A day after changing the lineup didn’t lead to a different result for the Washington Wizards, Coach Randy Wittman decided to change the practice venue.
For the first time since the regular season began, the Wizards abandoned their practice court on Sunday and prepared on the main court at Verizon Center — where the night before they were booed off the floor in a loss to the Utah Jazz that made them the second franchise in NBA history to open consecutive seasons with eight straight losses.
The Memphis Grizzlies lost their first eight games in 2001-02, then opened the next season at 0-12, which stands as the NBA’s worst set of starts in back-to-back seasons. The Wizards (0-8) will attempt to avoid setting a franchise record for losses to open the season on Monday when they host the Indiana Pacers.
“I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody,” said forward Chris Singleton, whose first two seasons in the NBA have started with thuds.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld constructed the team to complement the talents of point guard John Wall and center Nene. Now, the early struggles to collect any wins — despite having the league’s fourth-easiest strength of schedule, with an opponent winning percentage of .447, and having faced just one team with a winning record when they played — has placed more pressure on one or both players to come back before fully recovering from their respective injuries.
After going through a few walk-through drills on Sunday, Nene cautioned his teammates not to expect their returns to rescue the team. After all, Wall played every game last season, when the Wizards started 0-8.
“It’s not, me and John’s out, when we back we’re going to be the miracle. We’re going to be two more helps on the court,” said Nene, who does not have a timetable for his return from plantar fasciitis in his left foot. “Definitely is not easy, but we just need to continue to work and the sunshine will come. Nobody succeeds without adversity. We have adversity right now.”
The players have appeared more dejected after every loss, but they had a reminder on the white eraser board in the locker room that the season is far from over: Someone scribbled in marker that the Chicago Bulls lost their first nine games in 2004-05 but came back to win 47 games and finish with the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
There have been other examples of escaping the bottom and making the playoffs. The Miami Heat opened the 2003-04 season 0-7 but rallied to win 42 games and also claimed the fourth seed.
“They need to believe. I cannot put faith in everyone. They need to believe in themselves first. Believe in the team and the organization and the direction we’re taking,” Nene said of his teammates. “I just remember one thing, God say He going to make this team brand new. Start over, all over again. So, when you start all over again, you start at the bottom. Right now, we’re at the bottom. But we will build up strong. We will be good.”
For now, Wittman is just trying to convince his players that they can win a game.
“I’ve got to get them to play looser,” Wittman said. “We’ve got to come in feeling and knowing that, as I told them, I really believe we can get through. We need to get through because we’re not that far away. They’re doing a lot of good things, except what matters most, winning.”
Wittman is scrambling to push any buttons that will work, which has led to some odd rotations and player combinations. Jordan Crawford and Jan Vesely started in place of Bradley Beal and Trevor Booker during the 83-76 loss to Utah. Vesely didn’t play in the fourth quarter but Wittman said he still plans to keep him and Crawford in the starting lineup against the Pacers, who are 4-7 after losing on Sunday in New York.
The Wizards lost, 89-85, in Indiana on Nov. 10, with Booker missing a jumper from about five feet that would’ve tied the game in the final seconds. Five of the Wizards’ defeats have been by seven points or fewer.
“It’s progression. We’re heading in the right direction,” said Emeka Okafor, who had eight points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots against Utah. “We just don’t have the wins on the board yet, but they’ll be coming. You just have to keep on going. We’re not getting blown out every game, so there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Just have to break through and turn things around.”
Singleton said the attitude of the team is much different from last season, when he felt egos clashed and players were too willing to accept defeat.
“We’re definitely taking it hard. Everybody is taking it personal,” he said. “We’re talking about basketball a lot more than we were last year. We want to win. . . . Once we get over the hump, no telling what can happen. I think we just need to get that first win and I feel like it’s going to flow.”