wizards guard Garrett Temple said. “So we got a little closed-door discussion as a team, as players. And hopefully it changes things.”
The Wizards held a players-only meeting two seasons ago after starting 2-7. They went on to finish 44-38, secure the fifth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference and push the Indiana Pacers to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Players maintained, however, that Thursday’s gathering was not the same. Different players. Different problems. Different timing.
“That was early in the season when we couldn’t win games,” Wizards point guard John Wall said. “Now it’s at the breaking point where you want to be in the playoffs or you want to be sitting at home.”
Unlike that team two years ago, this version began the season with grand expectations, internally and externally, after four playoff series’ worth of seasoning. Washington’s brass decided to pivot to a pace-and-space operation to maximize the young core of Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. with the goal of breaking through the second-round wall. But a steep defensive plunge has rendered any offensive improvements futile.
“It’s nothing offensively,” Wall said. “We just can’t guard a soul.”
Of the Wizards’ shortcomings, defense is the most glaring. After ranking in the top 10 in defensive rating the past three campaigns — ranking fifth last season — they currently sit 18th. They’ve allowed opponents to score at least 100 points in eight of the past 10 games and 27 overall this season. After surrendering 117-plus points in three non-overtime contests all of last season, they’ve already done it seven times this season.
“All of that is heart,” Temple said. “No scheme can keep a guy off the offensive glass. You got to box him out and rebound. No scheme will keep a guy from going one-on-one, get in the paint for a layup. That’s not a scheme. That’s one-on-one defense, and we got take pride. We got to guard people.”
Wittman has experimented with lineups hunting for answers. He has sacrificed spacing in hopes of improving interior defense and rebounding by starting Marcin Gortat and Nene together the past four games, and by playing Drew Gooden III over Jared Dudley at times in the past two. He benched Gortat the entire fourth quarter Thursday in favor of a more effective Nene-Dudley front court. He didn’t play guard Gary Neal, a defensive liability, at all.
“We’re trying to find ourselves. We’re doing it through games. We’re struggling with that,” Dudley said. “I keep hearing, ‘What’s our identity?’ So basically our identity is to space the floor, put the pressure on. We’re a three-point-shooting team that can go in to Nene, and we have to be aggressive defensively. Those are our strengths. I don’t care what lineup is out there. That’s it for this team going forward.”
Players emphasized that they still believe they can climb into the East’s top eight in time. They are three games, two in the loss column, behind the Indiana Pacers for the final playoff spot and five games behind the fourth-place Atlanta Hawks. There is still time, they assured, but it needs to happen soon.
“We know the team we’re trying to be here,” Dudley said. “And we can’t keep coming into this locker room talking about inconsistency because April 15 we’ll all be back at the crib.”