The Washington Wizards’ quest for consistency and respectability next takes them to Charlotte, where they will begin a three-game road trip Tuesday that either extends the current funk or begins the latest turn on the carousel. Through 31 games, the Wizards have had their share of extreme highs and lows, though the latter has twice denied them from having a winning record this season.
Washington started the new calendar year with an opportunity to gain some traction in an Eastern Conference that has just three teams above .500, but instead lost three in a row to some quality teams and remains among a mediocre pack.
Sluggish third quarters contributed to double-digit defeats against Toronto and Golden State, but each loss had its own separate culprit — from horrific shooting against Dallas to what Coach Randy Wittman described as “selfish play” against the Raptors and “front-runner” tendencies against the Warriors. The lack of openly angry or ornery attitudes in recent days has made it difficult to gauge how much the losses have stung, but Wittman isn’t concerned about outward displays of frustration.
“It’s not about mood. Are they in a positive frame? Are they in a negative frame? They can be mad at me; it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is: What do we do when we go to Charlotte?” Wittman said. “Are we going to take the frustration — if we feel frustrated — out on them? Or are we going to feel sorry for ourselves and muddle around in the mud instead of put our chin straps on and let’s go fight?”
The Wizards (14-17) have lost four straight games on two occasions this season and have managed to regain their footing. Veteran center Marcin Gortat, however, doesn’t want his teammates to develop a false sense of hope that they will always make it back up from the ground. Confidence is fragile and a tough schedule awaits after the Bobcats, with games against New Orleans, Indiana, Houston, Chicago and Miami coming.
“Sooner or later, we’ve got to wake up,” Gortat said. “You don’t want to have the feeling. You don’t want to get punched again and sit down at home, in the hotel and say, ‘Geez, this happened again.’ You got to come out and expect that they’re trying to hit you, and you’ve got to do something about it. We’ve got to just work on it.”
After the loss to Golden State, Trevor Booker said the Wizards are “going through a difficult time” and would have to rely on their more experienced veterans to help get them through it. Wittman and Gortat both mentioned that Al Harrington, a 16-year veteran, was one of the team’s most influential voices and wasn’t afraid to speak up to offer some encouraging words or brutally honest criticism.
Harrington hasn’t played since mid-November and will remain sidelined for a while as he recovers from surgery last month in Vail, Colo., to remove particles in his right knee. Since returning to the team in late December after a short rehab stint in Houston, Harrington has continued to serve as a pseudo assistant coach, and he believes the Wizards’ struggles should be expected.
“We weren’t a playoff team last year, so it’s part of the learning process, the learning curve,” Harrington said, likening the experience to his early years in Indiana, when the team was transitioning with Reggie Miller and a young roster. “When you have young guys mixed with veterans, trying to come together as a unit, sometimes it just takes time. We’ve got to learn in peaks and valleys.”
The Wizards have won four of their past five games on the road and have matched their win total from last season, when the team was 7-34 away from Verizon Center. When asked if the three-game trip is what the Wizards need to galvanize the team, Trevor Ariza, the most experienced player in the starting lineup while Nene contends with a minute restriction, replied, “It’s going to have to. We are going to be on the road and it’s just going to be us, again. We are going to have to figure out a way to pull it together.”
Gortat wasn’t ready to call this trip the most important stretch of the season, but didn’t deny its significance in determining whether the Wizards can make a serious push toward something greater or continue to sputter along.
“With three games at home, we wanted to be in a different position than we are right now,” Gortat said. “And when we’re on the road, we can put ourselves even deeper. We don’t want that. We’ve got to figure out this thing really fast and start performing. That’s it. This is the NBA. I know how it works. If you’re not performing, you’ve got another 1,000 guys on our back, waiting for your spot.”
Wittman said he is looking beyond one road trip: “I want them to play the way we’re capable of playing. That’s what I’m trying to do: show the difference — and there is a big difference right now — when we’ve playing the way we’re capable of and how we’re playing right now. We’re not playing very good right now.”