The visiting locker room at AT&T Center was emptying, and most of his Washington Wizards teammates had already gone to the loading dock to board the team bus as Nene slowly got dressed. Slouched back, head lowered in disgust, the Brazilian big man was having a difficult time digesting the Wizards’ latest loss to the San Antonio Spurs, a 92-79 defeat that was the most lopsided of the young season.
In the Spurs, Nene saw a team dedicated to its schemes, eagerly sharing the ball and unconcerned about statistics. In the Wizards, Nene had seen the opposite. In his 12th season, the 31-year-old doesn’t want to toss another year of his career into the non-playoff hamper, and he felt the need to voice his displeasure with the Wizards off to a 2-6 start for the third time in the last six seasons.
“Our young guys must take their heads out their butts and play the right way because I’m getting tired of this,” Nene said after the game while praising the unselfish play of the Spurs. “I’m going to be honest. The way [the Spurs’] young players play, it’s beautiful because they commit to do the right thing. They move. They cut. They help each other. It’s amazing the way they play, simple basketball. I wish our young guys who think they know a lot of things, who think they are smart and they just got in the league. What make me mad, after a game like that, they look at stats.”
Nene didn’t mention any players in particular, but John Wall and Bradley Beal combined to take 38 of the Wizards’ 91 shots and made just 14 in San Antonio. Four Wizards had double-digit attempts from the field, but no player had more than three assists. The Wizards had a season-low 15 assists — almost half the total of the Spurs, who had 28 with just one player attempting more than nine shots.
“Even though we have more talent — our guards have more talent than they have — still, they just play together,” newcomer Marcin Gortat said. “They’re sharing the ball. They’re running the system, and they are playing the way [Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich] tells them to play.”
When the Wizards have had success this season, they have used a similar formula. In wins over Philadelphia and Brooklyn, the Wizards have averaged 30 assists. In their losses, the Wizards have averaged just 21.6.
“We know how we’re supposed to play, plain and simple,” Martell Webster said.
But they have rarely been able to maintain any consistency. The Wizards trailed the Spurs 45-26 but outscored San Antonio 31-15 over the next 14 minutes to get back into the game. But the ball movement was replaced by excess dribbling and one-on-one play.
“To fight back to get to 60-57 after the start we had was good, and we just threw it down the toilet,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “We don’t have a guy who we can say, ‘We’re going to give you the ball. Let’s spread the floor, you go get us a shot and get us a basket.’ We’re not made up that way.”
Wall, whose right eye was swollen after getting clobbered while fighting for a rebound late in the third quarter, was long gone before Nene’s outburst. But he felt the Wizards’ problems this season are mostly on the defensive end. The Wizards rank 12th in points per game at 100.5, but they are 29th in opponents’ field goal percentage (48.8) and 26th in points allowed (104.8).
“We know we can score the basketball. The main thing is being more consistent defensively for 48 minutes,” Wall said. “Until we do that, we will not be a good team and we will not be a playoff team. We’re like last in the league in giving up field goal percentage and three-pointers, and all different type of things. The two games we won were the best team defensively, getting into the passing lanes and making teams turn the ball over. So until we get committed to doing like we did last year, you have no chance in this league, being last in letting other teams score against you.”
The Wizards will face a challenge defensively with Trevor Ariza likely to miss some time after straining his right hamstring in the second quarter. But their winless three-game road trip through Oklahoma City, Dallas and San Antonio provided an education for what it will take for the team to get better.
“We knew we had a tough schedule from the start, but that’s no excuse or the reason we can’t win,” Wall said. “We played against great teams that don’t ever get rattled. That’s something we got to get used to doing as a team. If we get down or we got a big lead, don’t try to go one-on-one or no passes and get shots, but stick to your system and what got you in the game.”
Beal said the change will occur once the Wizards are “able to be a man about it and just hold each other accountable.” Nene couldn’t hear Beal’s comment as he sat on the opposite side of the locker room, but he is first to speak up bluntly about the problems this season.
“I’m tired of this,” Nene said. “I'm being honest. To see all this crap, the way we play.”