The bad news for Washington Wizards Coach Flip Saunders? At the moment, his job is not in jeopardy. That means while Washington area basketball fans avert their eyes from the winless Wizards, Saunders is stuck with his front-row seat for the foreseeable future.
Saunders might very well be the wrong coach for a young team, half of whose players have less than two years of NBA experience. The problem, though, is this team isn’t right for anyone right now. Not Hall of Famers Phil Jackson or Pat Riley. Not even fictional miracle workers like Norman Dale of Hollywood’s “Hoosiers.”
The issues facing the Wizards, the NBA’s only winless team, go much deeper than an exasperated parent trying to control his unpredictable brood. There are some things you can’t coach; caring about your job is one of them.
“We have to be real with ourselves,” said veteran Maurice Evans, who organized an air-it-out, players-only meeting a mere six games into the season. “The sense of entitlement that’s here sometimes, I’ve never seen before.”
It’s that bad? Yes, it’s that bad.
Before Sunday’s loss dropped them to 0-8 on their road to NBA infamy, forward Andray Blatche perused the cheat sheet on the day’s opponent, prepared for him by the coaching staff. “Damn,” Blatche mused, “Kevin Love shoots 42 percent from three-point range?”
That’s right: An hour before tipoff, a professional player in his seventh season was just discovering the talents of the man he would be guarding.
Sunday afternoon’s game was at home in Verizon Center against Minnesota, a relatively inexperienced team like Washington. The Wizards lost by 21.
During the game, rookie Jan Vesely, whom the Wizards selected out of the Czech Republic with the sixth overall pick in this past June’s draft, had two free throws after being fouled. Standing 15 feet from the basket, he sent his first shot 14 feet. That’s right: He missed the rim, and the backboard.
Less than three weeks into a lockout-abbreviated 66-game season, the Wizards are setting all kinds of firsts.
For example, Blatche became the first player in league history to complain about his role in the offense on the very first night of a season, saying he wanted the ball closer to the rim, that he was tired of being a perimeter player at 6 feet 11. (Never mind that he has spent much of his playing time since launching a plethora of long-distance jump shots.)
Also, no team in NBA annals had ever held a players-only meeting a mere six games into a season. Usually, it takes at least 25 games to reach the kind of futility that demands a closed-door session.
Some of the Wizards’ problems are obvious: Second-year point guard John Wall, the team’s main reason for hope, is off to a brutal start; Blatche, McGee and other key players rarely make good decisions in the fourth quarter; and the team’s overall talent pool is very shallow.
Others are utterly unfixable. The players with the most heart — Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton among them — don’t have enough skill. The players with the most skill — Blatche, McGee and Nick Young — don’t have enough heart. And the wizened veterans such as Evans, Roger Mason Jr. and Rashard Lewis are almost caught in a culture war between their scrappy teammates who care and their more talented teammates who remain clueless.
So if Saunders isn’t to blame, who is? Team President Ernie Grunfeld would be an easy target; after all, he concocted this mess of unpolished youth and old journeymen. But remember: This is what he was asked to do.
Amid this eyesore of bad basketball lately, we forget owner Ted Leonsis’s essential directive to team officials: We have to be really bad before we’re good.
Phase 1 was the fire sale that began in early 2010 with the jettisoning of every starter but Gilbert Arenas off the Wizards’ last playoff team. It continued when Arenas was shipped to Orlando for Lewis in December 2010.
Phase 2 was building through the draft, to the tune of acquiring six first-round picks in two years, and putting the team in a better financial position.
Phase 3: Become the first team in NBA history to lose every game in a season. Okay, we’re kidding about that; Phase 3 is actually supposed to be the payoff, when the young players identified as building blocks are retained and ownership opens its checkbook to acquire a top-tier free agent to join them.
So far, Grunfeld has delivered on two counts. With a contract that expires after this season, will he get a chance at the third?
Give Leonsis credit for transparency: He told us there would be seasons like these. That’s the sad truth that is starting to sink in with each embarrassing loss: This season’s Wizards were supposed to be almost painful to watch.
So as the losses pile up — and with 14 games in the next 22 days, surely they will — and the sentiment that someone must pay grows, consider: This was part of a plan.
That’s why Saunders and Grunfeld and especially Leonsis must stay and endure the pain with the rest of us: to ostensibly see how awfully bad it can be before there’s any hope of it getting good.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/sports.