Ted Leonsis had a front-row seat on Sunday to his team’s worst display of basketball in an already appalling season. Since taking over as owner of the Washington Wizards, Leonsis has repeatedly stated that he is “unashamed and unabashed” that his franchise is in the midst of an arduous rebuilding process.
But the cracks have already begun to show in the flimsy foundation.
Coach Flip Saunders helplessly searched for a player who would at least show mock interest in competing, but instead had to watch a 48-minute flurry of errant jumpers, bad passes and defensive lapses. John Wall placed a towel over his head as the Wizards walked off the court following a 93-72 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but that couldn’t shield him from hearing the cascade of boos levied by a paltry but enraged crowd at Verizon Center.
“To be honest with you, I’m kind of speechless after this performance,” said Andray Blatche, who scored just 10 points on 5-of-16 shooting. “It’s not even mad, it’s just sickening, frustrating, embarrassing. They booed us tonight and we deserved it. I don't know what to say.”
It was also impossible to ignore that the squad handing out the lopsided beatdown was a Timberwolves team that arrived in Washington with just two wins. The Wizards remain the NBA’s only winless team and extended their franchise-worst start to 0-8, but there doesn’t appear to be a simple solution to reverse course. Afterward, Saunders questioned if he needed to do more, as the team continues to repeat the same mistakes and produce the same uninspiring results.
“You can’t give 82 Knute Rockne talks every night,” a flustered Saunders said after the Wizards had their lowest scoring output since Feb. 21, 2009. “I’m going to go home tonight and I’m going to see what I can do as a coach to get us better because evidently right now, I haven’t done a good enough job. That’s evident because we’re not totally getting through to some guys, and some guys continue to play the way they want to play and not the way that we need to play as a team.”
Saunders is 49-123 since taking over the Wizards — only a few months before the organization traded the fifth overall pick to his former team, the Timberwolves, for the since-departed Randy Foye and Mike Miller. That pick turned out to be Ricky Rubio, the Spanish sensation who is playing well in his rookie season two years later. He came back to haunt the franchise by coming off the bench to score 13 points, dish out 14 assists — one fewer than the entire Wizards team — and grab six rebounds.
“Minnesota was the team that drafted me. I don’t want to think anything else,” the rookie said before the game. “They were the ones who trusted me. I’m so glad that they did.”
Rubio carved up the defense, got into the lane for layups or tossed alley-oop passes to fellow rookie Derrick Williams, who scored 14 off the bench. Rubio even offered a convincing scouting report of the Wizards’ offense in that “they play a lot of one-on-one.”
Nick Young and Trevor Booker had 14 points apiece to lead the Wizards, who shot a season-low 34.5 percent and lost their fourth game by at least 18 points. Rookie Jan Vesely, the Wizards’ top choice last June, was cheered when he made his NBA debut, but he quickly elicited groans of bemusement as he shot an air ball on his first free throw attempt and barely grazed the rim on his second.
“It was bad to watch. It was bad to coach. It was bad to play,” Saunders said. “Disappointment. Embarrassment. I don’t know if words can explain. My job over the next two days is to try to find five guys that can play the right way and can play with some heart.”
The Wizards have seven players age 23 and younger, but the Timberwolves have six, including all-star Kevin Love, who had game highs with 20 points and 16 rebounds. Saunders blamed the Wizards’ struggles on individual preparation, noting how the coaches e-mail advanced information and provide visual scouting reports for the players. But about an hour before tip-off, Blatche went over the information card the staff gives its players, and was stunned to discover that Love shot better than 42 percent from three-point range.
“It’s basically on us,” Blatche said. “I can’t even say it’s because of this or because of that. It’s really us as players. At the end of the day, we’re the ones that’s put out there and we the ones that’s embarrassing ourselves. . . . Flip, he’s definitely doing his job, I don’t feel like everybody is listening and following behind what he says and doing what he wants us to do.”
When asked if he feared he was running out of chances to get through to the players, Saunders replied: “No I don’t fear that. I think I know the process that we’re going through, and I know it’s a painful process.”
Leonsis has sat down with Wall, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, to explain that the franchise would have to wait a while before its collection of young talent develops into a contender, but after the game, Wall said: “I didn’t expect it to be this tough. It’s not good right now. . . . It’s a pride game now, to start this bad. It’s nothing but pride to see if you’ve got the heart to play.”