Before he could get the Washington Wizards prepared for Saturday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Coach Randy Wittman felt the need to defuse a potential landmine within his locker room. Following Wednesday’s 92-79 loss in San Antonio, Nene called out “young guys” on the team, asking them to take “their heads out their butts” and focus more on playing as a team rather than accumulating personal statistics.
When his players convened for practice on Friday after taking a day off, Wittman pulled aside Nene and asked the Brazilian big man to address any player who may have taken exception to his comments. Nene obliged. Words were exchanged between Nene and a handful of players, including John Wall. And those involved have vowed to put the episode behind them.
“What happened a couple days ago was a frustration moment. Everybody here is not happy with the circumstances,” Nene said. “I understand nobody is perfect. I’m not perfect. Players are not perfect. We are going to make mistake, but at the end of the day . . . this is my family, this is my teammates, and we go to the war room together. We need to grab each other’s hands and be together. We know what we need to do, we just need to bring it, play hard, play the right way and everything is going to be fine.”
Wall said he wasn’t too upset when he first saw the comments but appreciated Nene for taking time to apologize and discuss what led him to speak out. Nene had a string of being on eight straight playoff teams snapped when he was traded to Washington in March 2012 and was disappointed that the team — which supposedly has playoff aspirations — continues to struggle despite beginning the season with a mostly healthy roster.
“Knowing him, as being a veteran, you want to win in this league and he’s been in tough locker rooms before. We all respect, understood that he didn’t really mean what he said, but it was out of frustration,” Wall said. “We know what we’re capable of as a team and what our goal is and when you have something like that, that’s something big, somebody should try to step up, but just keep it in the locker room as much as possible.”
Wittman doesn’t know how the players will respond to Nene’s comments but said he believes that having a sincere conversation about the problems that exist could eventually have a positive effect.
“It wasn’t vicious. It was Nene talking after a three-game trip that we let a game slip away and we were in a couple that we didn’t play very well and lose the games, so there is nothing there,” Wittman said. “Everybody gets frustrated. And I wish it was that simple. Young guys, old guys, who’s fault? It’s all our faults. I’ve got to do a better job. They’ve got to do a better job. We’ve got to have players play better and that’s the bottom line. It’s not about pointing fingers.”
Al Harrington, a 15-year veteran and Nene’s former teammate in Denver, wasn’t involved in the side meeting but was disappointed that Nene chose to publicly “air out dirty laundry.” Harrington mentioned that Wittman provides an open forum to vent or discuss problems during every film session.
“If they got something to say, that’s the time to say it,” Harrington said. “Those type of comments can destroy a team, especially when they feel like they’re not warranted. I’m happy that [Nene] was man enough to come in and talk to the guys that took exception to it. Because obviously, we can’t allow things like that to creep into our locker room because then we’re really not going to win any games. Hopefully guys accepted his apology and are ready to move on.”
The Wizards will have to move on for the next few days, at least, without Trevor Ariza, who strained his right hamstring in the loss to the Spurs. Wittman said he would miss “a couple of games.”
Harrington added that he will “probably not” play after experiencing discomfort in his surgically repaired right knee. Martell Webster will start in place of Ariza and Wittman will look to lean on a few “young guys” off the bench — Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker and possibly rookie Glen Rice Jr.
“The biggest thing is us playing together as a team,” Wall said. “One thing I can say is last year, we couldn’t score the ball, but we played great defense. This year, we can score the ball easily, but we can’t play defense. Until we start playing defense, we won’t win too many games.”
Nene said he would handle his grievances in a different way, but he is optimistic that his words will lead to an improved product and better teamwork.
“Sometimes, something like that need to happen to make us wake up,” Nene said. “We know for sure the way we’ve been playing, we can improve 100 percent. We need to look each other in the eyes and trust. We need to talk less, work hard, work together and have more faith in each other and the results will come. When you talk a lot, sometimes you bite your tongue.”