When asked to make a prediction for the Washington Wizards before training camp, President Ernie Grunfeld didn’t mention the playoffs or a specific number of wins. Grunfeld just made a statement that seemed safe at the time, considering the offseason surgery performed on an underwhelming and underachieving team.
“This team is better today than we were at the beginning of last year,” Grunfeld said, without hearing a rebuttal or chuckle.
But with a remade roster and a new coach leading the way, the Wizards find themselves in the same position that they were in at the beginning of last season, when Andray Blatche was out of shape, JaVale McGee was throwing dunks off the backboard, Nick Young was shooting without conscience and then-coach Flip Saunders was dumbfounded trying to find a solution.
For the second year in a row, the Wizards (0-7) are the NBA’s last remaining team without a victory, and they are a home loss to Utah on Saturday away from matching the worst start in franchise history. They are the second team in NBA history to start consecutive seasons with seven straight losses.
Of course, when Grunfeld made the comment about being better, the team was unaware that John Wall would miss time because of a stress injury in his left knee. And it didn’t know that the plantar fasciitis in Nene’s left foot would keep him out — and with no timetable for a return — two weeks into the season.
Wall and Nene are the Wizards’ primary building blocks, and players who were meant to complement them have appeared disjointed and rudderless. In spite of his team’s injuries, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis wrote on his blog that he expected more from the outset. “We are certainly playing shorthanded, but we still should be a better team with better results than where we sit today,” wrote Leonsis, who backtracked last month from draft night, when he said missing the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season would be “unacceptable.”
The Wizards aren’t necessarily underachieving; they have played hard for Coach Randy Wittman, with four games decided by six points or less. But they have often looked overmatched, especially since they have faced only one opponent that entered the game with a winning record. They have only held a fourth-quarter lead in two games.
Wall has watched every defeat on the bench and said this week that the team can’t sit back and collect losses in the absence of him and Nene.
“It’s tough for us, but nobody is making excuses. We think we’ve got a talented enough team to just go out and play with what we have,” Wall said.
“You want to get wins now. That’s the main goal, is try to get wins now so you won’t build yourself a deeper hole. Guys are being competitive. They are staying strong and they got a lot of confidence. They just got to find a way to get one win and then build off from there.”
The journey without Wall and Nene was expected to be difficult. Point guard A.J. Price was signed to be the Wall’s primary backup, but he only started three games in three seasons in Indiana. Emeka Okafor, acquired from New Orleans in June as de facto Nene insurance, missed the last 39 games last season with a knee injury.
Jordan Crawford, the only healthy player on the roster capable of creating his own shot off the dribble, comes off the bench. The most talented offensive player in the starting unit is Bradley Beal, a rookie who turned 19 less than five months ago.
“The NBA doesn’t care about injuries,” Wittman said. “It all comes down to wins and losses. That’s got to be our thought process during this, and this team can do it, if we do the things we’re capable of doing and do it in the right way. Our guys have to realize if we play to our potential good things will happen to this team.”
The Wizards waived Jannero Pargo on Thursday and brought back Shaun Livingston, who was released by Houston two weeks ago after the Rockets pulled off a deal for James Harden. Livingston appeared in 26 games for Washington in 2009-10 — the season before the team drafted Wall — and his arrival, while not expected to be an answer, at leads adds a veteran presence.
Okafor and Trevor Ariza, a duo making more than $43 million over the next two seasons, were brought in to provide stability and a veteran leadership to a youthful roster, but Wittman has failed to play them beyond the the third quarter of four games.
Second-year forward Jan Vesely, the sixth pick of the 2011 draft, has gone scoreless in his past two games and has shot so poorly from the foul line (1 of 9) that Crawford tried to dupe officials and shoot free throws for him during a 16-point loss in Charlotte.
Beal is experiencing the ups and downs of the NBA, sandwiching three impressive games between two bad ones. In his past two games, he has shot just 4 of 25 and scored a total of 16 points.
“I beat myself up, because I know I could’ve did better than what I did. Really, it’s upon myself to do it,” Beal said after the Wizards’ 107-101 loss to Dallas. “Easier said than done. I have to find a way to get going.”
So do his teammates. The roster might not be stacked with talent, but the players have created difficult situations for themselves. They rely heavily on three-pointers without having many serious threats from long distance. They go through several scoring droughts but refuse to attack the rim for layups for free throw opportunities. Wittman has complained about his team not getting respect from officials but the Wizards are last in the league in field goal attempts within eight feet.
Crawford said the defeats have not deflated his spirits or confidence.“I’m never down on myself. I don’t think nobody on the team is. I think everybody’s enjoying the opportunity that they’re getting, even though losing, it’s a hard time.”
The Wizards haven’t suffered as many embarrassing, blowout defeats as last season, but when asked if he was upset or encouraged that the team has been competitive, Ariza said, “Every loss [stinks]. They all feel the same. We’ve got to find a way to win.”